Good things come in small packages, and Belgium’s small size makes it perfect for day-tripping travelers. You can travel from border to border in just over two hours, so staying in central Brussels means you can discover much of Belgium within an hour’s drive. Although there is plenty to see and do in Brussels itself, Belgium’s capital city is vastly different from the rest of the country. Between Flemish Flanders to the north and French-speaking Wallonia to the south, Belgium packs an incredible amount of history, culture, beauty, and diversity into one tiny package.
Here are 20 things to see and do within one hour of Brussels.
1. Gaasbeek Castle
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9 miles from central Brussels
Belgium has more than 3,000 castles and chateaux dotted around the countryside, and many of them are open to the public. Gaasbeek Castle is one of the most picturesque. It looks like something straight out of a fairytale with its imposing fortifications and turrets. Inside the castle is a gallery hosting world-class exhibitions. You’ll find plenty of parklands to explore outside, including a historical medicinal garden. Bring a picnic like the locals do, and enjoy the shady lawns.
53 miles from central Brussels
Take a ride back in time at the Stoomcentrum, which means Steam Train Center in Dutch. Located in the Flemish city of Maldegem, Stoomcentrum was once owned by the Belgian rail company SNCB. This six-mile stretch of disused track is now home to an antique train collection. The museum’s collection includes steam trains dating as far back as 1893, rail carriages from the 1930s, diesel cars, and a cinema carriage. Visitors can ride the rails in style on some of the museum’s trains on Sundays during the summer. A Thomas the Tank Engine even makes appearances for the children.
3. Ghent, Belgium
35 miles from central Brussels
While busloads of tourists descend on Bruges, in-the-know travelers head for the equally beautiful and more vibrant Flemish city of Ghent. This university town is alive with art and design museums, festivals, quirky shops, and restaurants. There’s even a great vegetarian food scene here. But Ghent isn’t all about youth—there’s plenty of history and tradition here, too. Explore the medieval Castle of the Counts, a belfry listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, as well as a number of stunning churches. Finish your day with a Belgian beer and traditional Flemish meal on the postcard-perfect Graslei waterfront.
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4. Villers Abbey
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29 miles from central Brussels
Villers Abbey is an atmospheric twelfth-century ruin. Monks from the Cistercian Order lived, prayed, and worked here. Explore the remains of the enormous abbey with the help of an audio-guide, and marvel at the cathedral’s towering, ivy-covered ceilings. One of the highlights is the recreated medicinal garden planted with herbs grown and foraged by the monks for healing purposes. Villers’ sprawling lawns are the ideal place for a picnic on a sunny day and are popular with Belgian families for Sunday gatherings.
5. Strépy-Thieu Boat Lift
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34 miles from central Brussels
The Strépy-Thieu Boat Lift towers over the rolling fields of the Walloon countryside, and it’s a marvel of modern engineering, the largest of its kind in the world. Visit the interior of this elevator for boats to learn through a multimedia presentation how boats navigate the lock system in Belgium and how the boat lift was constructed. Nearby, you can also discover the four historic boat lifts Strépy-Thieu replaced, which are listed by UNESCO. You can walk or cycle the shady towpaths along the canal, or take a boat trip through the lifts, both old and new.
6. Coloma International Rose Garden
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9 miles from central Brussels
Imagine strolling through 300,000 roses on the grounds of a sixteenth-century castle. The Coloma International Rose Garden is the largest garden in Europe dedicated solely to rose varieties from around the world. With more than 30,000 rose bushes of 3,000 varieties, Coloma is a riot of colors and scents, and it’s pure heaven for garden-lovers. The roses are grouped by country of origin and well-labeled so you can remember your favorites. You can even get a bird’s-eye view of the grounds from a wooden platform. Don’t forget your camera!
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7. Musée Hergé
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20 miles from central Brussels
The Musée Hergé is a museum dedicated to Belgium’s favorite comic strip artist, , known around the world as Hergé, the creator of Tintin. This modern, interactive museum walks you through Hergé’s life and creative works with the help of an interactive audio/visual guide. Learn how Tintin rose to fame around the world but, also, about some of his lesser-known works of graphic design, illustration, caricature, and art. The museum building itself is a stunning work of modern architecture and contains an extensive Hergé-themed shop, cinema, and restaurant.
