Spend the Holidays in a Castle
Who says there's no place like home for the holidays? Why not give yourself the royal treatment? Rent a room or apartment in one of these surprisingly economical real-life castles, and toast the season as though the whole Christmas feast is in your honor.
A 16TH-CENTURY SCOTTISH CASTLE ALL TO YOURSELF
Thirlestane Castle: Lauder, Scotland
History: Thirlestane was originally a 13th-century fort, but then one of Scotland's richest families, Clan Maitland, set to work rebuilding it as their home in the 1500s. The Duke of Lauderdale died in 1682, but apparently he wasn't very eager to abdicate the castle—his ghost is thought to still roam the corridors.
Price: From about $160 per night, celticcastles.com
What you get: Privacy in a bucolic setting. You'll be the only overnight guests in the castle, leaving you free to re-enact your favorite Game of Thrones episodes in peace after a few chalices of wine. The Lauderdale Suite is in the castle's south wing and comes equipped with a full kitchen, an original clawfoot bathtub, and parkland views. The "self-catering" option is the cheapest, meaning cooking your own meals, but you can book a personal cook or meal delivery for an extra fee. Take your daily constitutional into the woodlands through the formal rose garden, dine on the secluded picnic tables on the grounds, and enjoy exclusive use of the castle's courtyard.
GOURMET FOOD & GOLF IN TUSCANY
Castello at Castelfalfi: Tuscany, Italy
History: Once owned by the Medici family, this 800-year-old medieval village was abandoned in the 1960s but is now a swank resort.
Price: From about $300 per night, toscanaresortcastelfalfi.com
What you get: An unforgettable Christmas with beaucoup perks. This Italian vacation is a splurge for sure, but you might find the special extras worth the cash: You'll stay in the (festively decorated) building that was once the village's tobacco factory,and hear live holiday music as you dine on special Christmas and New Year's menus in the castle proper, at the property's gourmet Tuscan bistro helmed by a Michelin-starred chef. Or opt for a four-course holiday menu at the more affordable Il Rosmarino trattoria—one of the courses is roast pork tenderloin with Chianti and radicchio (from about $50, beverage included). Your stay also includes access to the 27-hole golf course. Greens fees are reduced during the low season, or you can practice your swing at the hotel's driving range for less than $15.
A FAIRY TALE RESIDENCE IN FRANCE
Château Hermitage de Combas: Servian, France
History: A medieval fortress turned castle residence, the château sits amid 123-plus acres of vineyards in Southern France. Famous figures like the playwright/actor Molière have called the Languedoc-Roussillon region home. Locals say Molière himself probably performed in this very castle.
What you get: A fairy tale come true. You can stay in the round tower just like Rapunzel—but with many more activity options. Enveloped by lavender and rosebushes, the castle has 25 apartments with full kitchens, plus a heated pool, a tennis court, and an on-site restaurant that offers a special Christmas menu and fireside dining. It's also within driving distance of the coast—the weather in December is good enough to rent a classic convertible from the castle to tour the grapevine-lined road. Come Christmastime, each apartment, the main entrance hall, and the stairway are decked out in holiday regalia.
A CHRISTMAS FEAST IN THE HEART OF IRELAND
Clontarf Castle Hotel: Dublin, Ireland
History: Clontarf Castle was built in 1172 and changed hands several times in the 17th century, including from military and political leader Oliver Cromwell to Captain John Blackwell. Nearly 200 years later, due to sinking foundations, the building was demolished and then rebuilt in 1837.
Price: From around $250 per night, clontarfcastle.ie
What you get: Modern luxuries like 24-hour room service and a flatscreen TV, plus convenient proximity to Dublin sightseeing. The castle is only a 10-minute drive from the city center. Pony up for the slightly pricier Christmas Package, and you can enjoy a Christmas Eve arrival reception with mulled wine, mince pies, and Christmas carols, plus other perks like a champagne Christmas Day breakfast and Christmas Day mass.
OPULENCE & MOUNTAIN VIEWS IN UPSTATE NEW YORK
The Inn at Erlowest: Lake George, New York
History: The castle dream home of American lawyer and politician Edward Morse Shepard, Erlowest was built out of solid granite in 1898 on Millionaire's Row along the Lake George shore.
