It may be a little country, but it is a lovely one,so it is sad that Belgium is often overlooked when travellers plana trip to Europe. Tucked between the desirable and obviousdestinations of London, Paris, and Amsterdam, Belgium is usuallytreated as a stepping stone to the English Channel or, at most, aquick stop-over for a look-see in the capital, Brussels.
Beyond the city of Brussels, with its historic Gothicbuildings and tall European Union office blocks, is atreasure-trove of undiscovered lazy seaside towns and the inlandwooded gorges of the splendid Ardennes, sprinkled with medievalcastles and steeped in folklore.
The medieval city of Bruges has character and charmgalore with a rich architectural heritage, graceful canals, windingwaterways, and cobbled streets, proving a favourite with visitors.Belgium is a country that has inspired many artists and writerswith the charm of its Gothic cathedrals, town halls, gabledguildhouses, and rich museums.
After a busy day exploring it all, evenings are bestspent experiencing Belgium's fantastic cuisine and delighting inthe country's variety of 300-odd brews of beer. Belgians have areputation for their gracious hospitality, no doubt due in part tothe country's location, which has created an internationalcrossroads for commerce and culture. Despite this, Belgium and itsdistinct regions of Flemish Flanders (north) and French Wallonia(south) has proudly preserved its traditions and identity.
When it comes to world-class attractions and excitingsightseeing options, Belgium packs a mighty punch for a country ofsuch modest proportions. Take your pick from the heavyweightattractions and cosmopolitan thrills of the capital city Brussels,to the medieval charms of Bruges and the lesser known historicaltreasures of Ghent. In between, you'll find welcoming people, greatfood, and Europe's finest beer and chocolates to keep youenergised.
Belgium is a year round destination too, although thecountryside does look its best during the summer months of April toOctober. The transport infrastructure is excellent, and that makesgetting around a pleasure. This is not a country to see from theconfines of a tour bus, however. You need to get out on foot andexplore the cobbled streets framed by medieval buildings; spend anafternoon on Grand Place watching the world go by; rent a bicycleand ride into the countryside alongside a canal. Whatever way youchoose to explore the pleasures of Belgium, spend some time hereand you'll be rewarded with some of Europe's most underrated andwonderful attractions.
The Grand Place is the heart of Brussels and has beensince the Middle Ages. One of Europe's more beautiful squares, itlies in the centre of a maze of small cobbled streets and issurrounded by richly decorated 17th century Baroque Guildhouses,various Neo-Gothic buildings, and museums.
It is, however, the town hall, a magnificent Gothicbuilding that dominates the square. Markets, flower stalls, andvarious events are held here and this is the place to get to gripswith the essence of Brussels, perhaps over a local delicacy at apavement café.
The distinctive statue has been described as theEiffel Tower of Brussels and tourists throng the streets in searchof the tiny urinating urchin. The bronze mannequin is thought torepresent the irreverent spirit of Brussels but there are numeroustales about its beginnings.
Started by Louis XV of France many years ago, it hasbeen the custom of foreign countries, companies, visitingdignitaries, or charities to donate an outfit to the Manneken-Pisand 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 popularattractions in Brussels, visitors can expect large crowds at mosttimes of day, especially in tourist season.
Brussels' town hall is rated as one of the most splendid civicbuilding in Europe. The foundations were laid in 1402 and itsurvived the bombing during World War II when most of the otherbuildings on the Grand Place were destroyed.
The façade is embellished with gargoyles and images of nobilitywhile the intricate 100 metre-high tower is resolved by a finestatue of St Michel, patron saint of Brussels. Guided tours areavailable for a small fee - well worth it to see the finetapestries and miscellaneous works of art inside.
Mall lovers everywhere should make a pilgrimage tothe Galeries Royales Saint Hubert, the very first shopping arcadein Europe. Opened in 1847, the arcade became a drawcard for theelite of 19th century society and today continues to inspireshoppers and browsers alike. People from across the globe, youngand old, enjoy perusing here and everyone will find something totheir taste.
The building is an architectural marvel: arcaded shopfronts across two floors are separated by pilasters, conceived in aCinquecento style. The roof above is made of arched glass panes,connected by a delicate cast-iron framework. In between the variousshops you'll find cafes, restaurants, a theatre, and even a cinema.With so much to see and do here, this attraction is family friendlyand one the kids will enjoy too.
