It’s not just all mooching around medieval castles and squinting at world-renowned Rubens paintings, though; there are plenty of ways to make the most of the great outdoors, whether it’s hiking through dense woodland or kayaking along rivers.
The memorable-named St-Baafskathedraal (St Bavo’s Cathedral) is a Gothic structure with long, elegant windows and perky corner turrets. What it’s renowned for, though, is the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb: a winged altarpiece in a small chapel to the left of the cathedral’s entrance. It’s one of the medieval world’s most astonishing paintings, and is Ghent’s pride and joy. The 15th-century masterpiece is now displayed with its panels open: on the upper level panel sits God the Father, the Virgin, John the Baptist and a few other big names, while on the lower central panel, you can see the Lamb (the symbol of Christ’s sacrifice) stood on an altar, surrounded by saints, bishops and patriarchs converging around him. The lamb looks directly at you - with alarmingly human-like eyes.
The high plateau north of Malmedy in the Ardennes is known as the Hautes Fagnes (or High Fens), now a protected national park. It’s one of the best things to do in Belgium in terms of hiking, with expansive moorland and boggy woodland, while the Signal de Botrange, Belgium’s highest peak, stands at 694m and is perfect for cross-country skiing in the winter. The Centre Nature Botrange helps you explore the national park, where you can rent electric bikes and cross-country skis, and maps for the footpaths.
The old fishing village of Ostend has brilliant coastal views from the far end of Visserskaai. This is the pearl of the Belgian coastline – expect art installations, the freshest seafood and beach-chic hotels. Dig in with all the classic seaside stuff during the summer with a cycle along the seafront promenade, soaking up the sun and splashing about in the sea. Stretch the day out and stay for dinner; Ostend has scores of cafes, cafe-bars and restaurants - or check out the seafood stalls lined up along Visserskaai.
While there’s plenty of things to do in Belgium, there are two museums in Brussels which deserve your attention: the brilliant Musée Magritte and the outlying Musée René Magritte. Rene Magritte was Belgium’s most famous modern artist, and these two museums powerfully evoke his legacy: he was renowned for these disconcerting, strangely haunting images; very surreal, very unmissable. And northwest of the city centre lies the Musee Rene Magritte, where he and his wife lived and was effectively the headquarters of the Surrealist movement in Belgium. On the ground floor you can explore the artist’s recreated studio and living quarters, while on the first and second floors you can take in chronologically ordered photos, telegrams and sketches.
What to do in Belgium that takes you to the medieval heart of the country? Well, that would have to be the Burg, which has long been home to one of Christendom’s holiest relics – the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Once the site of a fortress, on the southern half of the square you can see the Basilica of the Holy Blood (Heilig Bloed Basilik) which was named after the holy relic that found its way here in the Middle Ages. The church is split into two halves: the lower chapel is a crypt-like affair, while the upper chapel holds the rock-crystal phial (a small glass bottle) of the Holy Blood, one of the holiest relics in medieval Europe. Sometimes you can actually touch the phial, under the supervision of a priest, and on Ascension Day (mid-May) it’s carried through the town centre - all in all, a great Belgian spectacle.
Less house, more mansion, is the best way to describe Antwerp’s Rubenshuis. This home-turned-museum was where one of the Golden Age’s greatest painters, Peter Paul Rubens, lived for most of his adult life. The museum today has recreated his living quarters on the left and his classical studio to the right. You can follow a clearly arrowed tour which takes in the interiors of the Flemish-styled house; at the back is the elegant art gallery, where the floor-painted arrows then lead you upstairs and into the great studio - check out the playful Adam and Eve painting along with his many other works.
If you’re looking at cheap holidays to Belgium, know that the food doesn’t have to cost a bomb; not even moules frites, the much-loved dish of belgian origin. Belgian food is among the world’s best, and no trip is complete without tucking into a steaming pot of locally caught mussels and freshly cooked fries.