Despite its modest size, Belgium has some fantastic UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Aside from well-known tourist destinations like Bruges and La Grand Place in Brussels, there’s also some fascinating Belgian UNESCO sites that are well off the tourist trail. One of our favourites was definitely the Flemish Béguinages, a collection of thirteen separate complexes in various locations around Flanders, in northern Belgium. Let’s have a closer look!
This is a guest post by Joel, the author of World Heritage Journey. Joel will be contributing to a series of posts dedicated to less popular UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Europe. I am very happy, he agreed to share his amazing experience and knowledge with us. All tours and places to stay, however, are recommended by me.
DISCLOSURE: This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase via one of those links, I will earn a commission at no extra cost for you.
What is a béguinage?
Before we dive in and look at our favourite béguinages, let’s take a step back and consider exactly what a béguinage is. Put simply, a béguinage is similar to a convent. It’s a closed, sometimes secluded religious community for unmarried women, where they lived and worked as a group. However, it’s important to note that unlike a convent, the occupants (known as beguines) were not nuns. Although their lives were dedicated to God and religious work, beguines didn’t take religious vows, they didn’t collect alms, and were free to leave the béguinage if they pleased.
Read more: Fascinated about girl power in the Middle Ages? Read here about the Imperial Abbey of Thorn in the Netherlands.
Béguinages were first developed as small communities during the Middle Ages in western Europe. But in the 13th century, larger communities developed in what’s now Belgium, the Netherlands, and northern France. These new, larger “court” béguinages usually had several boarding houses for the beguines, multiple churches and chapels, courtyards, gardens, farms, and production buildings too, like bakeries and breweries.
Fun fact: There are 12 Flemish béguinages included on the official UNESCO World Heritages sites list. A complete list of all sites, you can find on the map below and at the end of the post. The béguinages are inscribed in 1998.
So with that in mind, let’s check out some of the best Flemish béguinages!
Fun fact: All béguinages are located in Flanders, hence the name Flemish béguinages. The Flemish region (Flanders) together with the Walloon Region (Wallonia) and Brussels Capital Region constitute the Kingdom of Belgium. Sometimes you will see ‘béguinage‘ written as ‘begijnhof‘, which is the Flemish/Dutch variant of the word.
Groot Begijnhof, Leuven
Probably our favourite béguinage was the Grand Béguinage (known in Flemish as Groot Begijnhof), located in the city of Leuven. It’s surprisingly large, with around 100 neat brick houses either side of a river. The houses and buildings are all really well preserved, and walking around the area on a nice sunny day is just a fantastic experience. It’s hard to believe, but the béguinage was founded in the 13th century and has survived the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, and both World Wars. It was in use right through until the 1970s, when it was sold to the University of Leuven and converted into housing for both students and academics.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Leuven béguinage is how it’s essentially designed as a small town. There are nice rows of streets, canals, courtyards, squares, and several gardens too. And of course, the architecture is splendid, with neat brick houses and high gabled roofs, fairly typical of the medieval Belgian style.
Know before you go
Leuven is located about 30 kilometres east of Brussels, and easily accessible via train, bus, or car. The Grand Béguinage is a public area of the city, so you can freely wander around at no cost. However, it’s worth remembering that it’s primarily a residential area these days for students, so be sure to respect the locals’ privacy!
Where to stay in Leuven:
Leuven is absolutely adorable and worth spending a long weekend there. Click here to check the available hotels in Leuven.
Possibly the most commonly-visited of all the Flemish Béguinages is the one located in Bruges, though many visitors are likely unaware they’re visiting one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Belgium! Located just on the southern edge of Bruges, the béguinage here is quite different to the Grand Béguinage in Leuven. Where in Leuven it’s like visiting a small city, the Bruges béguinage is much more like a compound. Fortified with a high wall on three sides and a canal on the fourth, the entire complex is arranged around a beautiful central garden with green lawns and shady trees.
And it’s quite visually distinct as well. All of the houses are whitewashed and with large windows, so they have a really different appearance to the tall brick houses of Leuven. It’s a lovely, relaxing and peaceful spot, and a great little oasis from the tourist bustle of Bruges. There are even signs around the courtyard asking people to respect the peace and quiet, which is quite a nice touch!
