What many people don’t realize when thinking about Belgium is that this is a country that consists of essentially two vastly different regions. While they might know the medieval cities of the north (Flanders), such as Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, best, they tend to forget about the lush and rural south (Wallonia). Wallonia, French-speaking Belgium, is home many Belgian Ardennes highlights, the Belgian Ardennes being largest part of the Ardennes region that extends from northern France across southern Belgium into Luxembourg and Germany.
This mesmerizingly beautiful region—truly, it is stunning—consists of undulating hills, expansive farmlands, meandering rivers, rock formations, hot springs and dense deciduous forests. Compared to northern Belgium, the Belgian Ardennes are very sparsely populated. However, there are a few fascinating old towns and cities in this part of the country that are absolutely worth visiting.
I strongly recommend that you set aside a few days to explore the Belgian Ardennes when visiting this small country that is surprisingly densely packed with highlights. Read on to find out about the specific Belgian Ardennes highlights.
10 Belgian Ardennes Highlights
The riverside town of Dinant is one of the absolute top Belgian Ardennes highlights. I adore this town. Straddling the banks of the River Meuse, Dinant is squeezed in between the river and the sheer rock cliffs that flank it. Its major landmarks are the Church of Notre-Dame with its distinct onion-shaped dome and the mighty Citadel of Dinant that dominates the townscape from atop a cliff. Also, this is the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone.
Han-sur-Lesse’s claim to fame is its caves. The Grottes de Han were discovered in the early 1800s and total about eight kilometers in length. This series of limestone halls and galleries was carved out by the River Lesse (which, incidentally, is great for whitewater rafting and kayaking) many millions of years ago. The village is home to museum about the caves’ history. The caves themselves lie just outside of the village center and can be reached by public transportation.
The capital of Wallonia, Namur is arguably one of the most significant cities in southern Belgium. Historically a military town, Namur is strategically positioned at the confluence of the Rivers Meuse and Sambre. While it may lack much of the medieval architecture that characterizes many other Belgian towns, Namur has one major landmark—its impregnable Citadel, located on a rocky spur in between the two rivers. The Citadel of Namur is now a public park and an iconic attraction in the Belgian Ardennes.
Malmédy is one of the easternmost towns in Belgium, a gateway to the Hautes Fagnes (see below) and a popular tourist destination in Belgium. This town of culture and nature is crisscrossed by charming streets lined with affordable hotels, busy restaurants, cafés and stores. The main landmark is the 18th-century cathedral. Malmédy lies in a region that has historically been disputed between Germany and Belgium—this region known as the East Cantons was, in fact, part of Germany for a while in the 20th century.
Located only about six kilometers from above-mentioned Han-sur-Lesse is Rochefort, in one of the prettiest areas in the Belgian Ardennes; an area featuring many castles, forest-covered plateaus, valleys and empty winding roads. Rochefort is renowned for the Rochefort Abbey, a Trappist monastery that runs the Rochefort Brewery. It produces three different Trappist beers—Rochefort 6, 8 and 10.
One of the most picturesque of the Belgian Ardennes highlights is La-Roche-en-Ardenne, a rather small village but a major holiday destination. Almost cut off from the rest of the world by hills and rock formations, La-Roche-en-Ardenne is set in its own tiny valley on the banks of the River Ourthe and commanded by a spectacular ruined castle. Visitors come here to hike, canoe, (fly-)fish or bike.
Spa is famous for two distinctly different things. One, it is home to the Spa-Francorchamps race track, a renowned Formula 1 track that is among the world’s most scenic and historic. It hosts the Belgian Grand Prix. Two, Spa has been a wellness destination since Roman times due to its natural hot springs. Indeed, this is where the word “spa”, used to describe a venue featuring steam rooms, pools and various body treatments, comes from.
Situated on the very edge of the Belgian Ardennes, on the border with France, the tiny town of Bouillon is home to massive castle. It was once the home of Godfrey of Bouillon, who would become one of the most prominent crusaders in the Middle Ages. Bouillon Castle is one of Belgium’s most imposing strongholds, covering a series of rock formations and cliffs along the River Semois.
9. Hautes Fagnes
Known as the High Fens in English, the Hautes Fagnes is a high plateau in the very east of the Belgian Ardennes. A large protected area, the Hautes Fagnes is the largest nature reserve in Belgium. It includes the Signal de Botrange, which with its height of 694 (2,277 feet) is the highest point in the country. This is basically an expansive area of bogs, fens and woods, lined with great hiking trails.
Durbuy promotes itself as being the “smallest city in the world” and there used to be truth to this claim before it merged with a number of surrounding villages. Nowadays, Durbuy, home to just over 10,000 people, does still hold a city charter, which definitely makes it one of the world’s tiniest cities and one of the greatest Belgian Ardennes highlights. This small, mostly pedestrian city is home to cobbled streets, gorgeous stone houses, a castle, numerous restaurants and bars, boutiques, souvenir stores and antique shops.