Antwerp: A real gem of a city, and not just because of the diamond trade. (I feel like a phrase that corny has got to be in a guide book somewhere). The grand place and old city is outstanding. The main cathedral is also stunning, and you can go into the back portion of the cathedral and have a beer! Also check out Billie’s’ Kafeteria, which has really great pub food and a cozy atmosphere. They have a pastry fest in February, where you can run around town and try the local sweets– including the famous hand of Antwerp and gourmet square doughnuts. (Hoeked Doughnuts is such a great name too).
Pro Tip: If you’re going to buy diamonds, beware– there are plenty of counterfeits and other scams out there. There’s a consortium of shops that have a certification — you can pick up a guide at the tourist info center and they’ll flag which shops meet the rigorous certifications by inspectors. The prices may not beat what you can get at Costco, but it’s pretty cool to say you got a diamond in Antwerp : )
De Schorre (Forest of Boom): This spot has tons of outdoor activities like climbing and hiking, and is the site of the electronic music festival Tomorrowland. In forest of Boom, an artist recently placed seven huge trolls for hikers to encounter in the woods. You’ll definitely get trolled here…
Baarle Hertog: Just across the border in Netherlands, there’s a swiss-cheese collection of Belgian enclaves, which includes some of the world’s only double enclaves (ie… a Dutch enclave within a Belgian enclave, within the Netherlands). It also has the world’s only enclave with multiple other enclaves. (The only other double enclave I’ve been to is Nahwa, in the UAE). Apparently there are stories about borders passing through restaurants and folks having to move tables when mandatory national closing times impacted one side. It’s a fun day trip if you’re into wacky geography.
Machelen: An underrated small town just north of Brussels, Machelen has a nice old city with a tower. I’d recommend hitting up the Het Anker brewery while in town, which features several of my favorite Belgian beers, such as Gouden Carolus.
Another great spot in northern Belgium is Arboretum Kalmthout — a beautiful open-air botanical garden that features hundreds of flowers, plants, and trees, including some that are over 150 years old! We went here in late May, when everything was in full bloom — which was a great decision. They also sell (indoor and outdoor) plants, as well as several natural products at their gift shop.