BELGIUM TRAVEL GUIDE
Is Belgium the ultimate European destination for chocolate and beer lovers? Probably, but even if it's not we definitely know that Belgium is a destination for every traveller! With its myriad of famous World War battlegrounds, more castles per square mile than any other country, every type of museum imaginable - and more than 1000 beer breweries! - all packed into a tiny country, you can hardly go wrong.
Belgium is far from boring and once you've been there, you would agree that it might just be one of Europe's most underrated destinations. Home to the EU, NATO and a host of giant corporations, the thought of Belgium can easily conjure up images of a stuffy business destination but it's much more than that. Home to stunning architecture and dozens of UNESCO World Heritage sites, you will be delighted with its town squares and funky urban neighbourhoods along with some of Europe's best beer, creamiest chocolate, and crispiest fries.
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BELGIUM QUICK FACTS
- Capital: Brussels
- Currency: Euro (EUR)
- Area: 30,510 km²
- Population: 10,414,336 (July 2009 est.)
- Language: Dutch (official) 60%, French (official) 40%, German (official) less than 1%
- Electricity: 230/50Hz (European plug)
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BELGIUM PUBLIC HOLIDAYS
- 1 May, Labor Day
- 11 July, Flemish Community Holiday
- 21 July, National Holiday
- 15 August, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
- 27 September, French Community Holiday
- 1 November, All Saints Day
- 11 November, Armistice Day
- 15 November, German Community Holiday
Also, Easter, Easter Monday, Ascension Day, Pentecost (Whit Sunday), and Whit Monday (the Monday after Pentecost).
FESTIVALS IN BELGIUM
BEST TIME TO VISIT BELGIUM
Belgium's latitude and the proximity of the sea warmed by the Gulf Stream give Belgium a temperate maritime climate characterised by moderate temperatures, prevailing southerly to westerly winds, abundant cloud cover, and frequent precipitation. Summers are relatively cool and humid and winters relatively mild and rainy.
- Pre-Easter weekends - Belgium hosts many of Europe's weirdest carnivals, not just at Mardi Gras.
- February & March - Belgium symbolically burn the spirit of winter on the first weekend after Carnival.
- July & August - Countless festivals, hotels are packed at the coast but it's cheaper in Brussels.
For the most visited tourist spots in Belgium like Bruges, you will find peak season to coincide with the European summer. Although from mid-June things really gets a lot busier - with long days filled with festivals and sunny weather, summer can still be a good time to visit despite the crowds in some areas. During late spring and during fall you will find milder weather and thinner crowds with the weather still pleasant. (Just watch out for holiday long-weekends). The slower season starts as early as late October and the weather can be wet and cold with an influx of coastal wind. During this time you can still comfortably visit cities but might find the countryside a bit dreary.
BELGIUM WEATHER SYNOPSIS
BELGIUM TOURIST SEASONS
Most destinations have different times of the year when they’re more or less popular with tourists.
Off Peak Season
SPORT & ACTIVITIES
SNOW SPORT IN BELGIUM
The snow sports season in Belgium can start as early as November and lasts until the end of March. The busiest period is from mid-December through to February, with the lesser crowded times in the beginning of December and March.
HIKING & CYCLING IN BELGIUM
The best time for outdoor activities in Belgium is from May to September. April and October are also feasible, but the temperatures can be rather low and the days are also shorter.
BEACH OPTIONS IN BELGIUM
Belgium's short 60km long coast is lined with beautiful beaches such as: Ostend, De Panne, Blankenberg, De Haan, Oostduinkerke, Nieuwpoort, Middelkerke, Knokke-Heist, Koksijde & Zeebrugge.
SURFING IN BELGIUM
Despite Belgium's extremely short coastline, there are some great surf spots such as Mariakerke, Westende, Ooostduinkerke and Bredene around Oostende as well as Blankenberge and Surfers Paradise near the Dutch border.
