Travel guide to Wallonia, Belgium

Boasting an astonishment of historic buildings, natural splendour and local culture, the small southern Belgian region will leave a big impact on visitors

7 mins

Smaller than Wales, Belgium’s southern, mainly French-speaking region may be compact but packs a diverse punch. Wallonia is a jewel of a destination that sparkles with centuries of history, architectural splendour, glorious nature, fascinating culture, wonderful gastronomy and beautiful cities, towns and villages.

This part of Europe has been fought over time and again, and reminders of key battles from the Napoleonic era to the Second World War can be found across the region – including where Napoleon finally met his Waterloo. Belgium also has the highest density of castles in the world and Wallonia alone boasts hundreds, from towering medieval fortresses to graceful chateaux. 

The Meuse flows in front of the 13th-century Collegiate Church of Our Lady, with the Citadel of Dinant, built in 1815 to fortify the original 1051 site (Alamy)

The Meuse flows in front of the 13th-century Collegiate Church of Our Lady, with the Citadel of Dinant, built in 1815 to fortify the original 1051 site (Alamy)

Driving from Wallonia’s western border with France to the German-speaking eastern cantons takes no more three hours. Stop off and spend time in some of the hamlets that comprise Les Plus Beaux Villages de Wallonie, a collection of 30 of the region’s villages noted for their rural heritage. Try to plan a trip around one of the numerous historic cultural events that dot the calendar across Wallonia. Notable ones include Mons’ Doudou festival (Trinity Sunday), the Venetian Costume Festival in the Jardins d’Annevoie (May), the Soup Festival in Roche-en-Ardenne (Sept), the festival of giants in Ath (Aug) and the costumed carnivals and parades of Binche and Stavelot.

Nature abounds in Wallonia, underlined by the fact that it possesses 80% of Belgium’s forests, with the hilly Ardennes its crowning glory. Hike or get on your bike to explore ancient woodland and scenic rivers and lakes, and marvel at waterfalls and stalactite-filled caves. But Belgium was also once the most industrialised country after Britain, built around coalmining. Some of that heritage remains, with four former coalmines offering tours.

No visit would be complete without enjoying the region’s cuisine in venues from simple country inns and cosy back-street restaurants to Michelin-starred venues. Be sure to try hand-crafted chocolates – there are chocolatiers and shops across all five provinces of Wallonia and you can take factory tours or participate in workshops – and those celebrated beers. You will return home sated and wowed by the little region with the huge personality.

A view of the five Romanesque towers of the 12th century, UNESCO-listed Notre-Dame Cathedral at Tournai (Alamy)

A view of the five Romanesque towers of the 12th century, UNESCO-listed Notre-Dame Cathedral at Tournai (Alamy)

Durbuy boasts the world’s largest topiary garden (WBT-Dominik Ketz)

Durbuy boasts the world’s largest topiary garden (WBT-Dominik Ketz)

How to spend five days in Wallonia

Day 1

Just 90 minutes from Calais, start your Wallonia tour in Tournai. See one of Belgium’s oldest towns, once part of England after being captured by Henry VIII, and its UNESCO-listed Notre-Dame Cathedral from atop the adjacent belfry. At Leuze-en-Hainault, the Mahymobiles museum’s extensive car collection captivates petrolheads. Stop in medieval Ath, known as ‘the City of Giants’ for its folklore festival, and finish in Mons, renowned for its cultural institutions as well as its monuments and events marking both World Wars.

Day 2

In Chimay, discover the history of Trappist beer and cheese at Espace Chimay museum then tour the regal Chateau du Chimay. Explore Hitler’s Bunker, the HQ for his France offensive, at Brûly-de-Pesche. Delightful Bouillon is dominated by its feudal castle while both Chassepierre and Torgny are among Wallonia’s prettiest villages. Overnight stop Dinant has its own imposing citadel while giant saxophones line a River Meuse bridge honouring the instrument’s inventor and Dinant’s famous son, Adolphe Sax.