Price: From $195 per night, theinnaterlowest.com
What you get: A rich, immersive getaway experience—especially if Titanic-era history fascinates you. The Howe Suite is the most wallet-friendly of the 10 rooms and offers a king-size sleigh bed, gas fireplace, and lake and Adirondack mountain views. A cheese platter, bottle of champagne, and a full breakfast each morning is complimentary.
BOOK A GREAT DEAL ON HOLIDAY LODGING RIGHT HERE AT BUDGET TRAVEL
To find more holiday lodging, from opulent castle rentals to efficient hotel rooms, book your stay right here at Budget Travel's Book a Hotel page.
Ultimate Southwest Girlfriend Getaway
Show of hands: Is it a jerk move to taunt someone who says they’re afraid of ghosts by making them listen to dramatic ghost stories? Looking back, perhaps that wasn't the kindest, gentlest way to kick off a girlfriend getaway road trip through New Mexico with BT Photo Editor Whitney Tressel. In my defense, she revealed her phobia after we had pulled up to the Lodge at Cloudcroft, a Titanic-era haunted mansion perched high in the Sacramento Mountains. And I honestly thought she was kidding. Over dinner in the candlelit lodge, I pumped our server, Tonya, for information about "Rebecca," the hotel’s friendly, lovelorn ghost who “makes herself known” by moving small objects. I was riveted. Whitney was terrified. “I’m going to sleep with you tonight,” she said. Again, I thought she was kidding. But she followed me upstairs, dragged her suitcase into my room, changed into a psychedelic T-shirt and pajama pants, climbed into bed, and fell asleep. As I lay stiff and wide awake on one side of the four-poster Victorian-style bed, under a portrait of Mexican-American War hero Zachary Taylor, tapping out notes about our trip on my smartphone, my world-weary Louise to her excitable Thelma, I heard Whitney whimpering. Should I break the touch barrier to wake her up? I nudged her shoulder and found her skin clammy. She had goosebumps. And it was my fault. “Jamie...?” she said, voice wavering. “Thank you. I just got a’scared.” Caring for others isn’t my strong suit, but in that moment, my heart went out to her in a way that the closeness of a road trip fosters. “It’s OK,” I said in my the most soothing tone I could muster. “Everything is going to be all right.” Rebecca never did reveal herself, but we did have some certifiably spiritual adventures in the desert, where women have gone for centuries to be reborn. Come along on our journey through the Southwest, a fabulously inexpensive bonding trip of a lifetime. Day 1: Cloudcroft to Albuquerque Whitney at the wheel, we wound down through the mountains from the Lodge at Cloudcroft (from $99 per night) on Highway 82 in our rented Volkswagen Bug on our way to White Sands National Monument. Driving into White Sands, a vast, 10-acre desert scape of sparkling gypsum crests, mounds, and drifts, is like discovering a portal to another universe and pushing through to the other side ($5). We parked six miles in, where a ranger told us the “scenery gets good,” and I bent down to scoop up a handful of gypsum sand, fine and soft to the touch. The tops of the dunes’ curves are almost feminine—they move and change with the wind, the bone-dry landscape constantly shifting. Only the strong plants and animals survive—the ones that are able to adapt. Like the bleached earless lizard and the defiantly vibrant pink sand verbena. And, I might add, Whitney and me. On rented purple and green plastic discs, we sledded down the dunes together, shouting, “I’m the winner!” “No, you’re the winner!”—sometimes taking rough tumbles instead of elegant swooshes. Over and over, we stood up after falling, yelling, “I’m okay!” before clambering back up the dunes in our leather boots and jeans, eager to go again. Sand in our clothes, we drove to Albuquerque on 25 North through pounding rains and angry navy-blue skies, looking in the rear-view mirrors at the clear blue sky and fluffy clouds that trailed behind us, as though we were inhabiting two separate worlds. When the radio turned staticky, I fiddled with music on my smartphone, searching for tunes we could agree on—Whitney explained to me who rapper Fetty Wap was; I quickly scrolled past my extensive Frightened Rabbit collection—before we chose an album we both loved, the lyrics inscribed on our lives years ago: Scarlet’s Walk, by Tori Amos, about a coast-to-coast journey through America. Perfect. We belted “A Sorta Fairytale” in unison: “Down New Mexico way, somethin’ about the open road / I knew that he was lookin’ for some Indian blood / Find a little in you, find a little in me / We may be on this road, but / We’re just imposters in this country, you know…” We took a detour in Carrizozo, New Mexico, to the homespun Carrizozo Café, furnished with wood paneling