Many visitors already have a clear vision of the cities of Amsterdam, Brussels, and Bruges: picturesque canals, centuries-old buildings with grand facades, and quaint cobblestone streets. There’s no doubt that if you’re looking to step into a European fairy tale, the Netherlands and Belgium offer many breathtaking opportunities to do so. But the highlights of this region go beyond the grandeur of Amsterdam’s charming canal houses, Brussels’s Grand Place, and the Belfry of Bruges. Here’s a local look into the top things to do in the Netherlands and Belgium:
1. Browse Bruges’ markets
Make sure to stop by the Wednesday market that takes place in the city’s stunning Market square. Many locals get up at sunrise, even in winter, to get the first pick, whether of antiques or food. If you have a sweet tooth, be sure to look out for the bakery stalls, while those with a taste for the savory might want to stick to the herring stand at the fish market and the cheese stands at other markets.
2. Grab a glass at the coziest bars
From Amsterdam’s atmospheric brown bars to warmly lit Bruges cafés, there’s something for everyone. The Dutch have perfected the brown bar, a neighborhood bar where virtually every inch is covered in dark wood. Brown bars are often visited during the day as cafés, where older locals often catch up on over a cup of coffee. Bruges’s many charming cafés add to the temptation to forgo serious sightseeing in favor of enjoying beers in a cozy atmosphere. One of the best experiences to have in Bruges has to be escaping the rain in a warmly lit bar, where you feel at home from the moment you walk in.
3. Indulge in the region’s world famous chocolate
Go chocolate-tasting in Brussels and Bruges: You’ll find it’s famous for a reason. Many of Belgium’s best-known chocolatiers have their roots in Brussels, making the city a chocolate lover’s paradise. The praline was invented here, and Brussels’s chocolatiers have worked hard to refine and improve upon the classics with sustainable sources and wild flavors ever since. Bruges’s reputation as a giant in the chocolate world is something of a happy accident; high quality, often family-run chocolatiers have charmed tourists, who have spread the word.
4. Explore Amsterdam Noord on two wheels
Fly past windmills, polders, and sheep away from the crowds. This scenic cycling route is a far more relaxing experience than biking through the city center. It passes through a few former villages that are now part of Amsterdam, with plenty of opportunities to stop and admire an open polder landscape that feels miles from Amsterdam.
5. Stroll the picturesque canals of Utrecht
The unique two-story canals of Utrecht are as beautiful as Amsterdam’s…and half as crowded. The canals, which date back to the 13th century, leave a lasting impression. Unlike Venice, you don’t need to fight crowds to take a dreamy photo of the iconic Dom Tower that sits in the city center. As you cruise down the brick-lined canals, you’ll understand quickly why so many fall in love with Utrecht. The best-known viewpoint is from the Maartensbrug, which overlooks Oudegracht in front of the Domtoren.
6. Discover breathtaking art nouveau in Brussels
Go searching for art nouveau in Brussels, the unlikely birthplace of this decorative, elegant architectural style. It focuses on flowing curved lines and depicting forms seen in nature, incorporating designs from butterflies to birds.
7. Stay hydrated with some Belgian beer
Sip the best of Belgian beer, from ales brewed in century-old monasteries to microbreweries continuing the tradition. Today, more than 1,500 types of beer are produced in Belgium, often divided between abbey beers, which refer to brews made using traditional brewing methods and recipes, and Trappist beers, which are still produced entirely by Trappist monks. Belgian beers tend to be heavier in alcohol than other European brews, so do pay attention to the ABV while you’re imbibing.
8. Travel back in time and learn about the region’s World War history
From the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam to the cemeteries and memorials around Ypres, there’s a wealth of World War history to immerse yourself in. The Anne Frank House is quite an emotional journey; as you walk through the original home and the adjoining house-turned-museum, you’ll walk in Anne’s shoes while also learning about the Holocaust as a whole. In Ypres, there are dozens of World War I cemeteries where you can pay your respects, from Memorial Museum Passchendaele, housed in a beautiful historic chateau with large, peaceful grounds, to the Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world.
9. Wander the region’s gorgeous parks
Escape from the city and get in touch with nature by taking a visit to one of the beautiful parks of the region, whether that may be the famous Vondelpark in Amsterdam to the iconic Parc du Cinquantenaire in Brussels. Vondelpark welcomes more than 10 million visitors to its lush 47-hectare (116-acre) green space yearly. It’s literally a breath of fresh air, with picturesque stone paths lined with flowers, tree-lined canals, and an impressive brick gate that feels like it’s straight out of Pride and Prejudice. If you find yourself in Brussels, Parc du Cinquantenaire is a must-see, with its dramatic triumphal arch that can be seen from virtually every corner of the park.
10. Admire the best of Dutch and Flemish art
There’s endless art to be seen, from the old masters to the Ghent Altarpiece to Van Gogh. Art lovers will have some difficult decisions to make when it comes to choosing which art museums to visit in the Netherlands and Belgium. These beautiful museums feature art pieces from the medieval period, the Renaissance era, the Golden Age, and beyond.