It may be a little country, but it is a lovely one, so it is sad that Belgium is often overlooked when travellers plan a trip to Europe. Tucked between the desirable and obvious destinations of London, Paris, and Amsterdam, Belgium is usually treated as a stepping stone to the English Channel or, at most, a quick stop-over for a look-see in the capital, Brussels.
Beyond the city of Brussels, with its historic Gothic buildings and tall European Union office blocks, is a treasure-trove of undiscovered lazy seaside towns and the inland wooded gorges of the splendid Ardennes, sprinkled with medieval castles and steeped in folklore.
The medieval city of Bruges has character and charm galore with a rich architectural heritage, graceful canals, winding waterways, and cobbled streets, proving a favourite with visitors. Belgium is a country that has inspired many artists and writers with the charm of its Gothic cathedrals, town halls, gabled guildhouses, and rich museums.
After a busy day exploring it all, evenings are best spent experiencing Belgium's fantastic cuisine and delighting in the country's variety of 300-odd brews of beer. Belgians have a reputation for their gracious hospitality, no doubt due in part to the country's location, which has created an international crossroads for commerce and culture. Despite this, Belgium and its distinct regions of Flemish Flanders (north) and French Wallonia (south) has proudly preserved its traditions and identity.
When it comes to world-class attractions and exciting sightseeing options, Belgium packs a mighty punch for a country of such modest proportions. Take your pick from the heavyweight attractions and cosmopolitan thrills of the capital city Brussels, to the medieval charms of Bruges and the lesser known historical treasures of Ghent. In between, you'll find welcoming people, great food, and Europe's finest beer and chocolates to keep you energised.
Belgium is a year round destination too, although the countryside does look its best during the summer months of April to October. The transport infrastructure is excellent, and that makes getting around a pleasure. This is not a country to see from the confines of a tour bus, however. You need to get out on foot and explore the cobbled streets framed by medieval buildings; spend an afternoon on Grand Place watching the world go by; rent a bicycle and ride into the countryside alongside a canal. Whatever way you choose to explore the pleasures of Belgium, spend some time here and you'll be rewarded with some of Europe's most underrated and wonderful attractions.
The Grand Place is the heart of Brussels and has been since the Middle Ages. One of Europe's more beautiful squares, it lies in the centre of a maze of small cobbled streets and is surrounded by richly decorated 17th century Baroque Guildhouses, various Neo-Gothic buildings, and museums.
It is, however, the town hall, a magnificent Gothic building that dominates the square. Markets, flower stalls, and various events are held here and this is the place to get to grips with the essence of Brussels, perhaps over a local delicacy at a pavement café.
The distinctive statue has been described as the Eiffel Tower of Brussels and tourists throng the streets in search of the tiny urinating urchin. The bronze mannequin is thought to represent the irreverent spirit of Brussels but there are numerous tales about its beginnings.
Started by Louis XV of France many years ago, it has been the custom of foreign countries, companies, visiting dignitaries, or charities to donate an outfit to the Manneken-Pis and the little boy is usually decked out in the latest costume. Previous costumes are displayed in the City of Brussels Museum.
As the cheeky fountain is one of the most popular attractions in Brussels, visitors can expect large crowds at most times of day, especially in tourist season.
Brussels' town hall is rated as one of the most splendid civic building in Europe. The foundations were laid in 1402 and it survived the bombing during World War II when most of the other buildings on the Grand Place were destroyed.
The façade is embellished with gargoyles and images of nobility while the intricate 100 metre-high tower is resolved by a fine statue of St Michel, patron saint of Brussels. Guided tours are available for a small fee - well worth it to see the fine tapestries and miscellaneous works of art inside.
Mall lovers everywhere should make a pilgrimage to the Galeries Royales Saint Hubert, the very first shopping arcade in Europe. Opened in 1847, the arcade became a drawcard for the elite of 19th century society and today continues to inspire shoppers and browsers alike. People from across the globe, young and old, enjoy perusing here and everyone will find something to their taste.
The building is an architectural marvel: arcaded shop fronts across two floors are separated by pilasters, conceived in a Cinquecento style. The roof above is made of arched glass panes, connected by a delicate cast-iron framework. In between the various shops you'll find cafes, restaurants, a theatre, and even a cinema. With so much to see and do here, this attraction is family friendly and one the kids will enjoy too.
Belgium's magnificent Royal Palace was built in the 19th century as the official residence of the Belgian Royal family although today is used for official functions and other ceremonial purposes. The palace is positioned in front of Brussels Park, itself well worth exploring, and directly opposite the modern Parliament building as if symbolically representing the country's system of government, a constitutional monarchy. Tours are only possible in summer and commence after the National Holiday on 21 July. Inside are a multitude of historical artefacts and some impressive contemporary art, commissioned by the queen in 2002.