and mismatched kitchen chairs, and shared a Rocky Mountain Mudslide, the Everest of indulgent desserts, part fresh-made “ooey and gooey” brownie, part pecan pie, part vanilla ice cream, and part whipped cream ($5, 575/430-9708). At the counter, we sat next to a sexy, weathered, real-life cowboy named Dave—black cowboy hat, plaid shirt—who ordered steak and beans and called us “ma’am.” Back in the car, Whitney said what both of us were thinking: “Did you find him attractive?” “Yes,” I shouted. We half-joked that we wished he’d join us on the road. Two hours later, at Sadie’s in Albuquerque, appetites back, we taste-tested three fiery salsas and a green chile cheeseburger topped with freshly chopped chiles, washed down with a dainty sip of the famous $7 house margarita. Gilbert, the general manager, let us in on a local secret: If a server asks you if you’d like “red or green” sauce on your Mexican food, don’t say “Christmas.” Tourists say that. Instead, say, “both.” Spent and stuffed, we headed to tranquil Los Poblanos Historic Inn, a 1930s ranch turned B&B and lavender farm (from $165 per night). Four regal peacocks strut the grounds; lavender bushes dot paths to spacious rooms with soaking tubs. In the summer, the inn holds aromatherapy, yoga, and cooking classes. After night fell, each of us in her own room this time, we burned wood in our fireplaces, smoke drifting up the flue as the warmth from bright-orange embers kissed us goodnight. Day 2: Albuquerque to Santa Fe After filling up on organic blueberry pancakes and fresh-squeezed orange juice next to a table of six women on their own girlfriend getaway, we hit Los Poblanos’ Farm Shop for souvenir tubs of the inn’s Lavender Salve and other sundries, like blue corn mint soap and piñon incense (spa products from $4). Before leaving town, we popped by Grove Café and Market—better known as the place where Walter White poisoned Lydia Rodarte-Quayle with a ricin-laced Stevia packet in Breaking Bad, but much sunnier and lovelier in person. Our roasted tomato soups and farmers salads arrived quickly, works of vegetable art dotted with Marcona almonds, roasted golden beets, and local goat cheese (entrées from $8). The quickest way to get to Santa Fe is a straight shot on Highway 25, but we took the scenic route via the 54-mile Turquoise Trail (or State Road 14), named for the region’s turquoise mining history. It was worth the extra time to sail through golden sagebrush fields, sipping hot coffee from travel cups and watching the Sandia Mountains pass by, clouds brushing up against the tops of snow-covered peaks. Checking into downtown’s Hotel Chimayó de Santa Fe, a tribute to the village of Chimayó, was a religious experience (from $89 per night). Dark chunky wood furniture fills the lobby alongside Catholic candles set aflame, hanging Mexican blankets, a statue of the Virgin Mary, and wooden tiles painted with biblical scenes lining the fireplace. We ambled through Santa Fe’s downtown, past vivid street art and turquoise jewelry in shop windows. After two days of being on the road, I (a road-trip newbie) begged Whitney (a road-trip pro) for a cocktail break. The proprietor of a photography shop told us about a new secret bar nearby. Intrigued, we walked around Saint Francis Cathedral and took an elevator to the top floor of the unassuming Drury Plaza Hotel. There we found Bar Alto, a modern crow’s nest surrounded by sleek white-framed windowpanes with a sweeping view of the city (drinks from $5). At precisely that second, the sun was setting in a watercolor wash of tangerine orange and royal blue. We rushed outside, next to the outdoor pool, for the best vantage point. Back at our barstools, Joseph the barkeep, sporting an apron, fuzzy beard, and samurai bun, psychoanalyzed our tastes and our pasts (“What’s your favorite bar in New York?” “Where did you grow up?”) to pour us two perfect cocktails that eerily matched our personalities: a hot, dry, mezcal-and-tequila concoction for me, and a light, fruity old-fashioned for Whitney. Who knew she was a bourbon fan? I respected that. Relaxed, we pulled out our phones and compared photos from our trip, “liking” each other’s Instagrams and reminiscing about Cowboy Dave and our White Sands playground. We strolled away happy, ready for Mexican food at The Shed: an appetizer of posole, a Pueblo stew of fat nixtamal corn, pork, and red chile; fuchsia-hued prickly-pear and strawberry margaritas; skewered shrimp atop fluffy Spanish rice; and enchiladas smothered with spicy green chile sauce (margaritas from $8, entrées from $12). Day 3: Santa Fe to Taos Running late, we put the pedal to the metal on 84 North, our VW Bug climbing into the hills to Abiquiu, scenery bursting with fluffy tufts of burnt-umber leaves and thin, lemon-yellow trees standing