Belgium's magnificent Royal Palace was built in the 19th centuryas the official residence of the Belgian Royal family althoughtoday is used for official functions and other ceremonial purposes.The palace is positioned in front of Brussels Park, itself wellworth exploring, and directly opposite the modern Parliamentbuilding as if symbolically representing the country's system ofgovernment, a constitutional monarchy. Tours are only possible insummer and commence after the National Holiday on 21 July. Insideare a multitude of historical artefacts and some impressivecontemporary art, commissioned by the queen in 2002.
An unmissable attraction for art lovers: the RoyalMuseums of Fine Art are Brussels' premier art museums. Consistingof the Musée Old Masters Museum, Musée Modern Museum, Musée WiertzMuseum, Musée Meunier Museum, Musée Magritte Museum, and the newMusée Fin-de-Siècle Museum.
The largest is the Old Masters Museum, opened in1887, featuring the best collection of Flemish art in the world;highlights include works by Van Dyck and over 20 paintings byRubens. The Museum of Modern Art was opened in 1984 and includesfine 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 famousBelgian Surrealist René Magritte, and houses more than 200 of hisworks; while the new Musée Fin-de-Siècle Museum is dedicated to the1900s when Brussels was the capital of Art Nouveau.
Belgium's love of wacky humour and comic book artcome together in this wonderful museum housed in a fabulous ArtNouveau building designed by Victor Horta. Permanent exhibitionsdetail the history of European comic strips, while ever-changingtemporary exhibitions focus on specific artists, time periods, andpolitical contexts.
Visitors can see plenty of its most famous subject,Hergé's Tintin, as well as the Smurfs and art from over 670cartoonists. This is a temple to cartooning, now considered an artform worthy of serious consideration, and so the museum aims totrace the history and development of the discipline rather than toentertain. Guided tours are available for larger groups.
Under the direction of King Leopold, the Belgian Congo returnedfantastic riches to Belgium in the 19th century. Yet the people ofthat colony paid a terrible price. This museum was founded toexplore the relationship between European colonial powers and thepeople they subjugated.
Recent exhibits have broadened the museum's focus to includeenvironmental issues and ethnography in Africa, Asia, and SouthAmerica. The museum is situated on beautiful grounds in the Flemishcommune of Tervuren, just outside of Brussels.
Chocolate lovers can't take a holiday to Brugeswithout stopping at the Choco-Story Museum, which details thehistory of chocolate dating back to the Mayans in 250 BC, and alsodemonstrates how the raw ingredients of cocoa are turned into thesweet treats everyone loves.
Of course, each tour includes a tasting session andplenty of time in the gift shop. It's tempting to buy right thenand there, but keep in mind that Bruges has more than 40 chocolateshops throughout the city!
Bruges has a long history of diamond polishing, goingback to 1450 when local goldsmith Lodewijk van Berquem invented themodern technique of using diamond powder on a rotating disk. TheBruges Diamond Museum (Diamantmuseum Brugge) has a variety ofexhibits on this craft, as well as mining and setting diamonds.
The museum also offers live polishing demonstrationseach day and often hosts temporary exhibitions with famous stonesand jewellery. The gift shop stocks rough and synthetic diamonds,as well as more reasonably-priced souvenirs.
Considered one of Bruges' best museums, the GroeningeMuseum houses a large collection of fine art going back to the 15thcentury, 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, themuseum's collections focuses exclusively on works with classicaltechniques and has some beautiful pieces. For fans of classical artand those wishing to gain an insight into Belgian and European lifein 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 toFebruary). There is also a possibility of snow which is always anexciting winter prospect. Generally, visitors can expect a maritimeclimate and a high average annual rainfall. Visitors can alsoexpect thundershowers at any time of year, so it's always bestvisitors pack a rain coat or an umbrella. Temperatures range fromhighs of around 73°F (23°C) in summer to 45°F (7°C) duringwinter.
Located in the fashion district of Brussels, this trendyrestaurant offers diners a selection of both traditional andinternational 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 anddinner, and for dinner on weekends. Reservations recommended.
Once frequented by the likes of Karl Marx and the BelgianSocialist Party, this 17th century house now offers diners atraditional ambience, enhanced by richly coloured décor andpolished walnut walls. Their cellars include a collection of some20,000 bottles of some of the finest vintages.
The menu features mainly Belgian and French cuisine, includinglobster salad with apples and a curry sauce, beef fillet with athree pepper sauce, and lemon-scented codfish. Open Monday toFriday for lunch and dinner, and for dinner on Saturday.Reservations recommended.