An unmissable attraction for art lovers: the Royal Museums of Fine Art are Brussels' premier art museums. Consisting of the Musée Old Masters Museum, Musée Modern Museum, Musée Wiertz Museum, Musée Meunier Museum, Musée Magritte Museum, and the new Musée Fin-de-Siècle Museum.
The largest is the Old Masters Museum, opened in 1887, featuring the best collection of Flemish art in the world; highlights include works by Van Dyck and over 20 paintings by Rubens. The Museum of Modern Art was opened in 1984 and includes fine examples from Belgium's best artists over the past century, plus modern legends such as Francis Bacon.
The Magritte Museum is devoted to works of famous Belgian Surrealist René Magritte, and houses more than 200 of his works; while the new Musée Fin-de-Siècle Museum is dedicated to the 1900s when Brussels was the capital of Art Nouveau.
Belgium's love of wacky humour and comic book art come together in this wonderful museum housed in a fabulous Art Nouveau building designed by Victor Horta. Permanent exhibitions detail the history of European comic strips, while ever-changing temporary exhibitions focus on specific artists, time periods, and political contexts.
Visitors can see plenty of its most famous subject, Hergé's Tintin, as well as the Smurfs and art from over 670 cartoonists. This is a temple to cartooning, now considered an art form worthy of serious consideration, and so the museum aims to trace the history and development of the discipline rather than to entertain. Guided tours are available for larger groups.
Under the direction of King Leopold, the Belgian Congo returned fantastic riches to Belgium in the 19th century. Yet the people of that colony paid a terrible price. This museum was founded to explore the relationship between European colonial powers and the people they subjugated.
Recent exhibits have broadened the museum's focus to include environmental issues and ethnography in Africa, Asia, and South America. The museum is situated on beautiful grounds in the Flemish commune of Tervuren, just outside of Brussels.
Chocolate lovers can't take a holiday to Bruges without stopping at the Choco-Story Museum, which details the history of chocolate dating back to the Mayans in 250 BC, and also demonstrates how the raw ingredients of cocoa are turned into the sweet treats everyone loves.
Of course, each tour includes a tasting session and plenty of time in the gift shop. It's tempting to buy right then and there, but keep in mind that Bruges has more than 40 chocolate shops throughout the city!
Bruges has a long history of diamond polishing, going back to 1450 when local goldsmith Lodewijk van Berquem invented the modern technique of using diamond powder on a rotating disk. The Bruges Diamond Museum (Diamantmuseum Brugge) has a variety of exhibits on this craft, as well as mining and setting diamonds.
The museum also offers live polishing demonstrations each day and often hosts temporary exhibitions with famous stones and jewellery. The gift shop stocks rough and synthetic diamonds, as well as more reasonably-priced souvenirs.
Considered one of Bruges' best museums, the Groeninge Museum houses a large collection of fine art going back to the 15th century, including works by famous Flemish painters Jan van Eyck, Hieronymus Bosch, Rogier van der Weyden, and Hans Memling.
Though some of the works are from recent years, the museum's collections focuses exclusively on works with classical techniques and has some beautiful pieces. For fans of classical art and those wishing to gain an insight into Belgian and European life in the past, this is a museum not to be missed.
The Belgium climate is temperate, with warm weather in summer (May to September) and cool to cold weather in winter (December to February). There is also a possibility of snow which is always an exciting winter prospect. Generally, visitors can expect a maritime climate and a high average annual rainfall. Visitors can also expect thundershowers at any time of year, so it's always best visitors pack a rain coat or an umbrella. Temperatures range from highs of around 73°F (23°C) in summer to 45°F (7°C) during winter.
Located in the fashion district of Brussels, this trendy restaurant offers diners a selection of both traditional and international cuisine. The menu features a variety of Belgian, Italian, and Asian dishes including cold pea soup, fish lasagne, roast lamb, and cod carpaccio. Open Monday to Friday for lunch and dinner, and for dinner on weekends. Reservations recommended.
Once frequented by the likes of Karl Marx and the Belgian Socialist Party, this 17th century house now offers diners a traditional ambience, enhanced by richly coloured décor and polished walnut walls. Their cellars include a collection of some 20,000 bottles of some of the finest vintages.
The menu features mainly Belgian and French cuisine, including lobster salad with apples and a curry sauce, beef fillet with a three pepper sauce, and lemon-scented codfish. Open Monday to Friday for lunch and dinner, and for dinner on Saturday. Reservations recommended.
't Brugs Beertje is a popular beerhouse that offers unpretentious pub fare for a cheap meal in Bruges. The real star of the show is the beer though, as there are more than 300 Belgian beers available. The staff is knowledgeable and friendly, and the pub is open for dinner, Thursday to Monday.
Founded in 1921, this is a true Brussels legend that serves the freshest of mussels and finest of French fries. Approach the moules et frite Bruxelles-style by eating the first mussel with your fingers and then use the shell to eat the rest.