stock-straight. Whitney and I affectionately called them “our flame trees.” We arrived in time to catch the noon group tour of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu Home and Studio, a sprawling Spanish-Colonial estate where O’Keeffe lived from 1949 well into the ’80s (from $30). We stepped gingerly through her courtyard, past a hanging cow skull, into the room she used to freeze vegetables from her garden, and through her kitchen before reaching her studio. Sunlight streamed through the massive plate-glass windows, our pupils contracting as we drank in the view of Pedernal mountain, its warm fall colors spilling down into the valley below, more inspiring than we could have imagined. Back on the road, we drove south and then north again to Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort and Spa, an affordable, egalitarian place for a quiet soak in mineral-rich pools, picturesque cliffs rising in the background (access from $16). We changed into our swimsuits and dipped first into the warm iron pool, then the steaming soda pool, sharing the greenhouse-like space with guests from teenagers to seniors, their eyes closed, faces serene. If you prefer alone time, it’s worth the $45 to upgrade to a private outdoor pool—with wood-burning fireplace, Adirondack chairs, and rustic cliffside view—for an hour. We relished the heat in the crisp November weather, taking turns throwing logs into the fire and sinking into piping-hot water that coursed into the pool from a giant faucet. I told Whitney she had to try the Milagro body wrap with me, a $12 ancient ritual thought to release toxins. We walked into a hospital-like room full of empty massage tables and awkwardly shed our robes. A spa attendant swaddled each of us in blankets, tucking us in tight, putting a towel over our eyes. For 25 minutes, we were mummies, motionless, listening to chiming New Age music. I could hear Whitney breathing in and out; I knew she was meditating. I, on the other hand, surprised myself when I started to cry in the darkness, tears soaking the towel, stress melting out of me. Were those the toxins? Time passed like molasses. “Did she forget about us?” I whispered. But, no—the 25 minutes hadn’t ended yet. When the lights came on, Whitney and I turned and looked at each other sleepily. “I dedicated my love and kindness meditation to you,” she said. A lump in my throat, all I could think to say was, “That’s nice.” At twilight, we set out for Taos. It was impossible not to feel the girl power when we stepped into Palacio de Marquesa, a restored 1920s Spanish-style casa designed to pay tribute to Taos women (from $129 per night). The eight rooms, bearing names like “Matriarch Suite” for art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, are awash in pristine ivory paint and vibrant works by local female artists, who designed everything from the blankets to the window shades. Later, at cozy farm-to-table restaurant Aceq, we speared slices of ahi tuna and pork tenderloin doused in a heavenly balsamic reduction (sharable plates from $7). Day 4: Taos to Albuquerque Whitney and I had both long dreamed of visiting Taos Pueblo, a Native American community inhabited for roughly 1,000 years, a four-mile drive from our hotel. We pulled up to the UNESCO World Heritage site, with its unmistakeable adobe structures, passed down generation to generation, and took a free tour led by a tribal member. We began in San Geronimo Chapel and circling the property, listening to the tribe’s bittersweet history, from Spanish colonization to the government’s return of spiritually significant Blue Lake in 1970 (admission $16). Some of the pueblo homes are open to visitors—residents sell pottery, jewelry, food. Whitney bought a bundle of sage to smudge her new apartment ($3); I purchased a tiny teal-and-black box, painted by a grandmother who told me she worked all her life so her grandchildren wouldn’t have to spend their childhoods in day care. Swept up in the moment, I hugged her. In another pueblo, we sipped piñon coffee and devoured sugar-sprinkled puffy fry bread in a resident named Bertha’s home (coffee $3, fry bread $6). We bid Bertha tah ah—the phoenetic spelling of “thank you” in Tiwa, the native language—and drove back to Taos, peeking into art galleries before tearing ourselves away to catch our flight. In the air, I peered at Whitney’s laptop, admiring how she deftly clicked through our trip photos and filed them electronically. On Georgia O’Keeffe’s dining-room sofa in Abiquiu rests an Alexander Girard pillow with a red heart formed by words: “ ‘love’ in many languages,” our tour guide had explained. In my language, “That’s nice” means “I love you as a friend too, Whitney. I’m glad we got to know each other better in this beautiful place. Also, thank you for driving.”