't Brugs Beertje is a popular beerhouse that offersunpretentious pub fare for a cheap meal in Bruges. The real star ofthe show is the beer though, as there are more than 300 Belgianbeers available. The staff is knowledgeable and friendly, and thepub is open for dinner, Thursday to Monday.
Founded in 1921, this is a true Brussels legend that serves thefreshest of mussels and finest of French fries. Approach the mouleset frite Bruxelles-style by eating the first mussel with yourfingers and then use the shell to eat the rest.
The entire menu is excellent, especially the beef stewed in beerand the delicious waterzooï. The front room's vintage Art Nouveauinterior is delightful. Open for lunch and dinner daily,reservations recommended.
This gourmet pilgrimage site never fails to impress, withexceptional quality, refined flavours, and an ambient Art Nouveaudesign. The restaurant boasts both a warmly welcoming atmosphereand truly memorable dishes, such as red mullet fillet with karidesor beef fillet with black truffles. For dessert, try the chocolatecake 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 thisshrine created by Italian chef Luigi Ciciriello. It is a friendlyestablishment renowned for serving superb truffle-focused dishes inits warm and relaxed environment.
Don't miss the carpaccio truffles with olive oil and parmesanfor starters and the roast duck with Canary Island bananas formains. Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner, only openMonday and Sunday for reservations of 30 or more guests.
Housed in a former hardware store, La Quincaillerie has all theraw materials for a fabulous dining experience. The staff arefriendly if slightly frenetic. The interior's Horta-inspiredindustrial qualities are striking and the food is quite simplyfantastic, especially the impeccably fresh seafood. Open for dinnerall week and lunch Monday to Friday. Bookings essential well inadvance.
Anyone with a sweet tooth will want to stop at Gelateria DaVinci, a popular ice cream parlour near the centre of town.Offering a wide variety of gelato and dairy-free sorbet, thebustling shop has a relaxed atmosphere and is the perfect place fora treat. Note that the shop tends to be busy and seating is notalways available.
Belgian brasseries are scattered throughout Brussels so it'shard to tell which are truly outstanding and worth seeking out. Butthere are consistently good reports about this local secret, tuckedaway at the end of a back street in Ixelles.
Enjoy tasting some of the 50 local brews while tucking intohearty dishes like rabbit cooked in cherry beer, or the meatloafwith mustard sauce. Open daily for lunch and dinner, reservationsrecommended.
Don't be put off by the picture menu and touristy look, this isthe real deal. For celebrated mussel dishes, as well as local faresuch as rabbit stewed in kriek (cherry) beer or stoemp (bubble andsqueak), the original Chez Leon is the perfect place to dine. Foundnear the Grand Place, it is open daily for lunch and dinner,reservations recommended.
Gingerbread Tea Room is a sweet little family-run tea houseoffering delicious homemade breakfasts and lunches. Specialtiesinclude comfort food like bagels, quiche, and soup. However, besure to sample their selection of teas and sweet baked treats. Notethat only cash is accepted as payment.
La Porteuse d'Eau is a beautiful art deco restaurant that notonly stuns with amazing decor but keeps locals coming back for morewith classic Belgian cuisine and selection of over 70 Belgianbeers. This wonderful brasserie in Brussels operates from 11amuntil 3pm and 6 until 10.30 pm from Tuesday through Thursday. OnFriday and Saturday, it's open from 11am until 11.30pm, while onSunday it closes at 10.30pm.
Reservations are a must at this small restaurant. Gruuthuse Hofoffers excellent Belgian cuisine in an elegant environment. Ifpossible, book one of the few outdoor tables for a leisurely lunchand 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 nearprominent attractions makes it convenient for sightseers. The foodis simple and filling. However, note that on weekends and holidaysonly four-course set menus are offered.
The Belgian currency is the Euro (EUR). Most internationalcredit cards are accepted. ATMs are available in all towns andcities. Banks are open Monday to Friday, 9am to 4pm, and are closedon Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. Some banks close for an hourduring lunch. There are, however, some foreign exchange officesthat trade on Sundays.
The Flemish, in the north, speak Dutch; the Walloons inthe south speak French. Brussels is bilingual, the majority ofcitizens speaking French. In the east, there is a smallGerman-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 beyondperiod of intended stay. A visa is not required for stays of up to90 days.
British passports endorsed 'British Citizen', 'British Subject'(containing a Certificate of Entitlement to the Right of Abodeissued by the United Kingdom), and 'British Overseas TerritoriesCitizen' issued by Gibraltar, only need to be valid for period ofintended stay in Belgium. All other endorsements require at leastthree months validity beyond the period of intended stay inBelgium.
