Belgium & The Netherlands
Castles and abbeys vie casually with new-age art museums and chic cafés and make Belgium an exuberant mosaic of history and hip. With well-preserved medieval architecture like Ghent’s towering Saint Bavo Cathedral, the dreamy canals and cobblestone lanes of Bruges, to the pedestrian centers of Ghent and Antwerp, there is no end to café-filled lanes and grand boulevards that make exploring Belgium such a treat. Brussels is the de facto capital of the European Union, and is an alluring multicultural blend of old and new. Monuments from both World Wars, a plethora of museums, delicious frites, waffles, chocolate and foamy Trappist beers make Belgium the perfect European escape.
Brussels, the capital of Belgium and center of affairs for the European Union, is a multilingual cultural melting-pot. Spend a day wandering the medieval neighborhoods of the city center from Upper Town to St. Catherine and Dansaert, and enjoy the unapologetic clash of history with modern architecture. Visit the Grand Palace and then transport yourself a world away at the North African Marolles flea market. With such a collage of culture, there is no shortage of gems to discover while walking the streets of Brussels.
Antwerp’s historic center has an array of architectural monuments to the past, but it is best known for its modern verve and vibrant fashion scene. Once one of the most powerful commercial cities of Europe, Antwerp has reinvented itself as a contemporary hub of entertainment and design. Antwerp is home to the lovely Cathedral of Our Lady at the Great Market Square, an abundance of museums, and the fantastic art of baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens.
Despite its overwhelming popularity among travelers, the medieval town of Bruges has retained its fairy tale charm. With serene canals, bustling market squares, cobblestone streets, and an abundance of historic churches, it’s hard to imagine a more perfect town. Visit the iconic bell tower and Church of our Lady, take a bike ride along the canals, or spend a quiet afternoon over coffee and delectable Belgian chocolate. Plan your trip in the off-season or come for a holiday market to get a true piece of the magic.
Well-preserved medieval architecture like Graslei quay, Gravensteen Castle and a dense concentration of stunning Gothic churches like the Cathedral of St. Bavo all make Ghent a town to see. But the pulse of the city is modern. The University of Ghent is home to 40,000 students, almost a fifth of the population, which lends the city a youthful vitality. Between eclectic restaurants and a profusion of beer-focused bars, great museums, and canalside architecture, Ghent will not disappoint.
These solemn World War I battlefields in northwest Belgium saw some of the heaviest battles of the Great War. Stop in the town of Ypres to visit the In Flanders Fields Museum, named for the famous poem by Canadian military doctor John McCrae, to get a better understanding of the ferocity of the Great War. Out on the fields, pass through innumerable artillery craters, visit war cemeteries and monuments, and feel the weight of the words of McCrae; “In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row.”
With a well-organized tourist infrastructure and almost no language barrier, the Netherlands is a fantastic place to begin your European experience. The natural starting point is the liberal-vanguard city of Amsterdam, a wonderland of historic tree-lined canals, ornate houseboats, gabled townhouses, and manicured parks. You could spend a whole vacation here cycling or ferrying around to art museums, perusing outdoor markets, and cozying-up in cafés. But when wanderlust hits, the Dutch countryside awaits with its whirling windmills, open-air folk museums, cobbled villages, and the rainbow-splash of tulip fields. Head north on day trips to the charming towns of Haarlem, Edam, or Hoorn; or journey south, en-route to Belgium, and visit The Hague, Delft and Rotterdam, or catch a garden show at Keukenhof. No matter what you do, the warm, fuzzy feeling of Gezellig keep you company as you float your way through Holland.
The capital city of the Netherlands is known for its art scene, captivating system of canals, and narrow houses with unique façades. With a wide variety of museums, the city boasts Rembrandt and Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and modern art at the Stedelijk. Cycling is a way of life in Amsterdam, and renting a bike to cruise around town is a great way to see the city.
A canal-ringed city in the western part of the country, Delft is known as the City of Tiles for manufacturing hand-painted blue-and-white Delftware pottery. Learn about the traditional pottery at the Huis Lambert van Meerten Museum, or visit the Koninklijke Porcelyne Fles ceramics factory, which has been in business since 1653. The Gothic Protestant Oude Kerk, with its distinctive tower leaning six feet from vertical, is the resting place of Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer.
The Netherlands’ majestic countryside is a delightful patchwork of tulip-filled meadows, twirling windmills, traditional cheese factories, and tranquil villages. Wander the winding paths of Keukenhof Gardens, the world’s largest flower garden, as the fields burst into a kaleidoscope of Springtime color. Take a guided tour of the region and sample the cheeses of Edam, take a cruise to see the colorful wooden houses and old fishing boats of Volendam, or learn about the art of wooden shoemaking in Marken.
Home to the Netherlands’ royal family and the center of government since 1588, The Hague is filled with grand architecture and an international vibe. Visit the Dutch Parliament building on Hofvijver Lake, the U.N.’s International Court of Justice, or the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery which features Dutch Golden age art including Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. After a day strolling green boulevards and visiting museums, head to the nearby beach at Scheveningen Strand.
A major port and the second largest metropolis in the Netherlands, Rotterdam is known for its postmodern and contemporary architecture after being almost completely reconstructed following WWII. Just a few of the many notable attractions are the 605 feet tall Euromast Space Tower, the Maritime Museum’s vintage ships, and the 17th-century Delfshaven neighborhood which is home to canalside shopping and the Pilgrim Fathers Church, where pilgrims worshiped before sailing to America.