What started with the idea of a Belgian Beer Tour turned into a larger trip that included many tourist attractions so it can be a vacation enjoyed by the whole family, including our two little boys aged 6 and 9.
The itinerary was based on the famous Trappist abbeys and the major cities (Bruges, Ghent, Brussels), with other strops sprinkled in between. Of the 6 Trappist abbeys in Belgium, we visited 4 (had to skip Achelse – too remote, and Rochefort – no visiting or tasting options), plus 1 in Netherlands. Actually, none of those abbeys can be visited (unless you schedule it long in advance as a group tour). But they have an associated bar / restaurant nearby where you can try all their beers.
So here is a quick overview of our trip to help you plan a similar tour. If you don’t have kids you could probably speed it up and cover everything in a couple less days. We did it in 8 days because we didn’t want to be in a rush. We also had a car which helps expedite it. Many people go by train, which limits a bit your options, especially around the remote Trappist abbeys.
I highlighted both the beers that I tried and the restaurants where we ate in the bigger cities. I should note that, except for one restaurant breakfast, all of them our outdoor restaurants, since that is part of the European travel tradition, to eat outside. Also note that this trip took place in August 2019 and establishments and beer availability might change.
DAY 1: DURBUY – LUXEMBOURG
We landed in the morning at Charleroi (south of Brussels), so we had the whole day ahead of us.
The first stop was Durbuy, considered by some as the prettiest little town in Belgium. We parked across the river at the Topiary Park, the largest such park in the world. It’s a very cool collection of sculpted bushes which include Manneken Pis and a lounging Pamela Anderson.
A bridge leads into town, which is a small web of narrow cobblestoned streets with picturesque brick buildings. Strolling around all the streets doesn’t take more than 20-30 minutes and then you can relax at one of the outdoor restaurants, either a tiny one in a shaded alley, or the big ones at the entrance plaza. We ate at Le Parc by the plaza, where I tried the local specialty Boules Liegeoise (interesting meatballs but a bit sweet), and a delicious Rochefort 8 (first taste of Trappist beer, I picked this one since we wouldn’t go to Rochefort).
Next stop was Luxembourg City, which was a lovely old town. We strolled around the narrow streets between the 2 main squares. The city center was the Place D’Armes with lots of restaurants. Another tourist attraction was the Chemin de Corniche which has great views over the valley and leads to the Casemates du Bock – extensive tunnels that kids loved to explore.
For dinner we went to Cafe Francais in Place D’Armes, where I had some local meats plate and two light and refreshing luxembourgeois blonde beers – Battin and Bofferding.
DAY 2: ORVAL – DINANT – CHIMAY – BRUGES
From Luxembourg we went to the first Trappist abbey of our trip – Orval. While you can’t visit the active monastery, it has some extensive and very interesting ruins from the old abbey that kids loved. There’s also a small museum of old beer making, but navigating the ruins is more fun. Then, a short walk lead us to Ange Guardien – the brewery’s bar. There I had the tasting platter with abbey cheeses and 3 beers: Orval Jeune (the fresh version), Orval Vieille (the aged one), and Orval Vert (a special light ale which is only served at this bar). They were all outstanding and a great start to our pilgrimage.
Then we stopped by the fortress city of Dinant, a picturesque town on River Meuse where the tall rock of the Citadel dominates the string of restaurants along the river. You can actually drive up to the Citadel, then explore the old building, take the cable car down to the city for a quick drink, and get back to the top (or take the stairs down and cable car up as we did). Down by the river we went to the Capsule bar where I had a refreshing local beer – Caracole Saxo Blonde. Dinant is also the home of the Leffe brewery, but we didn’t make it there.
