Spend a few days exploring Brussels, then head 100km north-west to Bruges, which thrived in the Middle Ages but was left frozen in time by the silting of its sea access. Today its urban core is a miniature gem of cobbled squares and Gothic buildings. The looming Belfort tower provides the best views, while the Brugge and Hospitaal museums hold heavyweight collections of Flemish art. What really sets Bruges apart, though, is its network of quiet canals; with kids on board, a canal cruise is definitely the way to go. See our feature on a family break in Bruges.
While Bruges is pretty and compact, Antwerp 40km north of Brussels has all the energy. Like Bruges, Belgium’s second city prospered on medieval commerce, but unlike it, Antwerp has grown into a vibrant modern port. Antwerp’s finest architecture is in the centre around the picture-postcard Grote Markt square and soaring Gothic cathedral. It was home to Rubens, and the city’s churches and galleries are peppered with the artist’s masterpieces (start at the Rubenshuis). More than half the world’s diamonds are cut in Antwerp, and older children may enjoy visiting the Diamond Museum to watch frock-coated diamond-cutters at work and ogle caches of the glittering shinies; younger siblings can be appeased with Antwerp Zoo next door. Aspiring fashionistas should head to the streets south of Groenplaats, which burst with boutiques and guerrilla stores way hipper than anything in Brussels – since the 1980s Antwerp designers have taken the world of fashion by storm. Or adjourn to the waterfront for a cruise round the miles of container docks and wharves.
Belgium’s best countryside is in the far south, amongst the forests of the Ardennes. While the high ground can be bleak, numerous rivers have cut deep valleys. Isolated by steep slopes or hedged by cave-pocked cliffs, the watercourses meander wildly through sylvan landscapes that feel truly remote. Bouillon is spectacularly sited around a ruined castle, but the region’s main draw is untrammelled nature and the great outdoors. Walking, cycling and climbing are all popular activities well-suited to family holidays, but on warm summer weekends half the country goes canoeing – it’s madcap, chaotic and hugely congested, but also enormous fun.