#BTReads: Our Favorite Travel Books
A Room with a View (E.M. Forster) manages to be a romantic comedy, travelogue, and deeply moving rumination on art and mortality at the same time. No small feat, but Forster (author of Howard’s End and A Passage to India) is no small writer. When Lucy Honeychurch arrives in Florence from the U.K. with her uptight spinster cousin, Charlotte, she has no idea that accepting a “room with a view” from a quirky neighbor at their pensione will, over the ensuing months, open up a more figurative “view” that will change her life. Spoiler alert: best literary kiss ever. —Robert Firpo-Cappiello, Editor in Chief Bill Bryson’s love letter to Australia, In a Sunburned Country, has quickly become my all-time favorite travel book. I’ve always dreamed of doing what he did—driving from city to city, meeting locals along the way, and writing about it. Bryson’s style of storytelling keeps you captivated and following along with his adventures like you’re hearing about the travels of a close friend, and all the while he’s delivering historical context in a hilariously entertaining way. As Bryson says at the end, “You see, Australia is an interesting place. It truly is. And that really is all I’m saying.” —Kaeli Conforti, Digital Editor My favorite kind of novel is one in which I can relate to the characters—or at least get the urge to venture alongside them. Bernadette Fox, the protagonist in Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple,isn’t someone you’d readily admit to seeing yourself in, but she’s so real, so fierce, so flawed, so…infamous. She’s a non-conforming Seattle mom, an esteemed architect, a humorist, and a best friend to her daughter. As you might infer, one day Bernadette disappears. What I love most is it’s not so much a mystery novel as it is a psychological exploration of an endearing character through travel-related occurrences. —Whitney Tressel, Photo Editor The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, set in New York City, makes me see the city with fresh eyes. There is so much history hidden in plain sight in New York, and the author, Michael Chabon, brings out the city’s romance, energy, and mystery. I’ve lived here all my life, but when I read this book, it makes me want to get a map and a bike and explore. In Kavalier & Clay, the cousins work in the Flatiron District, and many old buildings that are referenced are still standing. It feels like the characters could be there now. —Amy Lundeen, Photo Director A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway, might seem like an obvious choice, but when you dive into the stories about Hemingway’s time in 1920s Paris, hanging out with the likes of Gertrude Stein, you’ll see why the book remains a classic. Hemingway’s tales of arguing with wannabe literary critics in cafés, nursing a drunken F. Scott Fitzgerald (whom he was clearly jealous of), and drinking Châteauneuf du Pape with steak frites at lunch make Paris vibrate as a freewheeling, energetic, creative place where writers are welcome to linger at bistros perfecting their masterpieces. When I’m lucky enough to go to Paris, I always visit one of Hemingway’s old haunts. —Jamie Beckman, Senior Editor
6 Vegas Getaways You Need Right Now
We're all familiar with that famous Las Vegas Strip skyline, but long before the Strip came to embody the city as a whole, the first hotel-casinos began rising from the Nevada desert two and a half miles north. Today, Downtown thoroughfare Fremont Street bustles with brand-new bars, restaurants, shops, venues, and hotels offering budget-friendly, intimate, and down-to-earth accommodations that sometimes outdo their Strip counterparts. Bonus: All six of the hip hot spots and historic mainstays below provide free parking, easy access to the North Premium Outlets mall, and a firsthand view of a side of the city that's making a comeback in a big way. The D How much: From $29 per night plus $20 resort fee, thed.com What it's like: Completed in fall 2012, a remodel of the former Irish-themed Fitzgerald casino retained the ground-floor pool, added Michigan-based eateries American Coney Island hot dogs and the upscale Andiamo Italian Steakhouse, and redecorated 34 hotel floors in sleek black and retro red, an update shared with recently expanded sister property the Golden Gate (from $9 plus $20 