Belgium is mostly known for its food and drinks. Visitors to the country want to try our chocolate, waffles, fries and beer. What most of them don’t know is that we also have a very diverse museum landscape. There are museums dedicated to art, architecture, science, history and much more. I’ve tried to capture a bit of that diversity in the following list with ten museums in Belgium to visit.
1. Musée Magritte Museum
The Magritte Museum is located in the center of Brussels. With over 200 pieces it has the largest collections of works by the Brussels surrealist René Magritte. In the museum you’ll find drawings, paintings, sculptures, photographs, films and more. The exhibition consists of three parts that are each dedicated to specific periods in Magritte’s artistic career.
Musee Magritte Museum (image courtesy of J. Glarner).
2. The Museum by the Stream (MAS)
The Museum by the Stream (Museum Aan de Stroom – MAS) is Antwerp’s newest and largest museum. It got its name from its location by the river in the north of the city.
The concept of the MAS is quite unique. Firstly, there’s the building with the panoramic rooftop. Although you have to pay to get in the museum part of the MAS, the rooftop is freely accessible for everyone. You can just enter the building and take the staircases (or elevator) up. One floor below the rooftop there’s the top restaurant ‘t Zilte and at the ground floor you’ll find the museum cafe. Most important, of course, is the museum itself.
The museum consists of a permanent exhibition covering four floors, a temporary exhibition on another floor and a Visible Storage on yet another floor. Both the temporary exhibition and the permanent collection focus on the connection between Antwerp and the world. You’ll learn about the history of the city, the importance of the harbor, powerful figures and cultural differences within the city of Antwerp.
The Visible Storage is exactly what it says: a part of the museum’s collection that is in storage behind a transparent wall, thus giving visitors a look behind the scenes.
The Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art (Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst – S.M.A.K.) was founded in 1975. It’s located at the edge of the city of Ghent in what used to be a casino and has a collection of over 2,000 contemporary pieces by international artists. Some important names are Panamarenko and Andy Warhol. If you’re into Pop Art, Minimal Art and the Cobra movement this is the museum to visit.
4. Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences
The Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (Koninklijk Belgisch Instituut voor Natuurwetenschappen) in Brussels is known among Belgian kids mostly as “The Dinosaur Museum”. Why? Because what everyone remembers most from their visit is the Dinosaur Gallery, the largest dinosaur exhibition in Europe. Yes, that means you’ll see entire dinosaur skeletons. The museum also has exhibitions on evolution, biodiversity, minerals, mosasaurs (giant swimming lizards!) and much more.
5. Euro Space Center
The Euro Space Center in Libin is an interactive museum where adults and children alike can learn about space and the discovery of it. There’s a replica of the Space Shuttle, a planetarium and a moonwalk simulator, among other things. You can visit for just one day or spend a thematic weekend there as a family. Besides that, the Euro Space Center also organizes summer camps for children.
6. Gallo-Roman Museum
Every kid that goes to school in Belgium will visit the Gallo-Roman Museum (Gallo-Romeins Museum) in Tongeren at least once. It’s a typical destination for a school trip, and with reason. The Gallo-Roman Museum focuses on the history of men from the Neanderthalers until the early Middle Ages. The permanent exhibition is built around the life of men in the Belgian province of Limburg from the Prehistory until the end of the Roman era, while temporary exhibitions highlight shorter periods in time or certain themes, like the power of warriors versus the power of religion throughout the ages.
7. Dossin Casern
The Dossin Casern (Kazerne Dossin) in Mechelen used to be an army base. It was taken by the Germans during World War II and turned into a detention and deportation camp. Between August 4, 1942 and July 31, 1944 over 25,000 Jews and Roma were taken from the Dossin Casern to Auschwitz-Birkenau. That means that over half of the Belgian Jews killed during the Holocaust passed through Mechelen.
Today, the Dossin Casern tells this gruesome story in chronological order, with photos, official documents, interviews and multimedia. It also looks beyond the Belgian horror to look at the bigger themes of Mass, Fear and Death not only then and there, but also now and in other places around the world.
8. Museum of Music Instruments
With more than 7,000 instruments in its collection and about 1,500 of those on display, the Museum of Music Instruments (Muziekinstrumentenmuseum MIM) is internationally renowned. It is housed in a beautiful Art Nouveau building on the Place Royale in Brussels and displays instruments from around the world. Thanks to the audio guide you don’t only see, but also hear these different instruments.
Extra tip: have lunch at the museum’s restaurant on the top floor. It has an amazing view over Brussels.
9. Horta Museum
Fans of Art Nouveau should not only visit the aforementioned MIM, but also the Horta Museum. This museum is located in the house that the architect Victor Horta built for himself, to work and live in. It is one of three houses by Horta that is on the Unesco World Heritage list. Be sure to check the opening times if you want to visit, because at the Horta Museum only opens in the afternoon and only allows 45 people in at once. The place is pretty small, but a must for fans of the Art Nouveau building style.
10. In Flanders Fields
The In Flanders Fields museum in Ypres is dedicated to telling the story of World War I in the Belgian region of West-Flanders, as well as its impact on the present. The historical and military narration of the facts is complemented by authentic documents and objects as well as the personal stories of soldiers, artists and “ordinary people”. Lastly, the In Flanders Fields museum also provides information to visit the city of Ypres and the surrounding battlefields of the Westhoek.
So, that was quite the list, wasn’t it? These museums in Belgium are my favourites! There were two other museums that I would have loved to put on it, but didn’t since they are closed for a couple of years for renovation. If you would happen to read this post in 2017 though, I would highly recommend you to visit the completely renewed Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Antwerp and the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren. Both will reopen that year.