Why holiday in Belgium?
This little corker of a European kingdom has a
lot more to offer the tourist other than Napoleon's Waterloo, notorious
Eurocrats fattening up in Brussels and addictive chocolates.
Grand architecture is stunning and well-preserved, whether it's
baroque temples to power or modest Flemish canal-side housing.
The countryside, crisscrossed with canals, is flat in the north
and attractively hilly in the south, while the Belgian people are
friendly to visitors, if not to each other - there is intense rivalry
between the northern Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons in
Belgian fine art is first class and wide ranging, as is their muscular
beer and their cuisine - a tasty French/German fusion than turns
fit men into Walloon balloons overnight.
And then there are the killer beers, such as Mort Subite (Sudden
Death) and Delirium Tremens...
Belgium is efficient, safe and easy to get around, sights are
packed in tight, and when you're done there Amsterdam, Luxembourg and
Paris are just down the road.
- Belgium has an unfair reputation for being dull, though activities are limited by the country's size.
- A small number of great attractions = large numbers of tourists
in a small space.
- It's not cheap.
Best season: May-September. Belgium doesn't experience extremes of heat
or cold, though the weather is notoriously erratic and frequently grey and wet.
Worst: November-March. Short daylight hours, cold and grey, but Christmas
markets in December are light and lively.
Minimum worthwhile stay, not incl. flights: Brussels for a wild
Recommended: 9 days to get a good look at this tiny country.
***Brussels, an attractive, diverse,
interesting city with plenty of action.
The Flemish Art Cities. All in flat Flanders, within one hour north
by train from Brussels.
***Antwerp. Unjustly neglected by tourists,
Antwerp is a lively, pretty old port with a long history, efficient
trams, a good choice of new museums and an amazingly diverse collection
of architectural styles from medieval to art nouveau. It's also
home to a young, dynamic, good value Europe fashion scene and masses
of pubs, clubs and cutting-edge social hangouts.
Steen Castle, Antwerp
*** Brugge (Bruges). This stunning, medieval
city, latticed with canals and loaded with 13th century buildings
and great art collections is a must-see, in spite of the inevitable
tourist hordes that will share the streets with you.
***Ghent. Another underrated medieval
city full of canals, superb buildings and wildly lively student
activities. 12th century Gravensteen castle is a major attraction,
as is an incredible oil painting in St Baaf cathedral, The Adoration
of the Mystic Lamb by Van Eyck.
**The Ardennes is the hilliest area
of Belgium, a tranquil southerly place of rivers, forests, valleys
and rustic towns, in the south of the country.
Attractive, lively Namur town is the entry point for most tourists.
Some travel over the 'border' into charmingly tiny Luxembourg from
*Ostend is a major sea route to Belgium
from England's Dover, but also offers OK beaches, watersports and
a few fine old buildings.
Train and bus services are efficient and good value. Main cities
from Brussels by train: Antwerp 40 mins; Bruges 1 hour; Ghent 40
mins; Namur 50 mins; Ostend 1.20 mins; Luxembourg City 2.5 hours.
Hiking: many well-marked, attractive
trails cross the flat north or hilly south and east parts of Belgium
and hikes range from half a day to a week.
Brussels has its own great hiking and biking spot, the Forest de
Canoeing: Lots of pretty canals and
rivers, especially in the Ardennes. The River Lesse is popular.
Biking: this is an excellent place
for bikes, with short distances over mostly flat land in Flanders
or more picturesque paths in the hilly Ardennes, via dedicated bike
Major roads can be hairy though car drivers tend to have a good
attitude to bikers.
Bikes can be carried on trains or rented at many stations. More
information on the SNCB website.
Canoeing in the Ardennes
Feb/March, the Carnival of Binche. An ancient and famously kaleidoscopic
event with costumes and masks. Binche is 54 kms (34 miles) from
May 5, Holy Blood Procession, Bruges. A spectacular religious festival
since 1303, the Holy Blood relic is paraded around town by hundreds
of citizens dressed in fine medieval outfits.
May 22, the Battle of Lumecon & The Procession of the Golden
Chariot, Mons. A George and the Dragon battle and religious procession
in this pretty city.
May-November, Festival of Flanders. Superb classical music in magnificent
locations, such as cathedrals, all over Flanders.
Last Thurs of June, the Ommegang Pageant, Brussels. A wildly colourful
'folkloric' procession and games since 1549.
July 21, National Day and start of Brussels Fair (1 month).
Autumn, International Antiques Fair, Bruges. Fine antiques in fine
Dec 6-Jan 2, European Christmas Market, Brussels, Bruges and more.
Icy, festive fun, all lit up.
some precise dates, more suggestions and information see
or Arts Festivals
EU citizens are free to cross borders willy-nilly, while nationals of USA,
Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan do not need a visa for
up to 3 months.
Electric sockets are 220v and take 2 round pin plugs.
Belgium is very safe and locals unlikely to dip their hands in your
pockets, but transient new Europeans are not so restrained, so take
the usual moderate precautions.
Flemish, French and German are the country's official languages,
but most Belgians speak fair English due to the need for a lingua
franca and the high numbers of expats in Brussels.
South Belgium is the least English-speaking, so brush up on your
French if that's a target.
Hotels tend to be expensive and booked up, so reserve your room
well ahead, particularly during busy times.
Brussels and Antwerp have metros. Taxis are expensive.
Much of the country is flat so bicycles are popular and can be rented
from many rail stations.
Canal boat hire is an unusual option.
Belgium's top tourist town, Bruges, with typical canal and Bell Tower
World-class food and drink are no trouble to find in Belgium, and world-class prices too, though cafés serve excellent
food and are much cheaper than restaurants. The style is part French,
part German and part homegrown and both meat and seafood dishes
Belgians claim to have invented frites/chips/fries and the national
dish is moules-frites, mussels and chips, though waffles
are a contender for the title.
Service charges are included so tipping is unnecessary but a little
extra for special treatment is not unusual.