Close to Belgium’s very northeast, Bree is a city in the Kempen, an idyllic region of heaths, wetlands and farmland.
For hundreds of years agriculture has been the backbone of Bree’s economy, and one of the largest markets in the region coils around the city centre every Friday.
Bree’s walkable old core has kept hold of its Medieval street plan, and though the old gates, ramparts and moat have gone, there are markings on the pavement showing where they used to stand.
Handily, all of Bree important sights and attractions are clustered around the central Vrijthof square, which is a pretty place to spend an hour or two nursing a cold beer or coffee in summer.
Bree’s main church, constructed from yellowy Limburg marl, is dedicated to the city’s patron saint, Michael and mixes Mosan Gothic and neo-Gothic architecture.
But there’s also a stonework from the first, Romanesque church built on this site in the 11th century, in the square tower despite several reconstructions.
The choir and nave are from the 15th and 16th century respectively, but the building was enlarged in the early 1900s, which accounts for the prevailing neo-Gothic style inside and out.
The reason you have to go in is for the plentiful Gothic and Renaissance statuary.
The must-see is life-sized representation of the Burial by Early Netherlandish sculptor Jan van Steffeswert (1460-1531). Also look for the Pietà from 1380, the Calvary group from 1525 and a Mary with Child (1530), among many more.
The holy water font meanwhile was carved with four faces from blue-black limestone at the beginning of the 16th century.
2. Oud Stadhuis
The genteel building with the pediment south of the central Vrijthof square is Bree’s former town hall.
This now holds a branch of Oxfam and the city’s tourist office on its ground floor, while upstairs there’s a museum with a wild diversity of objects from Bree’s past.
The Oud Stadhuis was built between 1587 and 1591. The city council and aldermen would meet here, the city guard and militia guilds (Schutterij) would store their gear at this building, and there were markets at this spot.
The facade was given a makeover in the Louis XV style in the middle of the 18th century, which is the origin of that stately Rococo pediment.
The relief depicts St Michael fighting the dragon and sports the coats of arms of Bree, the Emperor of Austria and Johann Theodor of Bavaria (1703-1763), who was then Prince Bishop of Liège.
Bree’s carillon was also fitted at the Oud Stadhuis in 1981, chiming every 15 minutes.
3. Sint-Michielscollege (Stadhuis)
On the central Vrijthof square, Bree’s city hall is housed in a former Augustinian monastery building dating back to 1659. The main structure on the square is Mosan Renaissance, with Baroque cloisters completed later, in the early-18th century and a Baroque chapel from around 1718. Starting in the 1990s, the complex, which had previously housed a school, was cleverly reworked to accommodate Bree’s municipal offices.
You’re free to take a look around, and maybe the most striking space is the council chamber on the second floor, named for Bree native Kim Clijsters and with a remarkable timber roof structure.
The garden behind was landscaped in a symmetrical French Renaissance style.
Look for the sculpture of two men facing off: Their heads are separated by a Medieval Bree foot, measuring 28. 5cm.
Bree’s cute central square is bounded to the north by the dignified city hall.
The name Vrijthof comes from a walled graveyard that once took up part of this space.
From 1532 this was the site of a well that was replaced in the 18th century by a water pump.
And although both are long gone, their memory has been revived by a fun fountain with low jets that kids love on summer days and are illuminated at night.
There’s a gaggle of brasseries and cafes down the square’s east side, and although Vrijthof isn’t big, it’s a venue for events all year.
One for tourists to keep in mind is the SMA(A)K food truck festival at the end of May.
5. Bocholter Brouwerijmuseum
Brouwerij Martens in nearby Bocholt has the third-highest capacity of any brewery in Belgium, at 3.6m hectolitres a year.
The company goes back to 1758, and has turned its historic brewery, used from that time until the mid-19th century, as a superb industrial museum.
Full of vintage equipment, the museum is a journey through the brewing process in the 18th and 19th centuries, from malting to mashing, to fermentation, barrelling, bottling and transportation.
You’ll find out what skills are still used in brewing, as well as some of the quirkier methods and technologies that have since been forgotten.
If you’ve ever wanted to know the difference between a boiling kettle and a wort cooler, this is the museum for you.
And it all ends on the sunny terrace with a cold glass of beer.
Its best to contact them through Facebook to schedule a visit.
6. Stadsmuseum Bree
The attic of the old city hall is a repository for the Bree’s various treasures.
This collection of models, documents, artefacts and photographs was first assembled in the 1970s and tells the story of Bree from prehistory to the Second World War.
There’s Baroque furniture, all sorts of utensils and tools relating to historic trades, as well as weapons and regalia from Bree’s Schutterij, voluntary guilds tasked with the city’s defence in Medieval and Early Modern times.
A detailed scale model shows the extent of the city around 1700, and there’s a cabinet of historic documents from the 15th to the 17th century.
Particularly noteworthy is a charter from 1007 with the very first written reference to Bree, then “Britte”. The museum can only be visited by request in the company of a guide.
Fortunately the city’s tourism offices are right downstairs.
The green, gentle countryside around Bree is served by a 2,000-kilometre system of cycling paths.
Most of these are paved and free of road traffic, and you’ll be able to plan your trips using the system’s numbered junctions (knooppunten). There are also special, named trails passing through Bree, ranging from 17 to almost 90 kilometres in length.
If bucolic scenery is what you need the 34-kilometre Landbouwfietsroute (agricultural route) will take you past no fewer than 12 different farms.