KITESURF IN BELGIUM
Belgium's short 60km long coastline has approximately 15 kitesurfing spots along it, such as De Haan. While some spots are a little close to buildings, at least the wind is fairly constant from March through till November.
For more details on kite surfing in Belgium expand this section!
HEALTH RISKS IN BELGIUM
Be aware of possible health risks in
Yellow fever - The yellow fever virus is found in tropical and subtropical areas of Africa and South America. The virus is spread to people by the bite of an infected mosquito. There is no medicine to treat or cure an infection. To prevent getting sick from yellow fever, use insect repellent, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants, and get vaccinated.
Zika Virus - Zika is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. Zika can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus. Infection during pregnancy can cause certain birth defects. There is no vaccine or medicine for Zika.
Malaria - Malaria is a serious and sometimes fatal disease caused by a parasite that commonly infects a certain type of mosquito which feeds on humans. People who get malaria are typically very sick with high fevers, shaking chills, and flu-like illness. Although malaria can be a deadly disease, illness and death from malaria can usually be prevented.
Dengue - Dengue is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. These mosquitoes bite during the day and night. About one in four people infected with dengue will get sick. For people who get sick with dengue, symptoms can be mild or severe.
BELGIUM TRAVEL COSTS
Belgium is not a cheap country. Yes, it can be done on a budget but it’s a tight budget. There are just a lot of high costs here and food and drink can really add up. Travelling by bicycle, eating picnics bought from supermarkets and cooking your own food at campsites, it’s possible to keep costs down to €25 a day per person. Moving up a notch, if you picnic at lunch, stick to less expensive bars and restaurants, and stay in cheap hotels or hostels, you could get by on around €50–60 a day. Staying in two-star hotels, eating out in medium-range restaurants, and going to bars, you should reckon on about €120 a day, the main variable is the cost of your room.
BELGIUM TRAVEL TIPS
Here are some tips on how to save money in Belgium:
Go on a free walking tour – This is a great way to learn the history behind the places you are seeing and to avoid missing any must-see stops.
Get a city tourist card – Local tourism offices issue a tourist card for all their attractions, tours, and restaurants. This card gives you free entry and substantial discounts on all the attractions and tours in a city, free local public transportation (a huge plus), and discounts at a few restaurants and shopping malls. They can save you a ton of money.
Rideshare – If you’re flexible in your schedule, use the ridesharing service BlaBlaCar and catch rides with locals between cities (or countries).
Most cities have transportation passes to help you keep your budget intact. For example, Brussels has a STIB-MIVB pass of which the JUMP 24H will give you unlimited rides for 24 hours. In Antwerp, you can purchase a day pass for €6-8 EUR. Multi-day options are also available.
SIGHTS & HIGHLIGHTS OF BELGIUM
- Bruges - Coming on weekdays off-season to appreciate the picture-perfect canal scenes of this medieval city, without the tourist overload.
- Ghent - Being wooed by one of Europe's greatest underappreciated all-round discoveries.
- Brussels - Savouring the 'world's most beautiful square', then seeking out remarkable cafés, chocolate shops and art nouveau survivors.
- Antwerp - Following fashion to this hip yet historic city.
- Ypres - Pondering the heartbreaking futility of WWI in Flanders' fields around its meticulously rebuilt medieval core.
- Wallonia - Exploring the caves and castles of Belgium's rural southern half.
If you're into history and wars then Belgium has loads to keep you busy on that front alone. The Battle of Waterloo took place in 1815 and bought an abrupt end to the Napoleonic Wars of the time. You can visit the site of the famous event as well as other attractions relating to the battle. More infamous and unmissable World War battlefields can be found near Ypres in the form of Flanders Fields with memorials, museums, and cemeteries are interspersed with artillery craters and pastures.
