Belgium is a perfect destination for the end-of-year holidays because it's compact with every corner accessible from Brussels within an approximately two hour train ride. Belgian Rail sells a ten trip rail pass which is ideal for an extended stay. We used our pass to get to and from the airport to Bruges and then for traveling about to Ghent, Liege, Mechelen, Lier, and Leuven. Here are some of the sights that we saw along the way.
Brussels is a most excellent home base from which to explore with three major train stations (Brussels-North, Brussels-Central, and Brussels-South (or in French: Midi)) serving different parts of the country. We stayed in Ixelles which was just a 15 minute tram ride from Bruxelles-Midi. We took the opportunity to admire the amazing display of holiday lights and other festivities on the Grote Markt.
Get above it all in Ghent by climbing the belfry and do some people-watching with the gargoyles on the square below. During the holiday season, you'll find a huge Christmas market and ice skating rink spread out before you.
Liege is known for having the largest Christmas Market in Belgium and it's definitely worth investing one of the ten trips on your rail pass to get here. We fueled up with a fruit-filled Belgian waffle and then got in quite a work-out climbing a long staircase to the top to drink in views of the city below.
While not strictly part of the Belgian Rail Pass experience and not even in Belgium for that matter, it's worth calling out that Maastricht in the Netherlands is just a short detour from Liege. Pop over the border for a Dutch Christmas market experience and nosh on bitterballen, beer, and a cone of frites before returning back to Belgium,
We loved using our rail pass as an excuse to visit towns we wouldn't normally have considered, like Mechelen. Every place is worth visiting once and Mechelen boasted a lovely canal path and classic step-gabled architecture. We were most intrigued by the self-service vending machine for bread that we found on the main street leading into town from the train station. We couldn't resist giving it a go. We popped our coins in and out popped a fresh loaf for us to take with us on the next leg of our journey.
Lier was by far the quaintest town that we visited using our rail pass. We did a partial lap around the town following the canal path. Cutting in, we passed through the historic Béguinage (Begijnhof in Dutch), formerly a protected community of white-washed houses for women living alone. The main square in Lier is anchored by a former 14th century keep now emblazoned with a bold clock. So charming.
Leuven is a university town less than an hour outside of Brussels. It's even closer if you go there directly from the airport. The Gothic town hall is simply stunning. There are many places near the Grote Markt (Fiere Margriet and the Capital are two of them) where you can sup on a beer and admire the architecture around you.
No trip to Belgium is complete without a visit to Bruges. The whole town centre is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's fun to simply stop into a chocolate shop, pick up some treats and then stroll around town steeping in the atmosphere. Bruges is also a convenient home base for exploring Flanders and the battlefields of World War I.