Day 3

Rochefort is known for its artisanal cheeses and Trappist beer produced in the Notre-Dame de Saint-Remy. A guided tour of the vast underground caverns of the Caves of Han includes a sound and light show. Bastogne’s museums highlight its role in the Second World War‘s Battle of the Bulge. Savour the quaint charm of the Ardennes heartland in La Roche, with its 9th-century castle, and Durbuy, ’the smallest city in the world’ with the world’s largest topiary garden. End the day with a relaxing soak in elegant Spa, the town that gave its name to health and wellness centres.

Day 4

Get your motor running and head out to Spa’s Francorchamps motor-racing circuit, where races include the Formula One Belgian Grand Prix and there is a museum. After Stavelot Abbey and delightful Malmedy, visit the restored 14th century Reinhardstein Castle and climb the six-metre-high stone steps added to Signal de Botrange, Belgium’s highest point, in 1923 to take it up to 700 metres. In Liège, people-watch over coffee and a Liège waffle in a pavement cafe in Place du Marche and admire architectural wonders such as the Prince-Bishops’ Palace.

Day 5

Stop for a plate of frites in Huy, set on the River Meuse where the Belgian staple is believed to have originated. Grab some handmade pralines in Wavre before visiting Waterloo, where the Waterloo Memorial 1815 is on the site where Napoleon was defeated in 1815. In Waterloo itself, Wellington’s HQ is now the Wellington Museum. End the tour in Wallonia’s capital, Namur, with its picturesque old town and mighty citadel.

St George prepares to do battle with his fiery nemesis at the Ducasse de Mons celebrations, recognised by UNESCO as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanit (WBT - Anibal Trejo)

St George prepares to do battle with his fiery nemesis at the Ducasse de Mons celebrations, recognised by UNESCO as one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanit (WBT - Anibal Trejo)

Outdoor Wallonia

The Doudou Officially the Ducasse de Mons, this UNESCO-designated festival draws crowds over Trinity weekend. Highlights are a procession parading the relics of patron saint St Waudru, and St George slaying the dragon on horseback. 

Canal du Centre historic boat lifts Take a guided boat tour to visit the four, hydraulic boat lifts built over a century ago and still operating today in their original state. The UNESCO-listed lifts are powered entirely by water and raise and lower boats between the Meuse and Escaut rivers. 

Waterloo Memorial 1815 Four outdoor and indoor sites commemorate the Battle of Waterloo, including the 226-step Lion’s Mound (pictured left), which provides a bird’s-eye view of the battlefield. 

Liège Christmas Village Running from late November throughout December, Belgium’s oldest Christmas market (and one of the largest) has 200 stalls selling seasonal food, drink, souvenirs and handicrafts plus a Ferris wheel and sledging track.

Indoor Wallonia

Hergé Museum Located in Louvain-la-Neuve, 30 minutes from Brussels, it is a tribute to the creator of comic-book hero Tintin and features many original plates as well as documents and objects chronicling the cartoon character and Hergé’s other work. 

Stavelot Abbey The Abbey of the Prince-Bishops of Stavelot is one of Belgium’s oldest monastic foundations. Close to the Francorchamps racing circuit, it has its own collection of racing cars and motorbikes below vaulted ceilings as well as a museum detailing the Principality of Stavelot-Malmedy. 

Casino de Spa Enjoy a flutter, drinks or a meal in the world’s oldest casino, in the centre of Spa. Dating back to 1763, it’s been rebuilt several times and is now back to its original, opulent splendour. 

Chimay Experience Discover the history and making of Trappist beers and cheeses made in the nearby Abbaye Notre-Dame de Scourmont in an interactive exhibition. Finish with a beer tasting in the English-style Poteaupre Inn, where you can also enjoy gourmet dishes cooked with Chimay products.

Where to stay in Wallonia

Sleep inside a Trojan Horse at La Balade des Gnomes (La Balade Des Gnomes)

Sleep inside a Trojan Horse at La Balade des Gnomes (La Balade Des Gnomes)

Van der Valk Hotel Selys Liège, Liège
Oozing history and grandeur, this five-star stay occupies two former royal mansions, which partly date to the 15th century. Suites in the oldest section feature soaring ceilings and period 17th-18th century décor. Savour drinks in the vaulted bar or survey the city from its terrace in summer. Doubles from €95/£81pn. 