You can literally spend an entire lifetime visiting castles around Belgium with more than 3000 of these ancient structures scattered around the country. Of particular interest due to its age is Castle of Bouillon in the Ardennes. Built during the 12th century, the Cathedral of Our Lady in Tournai (Notre Dame) is an incredible example of Romanesque architecture.
RECOMMENDED ITINERARIES FOR BELGIUM
This is just barely long enough to get a first taste of Belgium's four finest 'art cities': Bruges, Ghent, Brussels and Antwerp, all easy jump-offs for short excursions while you're traveling by train between Paris and Amsterdam. Bruges is the fairy-tale 'Venice of the north', Ghent has similar canalside charms without the tourist hordes, and Brussels' incomparable Grand Place is worth jumping off any train for, even if you have only a few hours to spare. Cosmopolitan Antwerp goes one further, adding in fashion and diamonds. If you're overnighting make sure to hit Brussels on a weekend and Bruges on a weekday to get the best deals on accommodation.
Add in a side trip to Leuven, then swing into Wallonia, visiting Waterloo, the excellent museums of Mons, the picturesque castles and views of the Ardennes, especially Bouillon, then pretty Luxembourg. All while trying the excellent local beers along the way, of course.
Urbane capital of Belgium, the European Union, and NATO, with one of Europe's grandest squares. Most travellers just breeze through en-route to Amsterdam or Paris but Brussels is more than just a stuffy corporate zone. Brussels is historic yet hip, bureaucratic yet bizarre, self-confident yet unshowy, and multicultural to its roots. All this plays out in a cityscape that swings from majestic to quirky to rundown and back again. Organic art nouveau facades face off against 1960s concrete developments, and regal 19th-century mansions contrast with the brutal glass of the EU’s Gotham City. This whole maelstrom swirls out from Brussels’ medieval core, where the Grand Place is surely one of the world’s most beautiful squares. One constant is the enviable quality of everyday life, with a café–bar scene that never gets old.
- Brussels’ magnificent Grand Place is one of the world’s most unforgettable urban ensembles. Oddly hidden, the enclosed cobblestone square is only revealed as you enter on foot from one of six narrow side alleys: Rue des Harengs is the best first approach. The focal point is the spired 15th-century city hall, but each of the antique guildhalls (mostly 1697–1705) has a charm of its own.
- Rue Charles Buls is Brussels’ most unashamedly touristy shopping street, lined with chocolate and trinket shops – leads the hordes three blocks from the Grand Place to the Manneken Pis. This fountain-statue of a little boy taking a leak is comically tiny and a perversely perfect national symbol for surreal Belgium. Most of the time the statue’s nakedness is hidden beneath a costume relevant to an anniversary, national day or local event: his ever-growing wardrobe is partly displayed at the Maison du Roi.
- Lace making has been one of Flanders’ finest crafts since the 16th century. While kloskant (bobbin lace) originated in Bruges, naaldkant (needlepoint lace) was developed in Italy but was predominantly made in Brussels. The excellent Musée du Costume et de la Dentelle reveals lace’s applications for under- and outerwear over the centuries, as well as displaying other luxury textiles in beautifully presented changing exhibitions.
- The space-age Atomium looms 102m over north Brussels’ suburbia, resembling a steel alien from a '60s Hollywood movie. It consists of nine house-sized metallic balls linked by steel tube-columns containing escalators and lifts. The balls are arranged like a school chemistry set to represent iron atoms in their crystal lattice…except these are 165 billion times bigger. It was built as a symbol of postwar progress for the 1958 World’s Fair and became an architectural icon, receiving a makeover in 2006.
The Flemish Region of Belgium (or Flanders) is a Dutch-speaking area in the country's north, and one of 3 Belgian regions. The national capital, Brussels, considered its own region, lies near Flanders’ southern edge. Antwerp is a port city and major diamond trade center with a reputation for fashion design. Its Royal Museum of Fine Arts has a large collection of paintings by Flemish masters.
