A country that most people visiting Europe might overlook because many outsiders seem to think that Belgium is only good as weekend-break material.
This country occupies a spot that has often decided the European balance of power; the Romans met their Germanic neighbors to the North, the Spanish fought Protestant rebels, Napoleon was defeated and there was a big role in WWI. So many powers had an interest in this region that it took until 1830 for Belgium to become an independent state.
There are historical cities and beautiful countryside in its hilly south, flat north and beachy west. But what most people come here for is fries, chocolate and beer. There are over 1000 breweries, making the most diverse range of beers of any country. The chocolate rivals the Swiss, and the fries will ruin any other french fries you eat for the rest of your life.
Top things to see and do in Belgium:
Eat mussels with fries.
It doesn’t really matter where you eat this national dish, because they serve it basically anywhere in the country. Mussels are in season from September to February, so try to eat them then since they’re fresh from the North Sea. For a ‘first-timer’, the giant black pot can seem intimidating but a lot of the space is taken up by the shells so do not worry! To look like you’ve been been eating mussels your whole life, use an empty shell to get the mussels out of their shells instead of a fork.
Castle of Bouillon
There are more castles per square meter in Belgium than anywhere else in the world, counting over 3000 in total. Due to these numbers it’s hard to figure out where to start but this giant should definitely go on your list.
Has a historic and UNESCO-listed center. This city was known as a commercial metropolis in the heart of Europe in medieval times and reflects the big influences on art and architecture, particularly in brick Neo-Gothic style.
The caves of Han
These caves are the result of the underground erosion of a limestone hill by the river Lesse. It’s cold and humid in there, but the vintage streetcar that now drives the old vicinal tramway system is a real treat. There’s a guided tour with sound and light show where they shoot a canon to demonstrate the acoustic properties of the biggest chamber
Explore Antwerp nightlife
This buzzing city has a student population of around 10.000 to ensure the nightlife remains lively around the clock. The docklands have great clubs but good bars can be found all over the historic center.
Coming down a steep slope in the heart of Liège, this is not actually a mountain but a long staircase that will literally take your breath away by the time you get to the top.
From late April to early May a few acres of woodlands on the edge of this forest are covered by an amazing carpet of wild bluebell hyacinths. If you are near Brussels during this period make sure to have it on your list!
A night in a dorm-room in one of the cities will cost you 25EUR but private doubles can start around 30EUR and the cheapest hotel 45EUR so there are plenty of options available. If you’re with more people, Couchsurfing and AirBnB are used frequently and can get you good prices even last minute and in popular places. Don’t be surprised when a Bed&breakfast is an actual rented out room in a private house. Camping is popular although you have to be lucky weather-wise. There are plenty of campsites to choose from, varying from an empty field to extensive complexes.
For such a small country, there’s a surprising amount of diversity in food. Pork, beef, fish and seafood are often cooked with butter, cream, herbs, and sometimes beer – which is, after all, the national drink. Soup is also common, sometimes served in a huge tureen from which you can help yourself to make for a reasonably priced meal. Restaurants are usually open at lunchtime (noon–2pm), but the main focus is in the evening. Expect to pay around 15EUR for a hot meal in a cafe-bar or 25EUR in a restaurant, except when they have a cheaper daily menu. French fries and a fried snack at a snackbar cost around 4 EUR. If you want to cook your own meals, there are great markets in almost every town that will allow you to eat cheap.
The best way of getting around Belgium is by train. They are fast, frequent, very punctual and fares are quite low. For example, a standard, second-class ticket will cost about 15EUR. Ask for deals, like the special weekend return, to make it even more affordable. Cycling the short distances and largely flat terrain can be a fun and effortless way of getting around, but can be dangerous if you’re not used to bikes in cities. In the countryside are dozens of clearly signposted cycle routes to follow with maps and routes available at local tourist offices. Prices for renting a bike start at around 10EUR a day.
Belgium is filled with parties and special events, from religious processions to cinema, fairs and contemporary music festivals. Rock Werchter is Belgium’s premier rock and pop festival and one of the largest open-air music events in Europe. I definitely recommend spending some hours tasting different types of beer, preferably somewhere with a nice view of a historic center or hills. Free walking tours around town will give you a glimpse into the country’s history. Make sure to check out some of the beautiful cathedrals. And there are plenty of outdoor options like climbing, kayaking and hiking available that are more cute and rustic then full on adrenaline-rushes but still worth a go if you’re into that kind of stuff. Museums can be affordable, especially if you have a student card. Count on spending an average of 10EUR a day on activities.
With three official languages (Dutch, French and German) and an rivalry between the French-speaking south and the Dutch/Flemish-speaking north that has been threatening to split the country in two for decades, it’s actually a miracle that Belgium exists at all. As a result, it’s a good idea to be sensitive to these differences when talking to locals. To be on the safe side, start every conversation in English. Most Belgians are at least bi-lingual (with many tri-lingual) and speak fluent English.
Belgium has the euro as its sole currency since 2002 like most countries in the EU, before which it was Belgian Franc. The coins have a single design for all eight of them: the portrait of the king, previously Albert II and currently Philippe. You can exchange your foreign currency for Euros at the usual places like banks, post offices and foreign exchange counters. Banks are generally open 9:30 to 16:00 Monday through Friday. Credit cards are widely used and accepted in Belgium, VISA is the credit card of choice, but MasterCard will be accepted too. Belgium is comparable in cost to most Western European countries. You can save money on food by grabbing cheap meals at sandwich shops. If you’re eating in the more touristy areas, make sure they don’t bring you food that is presented as “free.” You’re likely to be surprised with a bill later on.
Belgium is a member of the Schengen Agreement. There are no border controls between countries that have signed and implemented this treaty. So a visa granted for any Schengen member is valid in all other countries that have signed and implemented the treaty. But be careful: not all EU members have signed it and not all Schengen members are part of the European Union so it can be quite confusing. But for travel, any non-EU foreigner can travel for up to 90 days without any problems.
Although small, this country has quite a lot to offer, with beach, hills and historic cities. I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the countryside climbing and basically started every trip south with a night camping somehwere. Belgiums are nice people, although the language thing can be confusing. Overall, if you have some time between for instance Amsterdam and Paris, I would recommend a short stay in this little land of fries and beer!