Next we went to Chimay – a true Temple of Beer. Impressing abbey, and you can visit the church which is huge. We had the pleasure of meeting a Trappist monk who showed us some relics and wanted to take pictures with the kids. Then we went around the corner to the famed Auberge de Poteaupre where we could taste the abbey cheeses and beers. The four cheese varieties were outstanding – like all the Belgian abbeys they’re good tasty cheeses, not the rotten smelly French kind. The beer tasting sampler was like a tower which included the 4 famous beers: Chimay Red, Doree, Blue and Tripel. A feast indeed. For food there was also a tasting sampler, the local meatballs with three different sauces: the sweet liegeois, a cheese sauce and a spicy pepper one.
At dusk we made it to Bruges, where we had an AirBNB just a few minutes from the main square – Grote Markt. On the way from the parking garage, we already got a taste of the vibrant life along the cannals. For dinner we went to Belfort Cafe in the big square, where we had cheese croquettes, the famous Belgian waffles, and as for beers a Bourgogne des Flandres (Bruges beer but a bit sweet) and Westmalle Tripel. Speaking of waffles, the ones you get on the streets are OK, but the restaurant waffles are amazing. It’s those square ones that seem hard at first but melt in your mouth, they’re unbelievable, whatever you choose to put on them, even plain/sugar!
DAY 3: BRUGES
We had breakfast in Grote Markt, where there was also a big band playing. I was reluctant to have beer for breakfast until I saw other people with beer glasses, so I went for a La Choufe and a croque madame. Then we walked around the scenic square to the smaller Burg Square, across the canals, and then took the boat ride. A canal ride takes about 30 minutes and it’s really beautiful, along all those narrow waterways, under small bridges, along postcard-perfect old houses as well as impressive waterfront buildings.
Off the boat, we walked along the picturesque waterfront until we got to the huge Church Of Our Lady. We stopped to rehydrate at a restaurant across the church where I had a Flanders beer – Rodenbach (too fruity) and a Kasteel Blonde.
We visited the church and went along the narrow streets full of chocolate and souvenir shops to the De Halve Maan brewery. Bruges’ biggest brewery is awesome, a nice courtyard restaurant with good food and great beers. This brewery built a 2-mile underground pipeline to carry its beer to a shipping center outside of town, because the trucks were creating too much traffic in the crowded downtown. At De Halve Maan I had Bruges’s flagship blonde beer, Brugse Zot, and a very good abbey-style tripel – Straffe Hendrik, accompanied by the traditional vlaamse beef stew. Going back to our apartment, we also visited the big Sint-Salvator cathedral with its huge tapestries.
Around the corner from our place was the Bourgogne des Flandres brewery, which was a small patio hanging on the side of an old building, right by the canal. The brewery is part of a larger company so I could get a flight of 5 different beers, all very good local brews that included other brands like Waterloo.
In the evening we returned to Grote Markt and had a good dinner at Cafe Central where I also got a Kwak. The “hourglass” (its special drinking vessel) was definitely larger than anything I’ve seen in US. Later at night we did a scenic carriage ride around town.
DAY 4: WESTVLETEREN – YPRES – GHENT
We started back in the main square with a waffle and a Brugse Zot. Then we drove west towards the French border, with the first destination being the St Bernardus brewery, which unfortunately was closed on Mondays. The shop was open though, so we got some supplies for the road. The roads there were really country roads, barely a lane and a half, winding around huge hop fields.
And we made it to Westvleteren, the sacred place of Trappist beer, home of the Holy Grail of beers, the Westvleteren 12. This is considered by many as the best beer in the world, as well as one of the rarest. It’s not sold anywhere outside the abbey’s bar at In De Wrede, and to get a case you need to call in advance and there’s a small annual limit per car. (the abbey itself can’t be visited).
Like all the Trappist brewery bars in Belgium, this one also had a huge playground. The monks are very smart about entertaining the family, keeping the kids busy while parents eat the amazing food and enjoy the beers. Here at Westvleteren I treated myself to two 12’s, and also a lighter Westvleteren 8. As for food, we had a local specialty – pig cheeks stew, as well as the ubiquitous abbey cheese.
