Staycation: 30 things to do in Flanders this summer
Believe it or not, music festivals are not the only thing going on in Flanders this summer. Check out our guide of 30 non-date-specific fun things to do – with a friend, with your kids or just on your own
In southern East Flanders are several interlinking forests with signposted walking and cycling paths. They all have ample free parking areas, and, this being Flanders, there are usually cafes and restaurants at trailheads.
In the case of the sublime Kluisbos (bos means ‘forest’ in Dutch), you’re in for rather a surprise when you take the Kluisbos or Taalgrens trail and run into a bar smack in the middle of the forest. The hip Bosbaar terrace blends in with its surroundings, fitted with benches made of wooden planks and tree trunks, loads of plants, birdhouses and other foresty-like décor (pictured above). Cocktails, a solid beer list and tapas offer plenty more reasons to stop in. Should it get chilly, there is a similarly cool interior.
Bruges’ city theatre is celebrating 150 years with a summer pop-up bar in the handsome square at its entry. Bruges Triennial and hip local architect firm Dertien12 are involved, so it looks as good as its summer cocktails taste.
Sip, swirl, swallow
Even people who live in Flanders are largely unaware that the region has a booming wine business. There are dozens of vineyards, and many of them offer tours and tastings. Check out Kasteel Vilain XIII in Maasmechelen, for instance, or D’Hellekapelle in Heuvelland.
Walk on water
You, too, can walk – or cycle – on water when you visit Limburg’s sunken bridge, which Time magazine included on its Greatest Places list for 2018. Cycling Through Water spans one of the lakes dotting the Wijers region of Limburg.
Oostduinkerke on the Flemish coast is the only place in the world you’ll still see shrimp fishermen entering the sea on horseback. It’s done now for tourists more than for trade, but it’s still a wonderful sight. And they do bring back little brown shrimps.
Dip into lunch or just have a drink on the terrace with the best view in Ghent. While you might have to compete for a table at De Foyer on sunny days, your efforts will be worth it as you gaze onto Sint-Baafsplein from an upper story of the city theatre.
Cycling through the trees
Limburg’s latest attraction in its claim to the Cycle Paradise tagline is a spiralling path that takes cyclists (and pedestrians) 10 metres up into the forest canopy. It’s freely accessible in the Bosland forest at junction 272 of the cycle route network.
Up, up and away
Ever looked up at a hot air balloon and thought that you should really do that sometime? Flanders and Brussels have a few companies offering flights above the loveliest parts of the country. A romantic champagne experience or simply family fun. hotairballoon.be, aerovolare.be
Boat away from home
Floating in a waterway heading out of the Nieuwpoort is the Homeboat, a beautiful, unique way to spend a weekend at the coast. Owned by expats, Homeboat is a fully equipped holiday accommodation and just one kilometre from the centre of town.
Holy of holies
The provinces of Antwerp, Flemish Brabant and Limburg meet on the grounds of the Averbode Abbey, which isn’t the only reason to visit. Besides the glorious 17th-century church, there is an eatery and a shop selling products made by the Norbertine monks and local artisans.
Game of Thrones
Beersel Castle was built by Godefroid de Hellebeke in the 13th century to defend Brussels and Brabant from the County of Flanders. It’s one of few remaining examples in Belgium of a military fortress from the middle ages, and it’s truly a formidable architectural structure. Three tall defensive towers give it an interesting triangular shape, and the entire castle remains largely unchanged from how it appeared when it was restored towards the end of the 15th century.
The province is working on a plan that will restore parts of the castle that are now in ruins. Though, truth, be told, its current state gives it a rugged, intimidating edge, making it easier to imagine the gory medieval battles that took place here. You can almost picture soldiers throwing stones and pouring hot oil onto their attackers. Beersel Castle is open to visitors throughout the summer and autumn.
Pop-up world café La Buena Onda has opened in an empty space attached to Geel’s stately 15th-century town hall. The cosy space offers drinks, tapas, concerts, exhibitions and workshops until at least the end of September.
Sleep in the trees of Limburg as part of this architectural art project by Dutch artist Dré Wapenaar. Dubbed Tranendreef (Path of Tears), the camping site also includes environmentally friendly toilets and sinks. Little ladders are provided to get you inside.
The St Hermes Church in Ronse, East Flanders, is home to its namesake’s relics and was one of Europe’s biggest pilgrimage sites for its water’s healing effects. The underground crypt is beautifully restored and houses some great archaeological pieces.
