Sometimes it can be hard to describe the history or culture of Belgium in just a sentence. In a country with such distinctive regions, that’s no surprise, but it’s even more complicated than that.
Belgium is a country full of fascinating stories but I get the impression it doesn’t feel the need to shout about them from the rooftops (or from the belfries, as the case may be). You need to dig a little deeper to find the best examples of the country’s history.
And that’s just what the World Heritage Sites of Belgium offer you. In the 15 Belgian UNESCO sites, there aren’t really many big tourist sights (with the exception of Bruges, probably). Instead, there are very specific places that demonstrate the innovations, the artistry, and the enlightened reforms of the people over hundreds of years.
There are the houses built in Brussels that defined whole movements of architecture.
There are the mines that didn’t just power the country’s industry, but changed the way workers were treated.
There are the printing presses that spread words across the continent and educated generations.
And there are the communes established by women who wanted to live their lives without being controlled by a patriarchy.
The stories behind Belgium’s World Heritage Sites are some of the most interesting and diverse in this part of Europe, even if they don’t seem particularly flashy or touristy at first glance.
Another trend within the World Heritage Sites of Belgium is for sites that have multiple properties, rather than a single location – and often shared with other countries. It means there are actually lots of places across the country that are technically on the World Heritage List… as you can see in this map!
If you’re interested in learning a bit more about Belgium’s World Heritage Sites – or maybe you would like to visit some of them – then I’ve got some information about each of the sites below.
They may not all be typical destinations for a trip to Belgium, but learning about their histories is certainly rewarding.
La Grand-Place in Brussels
One of the easiest World Heritage Sites in Belgium to visit is La Grand-Place, right in the centre of Brussels. The cobblestone square dates back to the 12th century but most of the buildings around its edge are from the 17th century.
One of the reasons La Grand-Place is significant is because it differs from many European squares in an important way – it has no religious buildings. While the centres of most historic cities are based around a church, here it all about the business (a defining element of Brussels).
Each building around the square has its own significance, its own unique decorated facade, and its own story – but the most important is the Town Hall, which you can visit on a guided tour.
Another highlight is the former residence of the Duke of Lower Lorraine, who founded the first settlement here, which is now the Museum of the City of Brussels and worth a visit.
Major Town Houses of the Architect Victor Horta
Across Brussels, there’s a wide variety of architectural styles, spanning centuries. One of the most distinctive is the Art Nouveau style and the best examples of it are in the buildings designed by local architect Victor Horta.
Four of the houses he designed make up the World Heritage Site and the Art Nouveau style is not limited to the facade, with every element, including the interiors, reflecting a cohesive artistic vision.
You can see each of the Victor Horta houses in Brussels from the street, but only one of them is regularly open to see the interior – it’s now the Victor Horta Museum. Occasionally a couple of the others are open for guided tours.
At least you can see some of the Victor Horta houses. The third World Heritage Site in Brussels, the Stoclet House, is never open to visitors and the best you can do is peer through the fence from the street.
The house was commissioned by the wealthy Adolphe Stoclet in 1905 and designed by Josef Hoffmann. It’s an incredible piece of architecture that acted as a transition from Art Nouveau to Art Deco and Modernism.
Part of its appeal – and one of the reasons it is a World Heritage Site – is because it’s considered to be a total work of art, which the decorations, furniture, fixtures, and garden all designed to be a homogenous home.
I think it’s really disappointing that you can’t go inside the Stoclet House and see a World Heritage Site like this, but at least it’s being protected and hopefully one day it will no longer be a private residence.
The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier
While we’re on the topic of architecture, there’s an interesting World Heritage Site that spans locations across seven countries, including Belgium. It’s a collection of 17 places that were designed by the Swiss-French architect, Le Corbusier in the first half of the 20th century. The Belgian inclusion is Maison Guiette in Antwerp.
Maison Guiette is a small house that was the home and studio of painter René Guiette. Although it’s not a famous building, it’s an excellent example of the International Style of architecture that grew from modernism.