Next we stopped at the Menin Gate in Ypres, an impressive and somber monument to the almost 1 million people who died here in WW1. The huge arch has the names of all British soldiers who fell here and the size of it is overwhelming. Nearby at Hill 62 was an attraction the kids really loves – the trenches preserved since the end of the war, with tunnels and forts, “just like in Call of Duty” as they said.
In the evening we got to Ghent, probably the second best city in Belgium after Bruges. It’s both bigger (in the size of its structures), and smaller (as to the historic downtown). We jumped right on the boat ride on its big canals, larger than Bruges, with bigger boats and an almost 40 minutes ride. The sights were amazing, from the Korenlei waterfront, to its big churches in town, the Gravensteen castle, but also small buildings on narrow canals.
The main tourist street with shops and restaurants is Korenmarkt, and there we had dinner at De Kuip van Gent: the famous flemish ribs, an easy beer – Petrus Blonde, and also a more traditional ale, Augustijn. Later in the night, at the Novotel Centrum Hotel’s pool, we enjoyed the St Bernardus ABT 12 that we had bought from the brewery. That hotel was very convenient, with great amenities and located right in the middle of the town, with great prices and its own parking lot.
DAY 5: GHENT – ANTWERP
In the morning, after breakfast at the hotel, we went out where we were surrounded by tall buildings – the main cathedral and the old tower. First we went in the Belfort Tower (which even had an elevator) to see great views of the city, and then we went in the St Bavo Cathedral. Its main attraction is the famous altarpiece, which was stolen by Germans and was featured in the Monuments Men movie.
We walked across the canals to the Gravensteen Castle, an impressive structure, with all the medieval bells and whistles, that the kids really loved. A nice sightseeing morning before we left towards Antwerp.
The first stop in Antwerp was the De Koninck Brewery. It’s a large building south of the historic center, and they also serve beer from other breweries (but no food). I started with the local sampler, which included two De Koninck Bolleke (blonde and brune) and a stronger Triple d’Anvers. I also tried something I haven’t seen yet, a Duvel IPA, the Duvel Three Hops. (this brewery is owned by Duvel)
Once settled at our AirBNB in Antwerp, we walked over to Rubenshuis – the house / museum dedicated to the famous painter Peter Rubens. A very nice museum which is just a 10 minutes walk from the historic center. Coming back, we ended up in Groenplaats, the town’s largest square, where we had lunch at De Post. There, we had a flemish food sampler with chicken vol-au-vent, a ham and cheese mix and beef stew. As for beers, a classic Duvel and a Kriek Mort Subite (cherry beers sound gross but this famous one was actually quite good).
Later at night, we strolled around the historic area which is anchored by Brabo’s square, dominated by the big statue of local hero Brabo slaying a giant. We went across the city’s main cathedral and had dinner at a quiet restaurant, Le Parisien. There, we had sushi (some of it quite eclectic, like the fried chicken sushi) and two Gouden Carolus beers – the tripel and the classic.
DAY 6: WESTMALLE – KONINGSHAVEN – BRUSSELS
After the three big cities (Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp), we resumed our pilgrimage to the Trappist monasteries and our first stop was Westmalle (north of Antwerp). We tasted the two local brews, the Westmalle Dubbel and Tripel, as well as the abbey cheese and waffles for breakfast.
We continued North and we crossed into Netherlands to head towards Tilburg where we visited the only Trappist brewery in the county – La Trappe at Koningshoeven Abbey. This felt a bit different than the others, since it brewed 8 different beers, compared to the Belgian abbeys that only made 1 to 3, maybe 4 at most. They didn’t do any tasting flights, so I had to try 6 of them in small portions. The ones I tried were the La Trappe Blond, Dubbel, Tripel, Isid’Or, Witte and PUUR and they were all good (although the large mix made it harder to appreciate the differences between them).
At night, fighting some crazy traffic, we made it to our apartment in Brussels. The capital city didn’t leave a good impression at first – it was a bit run-down, dirty, and full of unsavory characters. But going to Grand Place, its main plaza, was pretty cool, since it is a historic architectural marvel. Best such square we’ve seen but still the atmosphere wasn’t there. Another problem in Brussels was that most of the tourist-area restaurants didn’t have the large variety of Belgian beers, just the basic ones and if I was lucky, a Leffe or Chimay. And most people were offering Stella or Jupiler, which is pretty much what the bums and peasants drink.