On this calming ride you’ll see farmyards, neat arable fields and paddocks with horses, cattle, sheep and goats.
8. Sint-Maartensheide – De Luysen
The Abeek, which flows past Bree from west to east, is a stream that has been left relatively untouched by humans, keeping its natural meanders, and edged by marshland and ponds.
Sint-Maartensheide – De Luysen is a nature reserve ten minutes north-east of Bree where you can amble or cycle in a mix of heather, forest, pasture grazed by Highland cattle and meadows bordering marsh and open water.
This is a vital habitat for dragonflies, but the wider area is also among the most bird-rich sites in Flanders.
One distinctive species that thrives in swampy places in summer is the great grey shrike, which catches insects like dragonflies.
Bitterns, woodcocks and snipes all nest in this environment, while ospreys and egrets winter here.
The Mariahof at De Luysen is am old farm from the start of the 19th century, bought by the Belgian state in 2005 and turned into visitor centre for the reserve.
9. Lost Gates and Towers
One look at Bree on a map and you’ll see that it has a Medieval street plan, with a ring road that took the place of the ramparts and moat in 1870. The road bears the names of the different sections of the former wall (Witte Torenwal, Grauwe Torenwal, Ter Rivierenwal). But even more interesting is that the outlines of the Bree’s four lost city gates have been preserved in the paving.
This applies to the Gerdingerpoort, De Witte Toren and the Opitterpoort.
The latter, in the south-east of Bree, marks out two horse-shoe-shaped towers with a tiny passage between them, showing just how much smaller people and livestock were in the Middle Ages compared to now.
On the southern axis of the ring is you can actually see the excavated foundations of the Grauwe Toren, also with a horseshoe footprint.
Bree’s space for recreation is a brief ride south of the city centre and is a treat for young children in particular thanks to its fun-packed playgrounds and water-themed Bronneke.
A nice addition is the multisensory “G Pad” designed for disabled children, but available to all.
There’s also outdoor fitness equipment, a basketball court, skate park, football pitch and a cafe, open June, July and August.
Also in the grounds, though obviously not a casual visitor attraction is the tennis centre of excellence set up in the 2010s by former world No.
1 and French Open and Wimbledon champion Kim Clijsters.
She was born nearby, grew up in Bree and still lives here, while the Kim Clijsters Academy is a world-class facility with 20 courts and cutting edge facilities for fitness and sports medicine.
If you live in the area, the academy does run “Kids’ Tennis Fun Camps” during the school holidays.
11. Vallei van de Abeek
This nature reserve ten minutes in the car from Bree is also on the Abeek stream, and you can wander in the alder forest and cross the marshes via a wooden boardwalk.
The time to make the trip has to be early spring, before the leaves grow, when wildflowers like white wood sorrel, celandine and marsh-marigold are in bloom on the forest floor.
In winter meanwhile the forest is aflutter with Eurasian siskins that come to feed on the alder seeds.
12. Rijtuigmuseum Bree
Bree resident André Jonckers has a very specific hobby, collecting historic horse-drawn carriages and paraphernalia relating to them.
So as well as some 20 antique carriages, he has gathered uniforms, tools, numerous miniature carriages and the largest collection of carriage stoves in Belgium, made from copper, iron or wood.
The carriages themselves date mostly from the late-19th century.
Among them are models and styles now long consigned to history, like the barouche, landau, chaise, Victoria or shooting-brake.
A visit costs €2 and the museum is open daily by appointment.
13. Archeologisch Park de Rieten
A minor attraction to the south-west of Bree is an archaeological park preserving Iron Age burial mounds that were discovered near the village of Wijshagen in 1984. There’s evidence here of several hundred years of human activity, between around the 6th century and the 1st century BCE.
The people who lived here at that time were farmers, cattle breeders and artisans.
But their graves, full of bronze, iron, earthenware and even gold point to a high-degree of sophistication and continent-wide trade.
Artefacts discovered at this site are now amongst the most important pieces at institutions like the Gallo-Roman Museum in Tongeren.
There are three graves for Celtic chiefs, two everyday graves, a mass burial ground for 44 people and a Roman shrine.
14. Snow Valley
Skiing may not be the first activity that comes to mind in Belgian Limburg, but there’s a year-round winter sports centre close by in Peer.
Snow Valley has three slopes, the longest of which, De Grote Piste is 350 metres and catering to everyone from beginners to pros.
If you’re a complete newcomer the Oefen Piste (practice slope) is the one for you, at 100 metres long and with a light gradient.
Then there’s the steeper, 85-metre Boarders Paradise, packed with jumps, rails and boxes for freestylers to do their thing.
Snow Valley has a big choice of packages when it come to tuition, but if you already know the ropes and just want to enjoy the snow, and you can rent all the gear you need.
15. Wekelijkse Vrijdagmarkt
On Friday mornings from 08:00 ’til 12:00 the southern half of Bree’s city centre becomes one big street market.
This curls through the streets like a long snake on Grauwe Torenwal, Ter Rivierenwal, Hoogstraat, Nieuwstadstraat, Kloosterpoort, Markt and Vrijthof.
There are more than 120 stall on market day, honouring a tradition that goes back as far as the 13th century when Bree gained city rights.
An excise duties register from 1437 shows that livestock, beer, wine, cheese, soap, tanned leather, linseed, wool and much more were sold on Bree’s streets.
Now you can potter around the stalls, browsing fresh produce, fish, meat, clothes and fabrics before taking a break at one of Bree’s many cafes.