With its cobbled streets, ancient churches, beautiful belfry and fine 17th-century houses, Mons gently exudes charm. It is, of course, known the world over for the First World War battle that was fought here, yet today such sombre associations seem a far cry from the university buzz and very go-ahead outlook of the residents. Strikingly positioned at the top of a hill, the old town has been cleverly and carefully preserved, yet stretching out beneath it is a bustling new sector locally termed "Digital Valley". Mons as a whole is gearing up for its role as European Capital of Culture in 2015, when it also aims to launch a green charter for cutting-edge sustainable development.
Tradition, though, is still an enormously important aspect of life here. Every year on Trinity Sunday the population unites for a procession when the relics of the 7th-century Saint Waudru are taken out of Mons cathedral and paraded around the old town in a golden carriage. And of course gourmet traditions are also upheld. A great chocolate festival takes place every March, followed by another celebrating beer in late April or early May.
At whatever time of year you choose to visit, there are plenty of local food specialities to taste. Have a coffee and a macaron de Mons – a particularly crunchy and light meringue confection made with almonds or vanilla. Try the Mons raton car d'or, a pancake filled with local ham, cheese and crème fraiche. Sample soupe montoise, a country potage made with potatoes, leeks and celery. Enjoy a hearty dish of côtes de porc à l'berdouille, pork chops in a dark sauce flavoured with tarragon and gherkins. (You'll tune in to the wry local humour when you learn that berdouille means "mud" in the dialect of the area.)
The best way to see old Mons is to wander along the network of narrow lanes. So browse your way around and take a tasting tour at the same time. Start by visiting local chocolate maker Mon Ami Le Chocolatier (00 324 8491 8672; monamilechocolatier.com) at rue de Nimy 38. It's best to arrive early, since the shop is often shut for afternoon chocolate-making sessions (which guarantee, of course, that the products are very fresh). The quality is exceptional, whether you choose pralines, delicate truffles, or white chocolate with lavender.
Next go south to a great cheese shop, La Fromagerie Vandoorne (0032 6531 8432; fromages.be) at Rue d'Havré 8. The range is generous: try St Feuillien, a semi-hard cheese ripened with local beer of the same name; or sample Fromage Abbaye de Chimay, the product of an old Trappist monastery. Then meander along Rue de la Coupe, perhaps calling in for an ice cream at Le Glacier Devos at number 8.
Before long you'll want to stop at the large and lovely Grand Place. It has been a hub of commerce and politics since at least the 14th century and its magnificence reflects the city's historic status as capital of Hainaut province. Today, the square is lined with cafés spilling on to terraces that are perfect for people watching. Locals tend to gather at No Maison (0032 6531 1111) and L'Excelsior (0032 6536 3452).
Dining options, meanwhile, are a delight. For a chic, youthful vibe head to I Cook (0032 6333 4033; traiteuricook.com) at rue Notre Dame 2 where Mons specialities are given a gourmet twist. Enjoy excellent brasserie food and cool décor at L'Envers (0032 6535 4510; lenvers.net) at Rue de la Coupe 20. For a happy mix of good value and style, make tracks to La Table du Boucher (0032 6531 6838; lucbroutard.be) at Rue d'Havré 49 (three course menus from €35). Alternatively, on Rue du Miroir 23, you'll find a glittering dining place created by a Marie-Antoinette fan at the Salon des Lumières (00 324 7429 2584; salondes lumieres.com), where you can devour crêpes and desserts "inspired by the 18th century".
In the early 1980s when Luc Marchal set up his first restaurant, Mons was not generally applauded for the quality of its cuisine. The son of a pharmacist working near Mons, Marchal realised at an early age that he wanted to become a serious chef. Having trained at catering college in Namur, he was just 22 when he started a grill restaurant in Mons. From simple beginnings he developed a more elaborate style and 25 years ago he established Le Marchal (0032 6531 2402; marchal.be) in a classic old house beautifully located by the cathedral at Rampe St Waudru 4. In doing so, he also became one of the pioneers of fine cuisine in a town that now boasts an impressive number of high-end dining options. Fresh local produce, he says, is of paramount importance in his cooking – and he is always willing to try out new tastes.
Marchal devotes a great deal of energy to searching for just the right ingredients: tomatoes that really taste, potato varieties chosen for particular flavour (he serves blue potato mash with some dishes). He also selects wine and beer with great care – and he even makes a particular sabayon with Grisette from the nearby St Feuillien brewery. Marchal's five-course menu du marché is excellent value, from €35.