resort fee). On the ground level, bask in a lively, uninhibited vibe that includes LED lighting, dancing card dealers, and flair bartenders. What to do when you're not playing the slots: Check out the music, food, and arts programming at the outdoor Downtown Las Vegas Events Center, which opened in September. Downtown Grand How much: From $29 per night plus $11 resort fee, downtowngrand.com What it's like: Across Stewart Avenue from the popular Mob Museum, the year-old Ascend Collection boutique (formerly the Lady Luck Hotel & Casino) offers a well-stocked fitness center, a roomy and welcoming rooftop pool deck overlooking Third Street, and an upscale reimagining of defunct Arts District dive the Art Bar. What to do when you're not playing the slots: Dual room towers connect via skybridge, which also provides easy access to one full block of happy hour heaven: Richard Sandoval's The Commissary Latin Kitchen (select beers, margaritas, mojitos, and wines are $4 from 4 to 7 p.m. daily), Triple George Grill (3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 4 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, half-price appetizers including $8 bruschetta, $9 calamari, $11 crab cakes, and $13 seared ahi), and Pizza Rock ($3 drafts, well drinks, meatballs, and Italian fries, plus $5 calamari, garlic bread, and one-topping personal pizzas from 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays and 10 p.m. to close nightly). El Cortez How much: From $17 per night plus $9 resort fee, elcortezhotelcasino.com What it's like: Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013, the longest continuously operating hotel-casino in Las Vegas maintains a free airport return shuttle and six categories of rooms. Since 2009 the 64-unit, free-standing Cabana Suites sport classy black, white, and green decor, and fresh fruit in a high-tech fitness center. What to do when you're not playing the slots: It's all steps away from the brand-new Market grocery store and innovative Container Park, an open-air mall built from shipping containers and featuring a treehouse playground, live events, and a massive sculpture of a fire-shooting praying mantis. Golden Nugget How much: From $39 per night plus $20 resort fee, goldennugget.com What it's like: A waterslide, shark tank, and third-story infinity pool are but a few of the outdoor amenities; inside, a whopping 2,419 rooms, 10 restaurants, a two-suite fitness center, and an adjacent spa provide options for every taste and appetite. What to do when you're not playing the slots: Continuous upgrades since 2005 play on the gold (naturally) and rust theme and emphasize uncompromised sightlines, all the better for exploring the sprawling, always surprising Downtown landmark. Oasis at Gold Spike How much: From $39 per night plus $20 resort fee, oasisatgoldspike.com What it's like: Owned by business incubator the Downtown Project (originally founded by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh), the retro blue and orange boutique opened in September with a tiny fitness center, year-round pool, and fire pits. Sleek lighting, accent pieces, and art vary throughout each of the 44 unique rooms, which don't waste outlet space with phones and alarm clocks. What to do when you're not playing the slots: Instead of traditional Vegas gaming, an expansive patio and lawn area houses foursquare, hopscotch, cornhole, and oversized beer pong, plus the occasional DJ and live band. Rental bikes and vinyl library available at the front desk. The Plaza How much: From $29 per night plus $15 resort fee, plazahotelcasino.com What it's like: The Western anchor of Fremont Street boasts a rooftop swimming pool, roomy fitness center, and coupon book offering deals on gaming, two-for-one drinks, and even free tickets to resident comedian Louie Anderson's family-friendly show. What to do when you're not playing the slots: Dining highlights include Man v. Food favorite Hash House A Go Go, indoor/outdoor Beer Garden offering gourmet bratwursts plus side (fries, onion strings, or coleslaw) and a craft beer for under $8, $4 vegan and vegetarian options at Pop Up Pizza, and former three-term mayor Oscar Goodman's eponymous Oscar's, a gorgeous, glass-domed steakhouse where drinks and appetizers (normally $15 to $17) are half-off weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m.