If you’ve never spent a day in Mechelen, shame on you. Loaded with places to visit and never-ending charm, it’s main square alone has some of Flanders’ most glorious architecture, much of it Unesco protected. Park yourself at a cafe and order local brew Het Anker.
Belgium only has one national park, so if you’ve never been to the Hoge Kempen, summer is a great time to explore it. Walking and cycling paths abound, and there are family-friendly activities in the six recreation areas that act as the park’s access points.
Hanssen Park in Vilvoorde is a playground paradise. It’s play structures are unique and creative, while it offers a bit of serenity for parents with its walking paths and large pond, crossed by a picturesque bridge and peppered with ducks.
Act like a tourist
Tourists tend to do things that residents never do, but not always because they don’t know better. Take carriage rides, which are delightful, damn it. Book – or just show up – to hope aboard one in Ghent, Bruges, Brussels and other cities. There are also countryside wagon rides.
Barefoot paths are great fun, as the whole family abandons their shoes for the feel of earth, mud, sand, pebbles, etc, under their feet. Wade through ponds and test your balance hopping between wooden posts. A top barefoot path is Lietenberg in Limburg.
The coastal city of Blankenberge is home to Belgium’s only reptile zoo, and it’s fantastic. The Serpentarium is under the management of Antwerp Zoo and hosts an abundance of snakes, lizards and frogs, from the tiny to the massive, in realistic settings.
People can live in Flanders for years and not know that it is home to Europe’s largest Japanese Garden. Besides the cherry trees, koi-filled lake and authentic landscaping and architectural elements, there are special events all summer long.
If your resolution for 2019 was to see more of Belgium, start with a visit to Lier. The extremely pleasant little city about 20 kilometres southwest of Antwerp is chock full of things to do and places to soak up nice views. The immense Grote Markt is lined with flowers and benches and ringed by beautiful historic buildings, such as the town hall and its Unesco-protected 14th-century bell tower. Visitors can – and must – entre the majestic building to get to the tourist information centre.
The nearby Felix Timmermansplein, with its courtyard steps down to the Nete river, is also picturesque. Don’t miss the city’s Begijnhof; its Zimmer Museum, dedicated to clockmaker and astronomer Louis Zimmer and boasting a fabulously funky clock tower; and the city park, where a latticework bridge crosses a duck-heavy stream. And that’s only the half of it.
Living in Belgium you’ve surely visited a brewery before. Right? No matter, if you find yourself in Bruges, don’t miss De Halve Maan, the city’s only brewery and home to the legendary beer pipeline. Brugse Zot or Straffe Hendrik, you can’t go wrong.
Bird’s eye view
One of the greatest skyline views in Flanders can be had at the Radisson Blu in Hasselt. Sip cocktails in the Sky Lounge amid 360° views from the 19th floor. Anyone can enter if you know where to go: Take the elevator to the 18th floor then find the stairs that lead upward.
Sea & cycle
Some of Flanders’ best biking is at the coast, with its ocean-front paths wending into forests and along inland waterways. There are innumerable signposted routes, and you can easily transport your bike in the train.
A fresh view of the past
The Africa Museum in Tervuren (with its lush surrounding park) has undergone extensive renovations, in both facilities and perspective. It now focuses on contemporary Africa – its biodiversity, music and languages – and offers a more critical appraisal of Belgium’s colonial past.
It turns out Antwerp is the place to go to taste some of the best pizza in Europe. Del Popolo, near Central Station, impressed the judges and readers of Big 7 Travel, who put it in the top 10 of Europe’s 50 best pizza joints this year. Add it to your list of food destinations this summer.
Gaasbeek Castle is glorious in the summer, with its beautiful parkland dating back to the 17th century, walled garden, a handful of historic buildings, majestic beech trees and even a few peacocks. There is also a changing roster of temporary exhibitions, some in situ.
How does your garden grow?
Summer is a riot of colour and fragrance at Meise Botanic Garden. The exquisite Flower Theatre takes centre stage with its hundreds of varieties vying for attention, while the elegant Balat greenhouses show off 1,500 herbaceous plants. Worth a visit at any time of year.
For almost 50 years, Belgium’s biggest flea market has been held in its oldest town. Thousands of people descend on Tongeren every Sunday to explore the 350 stalls sporting antiques, vintage design and assorted bric-a-brac. Street theatre and live music add to the fun during the summer.
Photos: Shrimp fishermen ©Dirk Waem, Lier ©Sally V, Wikipedia, Mechelen ©Milo Profi/VisitFlanders