Know before you go
Bruges is located north-west of Brussels, and has frequent train connections from most parts of Belgium. Bruges is one of the top attractions in Belgium, so make sure it’s at the top of your list! As with Leuven, the béguinage is free to enter and explore, just remember to keep your voice quiet and respectful. And don’t forget to check out the impossibly picturesque Sashuis, which sits out over the canal adjacent to the béguinage.
Where to stay in Bruges: Bruges is the third most popular tourist destination in Belgium after Brussels and Antwerp. Spending the weekend or a midweek in romantic Bruges is a must. Check here for the best places to stay in Bruges.
Béguinage of Sint-Amandsberg, Ghent
The city of Ghent is actually home to two of the World Heritage Flemish Béguinages: the Petit Béguinage de Gent, or Small Béguinage, and the Béguinage of Sint-Amandsberg. Although both are interesting and attractive in their own ways, it’s the Béguinage of Sint-Amandsberg that really stands out here. It’s located in the east of the city, quite a distance from the centre. What’s fascinating is that unlike other béguinages we’ve seen elsewhere, which were built in the Middle Ages, the current béguinage of Sint-Amandsberg was constructed in the 1870s.
It was originally located in the centre of Ghent, but as the city expanded the community was gradually pushed out of its space, and forced to relocate to new premises. The buildings here are noticeably newer and in better condition than the béguinages in Bruges and Leuven, and in a slightly more modern architectural style as well. Plus, there’s a surprisingly large Gothic-style church which sits at the centre of the complex, surrounded by parklands and dominating the area.
Know before you go
Ghent is located about halfway between Bruges and Brussels, and easily reachable via train. The béguinage of Sint-Amandsberg is located a little out of town, and requires an extra bus trip to reach. If you’re interested in also visiting the Petit Béguinage, it’s a short walk from the centre of town. Both béguinages are free to visit, though as always be sure to stay quiet, polite and respectful!
Where to stay in Ghent: Ghent is so much worth visiting and spending a few days there, especially in the summer. Check here for the best hotels in Ghent.
Overall, the Flemish Béguinages are one of the best things to see in Belgium. It’s a really interesting little slice of history, to learn about how women could join and leave of their own volition without being subject to strict religious orders. And of course, the architecture is fantastic as well. Unlike some UNESCO World Heritage Sites, where visiting as many locations as possible really helps your understanding, visiting the just the highlights here gives you a great perspective on why they’re important. Definitely a fascinating spot, and one of our favourite UNESCO sites in Belgium.
Complete List of the Flemish Béguinages in Belgium
- Begijnhof Hoogstraten || Béguinage de Hoogstraten
- Begijnhof Lier || Béguinage de Lierre
- Groot Begijnhof Mechelen || Grand Béguinage de Malines
- Begijnhof Turnhout || Béguinage de Turnhout
- Sint-Catharinabegijnhof in Tongeren || Béguinage de Tongres
- Sint-Alexiusbegijnhof Dendermonde || Béguinage Saint-Alexis de Termonde
- Klein Begijnhof Gent || Petit Béguinage de Gand
- Groot Begijnhof Sint-Amandsberg Gent || Le Grand Béguinage de Gand (Mont-Saint-Amand)
- Begijnhof Diest || Béguinage de Diest
- Groot Begijnhof Leuven || Grand Béguinage Louvain
- Prinselijk Begijnhof Ten Wijngaerde in Brugge || Béguinage de Bruges
- Begijnhof Kortrijk || Béguinage de Courtrai
Recommended tours to see the famous béguinages in Belgium
If you are staying in Brussels, the best way to see some of the béguinages is to take a day trip. You can rent a car a drive along or book an organized tour, which is the better option as you won’t need to take care of anything. Just show up at the pick-up point and enjoy the rest of the day. Here are some recommended day trips to Bruges, Ghent or Leuven from Brussels to see the béguinages:
When you are already in the cities, you can take a guided tour to see all the highlights. Guided tours are always a good idea, as you will not only learn about the historical significance of the attractions, but will also hear lots of local stories and urban legends about the places. Here’s a selection of guided city tours: