This three day jaunt offers the best of Belgium’s historic old towns, fine cuisine and classy museums
Belgium often gets overlooked on tourist itineraries which is a real shame – the French influence means the dining is sensational, there’s a host of history and culture to discover and outside popular Bruges there’ll be few other tourists in sight.
From the ferry port just outside Zeebrugge, take a 20-minute drive east along the coast road to the Belgian Riviera’s classiest resort, Knokke-Heist. The wide sandy beach here is eight miles long and includes fabulous dunes to explore, stretching to the Dutch border. A long promenade is packed with modern apartments, hotels and restaurants. In the leafy streets behind discover why Belgium’s rich and famous flock here: there are upmarket boutiques, antique shops, at least 70 private art galleries and two Michelin-starred restaurants. The stylish casino boasts an extensive art collection, including a Magritte in the gaming room.
After lunch, take a leisurely drive down country roads to Ghent (Gand). By-pass the busy outskirts of Bruges by taking the N34 and N49. Instead, potter along these rural back roads, past small farms where you’ll see typical white Charolais cattle and flat grassy pastures between irrigation channels and canals. Belgium is one of the most densely populated nations in Europe, but you wouldn’t know it in this sleepy patch of pretty countryside.
Ghent is less of an obvious tourist honeypot than Bruges, but still has world-class sights. In the town centre there’s a maze of restored medieval byways and canals lined by impressive churches, towers and historic houses. Look out for a moated castle, cathedral, old bridges and dozens of museums and art galleries.
For dinner try specialities like a hearty ‘waterzooi’ stew, local ‘maatjes’ herrings or Belgian classics like mussels, sausages and asparagus. And before you go back to your hotel don’t neglect the nightlife, there’s the usual wide selection of Belgian beers available plus a lively atmosphere generated by a big population of students.
Steer clear of motorways around Brussels and head south instead on the N60 to the old riverside tapestry centre of Oudenaarde with its astonishingly decorated town hall overlooking a classic old market square. Wander old streets to find an abbey, convent and various impressive churches. There are plenty of historic tapestries on show everywhere. More than 100 buildings here are classified as important historic monuments - yet it’s a town that never gets overcrowded by tourists.
As you drive south towards Ronse (Renaix) the scenery at last becomes hillier as it reaches the start of the Ardennes region. Head west here on the small country road, the N8, to Kortrijk (Courtrai). This is another little-known historic gem, with one of Europe’s largest car-free centres. So park up and enjoy walks along the River Lys and plenty of shopping, eating and sightseeing opportunities. The Museum of Fine Arts here is one of the country’s finest - both for the high quality collection and the Renaissance building housing it. The main square is lined with imposing historic buildings and the town’s nunnery and befry tower are both World Heritage Sites.
With so much to see, it’s a perfect place to spend the night. And when you’re ordering your dinner, save room for the local delicacy ‘kalletaart’ (a delicious applecake made with calvados).
Roads from the south arrive at Bruges’ ring road where there’s plenty of parking. It’s best not to try and drive into the heavily-pedestrianised old town. It’s a fascinating place to walk - down cobbled streets, over canal footbridges and past delicately decorated facades of buildings dating back at least 500 years. Take your pick of how to spend the day - there are some of Europe’s finest old buildings and art museums; memorable canal trips around the historic centre; scores of shops for Belgian souvenirs like lace, chocolate, linen, pewter or ceramics; and plenty of bars, pavement cafes and restaurants. Bruges is one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations and justifiably so. If you prefer to avoid the crowds however, it’s easy to drive to two quiet villages north of Bruges. Lissewege and Damme are both romantic canalside spots with low whitewashed cottages, old churches and interesting arts and crafts shops and cafes. They’re a relaxing alternative to the tourist excitement of Bruges… and it’s only five miles north to Zeebrugge and your ferry home.
Important note for driving in Belgium:
Belgium is really two countries in one. The north and west is Flanders where the language is like Dutch, and the south and east is Wallonia where French is the native tongue. This means most cities in Belgium have two names, and either can appear on maps and road signs. It can be confusing so we’ve included both versions in brackets in the itinerary above where they are very different.
For more driving holiday ideas read our driving holiday in France and driving holiday in Spain features.
P&Os drivng holiday expert
When former taxi-driver and garage-manager Simon switched to journalism he was soon described by Private Eye as "a miserable little squirt". Luckily he's grown a bit since then and cheered up slightly (so only the "squirt" part applies). Since then he's helped launch BBC Top Gear magaine, worked for Autocar and AutoExpress to name but a few. Simon has also been an editorial consultant for Toyota, Peugeot, Lexus and BMW. And he once broke the world record for motoring madness by driving to 12 countries...in one day.