Flanders: a rich heritage

Bruges beguinage
When it comes to heritage, Flanders is as rich as the sea is deep. Throughout our patch of land, you are practically tripping over both UNESCO-recognised treasures, as well as lesser-known gems. Stroll through a few highlights of the Flemish art cities of Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels, Ghent, Leuven and Mechelen.
Gruuthusemuseum Bruges

UNESCO charms

When you say heritage, you might as well say Bruges. The impressive Markt Square with its historic façades, the winding medieval alleys and canals, the belfry, the cathedral, the numerous masterpieces of the Flemish Primitives, and more. The list is quite simply endless. So it makes perfect sense that UNESCO automatically recognises the historical city centre as a world cultural heritage site. A stroll through the meandering alleys of Bruges leads you from one surprise to another.

However, Bruges is much more than just a beautiful city centre, as excellently illustrated by the historic café Vlissinghe. Over 500 years old and it is still a popular watering hole to date. While fortifying your inner being, you can admire the numerous historical paintings, photographs and documents on the walls.

Ghent Altarpiece Lam Gods

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb and the fourth tower

The Ghent Altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers is one of the world’s greatest treasures. The iconic polyptych was unveiled in 1432 in St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent. Since then, the unparalleled beauty of this masterpiece has moved millions. Today, you can still see it in the cathedral for which it was created. After a meticulous renovation, the altarpiece’s original splendour, stunning colour, and subtle chiaroscure are more visible than ever. All in an original, historic setting.
A short walk takes you from the cathedral to another, lesser-known gem in Ghent: the Booktower. This iconic building by Art Nouveau pioneerHenry Van de Velde, has long served as the library of the Ghent University and houses more than three million books. This modern giant has already been described as the fourth tower of Ghent, in addition to the centuries-old trio of St. Nicholas Church, the Belfry and St. Bavo’s Cathedral.

Groenplaats Antwerpen ©Sigrid Spinnox

Rubens, Rubens and Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens is one of the greatest artists of all time. The Antwerpian is the figurehead of the Baroque, the movement that continues to shape the city to this day. The many Baroque buildings and numerous masterpieces are reminiscent of Antwerp’s golden age. Rubens' impact on that time should not be underestimated. That is why Antwerp makes it a point of honour to pay homage to the master. In the Rubens House, where Rubens once lived and worked, you can admire his works, just as you can in the Plantin-Moretus Museum. In the Cathedral of Our Lady – itself a noteworthy piece of heritage – you will also find a number of his masterpieces.

A lesser-known place with an amazing collection is St. Paul's Church. In this former 17th century monastery church you will find beautiful Baroque altars, more than 200 sculptures and over 50 paintings including masterpieces by Rubens, Jacob Jordaens and Anthony Van Dyck.

Town Hall Leuven

Gothic Hall of Fame and a whole lot of animals

Without a doubt, Leuven is proof that Gothic architecture can also be playful. The façade of its iconic town hall, an impressive 15th-century late Gothic building, is decorated with no less than 236 statues of important figures from Leuven's history, a sort of forerunner of the 'Hall of Fame', accompanied by dozens of colourful flags. It's a one-of-a-kind building.

That said, you can also discover slightly less famous pearls, such as the Zoological Institute of the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven). There, you can find more than 5,000 stuffed animals, the skeleton of a Greenland whale, an American passenger pigeon and a purportedly extinct Coelacanth, a so-called lobed-finned fish. This quirky piece of heritage is definitely worth a visit.

Bruges beguinage

Beguines and Burgundians

They were once the domain of a group of women who could be called the very first feminists. Today, the Flemish Beguinages still radiate tranquillity and contemplation. Since the 12th century, these places were home to Beguines, unmarried women who dedicated their lives to God. Mechelen is also home to the beautiful Large Beguinage, with its own unique character. Halfway through the 16th century the original Beguinage was destroyed during the Iconoclasm. The Beguines moved to a new place within the city walls. If you step through the stately entrance gate, you will enter a tranquil world, close to the heart of the city.

In addition to Beguinages, churches and a cathedral, Mechelen also has many spacious mansions and residences. A good example is the Hof van Busleyden, a stately city palace that was built in the 16th century, in the heart of the city. This beautiful renaissance city palace takes you back in time to the days when such ‘Mechelen’ greats as Hieronymus van Busleyden, Erasmus, and Thomas More sojourned here.

city hall at grand place Brussels

A flamboyant town hall and contemporary art

The iconic Grote Markt of Brussels is just one of the many must-sees in the capital. The stately square is a superb heritage site. The stately square is, and was, surrounded by heritage. The showstopper of the square is the flamboyant, Gothic town hall with its monumental tower dating from the early 15th century. There are also many other examples of architectural splendour all around the iconic structure. The golden and decorative elements that make the surrounding guild houses shine in the sunlight are perfect examples of this.

Brussels is a city par excellence where history goes hand in hand with the contemporary. Kanal, the new museum of modern art, is perfect proof of this. This brand new museum is moving into a former, modernist car garage and will soon be the home to the Brussels site of the glorious Pompidou Centre. For the time being, there are temporary exhibitions to admire and soon the art house will show its own collection of contemporary art. From an architectural point of view alone, it is already worth a visit.

 

In Flanders you can see, smell, feel and taste our unique history, but at the same time, you are experiencing the heritage of tomorrow. Discover both today, on a journey through the glorious Flemish art cities.

You may also like these stories