Old city centre of Mechelen

With another pandemic winter ahead, we all need to get out from time to time and experience something out of the ordinary. E&M author Marta Montanari sought out five spots in Belgium for a Covid-approved getaway – from a tiny house in Wallonia to historic sites.

When autumn colors kick in and temperatures start dropping (and Covid numbers rising), we tend to go back to a work routine. That’s when I love spending my weekends making new discoveries and visiting new cities. If you are in Belgium, there are many hidden (and not so hidden) gems that you can’t miss. So, why not organise a weekend getaway around the country? Here are five Covid-approved destinations I hope you’ll love as much as I did.

A tiny house in Wallonia

Since I moved to Belgium, I have never had the chance to properly visit the countryside and, when two of my oldest friends decided to come for a visit, I knew that was my chance. We wanted a break from the city’s hectic life and all the extra noise you can’t really escape.​​ Hence, what better destination than a hidden tiny house in the middle of Wallonia?

None of us really knew what to expect from a tiny house, but when we arrived, we knew it was the perfect place. The weather was possibly the worst I had seen in Belgium in a long time and, yet, the location was even more charming than I could have imagined with the rain pouring down.

Not far from Nivelles, immersed in nature and surrounded by ponds and a small river (with geese occasionally passing by), we were in the perfect location to rest, drink some hot chocolate while recovering from the trip. Once the rain calmed down a little, we hit our first stop, Nivelles. The main square of this small town is overlooked by the Collégiale St Gertrude, an 11th century church with a majestic appearance. But what I loved most here was only a few minutes away from the center. The beautiful park was painted with a mix of autumn colors and a proper foliage season welcomed us as soon as we parked the car. Carpets of leaves as far as we could see crunched under our steps all along the pathways, and right next to this relaxing view, there was a little lake populated by a colony of ducks, geese and the cutest baby chicks.

As the next day arrived, the sun was out and we were ready to explore a little more of what was around us. We couldn’t wait to head to the destination of the weekend: the Abbaye des Villeres.

Almost hidden in a wooded valley, this Abby used to be the biggest monastic complex in Belgium. Never rebuilt after the attacks of 1794, its majestic ruins are still standing and can be visited (the entrance requires a ticket and remember to always check the latest Covid-19 rules). Walking around you can feel an incredible peace, both in the garden as well as inside the ruins. The parts of the church are still recognisable, and the massive windows and the nave are possibly the most impressive and will most likely leave you speechless. If you have some time, take the opportunity to walk uphill, and explore the area to get a view from the top. It’s really worth it.

View on the Abbaye des Villeres. Photo by: Marta Montanari.
Mechelen

Taking a full weekend off is not always possible, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a little break. Therefore, Mechelen might be exactly what you are looking for. Only 30 minutes from Brussels by train, this place will charm you right away. The beautiful main square (or Grote Markt) has a rich architecture, every building is decorated with so many details that it will take a while to really see everything. Right on one of the side of the Grote Markt, you can see St Rombouutscathedral (Saint Rumbold’s Cathedral) built in the 13th century. It lost a lot of its interior decor because of wars and unfortunate fires, like the one in 1972. Today it’s still incredible to look at and open to visits.

The architecture is one of the strengths of this town and it’s worth to walk around discovering all the lanes and corners here. However, what I found to be one of the cutest parts of the journey was walking alongside the canal. You can admire the houses on both sides and, every now and then, you will spot a little boat floating near the steps that lead to the main streets. Every building gives a different vibe to the scenery, depending on the period during which it was built and, if the sun comes out, the colors will really give a different brightness to the buildings.

Mechelen
Historic centre of Mechelen. Photo by: Marta Montanari
Leuven

I wanted to visit Leuven for a long time and, when I finally took some time to do it, I found myself falling in love with it from the moment I stepped out of the train. Famous for its university, Leuven has a very particular energy and a creative vibe. The beautiful old buildings and museums mix with interesting local designers, artists shops, and restaurants, giving a unique character to the streets. On the way to the center from the train station, you can see the famous Stadhuis (or town hall). Its beautiful gothic architecture is truly impressive, the building is decorated with many turrets and stonework, and it took three architects to complete it. It managed to survive War World II, including an unexploded bomb that only destroyed part of a wall. Today, the building has a ceremonial function and is open to visits (it is better to check the city website to be aware of the latest Covid-19 regulations).