29 Reasons We Love Belgium
Belgium pops off the map, alive with modern, artistic lodgings, unconventional museums, and beloved regional food and beer. During a 10-day trip through Brussels and Wallonia, I made sure to hit the most popular travel sites, including Waterloo, Bastogne, and Brussels, but I also made a point to stray from the traditional spots…and I was glad I did. Ready for a grand tour? Here are 29-plus reasons you’ll love Belgium as much as I did. Brussels: Chocolate, waffles, and…beer! Brussels is the home of the European Union and a truly international city. The beautiful Grand-Place and infamous Manneken Pis are must-sees, but for a different perspective, take a bike tour with Pro Velo; it’s a unique way to admire the city’s diverse architecture and chat up a local (provelo.org). My guide, Riet Naessens, gave me a tour focused on the city’s art deco and art nouveau architecture through burgeoning and luxurious neighborhoods I might not have reached on my own. We passed by designs by some of art nouveau’s most famous architects, Victor Horta and Paul Hankar. Stunning glasswork by artist Ernest Delune at Rue du Lac 6, often seen in art history textbooks, was a highlight, as was the Horta Museum, a World Heritage Site. Pro Velo also offers a popular Beer and Breweries tour, which I’d warn beginning bikers against for obvious reasons. Ingesting and investing in some chocolate while touring Brussels is crucial for any visit. Laurent Gerbaud has some outstanding chocolates, many mixed with tart and sweet dried and candied fruits (chocolatsgerbaud.be). Gerbaud’s interactive workshops offer students the opportunity to make and taste their own concoctions. His shop also has a café, so take a seat and enjoy the full chocolate experience. It’s close enough to do some oh-so-convenient chocolate shop–hopping at Place du Grand Sablon, where many of Belgium’s top chocolatiers have stores. For another sweet Brussels fix, walk a few feet from the popular naked Manneken Pis statue to feast on a Brussels-style waffle with chocolate, whipped cream, and strawberries at the Waffle Factory (wafflefactory.com). When in Brussels… Next up: a trip to the Atomium, a bizarre remnant of the 1958 World’s Fair, which might be the very definition of interesting and offbeat. This structure symbolizes an iron crystal expanded 165 billion times and houses an exhibition space. Nearby is another weird find, Mini-Europe, where you can walk among famous European monuments in miniature, including Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower (minieurope.com). Kids are the perfect audience for Mini-Europe—as are adults on the hunt for funny Instagram photos. Dinant: Paddle through town and discover a new way to make music. The fairytale-like setting that makes up Dinant is marked by a grand 13th-century church on the banks of the Meuse River, backed by an imposing high cliff where the Citadel rests. To take in nature, go kayaking on the nearby Lesse River with Olivier Pitance of Dinant Adventures (dinant-evasion.be). Small rapids turn to quiet currents and revert back again as you paddle and float by rock outcroppings, lush forests, and medieval castles. In town, don’t miss the House of Pataphony, where you can expand your mind making music with everyday objects you wouldn’t normally think to “play,” from a chandelier made of cutlery to antique keys (pataphonie.be). The wildly inventive museum was dreamed up by instrument maker Max Vandervorst. It makes sense that it’s located in Dinant, the home of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone. You can visit his home, now a small interactive museum (sax.dinant.be). Stay nearby in a castle at La Saisonneraie (from about $168 per night, lasaisonneraie.be), a former château in Falaën that tempts guests with exceptional croissants for breakfast. Liège: Forward-thinking art and cuisine, plus Belgium’s biggest market. If you’re looking to do all of this and still take a breath, you’ll want to stay in Brussels for few days. The chic Hilton Brussels Grand Place is well situated for guests to comfortably take on the city by foot (from about $245 per night, hilton.com). Start your morning trying Liège waffles at the best place in town, Maison Massin (Rue Puits-en-sock, 6-8- 4020 Liège). It’s where the locals get their waffles. Choose from traditional Liège waffles, sugary, chewy waffles that are ovular and unevenly shaped, or more embellished versions such as grilled strawberry or rhubarb. Sunday is market day in Liège, and whatever you’re craving or coveting, you’ll find it at La Batte, the oldest and largest market in Belgium. Local produce, cheese, fish, clothing, and books are all ripe for the picking at this riverside shopping mecca (liege.be). From the market, walk to Curtius Brasserie to sample Belgian craft beers (lacurtius.com). En route, you’ll want to snap a photo of the Mount Bueren stairs, an epic 374-step staircase located just beside “Brasserie C.” Once inside the beer hall, there’s an exciting energy. Started by young entrepreneurs, this Belgian brewery is housed in a former monastery. You can take a tour of the production area and pair cheese or