Is it really possible to see all of Belgium in a weekend? Of course not! But, with a bit of effort it’s more than feasible to see three of the country’s greatest cities in a couple of days!
Belgium! One of the smallest countries in Europe, Belgium is often overlooked or clumped together with its ‘Benelux’ neighbors. But this country’s rich history and culture provide a fairytale-like medieval backdrop for any visitor, even if you only have a weekend to spend here.
One could spend years exploring the small towns and cobbled alleys that cover Belgium and still barely scratch the surface. However, for the more ambitious (and time-crunched) traveler, it’s certainly possible to get a taste of the country in a whirlwind weekend break!
To make the most of your weekend in Belgium, I recommend spending one day in Brussels, and a second visiting Bruges and Ghent. This can easily be done by taking the train from Brussel-Centraal, which stops in both cities. Purchase round-trip tickets online or at the station for less than €20.
These three cities provide a good taste of Belgian culture, cuisine, architecture, and more in just one weekend. Brussels is the country’s biggest and capital city, as well as the seat of power of the European Union. Bruges is a medieval fairytale city, and you’ll love its scenery and inherent beauty. And Ghent is a small but buzzing city, popular among students and with a youthful spirit. But be warned: hitting all these cities so quickly may just make you want to go back!
Guest Post by Evan Edler
Know before you go: Languages in Belgium!
Belgium contains both French and Dutch speakers, and even in a weekend you will encounter both languages. But most everyone you meet in touristy areas will speak English as well. The Dutch that Belgians speak is a dialect called Flemish, which has a more French influence and slightly different vocabulary than the Netherlands to the north. Due to this linguistic diversity, you’ll come across different spellings of city and street names. For this article, I’ll be using the English spellings of Brussels (Bruxelles/Brussel), Bruges (Brugge), and Ghent (Gent/Gand). The dominant language in Brussels is French, while in Bruges and Ghent you’ll hear more Flemish.
How to Cover Belgium in a Weekend: The Itinerary
Day One: Brussels
Start off your first day in Belgium bright and early to hit Brussels! This city has a lot to offer, but it’s relatively small and most of the main attractions are within a short walk of the old town center.
The Grand-Place: the heart of Brussels
Your first stop should be the Grand-Place, the main square of the old town. Brussels City Hall dominates the Grand-Place, and a collection of gilded buildings surround it on three sides. The center overflows with tourists, photographers, and locals alike (along with a collection of horses offering scenic rides through town). You can satiate the historian in you by taking a guided tour of City Hall, or simply admire it from outside.
Looking for more beautiful squares to explore in Europe? Check out this list that features the Grand-Place and many more!
The best views are uphill!
Next, head to the Monts des Arts – fuel up for the walk with a waffle from Brussels institution Maison Dandoy. As you make your way out of the old town uphill, turn around for an aerial view of the city. Find the best view after climbing the stairs of the Monts des Arts. Here you’ll find graffiti on the walls and a garden in the foreground of the scenery. It’s definitely one of the best spots in the city for a photo!
When you and your camera are satisfied with the view, continue uphill. On the way, take a moment to admire the Old England department store, constructed at the turn of the 20th century. It’s now home to the Museum of Musical Instruments.
As you crest the hill, the roads open into a large square called the Koningsplein, adjacent to the Royal Palace. The Palace is directly opposite the Parc du Bruxelles, a large green space perfect for a stroll or a picnic. Most of the buildings here are part of a network of museums with signage describing them. Take the time to visit any exhibits of interest!
Stroll along the Rue de la Régence
Circle the Royal Palace for a break from the bustle of the city, and follow the quiet side streets back to the Rue de la Régence. Your next stop is the Palace of Justice. On the way there you’ll see beautiful parks, churches, and – if you time your weekend right – a small farmers market!
The Palace of Justice is home to the highest courts in Belgium. Fittingly, it sits at one of the highest points in Brussels. This means that from the square out front you’ll have more views overlooking the city. You can also peek at the Belgian Infantry Memorial. This tall column is dedicated to Belgians who fought in the first and second World Wars.
More sights or more snacks
From this point you have a choice. History buffs will likely want to head to the fortified 14th-century Halle Gate, now a museum offering more insight into the city’s history. If you’re beat and need some refreshments, walk back into the center of town for an afternoon snack at Fritland, the city’s hub for all things frites.