Nearby the main square, there is St Pieterskerk church. Initially built in 986 as a Romanesque church, it was partially destroyed several times and finally rebuilt in the 15th century and transformed into the Gothic Church we can see today.

Depending on how much time you have, you can stop for a visit to some of the museums, but what I really enjoyed was going to the Leuven botanical gardens. While the entrance is free, be ready to spend plenty of time there. If you are as passionate about plants as me, you may consider taking your time to see everything. Even if you just want a little green escape, you can always come here to eat lunch, drink a coffee with friends, or even just read a book. There are plenty of cute corners where you can comfortably sit and enjoy the view, including a little green house and a beautiful pond.

what I really enjoyed was going to the Leuven botanical gardens. While the entrance is free, be ready to spend plenty of time there.

Antwerp

A little bit bigger than the previous destinations, Antwerp is a great place to spend a day or a full weekend away. The second biggest city in Belgium, known for its fashion, art, and diamonds, it was one of the most important European cities in the 16th century and still retains its medieval heart, a beautiful architecture, and a creative vibe, which makes it a unique place to visit.

Once you get here, take your time to discover all the streets and lanes that are hiding around the city center. That’s the best way to visit lovely cafes, amazing vintage stores, discover new jewelry and clothes designers, as well as more established ones. Whatever your preferences, you will hardly leave the city disappointed. In the middle of the market square there is the famous Brabo fountain and, on one of the sides, you can see a beautiful Italo-Flemish renaissance style Stadhuis, which was completed in the 16th century. Not far from there, you can go to the Cathedral, a majestic building that truly overlooks the city in all its beauty (it took 169 years to be completed). Usually at Christmas time, the whole area is filled with cute decorations and fairy lights spread all over the city, making the atmosphere really magical. You will see Christmas lights all the way to the river where you can take a walk and enjoy the refreshing air.

Bruges

Last but not least, Bruges. About one hour by train from Brussels, this is one of the cutest places I have visited in Belgium. This is a real fairy-tale medieval town and one of the best-preserved cities, with cobbled lanes, beautiful canals, and dreamy squares surrounded by an incredible architecture and completed by towers and historical churches.

The original fortress was built by Baldwin Iron Arm, the first ruler of Flanders, and today is a very popular tourist destination you can easily visit on foot. Even though it’s not a very big city, it’s absolutely worth staying one night to get an experience you wouldn’t have otherwise. When everything is calm and the majority of tourists have already left, sunsets feel differently, and the peaceful streets give a very different atmosphere to the city. Once you arrive, start your visit at the Markt, an open market square with many restaurants and buildings surrounding its perimeter. Though they are not all quite medieval, it is still a pretty fabulous scene and, towering over all of this, you will see Belfort, the 13th century belfry, whose 47-bell carillon is still played manually.

This is a real fairy-tale medieval town and one of the best-preserved cities, with cobbled lanes, beautiful canals, and dreamy squares surrounded by an incredible architecture and completed by towers and historical churches.

The Stadhuis (City Hall) from the 1400’s has an amazing facade and, with regards to Gothic turrets, it is said to be second only to the one in Leuven. Walking around you can admire many churches, like St. James’s Church (Sint-Jacobskerk), and many interesting museums. However, the canals are the ones that really stole my heart: running in-between houses, they magically appear behind unexpected corners, giving that extra spark to an already beautiful walk.

Whenever you need a little getaway and if, like me, you need to discover some new places every now and then, Belgium can be what you are looking for. Even though travelling might not be easy now, you can still enjoy a short holiday, see beautiful cities and hidden gems in the countryside any time of the year without travelling too far.

 

Cover photo by: Marta Montanari

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    Marta is originally from Rome, where she studied for her BA in Political Science and International Relations. She then moved to London, and later to Wales, where she graduated with a Masters in International Journalism from Cardiff University. Marta has also lived in Brussels, working for the European Parliament's research service. She is passionate about writing, travel, photography, surf and badminton.

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