Traveling on Brussels Airlines inaugural flight from New York's JFK to Brussels, I took advantage of the flatbeds in business class to catch up on some much-needed sleep before my whirlwind, week-long Belgium visit. Yes, the country is known for beer, chocolate and Tin Tin, but I found that Belgium has so much more to recommend it beyond the obvious -- from new museums and Michelin-starred restaurants to up-and-coming neighborhoods.
Since I flew into the capital, I stayed on for a few days before heading to the country's two distinct regions, the Flemish-speaking northern region of Flanders and French-speaking southern region of Wallonia. After checking into the Hotel Amigo, a luxury hotel steps from the city's historic heart--the medieval Grand Place lined ornate guild houses--I set off for the excellent new Magritte Museum, three floors of paintings, sculpture and photographs by iconic Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte -- there are more than 200 works on display.
In the fashionable Dansaert quarter, just north of the Grand Place, you'll find designer boutiques and stylish cafes as well as classics like La Cremerie de Linkebeek, a 1902 cheese shop. That evening, while La Maison du Cygne, off the Grand Place, I sampled Belgian specialties like gray shrimp croquettes and waterzooi (a creamy chicken stew) but I saved room for one of Belgium's famous waffles with whipped cream--there's a popular stand near Mannequin Pis, a quirky but beloved bronze statue of a little boy, ahem, relieving himself.
Heading south to the Wallonia region, I was surprised at how hilly and lush it was--it reminded me of the Irish countryside. In the tiny village of Lavaux-Sainte-Anne, an hour south of Brussels, I toured the impressive Chateau de Lavaux-Sainte-Anne, a 15th century castle complete with turrets and a moat, then settled into an extraordinary three-course lunch at Lemonnier, a Michelin-starred restaurant serving modern Belgium cuisine. It was surprising to find a fine dining restaurant in such a remote area but being just an hour from the capital, it's common for diners to drive there and back in the same evening (it's attached to a nine-room inn for those who want to make a weekend of it). In the charming town of Aubel, with an impressive Gothic cathedral, I browsed the outdoor market with local cheese, charcuterie and produce including enormous stalks of white asparagus and rhubarb. Is it time for beer? I think so. At nearby Val Dieu, a 13th century Cistercian abbey, which also has its own micro-brewery, tours are offered then you can sample the three main beers: blonde, brown and triple.
For a change of pace and scenery, I headed north to the Flanders, which is very Dutch in look and feel. In the incredibly scenic Bruges, often called the Venice of Belgium due to its canals, I strolled the medieval streets and toured the canals by boat, followed by a lunch of moules frites in one of the open-air cafes on the 13th century Market Square, which many might remember from scenes in the dark comedy In Bruges starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. For a more refined meal, there's Zeno, in a restored mansion. Chef Reinout Reniere is part of the Flanders for Foodies, a movement of young chefs with a farm-to-table philosophy. After a long day of touring, I was happy to kick my feet up at the Kempinski Hotel Dukes' Palace, a former ducal residence turned 93-room hotel with frescoes, stained glass windows and a manicured garden.
Another Flemish city, that is just as pretty but not as well known is Ghent, which to some makes it more appealing as there are less tourists. It too has canals and medieval churches including St. Bravo Cathedral, home of the famous Ghent Altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers. It's also known for shopping, two musts are the Yves Tierenteyn-Verlent, a historic mustard shop and Temmerman for old-fashioned candy. Dining-wise, the latest hotspot is Volta from chef Olly Ceulenaere housed in a converted power station. And last but not least there's T'Dreupelkot a wood-lined bar selling just one thing--genever, a gin-like liqueur. Ask the owner Mr. Paul to suggest some flavors--passionfruit and kiwi are two personal favorites. But be careful, the subtle yet potent potable is so tasty you'll want more, which I suppose can be said about Belgium itself, once you visit, you'll want to keep going back. And did I mention that it has chocolate?