Visit-worthy destinations in Belgium aren’t limited to the major well-known cities, such as Bruges, Brussels and Antwerp. Rather to the contrary; those much-visited cities are only the tip of the iceberg—albeit quite a nice tip. The rest of the iceberg of Belgian cities consists of quaint stone towns hidden deep in the valleys of the Ardennes, college cities home to great breweries and a vibrant nightlife, and medieval cities featuring world-class museums and/or UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The (possibly unknown and) off-the-beaten-track city of Lier falls into that last category.
This picturesque city of almost 35,000 inhabitants occupies both banks of the Nete River in the province of Antwerp in Flanders. Its location makes it a wonderful option for anyone visiting larger Belgian cities such as Antwerp and Brussels—Lier lies about halfway on a major highway connecting those two cities. While the city is easily accessible by car, getting rid of that car in the city center can be an issue. Therefore, people wanting to visit Lier are advised to travel by train instead—there are direct connections to Antwerp, Mechelen, Leuven and Brussels, among a number of other, smaller towns.
Because it’s such a quiet and peaceful city unspoiled by mass tourism, it’s highly likely that the name of Lier doesn’t ring a bell. And that’s okay—informing people of recommended destinations they’ve never heard of or been to is what this website is about in the first place. It’s not because it’s less visited than other nearby cities that Lier has nothing to offer. Quite the opposite, actually. Lier is home to not one, but two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which is rather exceptional for a city this small in size.
A formerly prosperous trading city, Lier was granted city rights by the Duke of Brabant as early as 1212. At that time, the city was renowned in the region for its cloth making—a Europe-famous craft in the Middle Ages—as well as its bustling cattle market. Those two activities gave the city an enormous economic boost, causing it to grow so influential that it became semi-independent.
As many other wealthy cities in this corner of Europe did, Lier built itself a few churches, a belfry, a béguinage and ornate merchant’s houses. All of those structures are still there today. The belfry and béguinage are the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, respectively part of the sites “Belfries of Belgium and France” and “Flemish Béguinages.”
All major attractions are located within the historic city center, an area that has somewhat been modernized and boast a beautiful market square, convenient bus lines and countless restaurants, cafés and bars. A visit to Lier doesn’t need to last longer than one full day—all highlights lie within very easy walking distance from another.
The Lier Belfry and Town Hall
The best spot to start a walking tour of Lier is the town hall, a striking Rococo building constructed in the late-18th century. The visitor information center is located inside this building. The main sight, however, is the belfry, which is attached to the town hall. Dating from 1369 and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the belfry is the main indicator of the city’s former influence and economic power.
Zimmer Tower in Lier
Also known as the Cornelius Tower, the Zimmer Tower is one of Lier’s iconic landmarks. Formerly incorporated into the city’s defensive walls as a keep, nowadays the tower is solitary. Its main feature is the Jubilee Clock, built by astronomer and clockmaker Louis Zimmer in 1930. This amazing scientific work—it’s almost a piece of art—consists of no fewer than twelve different clocks that surround one main clock. Those thirteen clocks indicate the time on every continent, the times of tides, the moon phases, the seven days of the week, the solar cycle and the Zodiac signs.
Lier’s St. Gummarus’ Church
Named after Lier’s patron saint, St. Gummarus’ Church was built in the 1300s and is arguably the most impressive of all attractions in the city. Towering above all other buildings, it measures 80 meters (262 feet) high. Its Brabantine Gothic exterior and lavishly decorated interior make it a must-visit landmark in the city. Visiting is absolutely free.
“De Fortuin” House
Literally “The Fortune” in English, this historic house on the banks of the Nete River is one of the city’s most strikingly photogenic buildings. It dates from the 1600s when it was used as a grain storage. Later on, it served many other purposes, including being a coal storage, a lemonade factory, a warehouse, a workshop and a restaurant. Flanked by a weeping willow tree and beautiful step-gabled houses, this building is, in my opinion, the most beautiful in the entire city.
The Lier Béguinage
The last major highlight is the béguinage, which is Lier’s second UNESCO World Heritage Site. This overwhelmingly peaceful corner of the city center dates back to the 13th century. An enclosed area typical of the Low Countries where béguines (usually widows and unmarried women) led independent lives, a béguinage used to be basically self-sufficient and self-ruling. The béguinage of Lier is an authentic 13th-century béguinage, made up of eleven cobbled alleys and more than 150 houses. The old church is the focal point of the layout. While there are many other béguinages found in Flanders, the one in Lier is one of the largest and most beautiful.
Written by and photos by Bram Reusen for EuropeUpClose.com