Back to the Grand Place!
Once you’re filled up and ready to hit the pavement again, return to the Grand Place. Take a moment to appreciate the square in a different light. With so many golden buildings, it really does make a difference! Then venture behind the City Hall, and seek out one of the city’s strangest attractions.
Brussels’ strangest attractions: the Pis family
Manneken Pis is, somewhat surprisingly, exactly what it sounds like. Literally meaning “Little Pissing Man,” this fountain depicts a small boy urinating, if you can see it around the crowds of curious tourists. It’s one of the most unique stops in Belgium, and well worth a stop on your weekend trip! If you’re a fan of this Brussels oddity, you can buy replicas at many tourist shops dotting the city.
Our next stop is Manneken Pis’s sister: Jeanneke Pis. Just a short walk down a dead-end alley is a female replica of the same statue. Whether or not she is worth the trip is up to you, but either way I recommend exploring this neighborhood for more Belgian cafes, slightly quieter than those on the Grand Place. On your way through town, take a detour to walk through the Royal Gallery of Saint Hubert. This open-air shopping center with art installations is reminiscent of Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.
Fun fact: Manneken and Jeanneke Pis also have a dog, Het Zinneke, just a short walk away. If you’d like to see all three, ‘Zinneke Pis’ can also be a good stop on the way to the Comic Strip Wall, a celebration of Brussels’s history of prominence in the success of cartoons (the reason you’ll see so many iterations of classics such as TinTin and the Smurfs around the city).
Eating, drinking, & shopping on the Boulevard Anspach
After a long day of sightseeing, round out your Brussels experience on the Boulevard Anspach. The main metropolitan thoroughfare is overflowing with shops and restaurants. Go straight from the history of the city to its vibrant modern life. If you’re looking for a drink, seek out the nearby Delirium Cafe.
Pro tip: Before heading off for a good night of sleep, make sure to take one last look at the Grand Place. The buildings around the square are lit up after dark, maintaining their glistening effect from daylight. Then, rest up for the next day of your weekend adventure!
What to eat (and where) in Brussels
Brussels is full of cafes and restaurants in the nooks and crannies of the Old Town, which welcome tourists with great food and people watching. But Belgium is known especially for its waffles, fries, and beer. All of which are well worth a stop (and a photo). For the full experience, hit these three meccas of cuisine in Brussels.
1. Waffles: Maison Dandoy
With locations sprinkled around the old town, Maison Dandoy is the epitome of Belgian waffles. Choose from Brussels or Liege (locals will tell you to go for the latter) waffles and a wide variety of toppings, as well as coffee and ice cream. Seating is available inside and out – you’ll want to grab a table to fully appreciate your snack.
2. Fries: Fritland
A friend who lives in Brussels recommended Fritland to me, and I expected a well-kept secret. Instead I found a queue reaching into the street, and joined the other tourists for a good bit of a wait. Though not as hidden as I had imagined, this place has well earned its fame. Handing out large portions of the best Belgian frites at affordable prices, Fritland is well worth the wait.
3. Beer: Delirium Cafe
Delirium Cafe is incredibly convenient in the heart of Brussels, and holds the Guinness World Record for the largest beer selection in the world, coming in with over two thousand. Staff are available to help you work your way through the overwhelming options, and the locale also often hosts live music and events. Definitely worth a visit from beer connoisseurs and amateurs alike!
Other sights in Brussels:
Brussels certainly has a lot to offer, and there’s plenty to see or do with more time in the city. Here are a few highlights if you find yourself looking for more:
1. The Atomium:
This strange landmark is a large metal structure originally constructed as an exhibition in the World’s Fair. Though its distance from the city (about 45 minutes on public transportation) makes it a bit of a tricky stop during a day trip, the Atomium is an iconic part of Brussels’s touristic identity, and you’ll see replicas in shop windows all around the city. If you’re looking for a unique attraction with a great view over the city from afar, be sure to stop here!
2. Parc du Cinquantenaire:
Resting in the European Quarter of the city, this park is popular among professionals during the day. It has a large arcade surrounding it and its iconic centerpiece is the Cinquantenaire Arch. There’s also a public running track as well as various monuments and museums. It may be worth taking public transportation from the city center to get here, but there are several restaurants nearby to make a meal out of this side trip.