The entire menu is excellent, especially the beef stewed in beer and the delicious waterzooï. The front room's vintage Art Nouveau interior is delightful. Open for lunch and dinner daily, reservations recommended.
This gourmet pilgrimage site never fails to impress, with exceptional quality, refined flavours, and an ambient Art Nouveau design. The restaurant boasts both a warmly welcoming atmosphere and truly memorable dishes, such as red mullet fillet with karides or beef fillet with black truffles. For dessert, try the chocolate cake with almonds and hazelnuts. Advanced booking is essential. Closed on Sunday and Monday, and on Wednesday for lunch.
For those with a passion for truffles, pay a visit to this shrine created by Italian chef Luigi Ciciriello. It is a friendly establishment renowned for serving superb truffle-focused dishes in its warm and relaxed environment.
Don't miss the carpaccio truffles with olive oil and parmesan for starters and the roast duck with Canary Island bananas for mains. Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner, only open Monday and Sunday for reservations of 30 or more guests.
Housed in a former hardware store, La Quincaillerie has all the raw materials for a fabulous dining experience. The staff are friendly if slightly frenetic. The interior's Horta-inspired industrial qualities are striking and the food is quite simply fantastic, especially the impeccably fresh seafood. Open for dinner all week and lunch Monday to Friday. Bookings essential well in advance.
Anyone with a sweet tooth will want to stop at Gelateria Da Vinci, a popular ice cream parlour near the centre of town. Offering a wide variety of gelato and dairy-free sorbet, the bustling shop has a relaxed atmosphere and is the perfect place for a treat. Note that the shop tends to be busy and seating is not always available.
Belgian brasseries are scattered throughout Brussels so it's hard to tell which are truly outstanding and worth seeking out. But there are consistently good reports about this local secret, tucked away at the end of a back street in Ixelles.
Enjoy tasting some of the 50 local brews while tucking into hearty dishes like rabbit cooked in cherry beer, or the meatloaf with mustard sauce. Open daily for lunch and dinner, reservations recommended.
Don't be put off by the picture menu and touristy look, this is the real deal. For celebrated mussel dishes, as well as local fare such as rabbit stewed in kriek (cherry) beer or stoemp (bubble and squeak), the original Chez Leon is the perfect place to dine. Found near the Grand Place, it is open daily for lunch and dinner, reservations recommended.
Gingerbread Tea Room is a sweet little family-run tea house offering delicious homemade breakfasts and lunches. Specialties include comfort food like bagels, quiche, and soup. However, be sure to sample their selection of teas and sweet baked treats. Note that only cash is accepted as payment.
La Porteuse d'Eau is a beautiful art deco restaurant that not only stuns with amazing decor but keeps locals coming back for more with classic Belgian cuisine and selection of over 70 Belgian beers. This wonderful brasserie in Brussels operates from 11am until 3pm and 6 until 10.30 pm from Tuesday through Thursday. On Friday and Saturday, it's open from 11am until 11.30pm, while on Sunday it closes at 10.30pm.
Reservations are a must at this small restaurant. Gruuthuse Hof offers excellent Belgian cuisine in an elegant environment. If possible, book one of the few outdoor tables for a leisurely lunch and people-watching. Closed on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.
Park Restaurant is one of the most popular eateries in Bruges, known for its classic, romantic atmosphere. Its location near prominent attractions makes it convenient for sightseers. The food is simple and filling. However, note that on weekends and holidays only four-course set menus are offered.
The Belgian currency is the Euro (EUR). Most international credit cards are accepted. ATMs are available in all towns and cities. Banks are open Monday to Friday, 9am to 4pm, and are closed on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. Some banks close for an hour during lunch. There are, however, some foreign exchange offices that trade on Sundays.
The Flemish, in the north, speak Dutch; the Walloons in the south speak French. Brussels is bilingual, the majority of citizens speaking French. In the east, there is a small German-speaking community. English is also spoken.
Electrical current in Belgium is 230 volts, 50Hz. Standard European-style two-pin plugs will work. Three pin plugs, with a male grounding pin, can also be used.
US nationals must have a passport valid for three months beyond period of intended stay. A visa is not required for stays of up to 90 days.
British passports endorsed 'British Citizen', 'British Subject' (containing a Certificate of Entitlement to the Right of Abode issued by the United Kingdom), and 'British Overseas Territories Citizen' issued by Gibraltar, only need to be valid for period of intended stay in Belgium. All other endorsements require at least three months validity beyond the period of intended stay in Belgium.
A visa is not required for passports endorsed 'British Citizen', 'British Subject' (containing a Certificate of Entitlement to the Right of Abode issued by the United Kingdom), and 'British Overseas Territories Citizen' issued by Gibraltar. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days in a half-year period for holders of passports with any other endorsement. Holders of identity cards issued by Gibraltar authories, and endorsed 'Validated for EU travel purposes under the authority of the United Kingdom', do not require a visa to visit Belgium.
