During last weekend’s whirlwind tour through three of Belgium’s main cities, I was reminded of how much each day really has to offer when your mind is fine-tuned to focus on one thing at a time. It is so simple in theory, but in practise can be a surprisingly foreign concept. With no plans to make — the trip was almost entirely guided by a family friend based in Antwerp — and no place else to be, we made our way from London to Brussels, from Brussels to Antwerp, and from Antwerp to Ghent in the space of three days. Such brief encounters with new places forces a hungry traveller to be in the present, and one of the benefits of making such fleeting visits to each city is that you never have the opportunity to take it for granted. Noticing the glint of morning light on gold-gilded buildings and the distinct scalloped roofs on a sun-soaked Antwerp Saturday; wandering the brightly lit streets of Brussels and basking in the glow of the Grand Place by night; weaving our way along cobblestone roads and across the bridges of picturesque, historical Ghent; in terms of artistic touches, intricate architecture, and the undeniable charm of small European cities, Belgium has so much to offer.
Although I’m grateful to have spent time in not one but three lovely Belgian cities, the experience admittedly felt a little rushed, and I would recommend picking one or two to explore on a weekend away. Before this year, my travel philosophy was very much based upon making my way to as many places as possible; but after two extended summer trips that allowed me to not only explore new cities and countries, but grow to understand the local culture and way of life, a less-is-more approach seems increasingly rewarding in choosing a destination.
Getting a taste of Belgium requires a basket of chips and frothy pint in a cozy Antwerp pub, a wander through the Ghent canals with a warm stall-bought waffle in hand, and a shameless chocolate binge are all absolutely mandatory. The Belgian food philosophy is essentially comfort food, eaten leisurely — long brunches, late dinners, with mind and stomach focused on what is momentarily before you.
The same seems to be generally true of a more European approach to life: living well every day, rather than becoming sucked into the race for something better tomorrow. Strolling instead of hustling about. Powering down for regular days off — if you’ve ever stepped out into the ghost town of a European city on Sunday morning, you’ll know what I mean. Each time I wind up in Europe on a weekend away from London it feels like a retreat of some kind, away from the pressure this bustling city can sometimes impose, away from plotting my next move, and towards a sense of presence I always try to carry home with me.
Belgium’s Don’t Miss List:
Brussels - Start your day in true European style with a pastry from Aux Merveilleux du Fred, where you can watch (and smell) brioche buns and meringue being baked from scratch.
Antwerp - Have a glass of De Konnick APA in Cafe Den Engel, an Antwerp favourite across from the single-towered cathedral of the central square. Ask a local to tell you the city’s famous folktale, a legend about a hand-cutting giant which gives the city its name.
- Wander past beautiful fashion and home boutiques to the Toneelhuis, Antwerp’s small but beautiful theatre house; take your pick between the crowded glass cafe on the ground floor, ambient with jazz music and perfect for people watching, or the stunning foyer bar on the second level, one of the grandest rooms I’ve ever sat inside.
Ghent - Find the bar that proudly serves nothing but beer — 500 types, to be exact — and prepare to
sacrifice a shoe as a security deposit for brews served in an elaborate glass.
- Try Cuberdons, Ghent’s famous candy, which I think taste a bit soapy but are a local favourite — so much so that companies have fought for years over who first produced the traditional sweet.