3. Millennium Iconoclast Museum of Art (MIMA):
MIMA is a non-profit contemporary art museum next to the Meininger Hotel. Features of this modern museum include permanent and rotating exhibitions as well as a restaurant and shop. It’s housed in a former brewery and sits in a modern part of Brussels along the riverbank.
Day Two: morning in Bruges
To make the most of your weekend in Belgium, I recommend getting an early start to your morning. To do so, head straight to the train station. Trains to Bruges leave frequently and take about an hour, so you’ll have some time for a quick nap on the journey!
Diving into the heart of Bruges
After getting off at the Bruges station, you have a 20 minute walk ahead of you. To make your way into the center of the city you can go through the green space called the Minnewaterpark. Alternatively, you can get there through the maze-like backstreets of the old town.
As you approach the heart of the city, residential neighborhoods gradually turn into shopping streets where you’ll see popular and familiar storefronts, and finally culminate in the center of the action – Markt.
Markt: the center of the action
Markt’s main character is its Belfry, whose looming bell tower you’ll see from most spots in the city. Hiking to the top will reward you with great views of Bruges and the surrounding area.
The rest of the Markt boasts many cafes and shops, as well as the Historium Bruges. This interactive museum experience is a great way to work a history lesson into your weekend. In the middle is a monument to heroic Flemish figures in the city’s history. And if you’re interested, a crowd of horse-drawn tour offerings also awaits.
Walk through the Belfry’s open entrance to the back, and meander along the side streets. Soon you’ll reach the Nepomucenus bridge crossing the Dijver canal. To the left is a covered arcade that hosts the Vismarkt, a small fish market.
The Vismarkt sits next to another small bridge. Cross it in between buildings of the city hall into Burg Square, the home to Bruges’s government. This square will introduce you to the City Hall, Basilica of the Holy Blood, and a few other important city buildings, as well as a small park across the street.
When in Belgium… eat a lot of chocolate!
By this point in your day you’ll probably be more than ready to recharge. I recommend taking a short stroll to the Chocolate Bar on Mallebergplaats. The small gem has a menu full of ridiculously indulgent chocolate treats, including waffles, coffees, and anything else your traveling cravings may call for. This is a great way to squeeze some more Belgian delicacies into your weekend!
Once you’re full and ready to go, it’s time to make your way out of Bruges. Take your time to get some good last glances (and pictures) of the city as you walk out, and head back to the train station. For one last stop, take a detour to appreciate the Saint Salvator’s Cathedral. The church is beautiful, and its interior boasts an impressive collection of Flemish paintings.
Trains leave about roughly 10 minutes from Bruges, so you won’t have to wait long when you get to the station. Hop on the train back to Brussel-Centraal that stops in Gint-Saint-Peters, and then take the ~30 minute journey to the last stop of your weekend in Belgium – Ghent!
Day Two: Afternoon in Ghent
When taking the train from Bruges to Brussels, get off at Gint-Saint-Peters, Ghent’s main train station. It’s a bit of a trek from the town center, but trams connect the station to several spots in the old town. Out the front entrance of the station and to the left, get on at tram stop 2. And don’t worry – you can pay for your ticket on the tram as you’re headed into town.
Hop off at the Gravensteen stop, and you’ll come face-to-face with a 10th-century castle. For a small entrance fee you can enter the castle and pick up an audio guide (but be warned, it’ll cost an extra euro if you don’t bring your own headphones). Follow the audio guide through a path of numbered stops, and stop at the top to appreciate excellent views over the rest of the city.
Complete your circuit of the castle, and then reemerge back into the bustling city. Ghent is centered around a handful of central squares that hug the Leie River. Cross either of the bridges leading away from Gravensteen to dive deeper into the old town.
Exploring Ghent’s squares & secrets
Spend your afternoon meandering around Ghent’s squares: Vrijdagmarkt, Grote Markt, and Korenmarkt. All three are prime examples of the Belgian atmosphere you’ve seen this weekend, including cobblestones and domineering churches and towers. The main tower, the city’s Belfort (belfry) remains from the 14th century and is now an UNESCO site. You can climb to the top for a closer look at the inner workings of the belltower as well as views over the rest of the city.
Wandering around Ghent’s popular squares and quiet alleys alike is the best way to experience the city. Worth a detour is a short walk to the Graffiti Street, an ever-changing landmark that speaks to Ghent’s authentic self. Relatively quiet and free from tourists, this colorful alley is likely to be quiet and makes a great place for photos!