meatballs with beer on the lovely outdoor terrace. Avant-garde art lovers, your new haunt is the Cité Miroir, an unusual cultural venue (citemiroir.be). Exhibitions are held in a 1930s building once home to public baths and a swimming pool: The remnants of still remain—works of art in themselves. Locals may tell you they learned to swim there. For dinner in Liège, you have to try boulet, a traditional beef-and-pork meatball that’s highly popular in the region. One of the best places to feast on boulet is Amon Nanesse, where large meatballs are served up in sweet sauce consisting of a mixture of pears and apple syrup, wine, onions, and peket, a local spirit (maisondupeket.be). Naturally, boulet is best complemented with a heaping helping of crispy fries. I had a boulet connoisseur introduce me to this filling dish: Sebastien Laviolette, from la Confrérie du Gay Boulet, is part of a guild of folks who make it their mission to secretly taste test meatballs at restaurants throughout the region and rate the best. Many of these Liège attractions are reachable on foot from both the historical center and boutique Hotel Neuvice, where 10 contemporary rooms surround an open-air patio (from about $109 per night, hotelneuvice.be). Mons: This culture capital invites. Mons is a university town with cool street art, museums, restaurants, and European charm—so much of it, in fact, that it was named the 2015 European Culture Capital. In the lively Grand-Place, pet the somewhat-freaky brass monkey statue for good luck before entering the Town Hall, Hôtel de Ville. Ascend the stairs of the 15th-century structure to take in the views of the striking square with its myriad architectural styles, ranging from Gothic to neoclassical. Inside Town Hall, admire gilded carvings and ornate tapestries, a gift to the town from France’s Louis XIV. Climb up higher, past the city’s historic brick homes, to Parc du Château, Mons’s highest point, where the magnificent belfry is located. The only baroque-style belfry in Belgium, the belfry is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an exceptional place for photos. Next, walk down to the Saint Waudru Collegiate Church to see its exquisite stained glass windows and 18th-century golden carriage used in the annual celebration of the saint (waudru.be). Mons has several museums worth seeing, including BAM, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the fascinatingly bizarre, recently renovated Mundaneum, which contains a massive collection of photos, newspapers, posters, and books from Belgian philanthropist Paul Otlet, who spent nearly 50 years compiling every noteworthy piece of human thought ever published or recorded (mundaneum.org). Talk about a huge undertaking. Called a printed precursor to the internet and social networking, the museum has a partnership with Google. After all that cerebral reflection, grab a drink at La Cervoise, where there’s a dizzying array of more than 150 beers to choose from (32/65-35-15-25). Carnivores may stay to cook a steak on a stone, the most notable entrée at this Belgian beer hall. Others may wish to snag a table outside at Ces Belges et Vous, in Grand-Place, to take in the ambience of this historic square while feasting on traditional Belgian cuisine (cesbelges.be). One of my favorite hotels from my Belgium travels is Hotel Dream, in Mons. Nestled in the historic center, the hotel is in easy walking distance of Grand-Place—key since parking can be a hot commodity. The building is a former convent and chapel, so stained-glass windows and high ceilings are sprinkled in amid modern design and graffiti art (from about $103 per night, dream-mons.be). Durbuy: Europe’s coolest small city? You decide. One of Durbuy’s claims to fame is its title of “smallest city in the world”—or at least it used to be. The exact wording might be lost in translation, because they also had “smallest town” emblazoned in several spots. How it’s defined, I’m not so sure, but I’m chalking it up to another of the city’s endearing idiosyncrasies. Durbuy is a charming combination of cobblestoned medieval streets, historic sights, and lovely shops. There’s a local count here who still lives in a castle overlooking the town and the Durbuy Topiary Park (topiaires.durbuy.be). Billing itself as the “largest park in the world devoted to topiary that is accessible for the public” (that’s quite the moniker), there are more than 250 plants, some more than a century old. Stroll through these green sculptures, and you may recognize some of the shapelier box trees, including a larger-than-life topiary of Pamela Anderson on the beach, Manneken Pis from Brussels, jumping jockeys, ducklings, elephants, and several other creatures great and small. Shop in La Vraie Confiture du Durbuy for local artisanal jams and sweets for your friends (and yourself), then grab a traditional unfiltered amber brew at Marckloff Brewery, where beer is produced in small batches on site (confitureriesaintamour.be). Stay one or more nights right in town at Le Sanglier des Ardennes, a modern hotel overlooking the Ourthe River that serves a fabulous breakfast (from about $90 per night, sanglier-des-ardennes.be).