Travel: Go behind the scenes of Belgium with an original sightseeing tour

A beer bus, a depressing urban safari and two hours of lies – a handful of guided tours let you explore the country from an often surreal perspective. This is Belgium, after all.

Tell me lies

In the age of misinformation, here is a tour that rises to the challenge. This completely made up two-hour guided walk of the Belgian capital promises to take you to all the usual spots, including the Manneken Pis and the Grande Place, and give you not a single accurate fact about them. Conceived by Kamiel De Bruyne, a 24-year-old TV producer behind Sorry voor alles, the immensely popular hidden camera show that puts unsuspecting Flemings in bizarre situations, Ceci n’est pas Bruxelles is a self-proclaimed “historical fabrications galore” that shows you a version of Brussels that does not exist. Chocolate, beer and a waffle are included. Just don’t believe a word De Bruyne tells you. Seriously. €17/person

Urban Safari

Dubbed the “ugliest city in the world” by the readers of Volkskrant, Charleroi was once ruled by coal mines and steelworks, but today the industry has all but died down. Join local artist Nicolas Buissart on a five-hour exploration of abandoned metro stations, defunct plants and the most depressing street in Belgium, with stops by the house of the serial killer Marc Dutroux and the canal where Rene Magritte’s mother committed suicide. With the focus on the bizarre and the disturbing, Buissart is trying to put his hometown back on the tourist map, and the guided tour has attracted visitors from all over Europe. A word of warning: Buissart drives you around in his van, but the dilapidated car has no seatbelts, let alone seats. €25/person

The runaround

The Brussels’ borough doesn’t get the best press these days, but there is more to it than meets the eye. Explore a different side of Molenbeek while getting in shape, with a jog organised by the non-profit organisation City Runs. Each run is about 11 to 13km long, but inexperienced joggers are welcome as well. The guide makes frequent stops to tell you about the different aspects of Molenbeek’s history, including its castle, city gardens and the maritime district. You’ll also learn about the changes taking place in this vibrant, up-and-coming neighbourhood today. Organised daily, but be sure to reserve a spot at least 48 hours in advance. €24/person

Not for the squeamish

Rumour has it that pita shops in Brussels used to sell hamburgers made of mealworms. Forget the run-off-the-mill walks around the historic centre, this guided tour is all about the lesser known mysteries and legends that form the modern folklore of the Belgian capital. Your guide, Aurore Van de Winkel, takes you through the darker narratives of the city – from the frightening and disgusting to the funny and unexpected – and explains how and why these legends are formed. Get to know Brussels you won’t find in a guidebook. Not recommended for the squeamish and children under 12. €12/person

Beer on board

What better way to indulge yourself in Belgian beer than doing so a glass at a time on board a vintage bus from the 1960s? The journey takes about three hours, with visits to the city centre, Anderlecht, Schaerbeek and the EU quarter. At each stop, you get to try a beer from a local microbrewery, while the guide tells you about the neighbourhood’s history. The project was started last year by two local brothers, Ben and Vincent Miller, and the first batch of tours sold out in an instant. €45/person (€40 in a group)

On the waterfront

Bruges may be the Venice of the North, but Brussels has a waterway of its own. Hoping to attract more tourists and locals to the city’s waterside, a group of enthusiasts behind Brussels by Water has teamed up with a local river tour operator to offer guided cruises up and down the Senne Canal. During the two-hour ride, you’ll get to see how the underused banks are being transformed into a sprawling mix of skyscrapers, yacht clubs, housing projects and even cafes and bars. In the evening, take the cruise in the direction of Vilvoorde, and relax on deck with an aperitif and some snacks, as the tour guide tells you about the history of the area around you. Fancy a longer ride? The tour operator, River Tours, organises cruises between Antwerp and Brussels that begin with a guided walk of either city. Cost varies according to tour

The walls can talk

With street art becoming an increasingly accepted form of art, Antwerp’s walls have become a living gallery and there is only one person who knows all about it. Tim Marschang, who goes by the name Tim Streetantwerpenaar, started the series of guided walks last year to showcase the changing face of his city. The two-hour crawl begins at Berchem station, where a local artist used nearly 800 square metres of wall as his personal canvas, and ends in the industrial Krugerstraat, the site of an annual festival that brings together street artists from all over the world. Learn what names to keep an eye on and why street art should never be confused with graffiti. A man of many talents, Marschang has also created an online map that charts the most interesting sights and a smartphone app, should you choose to go it alone. €12/person

Dark days

Mechelen is praised for its openness to migrants – two years ago it even asked the federal government to send more refugees its way – but there were times when the city experienced darker days. A solemn statute in the middle of the Ontvoerings Square, just north of the city centre, honours the thousands of forced labourers who were taken to Germany during the First World War. The nearby Kazerne Dossin Memorial research centre has been doing commendable work documenting the city’s 25,000 Holocaust victims; an award-winning museum on the persecution of Jews and Roma in Belgium opened on the site in 2012. The guided walk explores these and many other episodes in Mechelen’s history, and helps put the city’s astonishing social transformation into context. €75/group

This article was first published in The Bulletin Summer 2017

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