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Remaining largely under the radar for many Europe-bound travelers, Belgium is bountiful, colorful and charming, which is why its official tourism and investment campaign aptly describes it as “uniquely phenomenal.” This tiny country of about 11,000 square miles and 11 million people (smaller than some US urban sprawls!) contains five of Europe’s most charming cities, where old and modern merge seamlessly, beer flows, chocolates beckon and fashion stores tempt irresistibly. Here are Belgium’s five greatest city gems, not-to-be-missed.

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Train your tastebuds to savor gourmet chocolate at Laurent Gerbaud’s Atelier. Photo by Lina Zeldovich

Brussels  

Defined by the eclectic mix of neoclassical edifices and modern architecture, cobble-stone streets and wide-open squares, Belgium’s grand capital is full of museums, art galleries and ancient churches. For a comfy stay with a hearty breakfast option, choose modern and artfully decorated Radisson RED Brussels, located near the Museum of Fine Arts and other attractions. Known for its beer and chocolate, Brussels offers plenty of both. To see what’s brewing, drop in to the Brussels Beer Project where you’ll find a steady flow of new seasonal drafts. To learn the proper way to savor chocolate (yes, you’ve been eating it wrong!) take a chocolate tasting workshop with Laurent Gerbaud, who will train your taste buds to connoisseur level with over a dozen delicious pieces, each with a distinct flavor and unique story. Drop in to see a collection of 8,000 pianos, violins and accordions at the Museum of Musical Instruments, and enjoy lunch at its rooftop restaurant with spectacular panoramic views. For dinner, head to L’Ecailler du Palais Royal for exquisite tastes and beautiful presentations.

Bruges

Often called the Venice of the North, Bruges is famous for its charismatic canals that weave through the old city like numerous blue ribbons. Cruising the canals reveals a different and romantic side of the city, charming visitors with secret gardens, picturesque bridges and beautiful views. Water isn’t the only thing that flows through Bruges—so does beer, quite literally, to beer enthusiasts’ delight. A two-mile long underground pipeline connects the Halve Maan brewery in Bruges’s historic center with a bottling plant outside the city—a clever eco-friendly solution that removed delivery trucks from the old cobblestone streets. The brewery, which makes Brugse Zot beer, a Belgian favorite, runs tours of its facilities, and serves delicious fresh lunches at its cozy tavern, accompanied by the endless beer reserves. For a pampered stay, chose the luxury Hotel de Tuilerieen located in a 15th-century mansion with beautiful canal views. Take a canal cruise, visit Bruges Belfry, drop in to enjoy the Groeningemuseum, and stroll through romantic Minnerwater Park. Want to get truly dazzled? Visit the Diamond Museum.

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Locals would tell you these are not French fries—they are Belgium fries! Try them with various toppings at Frites Atelier Amsterdam in Antwerp. | Photo by Lina Zeldovich

Antwerp

An old port city, Antwerp got its name from the Dutch words “hand” and  “werpen”—to throw, thanks to an old legend about a giant who demanded a heavy tax from travelers crossing the bridge over the Scheldt River, and cut off the hands of those who refused to pay. Today, the little hands, which are now a symbol of friendship in Antwerp, are everywhere: They serve as the décor pieces on the Museum of Antwerp building and as mouth-watering butter cookies sold in local bakeshops. In the 1980s, Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts produced the famous Antwerp Six, a group of young designers that rocked the London Fashion Fair with their avant-garde ideas, so come prepared to spend a few bucks on designer clothes and bags that beckon from every corner. Stay at Theater Hotel, near the Rubens House and other museums. As you explore the city, make sure to visit the Diamond Mile, marvel at the beauty of Antwerp Central Train Station, and savor the true Belgian fries topped with meat stew at the Frites Atelier Amsterdam. Want a taste of the real haute couture? Drop into a Café Costume, where you can order a custom-tailored suit at a surprisingly inexpensive price, while having a drink with the owner, Bruno Van Gills.

Ghent

A university town and a cultural hub that carefully preserves its medieval architecture, including the 12th-century Gravensteen Castle and a riverfront row of beautiful old buildings called Graslei, Ghent is a gem that still remains under the radar. The city is also known for its street art and impressive murals, many of which were painted by Ghent’s own artist, ROA, who has since created works of art all over the world, on just about every continent. To stay close to all of the attractions, choose the centrally located Ghent River Hotel, and stroll to the Friday Market Square, the Graffiti Street and the Design Museum Ghent. For local flavors, try Waterzooi, a fish or chicken soup made with egg yolk, cream and thickened vegetable broth. Had a chocolate overdose by now? Try cuberdon also known as neuzeke (little nose), a different type of Belgian candy. Want a break from beer? Ghent’s got a perfect watering hole for that. Jigger’s, one of the best cocktail bars in Belgium, has a long list of cocktail classics as well as new libations on the menu every day.

Liège’s 374-step staircase Montagne de Buere is well worth climbing for breathtaking panoramas and unforgettable pictures. | Photo by Lina Zeldovich

Liège

A calm, green and relaxed city, Liege is known for traditional Flemish food, folk characters, puppetry and supposedly the best waffles in the country. If you arrive by train, make sure to explore its newly built railway station with curved rooftops and bright airy passages. Stay at the centrally located pentahotel Liège close to Liege Cathedral and Prince-Bishops’ Palace. Make sure to brave Montagne de Bueren, Liège’s 374-step staircase—to climb above the city for a breathtaking panoramic views and perfect picture spots. For lunch, drop in to Amon Nanesse, a rustic, village-style restaurant that serves traditional delicacies, including Liège meatballs in a hearty creamy sauce and flambé steak cooked in peket, a flavored brandy made from juniper berries. To indulge in waffles big and small, chewy and crispy, drop into the Gaufre de Liège, but make sure to come in early as line wrap around the corner, especially on weekends.

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Lina Zeldovich

Lina Zeldovich

Lina shimmied with belly dancers in Turkey, took kimono-wearing lessons from geishas in Japan and read poetry with drunken bards at the Russian Woodstock. She’s written about her wanderings for Newsweek, The Boston Globe, Hemispheres, Alaska Airlines, TravelAge West and BBC, among others.

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