Canadians must have a passport valid for three months beyond period of intended stay. A visa is not required for stays of up to 90 days.
Australian nationals must have a passport valid for at least three months beyond period of stay. A visa is not required for stays of up to 90 days.
South African nationals require a passport valid for at least three months beyond period of intended stay. A Schengen visa is required and should be obtained before travel. South African temporary passports are not recognised.
Irish nationals require a valid passport. No visa is required.
US nationals must have a passport valid for three months beyond period of intended stay. A visa is not required for stays of up to 90 days.
New Zealand nationals require a passport valid for at least three months beyond intended period of stay. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
The borderless region known as the Schengen area includes the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden. All these countries issue a standard Schengen visa that has a multiple entry option that allows the holder to travel freely within the borders of all. Nationals of non-EU countries are recommended to hold return or onward tickets, sufficient funds and documents for their next destination. It is recommended that passports are valid for six months after departure from any holiday destination.
No vaccinations are required for travel to Belgium. Medical facilities and care in Belgium is excellent but expensive so travellers are advised to take out medical insurance. UK citizens receive emergency medical care for a reduced cost, but should have a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) to qualify.
Service charges are included in bills in Belgium and tipping is not necessary, unless for exceptional service. Porters, coatroom, and bathroom attendants are generally tipped.
Most visits to Belgium are trouble-free. But travellers should be wary of street crime in the cities, such as mugging and pickpocketing, particularly in Brussels at major railway stations and on public transport. Brussels is home to a number of international organisations, including EU and NATO, which could become the target of indiscriminate terrorist attacks.
Belgium law requires everyone to carry some form of official identification at all times.
Belgians are very formal in business, enjoy a great deal of personal space, and are generally reserved and extremely private. Dress should be conservative: dark suits are acceptable, with a high importance placed on quality and neatness of clothing.
Punctuality is extremely important at meetings, which will begin and end with a quick, light handshake with all involved and exchanging business cards is standard practice. It is recommended that cards are printed in English with the other side translated in either French or Dutch, depending on the main language of the region where business is to take place.
It is a good idea to research beforehand whether a business is French or Dutch-speaking. Compromise is very important in Belgian business culture and may be required as a show of friendship. Business hours are generally 9am to 5pm.
The international access code for Belgium is +32. Hotels, cafes and restaurants offering free wifi are widely available. As international roaming costs can be high, purchasing a local prepaid SIM card can be a cheaper option.
Travellers to Belgium arriving from non-EU countries are allowed to enter the country with the following items without incurring customs duty: 200 cigarettes, 100 cigarillos, 50 cigars or 250g tobacco; 1 litre spirits over 22 percent in alcohol or 2 litres of dessert wine 22 percent in alcohol and sparkling wine, and 2 litres wine; 50g perfume and 250ml eau de toilette; and other goods such as souvenirs to the value of €430. Prohibited items include unpreserved meat products.
Belgian Tourist and Information Office, Brussels: www.visitbelgium.com/
Embassy of Belgium, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 333 6900.
Embassy of Belgium, London, United Kingdom: +44 (0)20 7470 3700.
Embassy of Belgium, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 236 7267.
Belgium Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 (0)12 440 3201.
Embassy of Belgium, Canberra, Australia: +61 (0)2 6273 2501.
Embassy of Belgium, Dublin, Ireland: +353 (0)1 631 5284.
Consulate of Belgium, Wellington, New Zealand: +64 (0)4 974 9080.
Embassy of the United States, Brussels: +32 (0)2 811 4000.
British Embassy, Brussels: +32 (0)2 287 6211.
Canadian Embassy, Brussels: +32 (0)2 741 0611.
South African Embassy, Brussels: +32 (0)2 285 4400.
Australian Embassy, Brussels: +32 (0)2 286 0500.
Embassy of Ireland, Brussels: +32 (0)2 282 3400.
New Zealand Embassy, Brussels: +32 (0)2 512 1040.
During World War I, the medieval town of Ypres in the Flanders region of Belgium was the epicentre of fighting on the Western Front, with the Allied army suffering its heaviest losses in history.
Flanders Battlefield Tours, run by an informed, sensitive, and knowledgeable group of Great War scholars, ensure that the memory of that lost generation is preserved and respected. The tour has been roundly celebrated for the vividness of the battle accounts, much of the information supplemented by personal artefacts, such as old maps, photographs, diary extracts and poems.
Visitors are sure to be awed, spending time in areas where on average every square metre of earth witnessed the death of 35 young men. A solemn, moving, and important experience, Flanders Battlefield Tours have been described by travellers as the best of their kind in Europe.