Unfortunately this is yet another of Belgium’s World Heritage Sites that is not usually open to the public. At least you can visit most of the other locations as part of this broader site… if you’re able to get to three continents!
Also in Antwerp is one of the most interesting World Heritage Sites in Belgium, the Plantin Moretus Museum. It was here in the 16th century that Christophe Plantin founded a printing company that had a huge influence in Europe.
Bu producing huge amounts of books quickly – for the first time in history – information was able to be spread amongst the masses. During his lifetime, Plantin produced 1887 major publications, before the business passed to his son-in-law Jan Moretus.
Visiting the Plantin-Moretus House today, you’ll see the layout of the workshop, the old bookstore, and the living areas. But probably the most significant items on display are the world’s oldest printing presses.
The other highlight is the library, stocked with books that were printed here, and designed in the humanist style.
Historic Centre of Bruges
Belgium has some beautiful cities but I think the prettiest of them all is Bruges, one of the commercial and cultural capitals of Europe.
The historic centre of Bruges, surrounded by medieval walls from the 12th century, has been designated as a World Heritage Site and has the city’s most important landmarks within it. Around the main square, the Markt, there’s the Provincial Court and the Belfry.
Wander the canals and you’ll find coloured houses reflected in the canals and soaring Gothic churches blocking the sky. There are breweries, museums, galleries, and much more in this charming city full of things to do.
Bruges gets busy with tourists during the day when the day-trippers come on their coaches, but stay overnight and you’ll find the evenings peaceful and the mornings a perfect time for photos.
One of the stops in Bruges for most tourists is the Beguinages Bruges, a commune established in about 1245 by – and for – women. These women, either spinsters or widows, wanted to live a religious life but not under the control of men, so this was their solution.
A number of beguinages appeared in Flanders from about the 13th century and 13 of them make up this World Heritage Site. I think the one in Bruges is one of the prettiest, with yellow daffodils in its courtyard, but each location has its own charms.
The Grand Beguinage of Leuven is the largest and feels like a city, with cobblestone pathways between the houses; while the Petit Beguinage De Gent has a large grassed area in the centre, around a church, with the homes around the edge of the site.
It’s worth visiting a few of these Flemish Beguinages locations because each is different, and it’s not too hard because you’ll find them in many of the main cities you’ll likely go to anyway.
Colonies of Benevolence
In the 19th century, a social experiment to alleviate urban poverty set up agricultural colonies in remote locations. Because the farms didn’t earn enough, the colonies also took money from the government to resettle orphans and vagrants. The Society of Benevolence was born.
Four of these colonies – three in the Netherlands and one in Belgium – are now a World Heritage Site. The Belgian location is Wortel, not too far from Antwerp.
When you visit Wortel today, most of the area is still farmland or converted parkland. You can walk or ride along the trails that cross the former colony.
At the historic vagrant’s farm, there’s a visitor centre with some information about the history. As you explore, you’ll find more buildings, such as the guards’ residence – and even a small prison that’s still in use!
Belfries of Belgium and France
In each of the cities and towns across Belgium, the most prominent part of the historic centre is quite often the belfry. A belfry is technically just a tower that houses bells – but in Belgium they represented the power of the local governments (an important distinction from the power of the church or the feudal lords).
There are 33 belfries in Belgium that make up the World Heritage Site (plus another 23 in France). They were built between the 11th and 17th centuries so show a wide range of architectural styles – from Roman, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque.
Some of the most impressive Belgian belfries are in Bruges, Antwerp, and Ghent. But the smaller towns also have quite beautiful designs. In these places, projecting the influence and wealth of the town leaders was probably even more important.
Because there are so many of them, you’re likely to see some of the belfries on any touristy visit to Belgium, but I suggest having a look at where they are so you don’t miss ones that you’ll walk past.
The Great Spa Towns of Europe
You may think a lot of the World Heritage Sites in Belgium are combined with locations in other countries – and you’re not wrong. Another one is the Great Spa Towns of Europe.
11 towns across seven countries have been chosen to represent the European spa culture that developed from the early 18th century until the 1930s. The towns, set around natural water springs, supported grand resorts that became internationally famous.