If you’re looking to fit a unique museum experience into your weekend in Belgium, look no further than the Design Museum! The Design Museum states that their goal is to “raise your awareness of the great impact of design on your daily life.” This pride of Ghent is a great stop for artists, architects, and civilians alike.
Back to Brussels
When you’re satisfied with your time in Ghent – or your legs are tired – hop on a tram back to Gint-Saint-Peters station. Trains to Brussel-Centraal leave frequently, and before long you’ll be back in your home base of Brussels. Take the rest of the night to explore the city center after dark. Do some tourist shopping or sit down and review the highlights of your weekend in Belgium over dinner and a beer!
Alternative trips for a weekend in Belgium!
Is this itinerary not your cup of tea? Not to worry – there are plenty of other ways to cater a weekend in Belgium to your own interests and priorities! You can absolutely choose to spend all of your time in any of these three cities to take your time exploring and experiencing it. Or if you have three or four days in Belgium, take more time in all of them! In addition, here are some other options:
1. Antwerp: Belgium’s second city, Antwerp is a blend of medieval old with contemporary new. It’s a modern European center of fashion and entertainment. This impressive city is only 45 minutes from Brussels by train, making it an easy substitute during your weekend in Belgium .
2. Historical Belgium: The two best visits for history buffs are the Waterloo Battlefield, only an hour from the city by bus or train, or Ypres, 2 hours by train. Both stops are insightful to the history of Belgian land in the second World War. Plus, both can easily be seen as day trips from Brussels.
3. Go international: On my way out of Brussels, I was very tempted when I heard that the train to the airport continues all the way to Amsterdam. If you want to see another country in a weekend, you can easily reach some major cities in the Netherlands by train! The Netherlands’ modern second city, is only an hour away. And in two hours you can visit Amsterdam, the country’s beautiful and historic capital city. Though both cities have a lot to offer, this is a great way to get the most out of a weekend!
Find even more ideas and inspiration for weekend trips with some of the most beautiful cities in Europe!
Here are some frequently asked questions about how to spend a weekend in Belgium:
When is the best time to go to Belgium?
I spent a weekend in Belgium in late January, and an intense storm forced me into hiding in a chocolate cafe in Bruges for an hour. But even with the terrible weather, I absolutely loved all three cities! That said, the best time to visit Belgium is spring, when the weather is warmer and the country is covered in flowers. Though tourists crowd major cities such as Brussels, Bruges, and Ghent in the peak season, summer is also a good bet for great weather.
Is it worth it to spend a weekend in Belgium?
Absolutely – don’t let the time crunch scare you off! Travel forum naysayers seem to love to say that short trips aren’t worth it, because you won’t see enough. But a weekend in Belgium is plenty of time to experience and explore at least one of its major cities, even if you aren’t as ambitious as this whirlwind tour.
Is Belgium expensive?
Although it’s certainly not as expensive as nearby countries like Switzerland, Belgium is far from the great deals travelers may find in Southern or Eastern Europe. My hostel bed cost around 20 euro a night, and I spent about 20-30 euro a day on food. Some tips to save money in Belgium include:
- Buy food at local grocery stores
- Walk around cities instead of using public transport or taxis
- Prioritize! Only pay admission fees at the most important attractions to you
Where should I stay during a weekend in Belgium?
The best home base in Belgium is without a doubt Brussels. Its status and central location add up to a hub for transportation, food, and shopping. Staying in Brussels will give you the most flexibility for a weekend in Belgium.
Weekend in Belgium: COVID-19 information
I visited Belgium in January of 2022, and encountered a number of COVID-19 safety measures. First, any individual entering Belgium must fill out a Passenger Locator Form. Many European countries currently require these, so be sure to check if any other countries on your itinerary have their own Passenger Locator Forms.
During my weekend in Belgium the vast majority of people wore masks in indoor public settings such as airports, trains & train stations, restaurants, and museums when not eating or drinking. In addition, servers may ask for proof of vaccination if you intend to eat inside any restaurants – make sure you have an EU Digital Covid Certificate or accepted equivalent.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Evan B. Edler is a full-time student and part-time traveler born in Amsterdam, raised in Boston, and currently living in Dublin. A first-year in university, he explores Europe on the weekends and books flights during class. You can (try to) keep up with his adventures at @evanbedler.