The Mosan valley (not to be confused with the nearby Mosel valley) is a rugged region that runs the length of the Meuse/Maas River. With a rich and ancient history, it is known for its dense forests, remote castles and resplendent palaces. Due to its status as the old industrial heartland of Belgium, it has thus far escaped the attention of tourism industry. Certainly, in some parts, especially around the steelworks and mines of Liege, this is deserved. However, the dense forests of the Ardennes and the ancient towers of its cities and towns await the more adventurous explorer.
3. Liège and the Splendor of Belgium
Today Liege is an industrial city and along with the nearby Rhineland and Saarland remains at the heart of European Steel and Arms production. This connection to the Rhineland is more than just a coincidence. Unlike the rest of Belgium, Liege was and independent state and part of the Holy Roman Empire. Charlemagne built his capital in Aachen, right next door, and for centuries Liege spanned both the French and German speaking worlds. The old-town of Liege is filled with symbols of both its Imperial ambitions and Walloon heritage.
The old-town of Liege suffered greatly from post-war urban renewal, so it will never be a premier tourist destination. However, it retains so much of its local identity, that it might be one of the most charming destinations in Belgium. From its local cuisine specializing in meatballs and waffles to its local traditions celebrating Walloon culture, there is a great deal more to life in Liege than in Bruges.
Of course, there is still an old-town to visit, and it includes some of the most beautiful Gothic cathedrals in Europe and the one of the richest collections of early Romanesque as well. There is still the beautiful market square with beer and french fries and the winding alleys of the 18th century town, with glimpses into its medieval past.
Travel Note: You will likely arrive at the Liège-Guillemins station. It is best if you do not exit the station here, since it will be a very long walk to the old town. Transfer instead to the Liège-Saint-Lambert station. It is covered by your train ticket to Liège and will drop you off directly in the old-town.
If you want to learn more checkout my overview of Liege:
Liege is an underappreciated travel destination in a country full of many world-class places to visit. Combining the traditions of several different cultures, it offers a unique local culture, boasting unique foods, architecture, and its own dialect. Though it suffered from the deindustrialization of the 20th century, it retains most of its old-world charm.
2. Medieval Maastricht
Higher up on this list is the city of Maastricht, with its almost perfectly preserved old-town and rich medieval heritage. In contrast to Liege, Maastrict is a village, but considering the level of historical preservation, the Maastrict has a significantly larger old-town. Of all the cities in the valley, here you will find all of the greatest architectural monuments from the 10th-15th centuries. From the dark and ancient halls of St. Servaas, with its spectacular high Romanesque choir, to the resplendent and light-filled gothic hall of St. Jan, the entire breadth of Medieval design is here.
Travel Note: Getting to Maastrict from outside of the Netherlands can be difficult. There are no direct trains from the German side. From Aachen, there is a direct bus, and from Düsseldorf you can take a train to Venlo, and transfer there. From Liège there is normally a regional train every one to two hours. Of course, there are direct trains from Amsterdam and Utrecht.
Maastricht is the most tourist-friendly destination on this list. If you aren’t careful about when you visit, you might find the city completely overrun. This represents the main drawback to Maastricht. Unlike in Liege with its local cuisine and big-city amenities, in Maastricht you will find everything thoroughly explored in just a few hours. This can be remedied with some day trips nearby places such as Roermond or Aachen. For some though, a few hours is enough.
1. The Fortress City of Namur
Namur may feel like an odd contender for the top spot, given that it lacks the both the large old-town of Maastricht and the cultural flair of Liege. Instead it offers a slightly reduced combination of both, representing in my opinion at least, something of a synthesis of both. Rich in both the beer, language and traditions of Wallonia, Namur nevertheless lacks the post-industrial wastelands surrounding Liege and offers one of the beautiful cityscapes in Beligium.
The city is best known as the gateway to the Ardennes, and indeed if exploring the dense and expansive forests of the region is your goal, then Namur is already the best place to stay. On top of that though, it has a rich Baroque old-town with some of the most rich collections of art and architecture in Belgium. The church of St. Loup is often described as the most beautiful baroque monument in the country. The star fortress of Namur owns its existence to the legendary engineer Vauban and has a long and storied history of its own. The old-town holds its own with an labyrinth of passages and plazas waiting for you to discover them.
Travel Note: Namur is probably the best place to stay if you want to travel around the region. Here you can easily reach all of the main destinations, except for those in the Netherlands and Germany. In contrast to Liege, Namur will feel better suited for Tourists, but not quite like Maastricht, which can feel like a theme park.
Here are some destinations that might make your list, but just barely missed out on mine.
Dinant is perhaps the most iconic destination in the Mosan Valley. With the fortress perched high above the city, its hard to not to appreciate the drama. While its worth a day-trip from Namur, there is in reality very little to do once you have absorbed Dinant’s dramatic cityscape. The nearby Palaces of Freyr and Veves is also a spectacular destination in its own right, but Dinant itself will only take a couple of hours to explore entirely. Noteworthy though is the Notre Dame Church of Dinant, which is a good example of early Gothic architecture on the Maas. It shows strong French influence of the paradigm first espoused by St. Denis in Paris.
Huy is easily overlooked, and hidden from view on the train between Namur and Liege. In the Middle-Ages it was a major city and a center of Romanesque Art, especially gold-working. During the wars of Charles the Bold the city was destroyed, recovery was slow and the city suffered greatly again in the urban renewal of the 20th century. Today though, it has a charming market square, a massive cliff-side fortress and spectacular cathedral with the richest treasury in the Mosan Valley.