Lively, self-confident Leuven is Flanders' oldest university town and home to the vast Stella Artois brewery. Its greatest attraction is a flamboyant 15th-century Stadhuis lavished with exterior statuary. Other architectural attractions are patchy due to heavy damage sustained in 20th-century wars, but the iconic university library has been rebuilt - twice. Muntstraat is a loveable medieval alley popular with locals and visitors alike and Oude Markt is a very lively square of wall-to-wall bars that hum till the early hours. Terrace cafes surround the stadhuis, and perpetually packed, casually stylish restaurants and bars spill tables onto cosy flag-decked Munstraat.
Belgium's religious capital, Mechelen features the St-Romboutskathedraal cathedral, with its 97m, 15th-century tower that soars above a particularly memorable central market square. There are other splendid churches on Keizerstraat where the courthouse and theatre were both once royal palaces in the days when the Low Countries were effectively run from Mechelen. Other top sights include the brilliant Speelgoedmuseum Toy Museum and the Schepenhuis gallery tower on IJzerenleen, a street of fine baroque facades leading towards the main station passing close to Vismarkt, the compact bar-cafe zone. Mechelen’s agricultural specialities include witloof (endives) and especially asperges (asparagus), prominent on restaurant menus mid-April to late June.
Second largest city and home to excellent shopping and Belgium's best fashion, Antwerp is a modern city offering a mix of its old school port city grittiness and its youthful, trendy vibe. It's long been a powerful magnet for everyone from fashion moguls and club queens to art lovers and diamond dealers. In the mid-16th century it was one of Europe’s most important cities and home to baroque superstar painter Pieter Paul Rubens – there are numerous places to admire his works across the city. Antwerp may seem far more sartorially laid-back than fashion heavyweights Paris or Milan, but it punches above its weight. In the space of just a few streets you'll find dozens of designer boutiques, along with a variety of streetwear, end-of-line discounters, upmarket vintage and designer consignment shops and more mainstream labels. Few places in the world have such a convenient and covetable concentration. The tourist office has a fashion-walk directory pamphlet or you can simply stroll Nationalestraat, Lombardenvest, Huidevettersstraat and Schuttershofstraat, not missing Kammenstraat for streetwear and up-and-coming designers.
Ghent is one of Europe’s greatest discoveries – small enough to feel cosy but big enough to stay vibrant. It has enough medieval frivolity to create a spectacle but retains a gritty industrial edge that keeps things ‘real’. Tourists remain surprisingly thin on the ground, yet with its fabulous canalside architecture, wealth of quirky bars and some of Belgium’s most fascinating museums, this is a city you really won’t want to miss. Most major sights are strolling distance from Korenmarkt, the westernmost of three interlinked squares that form the heart of Ghent's historic core.
Bruges is the oldest and most picturesque city of Old Flanders is a Gothic wonder with its charming cobblestone alleys and intimate city squares. Famous for its chocolate shops on every corner and world-class beer, you will wonder at the medieval rooftops, get lost amongst the canals, immerse yourself amongst in the world of Flemish masterpieces of art and architecture. For a perfect way to capture the magic of the city, take a half-hour canal trip! The real joy of Bruges is simply wandering alongside the canals, soaking up the atmosphere. To avoid the worst crowds, explore east of pretty Jan van Eyckplein. The heart of ancient Bruges, the old market square is lined with pavement cafes beneath step-gabled facades. The buildings aren't always quite as medieval as they look, but together they create a fabulous scene and even the neo-Gothic post office is architecturally magnificent. The scene is dominated by the Belfort, Belgium's most famous belfry, whose iconic octagonal tower is arguably better appreciated from afar than by climbing 366 claustrophobic steps to the top.
