Updated: May 29, 2020
Bon Voyage: Day-Tripping in the Low Countries
What is something that’s not common in America? Day trips. It’s not a conversation-starter but mention visiting Spain for vacation or hiking the Citadel in Budapest and you’ve captured everyone’s attention, guaranteed. While in Belgium, my friends and I spent our weekends traveling to various cities within the country (or out of the country) during the day and returned home mid-evening, around 7-8pm. Day trips are refreshing because it’s a journey that you embark on for pleasure; you can choose any place that is accessible to you and return on the same day. It’s a quick, cheap, mini vacation all in one package! They’re also great if you’re on a budget and don’t want to spend more than a day in one specific city; you can just travel to all the main attractions and leave the city whenever you want to. I highly recommend you do this whenever you have a free day and have nothing to do; it’s a great way to de-stress.
Below are some of the best day trips I’ve embarked on while living in Belgium:
Since it’s the capital of Brussels, it’s only fair to go visit for the day. The city is very lively; full of busy streets and people from everywhere around the world. Brussels is a part of both the French and the Flemish Community of Belgium, so when you walk down the street, you’ll see signs in both French and Dutch (and also English for tourists). I’ve gotten the chance to go on a tour in Brussels and originally, Brussels was a Dutch-speaking city, but the language shifted to French from the 19th century onwards. It is also the home of multiple EU Institutions, the secretariat of the Benelux, European Parliament, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). I’ve had the chance to visit the Royal Palace of Brussels, Magritte Museum, and Parc de Bruxelles. This global city is definitely worth a day visit.
Another lively city in the Flemish region of Belgium lies Ghent. This city has an interesting history because it’s the capital of the East Flanders province and in the Late Middle Ages, it was one of the largest and richest cities of Northern Europe. Today, it is a port and university city similar to Maastricht and Leuven, which are also university cities. I got to visit on a nice day (when the sun was actually out) and was able to walk on the bridges and the port area, pass through the shopping streets, admire the medieval architecture, and eventually ended up at the St. Bravo’s Cathedral. Like any other city, the shops are always tempting, so we avoided them as much as we could, haha.
Ghent is medieval, but Brugge is on a whole other level. It is the capital and the largest city of the West Flanders province in the Flemish Region of Belgium. Similar to Ghent, Brugge has economic influence due to its ports and at one point in time, it was one of the world’s chief commercial cities. It also is the most well-preserved medieval towns in Europe and the center of Brugge is home to UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. Brugge is known for its city’s attractions such as the Church of Our Lady and Michelangelo’s sculpture, Madonna and Child. I recommend visiting Brugge when the weather is nice since you’ll be doing a lot of walking while visiting the main attractions.
Not quite big like the cities mentioned above, but Hasselt is essentially a cute town. It’s still just as lively as Ghent, Brugge, and Brussels, and it’s home to numerous festivals during summer and early Fall. I originally went to Hasselt to visit the well-known Japanese Garden, which was holding their annual Chrysanthemum Festival at the garden. It was only 5 euros to get in and the flower art had me “shook.”
Oh Amsterdam, such an intricate city. This capital is the most populous in the Netherlands and during the Dutch Golden Age, it became the most important ports in the world. Amsterdam has both a riveting history and main attractions that attract more than 5 million international visitors annually. Since I traveled from Belgium, my friends and I traveled there for a day by bus. For Amsterdam, it’s recommended that you stay at least 2-3 days to get a chance to visit all the main attractions of the city, but my friends and I are badass and decided to ride it out from 12pm to 5am: not so great idea but we still had fun. This glorious city is known for its cannabis coffee shops, the Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank House, The Red-Light District, the ‘iamsterdam’ sign, historic canals, and many more museums and historical sights as well. #1 city worth visiting for either a day trip or a couple of days.
This is dedicated to those who like to travel alone or just need time off their busy lives to relax. When I visited Aachen a couple weeks ago, I was a bit stressed and just searched any place that I could get to easily; Aachen showed up. So I rode my bike to the Leuven train station and asked for a roundtrip ticket to Aachen, Germany. This city was my favorite because it reminded me of Leuven. The city center was small, yet busy and there were many students living in the area. I was able to go to the Centre Charlemagne and the Coven Museum at the student price, so if you ever end up in this city or any place in Germany, show the receptionist your student card and you’ll pay a reduced price or get in for free!
Last, but not least, Antwerp! I went on an organized trip by the Faculty of Arts at KU Leuven to Antwerp. We first went on a guided tour through the concentration camp in Breendock (which was horrifying, yet informing) and then another guided tour through Antwerp, a Flemish city on the River Scheldt. It was an important city economically and culturally in the Low Countries before the Dutch Revolt. It’s a major trade and cultural center today! What’s very interesting about this city is that it also has a Red-Light District, and is the second most multi-cultural city after Amsterdam.
Europe is full of cities with historical, cultural, economic influence that still lives on today. After arriving in Belgium, I didn’t know “day trips” were a thing until I got to know students from the area and neighboring countries who suggested visiting cities that even they’ve never been before. In America, I’ve never thought of that possibility since the country is huge and traveling costs not only money but time as well; you can’t just visit the city of Chicago in one day if you live in New York…the country is too massive for that. But the significant thing about day trips is that it doesn’t have to be extravagant; sometimes it can be just a train stop away.