Why 2015 Is Belgium's Big Year

For the big bicentennial of the battle of Waterloo, a cutting-edge new museum called the 1815 Memorial was unveiled in May.
For the big bicentennial of the battle of Waterloo, a cutting-edge new museum called the 1815 Memorial was unveiled in May.

As the town of Mons continues its reign as European Capital of Culture 2015, Belgium is basking in the global media spotlight. The European Capital of Culture title is a major coup for destinations, as it brings with it a flurry of investment in infrastructure that aims to have a lasting effect on tourism for years to come. This pretty town is enticing visitors with a number of new museums and exciting cultural events.

It’s not just Mons that’s calling attention to Belgium’s Wallonia region. This year marks the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s defeat outside Waterloo, one of the most important battles in the history of western civilization, and Belgium is going all out to commemorate the occasion. Sold out for months in advance, the June 19-20th battle re-enactment was the largest such event in history, featuring 5,000 actors, 300 horses and 100 canons.

The Loui Bar at Steigenberger Wiltcher’s
The Loui Bar at Steigenberger Wiltcher’s

Travel Agent recently took a trip to Waterloo to check out this important site, and we found a bevy of must-visit attractions. Major efforts have been made to clean up the area, which used to be littered with touristy stalls and eateries. In fact, many inutile buildings were razed in order to re-create the original vistas. The battlefield itself is a protected heritage site and it’s been returned to agricultural use, the waving fields of grain rippling in the wind.

The views are glorious from the top of the Lion’s Mound — the cone-like hill that was built in 1826 to mark the spot where William II of The Netherlands was hit by a musket ball. The Lion’s Mound has traditionally anchored the site and in 1912, in advance of the centennial of the Battle of Waterloo, the Panorama was opened right next to it. Inside a white rotunda, visitors climb a staircase to gape at a giant panoramic painting on 14 canvas panels, created by French artist Louis Dumoulin to depict pivotal battle scenes. A soundtrack re-creates the noises of the battlefield.

For the big bicentennial, a cutting-edge new museum called the 1815 Memorial was unveiled in May 2015. Wallonia’s Tourism Minister René Collin announced that it’s expected to double the number of visitors to the site. Built underground directly adjacent to the Panorama, the 1815 Memorial brings history to life with spectacular exhibitions that showcase all the latest technology — like framed digital “paintings,” interactive features triggered by the movement of your audio-guide and a 4D film.

The Memorial’s access ramp is flanked by a Remembrance Wall on which are engraved the names of every regiment that took part in the Battle of Waterloo. Follow the circuit with an audio-guide that’s narrated by a soldier in the army of your choice; it’s a sensory experience that puts you at the very heart of the historic battle. The displays showcase different uniforms, weapons, wax figures and even a hot-air military balloon. Don’t miss the 15-minute film by Belgian director Gérard Corbiau — the battle’s scenes are made painfully real with 4D effects and the odor of gunshot powder wafting through the cinema. Note that the 16 euro entry fee provides access to this trio of sites in the Lion’s Hamlet (the Panorama, the Memorial and the Lion’s Mound).

Tip: The Waterloo Tourism Board has a network of passionate, English-speaking guides. We recommend reserving a guide to get the most of your visit.

If you want to linger and spend a few days exploring other key sites in the area, such as the Wellington museum, Napoleon’s headquarters, and the newly restored Hougoumont Farm, consider booking an overnight stay at the Martin’s Grand Hotel Waterloo. Housed in a former sugar factory that was first built in 1834, the four-star hotel has a lovely restaurant (La Sucrerie), meeting facilities and a fitness center. All three room categories (Cozy, Charming, Great) come with free Wi-Fi. Agents can reach out to Florence Lemaire ([email protected]).

Beds in Brussels

For other hotel options, visitors can benefit from Waterloo’s close proximity to Brussels (just 20 minutes by car or train). Both leisure and business travelers are spoiled for choice when it comes to accommodations in the Belgian capital. In addition to our long-time favorite the Hotel Amigo and the newish Hotel des Galeries, two hotels have recently crossed our radar. The newly revamped Steigenberger Wiltcher’s is a long-time landmark on Avenue Louise, the “golden mile” that’s known for chic shopping. A hotel has existed on this site since 1913; the original Wiltcher’s was built in 1913 as a “grand hotel” in the Beaux Arts-style. In 1993, the hotel was rebuilt identically, and managed as a Conrad Brussels for 20 years.

In January 2013, Steigenberger assumed management of the property and embarked on a two-year renovation. The fruits of this project were unveiled in May 2015, along with a new name; Steigenberger Wiltcher’s incorporates the hotel’s original moniker, and the one that’s best known to locals. The restaurants, bars, and all 225 rooms and 42 suites had a makeover with new fabrics and furnishings. The Presidential and Royal suites are the crème de la crème of rooms.

For fitness-minded travelers, the adjacent health club is one of the best in Brussels. Hotel guests can access it for 30 euros a day. Dining Buzz: The restaurant has a new outdoor terrace suitable for al fresco meals, and a new chef will debut a different culinary concept in September. Last but not least: The hotel opened a Davidoff cigar lounge last year. Agents can direct any queries to Marina de Frisching ([email protected]), director of international sales.

Another noteworthy new addition is the Hilton Brussels Grand Place. In November, Hilton Worldwide signed an agreement to manage the 224-room city-center hotel that used to be Le Méridien, yet no significant refurbishments took place. This four-star hotel stands next to Central Station, just steps from both the Square Brussels Meeting Centre and the iconic Grand Place. Note that of the 224 guest rooms, the Executive rooms have access to the new Executive Lounge — where complimentary breakfast, drinks and afternoon snacks are served. Facilities include conference rooms, a gym, a restaurant and a convivial bar. Reach out to Cecile Potut ([email protected]), director of sales Belgium, for VIP reservations.

Tip: A stay in Brussels isn’t complete without a chocolate tasting — and we highly recommend signing up for a workshop with renowned chocolatier Laurent Gerbaud.

Twin Junior Suite with lounge access at Hilton Brussels Grand Place
Twin Junior Suite with lounge access at Hilton Brussels Grand Place.