This small country between The Netherlands and France really packs a punch with loads to do!
Instead of giving you a week long itinerary- I'm going to break this up by cities. That way you can put together your own itinerary for what makes sense to you and your family. Whatever you do, your itinerary MUST include waffles, frites and chocolate.
Let's start here because the EuroStar train has a route into Brussels and that is how we arrived! People like to poo-poo on Brussels, but we found a lot of things to do. Sure, it's not the most amazing city in Europe but their city centre (grand place) is incredible. We lucked out and were there during the Flower Carpet and it was STUNNING. If you can make it on an even year, in August- this is worth the trip. We didn't want to leave because we couldn't take our eyes off of it.
Travel Tip- If you go, get a ticket to view from the balcony of the Town Hall.
It is less crowded and you get a birds eye view of the whole carpet!
Also, while you're downtown don't forget to go see Mannequin Pis (dutch for 'Little Pissing Man'). Though its existence is attested as early as the 15th century, it was designed in its current form by the sculptor Jérôme Duquesnoy the Elder and put in place in 1618.
Manneken Pis has been repeatedly stolen or damaged throughout its history. The current statue is a replica dating from 1965, with the original being kept in the Brussels City Museum. Nowadays, it is one of the best-known symbols of Brussels and Belgium, inspiring many imitations and similar statues. The statue is regularly dressed up and its wardrobe consists of around one thousand different costumes.
Other kid-friendly things we found in Brussels...
Train World- They had a wonderful interactive scavenger hunt for kids. It was really fun and we learned so much about train development and train travel. It is a little ways outside city centre, but we had a great time!
Atomium & Mini Europe- Who doesn't like a land in miniatures? It was especially fun for our group of kids because they have visited so many of the important landmarks in Europe. There are also interactive buttons and levers along the way. Atomium is right next to Mini Europe and we went up inside and had dinner. It was really cool to see it in the day and then come out to it all lit up at night! It provided some great views across Brussels.
Waterloo Battlefield- Not too far from Brussels is this important place where Napoleon was defeated. They had a great museum with a guided tour, but ended up being a lot of war talk for our kid. There was a movie in the museum in particular that was too much for her. You can also climb the mound outside and get a nice perspective of the battle fields in the surrounding area.
We loved Ghent so much! It is just an hour train ride away from Brussels so it is super easy to do for a day trip. Ghent stole our hearts with its quaint waterway and stunning buildings. To be honest... we may have liked it more than Bruges! Eeek! More on that later...
First things first- you should absolutely take a boat ride while in Ghent. It's a great way to see the city and get a little historical context about the buildings. Our tour guide was fabulous and was speaking English, French and Dutch during the whole tour. Mind blown.
Secondly, don't forget to stop for frites or waffles whenever you need a little break. We were there during the hottest week of the summer and so we took lots of snack breaks. You can't go wrong. The waffles are amazingly delicious and the frites are perfectly savory.
Thirdly, you should make a stop at Gravensteen (Castle of the Counts). The audio tour here was exceptional and they had a family track. It was quick, made lots of jokes, had sound effects, and kept our little one entertained throughout. It also provides for some great views over Ghent once you make it to the top!
Lastly, one thing we weren't able to do because of timing is visit the Ghent Altarpiece. This is located in St. Bavo's Cathedral and we missed it! It's the size of a barn door, weighs more than an elephant, and is one of the most famous and coveted paintings in the world. Artist Jan van Eyck completed the Ghent Altarpiece around 1432. "It's the first great panel painting of the Renaissance, a forerunner to artistic realism. The monumentality of it and the complexity of it fascinated people from the moment it was painted." It's been stolen many times, most famously during WW2. The altarpiece ended up hidden with thousands of other looted artworks in a converted salt mine in Austria. The local SS commander had wired the mine with dynamite, determined to destroy all the art as the Allies began closing in. The Ghent Altarpiece was eventually saved through the heroism of salt miners who disabled the bombs, and the work of local Austrian resistance fighters and Allied "monuments men" whose job it was to hunt for stolen art. Super intense, right?! Go see it and tell me what I missed!
Is it Bruges or Brugge? What is the difference between Bruges and Brugge? The answer is that Bruges and Brugge are both right. Bruges is the French spelling and Brugge is the Flemish spelling. There you go, your useless trivia for today.