The Belgian site is the most aptly named – it’s the town of Spa, near the border with Germany. Nestled amongst lush green forests, Spa has beautiful neoclassical buildings in the centre, with the prestigious casino one of the most important landmarks.
As well as playing a game of cards (or just looking at the interior design) at the casino, you can of course still soak in the spring waters, or pop into some of the museums that tell the glamorous history of Spa.
Major Mining Sites of Wallonia
For many years, the wealth of Belgium came from its industrial power and, at the heart of this, was its series of coal mines. These mines in the 19th and 20th century weren’t just about industry, though, the way they were operated has influenced the country’s culture.
There are four mines (and their attached heritage) that are part of this World Heritage Site and they can be found on a 170 kilometre stretch across the country.
The buildings at Bois-du-Luc are from the late 19th century, although one of Europe’s oldest collieries was on this site. But, if you’re going to visit just one, the Grand-Hornu colliery and the workers’ city is probably the best example.
Each of the four mine sites offers something different for visitors so you can visit each of them and not find it too boring – but it’s not necessary to see them all.
Neolithic Flint Mines at Spiennes
Well before Belgium was operating its coal mines, humans had discovered that there were treasures beneath the ground. The Neolithic Flint Mines at Spiennes are remnants of ancient digs that took place between 4300 BC and 2200 BC.
The site near the city of Mons has the largest and earliest concentration of ancient mines in Europe. On the surface, it may just look like meadows, but amongst the grass are vertical 10-metre-deep shafts leading to an elaborate network of galleries.
The mines were built to extract flint, which was used to make tools and weapons, and to start fires. There are plenty of bits of flint around the surface.
You can visit the site, which has an interesting museum, but it’s worth getting in contact in advance because it’s not always open and there are limited spots to see an excavation site and descend into a cave.
The Four Lifts on the Canal du Centre
This is one the strangest World Heritage Sites in Belgium – so that automatically makes it one of my favourites too!
It’s basically a series of enormous contraptions on a canal that lifts boats up and down to a different water level by using an ingenious hydraulic system that harnesses gravity with the weight of the water itself.
The Four Lifts on the Canal de Centre were opened in 1917 and were considered an engineering marvel. Only eight like this were ever built in the world and these four are the only ones that are still in operation.
There’s a lovely tree-lined walking path along the side of the canal, so you can go for a stroll along the seven kilometre stretch and see the four lifts. Some of the other buildings along the canal are also part of the site, including some housing machinery and workers.
Notre-Dame Cathedral in Tournai
Tournai is a relatively small city for Belgium (about 17th largest in terms of population) but it’s one of the most historically important. It is one of the country’s oldest settlements and was the first capital of the Frankish Empire in the 5th century.
These days, it’s best known for its main church, the Notre-Dame Cathedral of Tournai, which is a World Heritage Site. It was built in the 12th century with an enormous Romanesque nave, and an ornate Gothic choir added in the 13th century.
Both the architecture and artistic style were extremely innovative and had a huge influence across Europe. Even today, when you visit, you’ll be impressed with its scale and detail.
Having said that, the Tournai Cathedral has been undergoing a very long restoration and it won’t necessarily be possible to see it all.
Ancient and Primeval Beech Forests
This expansive site, officially called ‘Ancient and Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians and Other Regions of Europe’ has been expanded three times since its original listing and now includes 94 different locations across 18 countries.
It consists of pockets of original forest of European Beech trees that spread after the last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago, and were once the dominant species across much of the continent.
Belgium has just one area that is part of this World Heritage Site – the Sonian Forest, just on the edge of Brussels. It was once a hunting ground for the Habsburg rulers and has been depicted in quite a few artworks, including by Auguste Rodin.
It’s easy to visit the Sonian Forest and the park is popular with locals who go there to walk, cycle – and even visit some of the attractions like the arts centre, botanical garden, and archaeological ruins.
For a small country, there’s a lot of heritage here – and it’s much more diverse than you might expect. It’s a shame that a few of the sites are not usually open to the public but, other than that, it’s easy to get to almost all of of the World Heritage Sites in Belgium.