Radisson Blu Palace Hotel, Spa
This stylish hotel is located below the hilltop Les Thermes de Spa and guests can access Spa’s famous thermal springs directly via private funicular – even dressed in the bathrobe and slippers provided in each room. Doubles from €97/£82pn. 

La Balade des Gnomes, Heyd
Step into a dream world in this quirky little stop in the heart of the Ardennes near Durbuy. Utilising bio-organic architecture, its 11 rooms are all decorated and furnished with themes and include a Gaudí tribute, a troll forest, an Alsatian vineyard and a bi-level suite inside a giant Trojan Horse. Doubles from €130/£111pn. 

Wallonia has a number of cycle routes (WBT)

Wallonia has a number of cycle routes (WBT)

Top things to do in Wallonia

HIKE Wallonia is made for walking, whether short riverside and forest strolls or hiking the upland woods and moorland of the Ardennes’ Hautes Fagnes-Eifel Natural Park. Stretch your legs on the 160km Transardennaise from La Roche to Bouillon or the two-leg 290km Trappist Beer Trail linking the Trappist beer-producing abbeys of Chimay, Rochefort and Orval.

CYCLE Besides the extensive RAVeL network, Wallonia has a number of cycle routes linked by well-signposted intersections known locally as points-noeuds, allowing cyclists to create their own itineraries to match their capabilities or desired route.

EAT Regional specialities include: gaufre de Liege (Liege waffle); truite au bleu (poached trout, mainly found in the Ardennes); bouquettes (thick pancakes); flamiche (savoury tart using regional cheese, popular in Dinant); and la tarte au riz (rice tart, from around Verviers). 

DRINK Belgium once had more breweries than churches and Wallonia still has dozens, including three of only 13 Trappist monasteries in the world where beer is brewed. You can’t tour the monastery breweries but a number of other breweries offer tours. Waterloo beer is brewed at Mont Saint-Jean Farm, famously used as the
British hospital during the Battle of Waterloo.

A local's tip

“This area is located in the middle of the Ardennes, so there are many forest walks to discover. The first things to see are the Dolmens de Wéris, funerary monuments built between 2500 and 3000BC. Another must-see place is ‘the smallest city in the world’, Durbuy. You must also try our artisan-made products, like cheeses produced by local farmers or apple juice pressed by the villagers themselves. Our region has charm in every season, but if I had to choose my favourite, come in winter with the Christmas village in Durbuy and layers of snow that cover our forests.”

- Sanne Verstappen, executive assistant La Balade des Gnomes, Heyd

Essential travel information for Wallonia

Lion’s Mound at Waterloo (WBT - JP Remy)

Lion’s Mound at Waterloo (WBT - JP Remy)

Fresh snow covers the Hautes Fagnes-Eifel Natural Park (WBT - Denis Closon)

Fresh snow covers the Hautes Fagnes-Eifel Natural Park (WBT - Denis Closon)

International dialling code: +32

Currency: Euro (€)

Getting there: Eurostar trains serve Brussels from London, taking less than two hours. Express coach services connect Brussels and Liège with London. By car, take a ferry or Eurotunnel Le Shuttle to France for fast motorway links. Flights from UK airports go to Brussels Airport, just north of Wallonia, and Brussels South Charleroi Airport,
in Charleroi.

Getting around: Good roads and toll-free motorways make driving easy. Rail's the best alternative thanks to an extensive intercity and local network, Charleroi and Liège being key hubs. Buses operate in all towns and cities. Charleroi also has
a subway system. Bike hire is widely available.

RAVeL network: Ideal for cycling, walking and horse-riding, Wallonia’s 1,350km RAVeL network comprises 45 trails on flat sections of disused railway lines, old byways and canal towpaths.

Weather: Expect mild summers, cool winters and rain at any time of year.

Further info:

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