Northern Belgium - When and where to visit
Notorious for its four-seasons-in-one-day climate, Flanders lies on the same latitude as the south of England and experiences similar weather patterns – it is luck of the draw as to whether it will be a summer of heatwaves, or one of endless rain. Between spring (Apr–Jun) and autumn (Sep–Nov) you can expect temperatures to fluctuate between 14°C and 6°C and cool, sunny days to be intermingled with overcast, drizzly days. During summer temperatures hover around the 20°C mark, but in winter (Dec–Feb), when the Baltic breezes come whistling down uninterrupted from the North Pole, temperatures plummet, rarely rising above 6°C and sometimes dropping to –5°C. However, even the darkest days have their splendour. There’s something incredibly romantic about dashing from café to café across soaked but sparkling cobblestone streets.
As a guide, July tends to be the hottest month, January the coolest, November the wettest and February the driest. During summer, the sun rises between 05.00 and 06.00 and doesn’t set until 22.00. During winter, the days shorten considerably – sunrise is between 07.00 and 08.00 and sunset between 16.00 and 17.00.
Flanders is best visited during spring and summer, or just before Christmas. From March to May the countryside is alive with newborn lambs and calves, and orchards are filled with blossom; July and August are marked by endless festivals and parades; and come December romantic Christmas markets line cobblestone squares. There are a few provisos: don’t visit Gent in the first half of August when the locals are recovering from their Gentse Feesten hangovers and everything is closed; avoid the coast during winter when it becomes a series of ghost towns whipped by gale-force winds and rain; and be aware that from mid-November to March many of the smaller towns close their sites of interest, so plan your trip accordingly.
Explore Brussels’ outer communes. Up-and-coming Anderlecht is home to the capital’s last working brewery, a superb off-the-beaten-track museum and boutique B&Bs.
Oostduinkerke’s horseback shrimp fishermen
Watch the world’s last horseback fishermen at Oostduinkerke trawling the North Sea shallows for grey shrimp – and try a few too.
St Elizabeth Begijnhof
Wander around Kortrijk’s 17th-century impossibly quaint nook-and-cranny UNESCO-listed St Elizabeth Begijnhof.
Try the world's rarest beer
Savour the taste of the dark and sweet Westvleteren No 12, brewed by the monks of Sint-Sixtus Abbey and only available at their abbey café.
Enjoy the café culture, carillon concerts and top-notch B&Bs of the buzzing, but often overlooked town of Mechelen.
Talbot House, Poperinge
Reflect on the past at thes perfectly preserved World War I resthouse of Talbot House that’s as touching as the war cemeteries. Learn about Tubby, the jolly proprietor, and the men who stayed here.
Cycling around Sint-Truiden
Take to the saddle in springtime and ride through blossom-filled fruit orchards in Sint-Truiden, or later, stocking up on fresh strawberries, apples and pears as you go.
Don’t miss Flanders’ prettiest hamlet, Lissewege, made up of whitewashed cottages, concealing good restaurants and homely B&Bs.
Pretend you’re royalty for the day at this fairytale castle, complete with moat and drawbridge, set in acres of forest.
Shop for vintage trinkets at the antiques market in Flanders’ oldest town, Tongeren, and visit the award-winning Roman museum.
Get dressed up and join the merry madness of Aalst’s three-day tourist-free carnival which features a parade, a bonfire and lots of cross-dressing and drinking.
Pitch up on the hour to see Lier's unique Zimmertoren clock in action.
Discover this forgotten town snuggled against the Netherlands border. It hides a very rare hand-painted 8th-century gospel and offers lovely cross-border cycling opportunities.
It doesn’t take very long to go anywhere in Flanders. All the major cities are roughly a 40-minute train ride from each other and, as a result, it’s possible to fit quite a lot into a short trip. Bearing this in mind, my suggested itineraries are based around a series of themes which are designed to introduce you to the real Flanders – not just the cities – and allow you to mix and match as you see fit, or pursue a particular area of interest. Don’t try to cram too much in; allow enough time to enjoy a beer while sunning yourself on a terrace, or linger over a really good meal.
Devoted beer enthusiasts can visit the following breweries: Brussels’ De Cantillon, De Halve Maan in Brugge, De Dolle Brouwers in Diksmuide, Gruut in Gent, Het Anker in Mechelen, Boon in Halle, Hoegaarden, Tongeren’s new Au Phare microbrewery, the Hopmuseum in Poperinge, and the De Vrede café in Westvleteren.
Flanders’ most famous cycle race, the Ronde van Vlaanderen, is associated with the towns of Geraardsbergen, Sint-Niklaas, and Oudenaarde. The latter has a dedicated museum, as does Roeselare. Great cycle routes include: the Brugge to Damme canal, the entire length of the North Sea coastline and the orchard-filled Haspengouw region near Sint-Truiden.
World War I
World War I sites and cemeteries are clustered in the west and centre around the town of Ieper (Ypres), nearby Poperinge and, further north, the towns of Diksmuide and Veurne.