8. Butte du Lion (Lion’s Mound)
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18 miles from central Brussels
The Butte du Lion, or Lion’s Mound, is a 130-foot pyramid of earth topped with an imposing lion sculpture. It commemorates the place where William II of the Netherlands was shot and wounded during the Battle of Waterloo before becoming King of the Netherlands. Visit the 1815 Memorial Museum at the base of the mound to learn about this pivotal battle in a multi-sensory experience, or see an old-school version of the battle next door at the hand-painted 360-foot panorama. Climb the 226 steps to the lion sculpture atop the pyramid for a sweeping view of the rolling Belgian countryside.
9. Timmermans Brewery
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7 miles from central Brussels
You can’t visit Belgium without discovering the country’s rich beer culture. Just outside Brussels and in operation since 1702, the Timmermans Brewery is a great place to start. Timmermans brews a wide variety of Belgium’s favorite beverage, from fruit beer like Kriek (cherry) and Framboise (raspberry) to traditional sour gueuze and lambic beers. You can visit the brewery and museum of beer-related artifacts to learn about the history and diversity of beer making in Belgium. Taste a variety of Timmermans products in the atmospheric bar and tasting room at the end of your tour.
12.5 miles from central Brussels
Hallerbos, or the forest of Halle, is a beautiful escape from the city year-round with its miles of gentle walking trails through peaceful woodland. Hallerbos becomes home to a magical blue carpet created by thousands of bluebells bursting into bloom each spring. Also known as the Blue Forest, Hallerbos can get busy during bluebell season, so it’s well worth arriving early or late in the day—which is conveniently the best time to photograph this amazing natural phenomenon.
11. Antwerp, Flanders
28 miles from central Brussels
Antwerp is the fashion capital of Belgium. This stylish Flemish city is jam-packed with great shopping, culture, and history. Visit the MoMu fashion museum to learn about the country’s top designers, or the award winning MAS museum to discover Antwerp’s port city heritage. Antwerp’s Red Star Line museum tells the story of the 2 million Europeans who passed through Belgium on their way to America, and the Plantin-Moretus printing museum is the only museum on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list. Foodies will love Antwerp’s diverse culinary scene, and there are always plenty of concerts, plays, and exhibitions to entertain until the wee hours.
12. Pairi Daiza Zoo and Botanical Garden
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35 miles from central Brussels
Elephants and kangaroos may not be native to Belgium, but they feel right at home in the award-winning Pairi Daiza Zoo and Botanical Garden. This unique zoo is divided into regions of the world ranging from Australia to Africa. Learn about diverse cultures while visiting their most famous animal inhabitants. Visit a replica Balinese temple or participate in a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. Don’t miss Pairi Daiza’s most famous inhabitants, the giant pandas Hao Hao and Xing Hui. Free-flying tropical birds inhabit several of the zoo’s buildings, making for excellent cage-free photos. Enter the bat cave if you feel brave, where fruit bats fly freely around you. Pairi Daiza is a whole day of fun for all ages.
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13. Namur, Wallonia
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40 miles from central Brussels
Namur is the capital of the French-speaking southern half of Belgium, and it’s a great first stop to discover Wallonia. Cut in half by the beautiful Meuse River, Namur is dominated by its huge stone citadel. The view from the top is spectacular on a clear day. Visit the citadel’s underground interior for a lesson in the fortification’s history, then descend back down to the narrow pedestrian streets below to discover the heart of the city. Shop in the small boutiques and dine at one of the many excellent restaurants. Don’t forget to take a stroll along the river.
14. Sonian Forest
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7 miles from central Brussels
The Sonian Forest, or Forêt de Soignes, is almost 11,000 acres of ancient beech woodland just south of Brussels. This natural landscape is so important that it’s on the shortlist to become a UNESCO protected area. It’s a local favorite for walking, cycling, horseback riding, and spotting wildlife. The forest is home to a wide variety of animals from deer to wild boar, as well as countless birds and amphibians. Begin your visit at the Bosmuseum Jan van Ruusbroec to learn about the forest’s native species, and to pick up walking maps and information.
