So the wife and I are taking a two week vacation in May to Amsterdam, Bruges and Upper Middle Rhine Valley in Germany. We’re off to a good start on the planning, but I’m looking for some advice from locals and those who traveled there before. In particular, I’m looking for great things to visit that are not top tourist attractions, i.e. stuff that is off the beaten path.
We love museums and historic buildings, castles and ruins, UNESCO world heritage sites, beautiful scenery, and local culture. We do not love hordes of tourists, though we will brave that for spectacular stuff that can’t be missed (e.g. the Duomo in Florence).
An example of something that we absolutely loved from a previous vacation many years ago is Kells Priory near Kilkenny, Ireland. It’s a big ol’ ruined abbey in the middle of nowhere. We barely found it, there was nobody there but some sheep, and we got to wander around, explore the ruins, take photos, spend as long as we wanted and we literally did not see a single other person. I’m aware that such experiences are rare, but that’s an example for context.
One thing we did in Bruges that really stands out is we rented bikes one day and rode on bike paths along canals through the countryside outside of town. It’s dead flat, since you’re next to a canal, so very easy, and you can ride to several small towns/villages, stop, and wander around. That was definitely one of my favorite days in Belgium.
What I’m going to recommend is very much a tourist attraction, but a town that gets fewer tourists than the rest of the area: Liège. Museums up the wazoo. The tours from the Tourist office are available only in French but if your French is even half-decent they’re very interesting; even if you don’t understand a word of French (as was the case for several of the people in my group) you will see nooks that you’re likely to miss just walking from one museum or monument to the next. Oh, and btw, Georges Simenon was from here: there’s quite a few things called “Simenon”, Simenon routes… Local boy Delacroix made a lot of pretty things in stone, including several fountains and a sculpture in the Cathedral. Cathedral which used to be one of the seven (!) collegiates: if you like fancy churches, boy do they have fancy churches. Speaking of the cathedral, there’s some libraries in that area which are absolutely dangerous, specially if you’re fond of bande désinée. And if you’re driving: the first few weeks I lived here, as soon as people found out I was a new arrival they’d ask if I knew where the Galler factory shop is. I’m driving back home next month and have about 20kg worth of chocolate for the family already in my car.
Belgium is a little undiscovered gem. Don’t miss Ghent - it’s not far from Bruges, like Bruges in many ways, but small, more studenty, less touristy and much livelier. You can eat in Amadeus in Plotersgracht - great fun, have the Waterzooi (originates in Ghent, half soup, half stew, delicious).
Namur is a nice town, has a colossal market (check days) and there are few things in life better than sitting in a bar in the citadel, having a lunchtime Kriek (Lindemans, of course) and gazing along the Meuse valley.
Likewise, Oudenaarde has a huge market, in a very nice town square.
Plus I liked Oostende - not much to it but a nice port town.
Things you have to look out for - the canal system is amazing. They have gigantic canal lifts - really, they close off a bit of a canal and whiz it off up a hill, either vertically or on a sort of ski slope. If memory serves there is a staircase of lifts (no longer used) which is a world heritage site.
One thing I would miss unless you’re determined - Waterloo is a big manmade hill in the middle of nowhere. Why?
Spa which is, etymologically, the mother of all spa towns. It’s quaint and touristy but not overwhelmingly so. While there, make sure to sample some of the water from one of these. It has a very distinctive taste.
While in the region, just hop to Franchimont Castle. It won’t be as isolated as the Kells Priory but it’s worth seeing. I’ve been there more times than I can remember.
I know you’re looking for stuff off the beaten path but: when in Amsterdam, get yourself one of the I Amsterdam City Cards, which will not only get you access to most trams and buses and into a long list of museums (and a free canal boat ride); it will also let you bypass the ridiculously long queue into the Van Gogh Museum. You can get them for 24, 48, 72 or 96 hours and the time starts at the point you first use it. We found it well worth the cost. Amsterdam also has quite a fun science museum which is central but slightly off the usual tourist route, if you’re into that kind of thing.
Depending on when you’re there, on Sunday 13 May in Ypres there will be the annual Kattenstoet, a festival where toy cats are ritually thrown off a tall tower to celebrate a medieval event where actual cats were actually thrown off a tall tower. No, I’m not making this up. But it looks like a lot of fun - parades and performances and parties galore, although obviously if you’re looking to avoid crowds this will not be ideal.
If you’ve a rental car, I’d recommend (as does Rick Steves, who I got the idea from) visiting the castle, Burg Eltz. It’s a legit fortification/noble’s house, albeit one at the bottom of a bowl (I guess large artillery wasn’t in vogue at the time.) Much smaller than you’d think from something like Game of Thrones, and a neat little tour.
The autobahn is a kick in the ass if you’ve never driven it before. Stay right.
The middle Rhine towns are just so damned pretty. It was great having drinks on the patio at Schloss Rheinfels and watching the Rhine do its thing. Gorgeous.
If you like Riesling Wine, Toni Jost in Bacharach is a decent purveyor. There are better ones, but you’ll have to go into the Mosel or upstream a bit into the Rheingau for them. If you’re doing that, Kloster Eberbach is great for the history, and I liked the State Wine Cellars at Assmannshausen, but I’m a wine dork. There’s a lot of Roman history in the vineyards, coupled with a lot of Christian imagery—small scultpures of stations of the Cross.
If you’re really a wine geek, get your concierge (or you, if you speak German) to set up an appointment to taste at one of the better Weinguts in either the Mosel or Rhine. It was kinda’ like having Bob Mondavi show you around his spread in Napa, just a different feel from the normal winetasting experience. Stuart Pigott’s book on German Wine is a great resource for that sort of thing.
Second on the Ghent. Don’t miss the Ghent Alterpiece. My relativeslive in a Small town south of Brussels, St.Truiden, it has a nice market, monestary and a statue the train station my uncle created…the Bink.