On the other hand, around the corner from our place was the legendary Delirium Cafe, a true beer mecca. The Delirium Village occupies and entire back alley, and it’s a group of interconnected bars on 3 or 4 levels. The Cafe prides itself on having over 2,000 beers. While there are about 30 beers on draft (that rotate regularly), they have me a 160-page catalog with everything you can think of. I picked the Achel Bruin, a Trappist beer that we won’t visit and couldn’t find anywhere else.
DAY 7: BRUSSELS
We started our full day in Brussels by going to the Galleries St Hubert, a stylish dining and shopping tunnel crossing the historic center. We had some amazing breakfast waffles there at Mokafe.
Then we drove to the Brupark area just outside town, which hosts two major kids attractions – Atomium and Mini Europe. The Atomium structure dominates the area with its size, and it’s entertaining to explore, though there’s really not much inside. But Mini Europe – I’m not even sure who liked it more, us or the kids. It’s a huge park with miniature version of famous buildings and landscapes from all EU countries. It’s a real delight to explore it, check out the interactive displays, and admire all the amazing models. On our way back, we stopped by the Parc du Cinquantenaire, a sprawling park near the European quarter, with a triumphal arch as its center piece.
Back to the downtown, we first stopped at a restaurant on Rue des Bouchers (one of the main shopping & dining streets near the Grand Place), where we had two outstanding specialties: the sole meuniere, and rabbit stew. From there, we walked across town, through some more interesting streets, to the Mont des Arts hill with great views all around, and then up to the Royal Palace. Coming back through the Place de l’Agora, this walk changed a bit our perception of Brussels, showing a more beautiful and tourist-friendly side of the town.
Coming back to the apartment, I stopped again at the Delirium Cafe to try one of their drafts, the Delirium Guillotine. It’s still a fascinating place. The way the handle all that beer and the throngs on customers is amazing. They have a special technique of removing the foam on top of the glass, which bartenders in the US should learn. And the crowd is so diverse. As the song goes, I’ve seen short skirts, I’ve seen high-techs, blue-collar boys and rednecks, I’ve seen lovers, lots of lookers, and I’ve even seen dancing girls and hookers. At the end of day, I made one more detour the the Cafe to get a Choufe Hublon – the original Belgian-style IPA.
For dinner, after doing some building and crowd-watching in Grand Place, we went back to that Place de l’Agora, and I finally got the samurai frites (which had been recommended to me but couldn’t find it yet in an entire week), waffles, and another new beer, the Omer Le Fort.
DAY 8: LEUVEN – VILLERS
On our last day, since we had a late flight, we visited two more destinations that were optional in our schedule. First was Leuven, and it should’ve been a mandatory stop! A lovely town like the small Flanders ones, with picturesque streets and especially an impressive townhall – the Staduis, really unique building. Across the Grote Markt was the main cathedral, with it’s bell-banging knight on top. Oude Markt nearby was also supposed to be a vibrant dining square, but not at that early hour. So we stayed at the Notre Dame Quasimodo for breakfast and had the local beer – Louvanium.
Final stop before departure were the ruins of Abbaye de Villers – a huge complex of medieval ruins which were fun to explore, and which was getting ready to be, like on most summer weekends, the scene of an outdoor concert.
This concludes the summary of our tour. 8 full days of beer tasting and tourist fun. I enjoyed it the most, of course, my wife also loved it even if she’s not a big beer drinker, and even the kids say it was their most fun vacation ever. All the highlighter restaurants and beers are recommended! Some may be better than others, but they’re all good and hopefully not to be missed. So book your flight, rent a car, and get your AirBNB’s in the center of each town, and enjoy your journey! Feel free to drop me a note if you have more questions.