15. Leuven, Flanders
18.5 miles from central Brussels
Leuven is Brussels’ closest neighboring city, making it a bit of a ‘little sister.’ But this doesn’t mean it doesn’t have anything to offer visitors. On the contrary, Leuven is a compact, walkable city and home to one of Flanders’ UNESCO-listed beguinages. This city-within-a-city was home to single women who dedicated themselves to the church. Now, it’s a tranquil and beautiful place to explore. Art lovers should make their way to the award-winning M Museum to view pieces from the Flemish Masters to contemporary works. Don’t miss the Grote Markt, Leuven’s market square, or the spectacular Gothic town hall building that took three architects 30 years to build.
16. Botanic Garden Meise
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6.5 miles from central Brussels
Belgium’s Botanic Garden Meise is one of the largest botanical gardens in the world. Located on the grounds of Bouchout Castle, it contains 18,000 plant species, both outdoors and within beautiful greenhouses. Highlights of the collection include giant waterlilies, an herbarium, a medicinal garden, and a collection of carnivorous plants. See species from around the world in simulated climates from deserts to monsoons in the Plant Palace. The Botanic Garden Meise even has a Titan Arum, the world’s largest flower, known for its pungent smell of rotting meat.
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17. Averbode Abbey
37 miles from central Brussels
The premonstratensian Averbode Abbey dates back to 1134. Although it has undergone everything from war to financial difficulty, it remains a place of education and reflection. Averbode is most known for its culinary activities these days. The abbey produces its own Belgian beer, whole grain bread, an abbey cheese, and a spicy gingerbread. Visitors can explore the ornate Baroque church and the abbey grounds. There are a number of walking and cycling trails, and picnickers are welcome. Don’t forget to stop by the abbey shop to stock up on the gourmet treats.
18. Mechelen, Flanders
19 miles from central Brussels
The Flemish city of Mechelen has a compact and lovely historic center crisscrossed with canals on the Dyle Path, a series of floating boardwalks. The heart of the city is dominated by the imposing St. Rumbold’s Tower, a UNESCO-listed belfry offering visitors a remarkable view of the city. Mechelen is a family-friendly city with plenty of activities to keep the little ones occupied. Visit the animals at the Planckendael Animal Park, or enjoy interactive science learning at Technopolis. Don’t miss the Winter Garden if you visit on a Sunday—an art nouveau gem with a breathtaking stained glass ceiling. It’s located in the Ursuline complex in nearby Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-Waver.
19. Chateau de Beloeil
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46 miles from central Brussels
The Chateau de Beloeil is truly unique among Belgium’s more than 3,000 castles. Surrounded by water-filled moats, this fourteenth-century chateau of the Princes de Ligne is square with round towers at each corner. Visitors can explore a dozen of the ornate rooms decorated with period furniture and art. There are fine Flemish tapestries and a beautiful wood-paneled library with more than 20,000 volumes. Visit the expansive formal gardens on foot, or hitch a ride on the tourist train to the perfect photo-taking point of view. Beloeil also hosts a summer concert series with classical music played on the grounds.
30 miles from central Brussels
Belgians are known for their surreal sense of humor, and Belgium is no stranger to funny-sounding place names: Affligem, Dudzele, Dworp, Pollinkhove. It’s hard not to chuckle when you look at a map, but there’s only one place to go in Belgium if you’re feeling silly, and that’s Silly. That’s right, there’s a town called Silly, Belgium. It’s actually named after the Sille River, not the English word. Who can resist having an award-winning artisanal Silly beer at the Silly Brewery? Silly also hosts a spring music festival and the Théâtre au Vert theater company, so visiting the town may not be so silly after all.
You don’t have to travel far outside Brussels to encounter a completely different side of Belgium. Whether you visit Flanders to the north or Wallonia to the south, you’re sure to uncover something unusual, remarkable, and uniquely Belgian.