Only the hardest of hearts are unmoved by historic Ypres (Ieper in Dutch). In the Middle Ages it was an important cloth town ranking alongside Bruges and Ghent. In WWI some 300,000 Allied soldiers died in the ‘Salient’, a bow-shaped bulge that formed the front line around town. Ypres remained unoccupied by German forces, but was utterly flattened by bombardment. After the war, the beautiful medieval core was convincingly rebuilt and the restored Ypres Lakenhalle is today one of the most spectacular buildings in Belgium. Most tourism still revolves around WWI; the Salient is dotted with cemeteries, memorials, bunkers and war museums.
Make some time for hilly Wallonia, Belgium’s French-speaking southern half. Wallonia's cities have plenty of charm, but the region's standout attractions are mostly rural – outdoor activities, fabulous caves and venerable castles.
With a characterful medieval centre climbing up a hill and a fine Grand Place, Mons (Bergen in Dutch) had a substantial facelift in 2015, when it was a European Capital of Culture. The legacy is a handful of entertaining modern museums that make Mons an excellent visit, with plenty to keep you busy for two or three days. One museum covers war in excellent fashion, while another celebrates the riotous Doudou festival, which stars St George, a dragon, St Waudru, devils and thousands of beery revellers.
Wallonia has some magnificent castles dotted right across it. If you're only going to visit one, though, make it Bouillon. Dreamily arrayed around a tight loop of the Semois River, Bouillon is protected by its gloriously medieval stronghold, gnarled and grim up on the hill. On a summer evening, limpid light and reflections in the water can make this one of Belgium’s prettiest towns. The Château de Bouillon, Belgium’s finest feudal castle, accessed by two stone bridges between crags, harks back to 988, but is especially associated with Crusader knight Godefroid (Godefroy) de Bouillon. The super-atmospheric castle still has everything you might wish for – dank dripping passageways tunnelling into the hillside, musty half-lit cell rooms, rough-hewn stairwells and many an eerie nook and cranny to discover.
WHAT TO EAT IN BELGIUM
Belgium’s famous lagers (eg Stella Artois) and white beers (Hoegaarden) are now global brands. But what has connoisseurs really drooling are the robust, rich ‘abbey’ beers (originally brewed in monasteries), and the ‘Trappist beers’ (that still are). Chimay, Rochefort, Westmalle and Orval are the best known. But for beer maniacs the one that really counts is ultra-rare Westvleteren XII.
Dining is a treat in Belgium, where meals are often described as being French in quality and German in quantity. Classic, home-style dishes from Belgium include the following:
- Chicons au gratin - Endive rolled in ham and cooked in cheese/béchamel sauce.
- Filet Américain - A blob of raw minced beef, typically topped with equally raw egg yolk.
- Kniddelen - Dumplings.
- Mosselen/moules - Steaming cauldrons of in-the-shell mussels, typically cooked in white wine and served with a mountain of frites (chips).
- Paling in 't groen - Eel in a sorrel or spinach sauce.
- Stoemp - Mashed veg-and-potato dish.
- Vlaamse stoverij/carbonade flamande - Semi-sweet beer-based meat casserole.
- Waterzooi - A cream-based chicken or fish stew.
LGBTQ IN BELGIUM
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) rights in Belgium are seen as some of the most progressive in Europe and in the world. Same-sex sexual activity was legalised in 1795, with an equal age of consent, except from 1965 until 1985. After granting same-sex couples domestic partnership benefits in 2000, Belgium became the second country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage in 2003.
Today same-sex relationships are widely accepted and Belgium hosts annual Pride events.
WHERE TO STAY IN BELGIUM
Many business hotels in Brussels drop their rates dramatically at weekends and in summer. Double rooms with September midweek rates of €240 might cost as little as €69 in August. Brussels also has a reasonable network of B&Bs, many listed and bookable through Bed & Brussels, or try sites like Airbnb and Wimdu.
In Bruges almost all options can get seriously overbooked from Easter to October and over Christmas. Things get especially tough at weekends when two-night minimum stays are often required. Many cheaper B&Bs charge around €10 per room less if you stay more than one night.
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