Bruges is on everyone's Belgium bucket list and for good reason! It is quaint to a fault. And it is quaint ALL OVER the city and not just the city centre. It really is adorable and we loved wandering and exploring. BUT why didn't we like it more than Ghent? It was SOOOOOO crowded. Everywhere we went. It was a Saturday in the summer so I get it. Everyone had the same idea we did... but it kind of dampened our Bruges spirit.
But no matter! Let's talk about kid-friendly Bruges! First off- you should do a waffle making class. They actually have waffle making classes all over the country and we decided to do ours in Bruge. It was fantastic! We learned the secret receipt and got to make loads and loads of waffles with all kinds of different toppings. It was a great start to our morning!
Into the Church of Our Lady to see another famous piece of art; The Madonna and Child by Michelangelo... ALSO stolen during WW2. Poor Belgium. It was stolen with the retreat of German soldiers, who smuggled the sculpture to Germany enveloped in mattresses in a Red Cross truck. It was discovered a year later in Austria within a salt mine and again returned. Have you seen the movie "Monuments Men"... this is what they find.
The rest of our Bruges day we wandered into chocolate shops, watched music performers and meandered the quaint streets. Highly recommend.
Travel Tip- Recommended chocolate shops in Bruges were...
Dumon, The Chocolate Line, B by B, Jan de Clerck.
ANTWERP & LEUVEN
We had a day where we wanted to day trip from Brussels on the train. We decided to go check out a couple different cities. We decided on the two above and thought they were beautiful. However, we didn't do a lot of things once there because the weather was very rainy and windy. We walked around and enjoyed the city and then made our way back home to our hotel. Some ideas we had were...
Town Hall- beautiful exterior but closed when we arrived
Kruidtuin Botanical Garden
St. Peter’s Church- beautiful church next to the Town Hall.
Bar Noord (restaurant and water play)
Het Steen castle (also closed when we arrived)
Train station (one of the most beautiful in the world!)
For some of our last couple days in Belgium we rented a car and went further afield. The city of Dinant is so striking nestled in a steep sided valley, between the rock face and the river. There are a couple reasons why this town is well known...
One- It was here, in the Belgium city of Dinant, that Adolphe Sax—the inventor of the saxophone—was born. Back in 1841, Sax invented the saxophone, which was one of many instruments he would go on to influence or create in his heydey. To honor his legacy, there are saxophones located all throughout the city.
Up above Dinant sits a most imposing fortress; the Citadel of Dinant. It has been used since the 11th century and has seen many war times and battles. It is now a museum and was so interesting to explore it's tunnels and weapons. Some parts made us a little claustrophobic! And the best part? They have a playground!
Just a little further from Dinant lays a castle that was so fun to visit. Chateau de Veves is said to be J.K. Rowling's inspiration for Hogwarts... but I'm starting to feel like many places also claim this! BUT it does really look like the Hogwarts castle! The tour was quite short, but they allow the kids to dress up as princesses or knights for their look around the castle.
This is a really special place in Belgium, as it was a lot of WW1 fighting took place. This area is filled with battle fields, trenches, memorials, cemeteries and museums to commemorate all those who fought. While I think learning about war is important, at one point during the day our kiddo had had enough of it. Be sensitive to what your child's limits are as it can be very overwhelming.
Sanctuary Wood Museum is one of the only places where the trenches are still in tact from WW1. They have an eclectic musuem of stuff they've found in their area, and out back are trenches. It was sobering to walk through them and imagine what the soliders went through.
The Tyne Cot Memorial is one of four memorials to the missing in Belgian Flanders which cover the area known as the Ypres Salient. The battles of the Ypres Salient claimed many lives on both sides and it quickly became clear that the commemoration of members of the Commonwealth forces with no known grave would have to be divided between several different sites. This site was truly hallowed.
The city of Ypres itself is a beautiful and interesting place. The "In Flanders Field" museum is so well done. You get to pick a character that represents you as you go throughout the timeline of the war. It's meaningful and thoughtful and very interactive.
The main reason we wanted to go to Ypres is because of the Menin Gate. Every night at 8.00pm a moving ceremony takes place under the Menin Gate. The Last Post Ceremony has become part of the daily life in Ieper (Ypres) and the local people are proud of this simple but moving tribute to the courage and self-sacrifice of those who fell in defence of their town. Now, people from all around the world can lay a poppy wreath and remember a loved one that fought and passed in WW1. It was a very reverent and spiritual experience.