Named for a ford on the River Zenne, the city of Vilvoorde is about 10 kilometres north-east of Brussels and linked to the capital by the Brussels-Scheldt Canal.
Vilvoorde gained city rights as long ago as 1198, and for decades until the end of the 20th century was associated with heavy industry.
That chapter closed when the Renault plant shut down in 1997, but the city has since become a base for media companies and broadcasters like VTM, the main commercial TV station in Flanders.
For visitors Vilvoorde has a twice-weekly market, an updated central square and canal-side area, and lots of worthwhile historical monuments here and there.
Regionally the people of Vilvoorde have the nickname “pjeirefretters”, which means horse-eaters.
The city has a long history for breeding horses, and horse steak remains a town speciality.
1. Onze-Lieve-Vrouw van Goede Hoop
As long ago as the 10th century there was a Romanesque village church at this location.
By the 14th century Vilvoorde was at the height of its political and economic power through the textile trade, so a new, appropriately grand Gothic church was constructed.
This came together over more than 100 years, and was then given Baroque fittings in the 17th century.
An element from an earlier time is a northern sacristy from the 1200s.
The church’s most lauded feature is its glorious set of Baroque choir stalls (1663), relocated from the dissolved Groenendael Priory, south-east of Brussels.
Also seek out the weightless Baroque pulpit, with carving by sculptor Artus Quellinus de Jonge, and ledger stones for nobility from the 17th and 18th century.
2. Domein Drie Fonteinen
This genteel estate, one of the oldest landscape parks in the country, is named for a fountain by a lock of the old Brussels-Rupelmonde canal where skippers would stop for water.
The land was bought by Brussels banker Jean Joseph Walckiers in the 1760s, and he soon laid out an English landscape garden, something that hadn’t been seen on these shores at that time.
A few elements around the estate go back to Walckiers’ day, including ice cellars and a rare double-decker gallery bridge over the moat.
In 1838 the estate was bought by future Brussels mayor Guillaume Van Volxem (1791-1868), whose descendants would establish their own French-style parterre around a château.
That property was lost in the Second World War, but the formal garden with alleys, a circular water basin, conical topiaries remains, all fronting stables and an orangery.
You can amble in the parkland, woods and parterre, and there’s a brasserie in the orangery.
The forbidding Neoclassical prison just in from the Brussels-Scheldt canal was built in 1779 over a ducal castle that had stood since the 14th century.
The castle’s material was reused in the prison’s foundations.
The Tuchthuis has a lot of tales to tell, designed as an Enlightenment-era model prison, but criticised because of an unhealthy location by the Zenne, lack of natural light and poor ventilation.
The man behind it, Laurent Benoit Dewez fell into disgrace because of this and lost his status as court architect.
It closed as a prison in 1871 becoming a barracks until 1974 and then hosting local clubs and associations until the 1990s.
Now the Tuchthuis is at the heart of a regeneration project, the Kanaalpark, within the larger canal-side Watersite.
An upscale hotel, The Lodge, has opened in a wing on the courtyard, but the rest of the building has been frozen in the past.
If you fancy looking around the old barrel vaults, still embellished with murals by former prisoners you can book a guided tour through the municipality’s communications department.
4. Grote Markt
If you haven’t been to the centre of Vilvoorde in the last few years you may wonder if you’ve ended up in a different city.
The main market square has been transformed with an 18-month project, completed in April 2018. The problem was that Grote Markt had become one giant car park, with loose cobblestones that were a hazard for pedestrians.
The new square, equipped with Wi-Fi, is laid with smooth paving stones, while young lime trees have now been planted in special berths, fed with an optimal irrigation system.
All the cars have been moved to a new two storey underground car park with 192 spaces.
Fair to say that Grote Markt has been given back to Vilvoorde, with a snazzy new shelter, a modern fountain that kids adore in summer and a smattering of cafe and restaurant terraces.
Hard to ignore on the south side of the Grote Markt is the city hall, in a ceremonious Neoclassical style from the early-1870s.
With a facade carved with window pediments, pilasters, niches and corbels, the Stadhuis contrasts with the square’s mostly discreet, low-rise architecture.
If you can go in, there’s a lot of art inside, including a piece by 19th-century Orientalist Jean-François Portaels and a bust of Albert I by sculptor Rik Poot.
There’s also a fine stained glass window, which is a replica of one by Louis de Contini first exhibited at the Exposition Internationale d’Anvers (1894) but lost when Vilvoorde’s gunpowder factory, t’Poeierke exploded in 1919.
West of the railway station, Hanssenspark is named for Edmond Hanssens, mayor of Vilvoorde when the park opened at the end of the 19th century.
It was planted in an English landscape style around a one-acre pond on a section of the moat for the city’s ramparts.
Vilvoorde’s horticultural school (Tuinbouwschool) still open to this day, supplied the park’s plants and carried out its design.
In 2020 the park is a vital green link between two urban renewal projects, in the west at Watersite on the canal and in the east around the railway station.
The pond is traced by lots of foliage, flowerbeds and grassy spaces for picnics, and is crossed in the middle by an iron bridge.
There’s also a designated dog area, a basketball court and a big adventure playground for kids.
7. Grimbergen Abbey
The oldest inhabited Norbertine abbey in Belgium is a little way across the canal in Grimbergen.
This was first founded in the 1120s and has been razed and rebuilt a few times, in the 12th, 16th and then the early-19th century after being dissolved for a few decades during the French Revolution.
It’s fitting then that the abbey’s symbol should be a phoenix with the motto, “Ardet nec Consumitur” (Burned but not Destroyed). The 17th-century Baroque abbey church doubles as a parish church and was made a basilica minor in 1999. Held as one of the most harmonious Baroque churches in the Low Countries, it survived the French Revolution largely intact.
