Ah, Belgium. Let me count the ways I love you. But most of all let me say how much I enjoy seeing this beautiful country from the water. Belgium has only a scant 67 kilometers of coastline, which is less than the Channel Island of Jersey. But the coast is both gorgeous and well celebrated by the Belgians. As are the rivers and canals which criss-cross Flanders and Wallonia, making it a great opportunity to see the country from a different perspective. It’s time to explore Belgium from the water.
Belgium From the water
The topography of Belgium creates two very different types of waterways. To the east in hilly Wallonia, rivers snake around Liege, Namur, Dinant, Charleroi and Mons. Flanders has a much flatter geography with a network of rivers and canals connecting Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent and Ostend. There are 1600 kilometers of waterways, many recently improved, ready to explore Belgium at a slower pace.
How To see Belgium from the water
There are all kinds of different opportunities to take to the water in Belgium. Within the country you can
- take a river cruise by barge, sleeping overnight on board
- take any number of commercial river trips lasting from a day to an hour or less
- hire a boat by the week, day or hour
- take to the water under your own power by kayak
River or canal level is a wonderful way to see Belgium. It has three beautiful benefits. Firstly it’s slow travel, enabling you to really enjoy what you are seeing. Secondly it give a new perspective, allowing you to see things from a very different angle. Thirdly, it can take you to places you wouldn’t otherwise see, but are accessible from the water.
Traveling by canal boat on the Ghent-Ostend canal from Nieuwpoort
The town of Nieuwpoort is a great place to pick up a canal boat for hire. It’s also a lovely destination in its own right, with a sea market bringing fresh caught catch, and a lot of fish restaurants. There is a market in Old Town every Thursday afternoon.
From Nieuwpoort you can travel to Ypres and nearby Passendale. Heading east, you can also join the Ghent-Ostend Canal, traveling inland to Bruges and Ghent through flat and serene countryside. There is a connection here to the waterway from Zeebrugge, bringing large barges in from the coast.
A weekend hire from Nieuwpoort will take you as far as Bruges in 12 hours of navigation and 15 locks. In a week, you could take a trip as far as Deinze, which will need 42 hours of navigation and just 5 locks on the 200km round trip. Be aware that you don’t need a licence to hire a boat, and marina staff will assist you until you know your way around the craft. You can find more details on hiring a canal boat sleeping between 2-12 here.
Bruges from the water
The Ghent-Ostend Canal circles the city to the east of Bruges. The city, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, prospered until the sixteenth century when the river silted up. Bruges is now a popular visitor destination and has copious charm and history. It’s also a great destination at any time of year, from the lazy days of summer to the atmospheric Christmas markets. Head to the top of the medieval bell tower for a view over the city of red roofs and ancient spires.
To take to the water in Bruges, you can join a half hour trip at any of the five landing stages, giving you the opportunity to see the city from a new perspective. Trips run daily from March to November between 1000-1800 hours with the last departure at 1730. Check out the local visitor website for more details.
Ghent From The Water
There are many opportunities to get on the water in Ghent. Year round, you can pick up short boat trips around the medieval centre. A water taxi operates at the weekends, and you can hop on and off at many points throughout the city. Most tours start on the Graslei, described as the prettiest quay in Europe and full of merchant history and guildhouses.
If you’d like to pack more in to the time available, you can also hire a speedboat with captain for up to eight people on a 2-4 hour trip. For a smaller craft, and a slower experience, River Jam offers the opportunity to hire an inflatable boat which takes up to three people on a three hour trip. In summer, you can take a kayak out for a 5 hour paddle around the beautiful centre; there’s also an evening version by torchlight which must be spectacular.
We’ve also enjoyed (more than once) a relaxed cruise along the River Leie to the artists’ village of Sint-Martens-Latem. The boat is always full of groups of family and friends enjoying the trip over plates of cheese and stoverij, topped off with Belgian beer. The amount of waterfowl is stunning; I once thought I’d spotted a statue of a heron on the outskirts of Ghent, only to have him flap his wings lazily as we passed. Sint-Martens itself is full of galleries and sculpture, and you can see a lot of sculpture in gardens as you wind your way to the village.
Antwerp from the water
Antwerp is an important port for Belgium. In fact its river access is so deep that it’s a base for container traffic and also accommodates cruise ships which can dock right in the city. There are short river trips available in Antwerp, which show you the sights from the Scheldt. But as importantly, you’ll see microcosms of Belgian life played out onboard as you go: groups of friends playing cards and sharing jokes, totally ignoring bad weather but just happy to be on the water. You can also totally fulfill your desire to ship spot, as you’ll see all kinds of vessels plying their trades from Antwerp’s docks.
Dinant and Namur from the water
This beautiful town on the River Meuse and River Lesse has a craggy set of cliffs overlooking the river. There are plenty of cruise boats, kayaks and canoes from which to explore the town. Le Sax, the saxophone being a key symbol of the town, can take up to 250 passengers exploring the wilder parts of the Meuse.
There are more cruises available from Namur. You can also take your berth on a houseboat just metres from the Citadelle.
Explore more of Brilliant Belgium
If we’ve tempted you to explore further, you’ll find us:
- In Brussels, checking out Grand Place
- trying to understand what makes Belgians tick in Brussels
- Exploring the art nouveau commune of Saint-Gilles
- Spending a day investigating what Leuven has to offer
- taking the Coastal Tram or Kusttram to see the full span of the Belgian coast
- and in Antwerp for the Kerstmarkt
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