OBJECTIVE: to explore midwives' views on ideal and actual maternity care. DESIGN: a qualitative hermeneutic phenomenological study based on the method of van Manen (1997) using individual in-depth interviews to gather data. SETTING: Flanders, Belgium. PARTICIPANTS: 12 purposively sampled midwives, of whom nine from three different non-university hospitals and three independent midwives conducting home births. FINDINGS: five major themes were identified: 'woman-centred care', 'cultural change', 'support', 'midwife and obstetrician as equal partners' and 'inter-collegial harmony'. In this paper 'woman-centred care', 'cultural change' and 'support' are discussed along with their subthemes. Midwives thought ideal maternity care should be woman-centred in which there were no unnecessary interventions, women were able to make an informed choice and there was continuity of care. Furthermore, ideal maternity care should be supported by midwifery education and an adequate staffing level. Also, a cultural change was wanted as actual maternity care was perceived to be highly medicalised. Barriers to achieving woman-centred care and possible strategies to overcome these were described. CONCLUSIONS: findings from this study were consistent with those of other studies on midwives' experience with obstetric-led care. Despite the medicalised care, midwives still held a woman-centred ideology. In order to be able to work according to their ideology, different barriers need to be addressed. Although midwives suggested strategies to overcome these barriers, some were considered to be very difficult to overcome.