A visa is not required for passports endorsed 'British Citizen','British Subject' (containing a Certificate of Entitlement to theRight of Abode issued by the United Kingdom), and 'British OverseasTerritories Citizen' issued by Gibraltar. No visa is required forstays of up to 90 days in a half-year period for holders ofpassports with any other endorsement. Holders of identity cardsissued by Gibraltar authories, and endorsed 'Validated for EUtravel purposes under the authority of the United Kingdom', do notrequire a visa to visit Belgium.
Canadians must have a passport valid for three months beyondperiod of intended stay. A visa is not required for stays of up to90 days.
Australian nationals must have a passport valid for at leastthree months beyond period of stay. A visa is not required forstays of up to 90 days.
South African nationals require a passport valid for at leastthree months beyond period of intended stay. A Schengen visa isrequired and should be obtained before travel. South Africantemporary passports are not recognised.
Irish nationals require a valid passport. No visa isrequired.
US nationals must have a passport valid for three months beyondperiod of intended stay. A visa is not required for stays of up to90 days.
New Zealand nationals require a passport valid for at leastthree months beyond intended period of stay. No visa is requiredfor stays of up to 90 days.
The borderless region known as the Schengen area includes thefollowing 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 thesecountries issue a standard Schengen visa that has a multiple entryoption that allows the holder to travel freely within the bordersof all. Nationals of non-EU countries are recommended to holdreturn or onward tickets, sufficient funds and documents for theirnext destination. It is recommended that passports are valid forsix months after departure from any holiday destination.
No vaccinations are required for travel to Belgium. Medicalfacilities and care in Belgium is excellent but expensive sotravellers are advised to take out medical insurance. UK citizensreceive emergency medical care for a reduced cost, but should havea European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) to qualify.
Service charges are included in bills in Belgium and tipping isnot necessary, unless for exceptional service. Porters, coatroom,and bathroom attendants are generally tipped.
Most visits to Belgium are trouble-free. But travellers shouldbe wary of street crime in the cities, such as mugging andpickpocketing, particularly in Brussels at major railway stationsand on public transport. Brussels is home to a number ofinternational organisations, including EU and NATO, which couldbecome the target of indiscriminate terrorist attacks.
Belgium law requires everyone to carry some form of officialidentification at all times.
Belgians are very formal in business, enjoy a great deal ofpersonal space, and are generally reserved and extremely private.Dress should be conservative: dark suits are acceptable, with ahigh importance placed on quality and neatness of clothing.
Punctuality is extremely important at meetings, which will beginand end with a quick, light handshake with all involved andexchanging business cards is standard practice. It is recommendedthat cards are printed in English with the other side translated ineither French or Dutch, depending on the main language of theregion where business is to take place.
It is a good idea to research beforehand whether a business isFrench or Dutch-speaking. Compromise is very important in Belgianbusiness 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, cafesand restaurants offering free wifi are widely available. Asinternational roaming costs can be high, purchasing a local prepaidSIM card can be a cheaper option.
Travellers to Belgium arriving from non-EU countries are allowedto enter the country with the following items without incurringcustoms duty: 200 cigarettes, 100 cigarillos, 50 cigars or 250gtobacco; 1 litre spirits over 22 percent in alcohol or 2 litres ofdessert wine 22 percent in alcohol and sparkling wine, and 2 litreswine; 50g perfume and 250ml eau de toilette; and other goods suchas souvenirs to the value of €430. Prohibited items includeunpreserved meat products.
Belgian Tourist and Information Office, Brussels:www.visitbelgium.com/
Embassy of Belgium, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 3336900.
Embassy of Belgium, London, United Kingdom: +44 (0)20 74703700.
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 9749080.
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 theFlanders region of Belgium was the epicentre of fighting on theWestern Front, with the Allied army suffering its heaviest lossesin history.
Flanders Battlefield Tours, run by an informed,sensitive, and knowledgeable group of Great War scholars, ensurethat the memory of that lost generation is preserved and respected.The tour has been roundly celebrated for the vividness of thebattle accounts, much of the information supplemented by personalartefacts, such as old maps, photographs, diary extracts andpoems.
Visitors are sure to be awed, spending time in areaswhere on average every square metre of earth witnessed the death of35 young men. A solemn, moving, and important experience, FlandersBattlefield Tours have been described by travellers as the best oftheir kind in Europe.