The elongated choir will hold your gaze for its beautifully carved stalls from the turn of the 18th century, paintings by Richard van Orley (1663-1732) and floor-to-ceiling high altar.
Grimbergen was launched as a popular mass-production beer brand in the 1950s, but after a 220-year hiatus Grimbergen Abbey’s monks set up their own microbrewery in the 2010s on the rediscovery of brewing documents going back to the 12th century.
You can consult the Grimbergen tourist office for a tour of the monastery’s Abdijbiermuseum (Abbey Beer Museum).
8. Grimbergen Castle (Prinsenkasteel)
For centuries the lords and princes of Grimbergen resided at this now ruined castle, still found within a moat on its wooded estate, the Prinsenbos.
The story of Grimbergen Castle began around the beginning of the 13th century, and the vestiges that you see today are from the early-15th century on the foundations of that earlier building.
When it became redundant in defensive terms, the castle was made into a palatial residence and estate in the 17th century.
Its demise came in 1944 when the retreating German army set fire to the ammunition depot they had installed inside.
What was left was the keep, a circular corner tower and a piece of the facade joining the two.
These are now the romantic focal point of a picturesque park, and there are information signs by the moat recounting the castle’s past.
9. Ferme Nos Pilifs
Ten minutes from Vilvoorde is a farm run by a non-profit organisation established to give employment opportunities to disabled people.
Ferme Nos Pilifs is a super visit for families, with paths through idyllic woodland, meadows and vegetable gardens, and past paddocks for goats, poultry, donkeys and cows.
There’s also a playground for littler visitors.
You can buy homemade goodies and organic produce grown on the farm from the shop/bakery, and there’s a restaurant with a seasonal menu using ingredients from the farm.
Ferme Nos Pilifs is engaged in the community, putting on eco-gardening workshops and catering to school visits, birthday parties and special breakfasts once a month when you can find out how the farm’s animals are cared for.
If you need a scenic, punctual and congestion-proof way to get to the centre of Brussels the Waterbus is what you’re looking for.
This service on the Brussels-Scheldt Canal was launched in 2013 and runs between Vilvoorde centrum and Place Sainctelette in the capital, making several stops and taking 55 minutes in all.
There are services from the beginning of May to the end of October, with additional departures on weekends between the start of July and mid-August.
You can book a ticket online and won’t need to reserve a place, while a single costs as little as €2.
Flemish Brabant has a 1,800-kilometre network of paved, level cycle paths that you can negotiate via numbered junctions called “knooppunten”. Using these it’s easy as can be to travel far and wide on two wheels.
In Vilvoorde the obvious choice for a cycling excursion is along the Brussels-Scheldt Canal, the east bank of which has been spruced up as part of the city’s Watersite scheme.
If you need extra inspiration you can make for the city’s information point for maps and themed trails in the region (chicory for instance). You could also ride a portion of the Gordel, a 100-kilometre route encircling Brussels.
This shares the name of an annual mass ride and walk on the city’s periphery in September, although it doesn’t follow quite the same route.
And finally if you need a pair of wheels it may be worth signing up for the Blue-bike share scheme.
There’s a “bike point” just outside the train station.
Vilvoorde rolls back the years for one day in May for this venerable agricultural event.
In 2022 Jaarmarkt will celebrate its 160th edition.
On this day Franklin Rooseveltplein is carpeted with sand, and livestock farmers from all regions of Belgium show up all dressed in white for competitions and demonstrations.
If you’re in town for the Jaarmarkt it’s a great opportunity to see the Belgian draft horse in all its beauty.
There are prize categories for the best horse, as well as goats, Shetland ponies, poultry, donkeys and even rabbits.
During the event you can also check out a display of vintage agricultural vehicles, as well as all sorts of market stalls.
13. Woensdag- en Zaterdagmarkt
One of the things that makes Vilvoorde a regional commercial hub, despite its proximity to the capital, is its weekly market held on Wednesdays and Saturdays and pulling in traders and shoppers from all over.
This takes place on Franklin Rooseveltplein between 08:30 and 12:30. The list of traders seems to grow by the year, and it’s a place to go for seasonal fruit and vegetables, fresh bread, pastries, cut flowers, meat, fish cheese, confectionery, clothing, accessories and a great deal more.
There’s also food on the go whether you’re up for a fresh waffle or burger.
14. Thermae Boetfort
In the keep and outbuildings of a nearby 16th-century castle there’s a hotel and luxury spa a few minutes east in Steenokkerzeel.
Thermae Boetfort’s staff are kept up-to-date on all the latest techniques and advances.
The facilities are expansive too, so safe to say that the list of treatments is too long to list here.
For a quick run through there are thermal baths, saunas, anti-ageing facials, detox packages, depilation, manicures, pedicures, peels and massages from Chinese to shiatsu, hot stone, lomi lomi, hammam and many more.
Keep it simple with a day package like “Bellona”, which includes an 80-minute full-body massage, scrub sessions and unlimited access to the thermal baths.
15. Station Vilvoorde
Something you might not know about Vilvoorde is that it had a station on the very first passenger line built on mainland Europe, between Brussels and Mechelen (the modern Belgian Railway Line 25). That first station, from 1835 was a few hundred metres of the current neo-Renaissance building, raised in 1882. This stately building, with a hipped roof and horizontal bands of stone and brick, was listed as a protected monument in 1975. When it was completed, a whole new city district was built around it, in an area now going through urban renewal.
The building is at street level but you have to climb steps to the elevated railway lines.