Belgium may be tiny—it’s smaller than the state of Maryland—but the country has played a vital role in the history of Western Europe. Don’t limit yourself to the country’s most popular tourist draws though. Sure, Brussels and Bruges are great, but our insider guide to Belgium will show you the can’t-miss sites and how to navigate the country like a pro.
Home to NATO, the European Union and several other international administrative bodies, the county of 11 million is historic yet hip. In general, Belgians are welcoming to visitors, and the country as a whole has a very liberal stance on social and political issues. Wedged between Germany, France, the Netherlands and the North Sea, Belgium is one of the “low countries” that are at or below sea level. As the site of many significant military engagements over the years, Belgium is also known as the “battlefield of Europe.” Waterloo where Napoleon was defeated, Flanders Field where 1 million men died during the infamous WWI trench battle and the WWII Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes Forest, each occurred in Belgium.
Belgium recognizes three officials languages: Flemish (Dutch), German and French. Many people speak multiple languages, including English. Flemish is prevalent in the north of the country near the border with the Netherlands. French is spoken in the south and around the capital. Belgian French is quite similar to standard French. A tiny percentage of the popular speak German, primarily in the eastern province of Liege.
Belgians don’t like you to speak the wrong language in wrong region. Stick to English, unless you can hold your own in Flemish or French, and you know when it’s appropriate. Close friends may greet one another with three kisses on alternating cheeks. Even for locals though, the appropriateness of this custom can be confusing, so visitors would be advised to avoid it. Greeting shopkeepers is one custom in which you should engage. When entering an establishment, give a cheery greeting, and offer a “good day” or “good evening” as you leave.
Money and Tipping
The Euro is the official currency in Belgium. Although credit cards are widely accepted we strongly recommend you always carry some cash. Typically, it’s fairly simple to locate an ATM if you need one.
Tipping is not traditionally a big part of Belgium culture, but servers and taxi drivers in tourist areas may expect a gratuity. Generally, leave up to 10% for exceptional service in a restaurant or round up the cab fare to the next whole denomination.
Food and Drink
Belgium has more than 160 breweries.The Belgians have been brewing beer for centuries and have perfected the craft. Their hoppy brews are a point a pride for most Belgians. Be sure to sample Belgian chocolate, which rivals Swiss in terms of quality. If you’re looking for an inexpensive, comforting meal, stop in a cafe for some steamed mussels with a side of frites. Basically French fries, the Belgian version are tender, crisp and decadent.
Weather and When to Go
A moderate maritime climate makes Belgium mild, but the weather can be unpredictable and wet. Summers are warm and rainy, with an average high temperature of 66°F. Spring and fall are pleasant and comfortable. Winters are cool with an average low temperature of 36°F. Winter is breezy, especially near the coast, and the eastern hills see more snowfall than elsewhere in the country.
Despite the rain, June through August are the most popular months for tourists. Spring tends to be the driest season and is lovely for cycling excursions. Plus, the start of Lent brings delightful festivals throughout the country.
Belgium may be small, but there’s a lot to see and do. There are 3,000 castles strewn about countryside and 87 museums in Brussels alone! For our insider guide to Belgium, we’ve divided experiences by its three geographic regions.
A city of international influence, Brussels is divided into 19 municipalities, each with a distinctive personality. Among popular sites are the Grand Place and Town Hall, lauded as the world’s most beautiful town square, the neoclassical Royal Palace with its exceedingly long facade, Sablons Square for antique shopping and Manneken Pis, the well-known statue of a little boy that wears a different costume for special events. The Basilica of Koekelberg is the third largest church in the world and a striking blend of art deco and gothic styles. There are dozens of museums in Brussels, including five at notable collections at Jubilee Park.
Bruseels plays host to several annual events, including 11 film festivals, the Jazz Marathon in May and the Ommegang, a historic procession that’s been held each July since 1348.
Bruges and Ghent top the list of places to see in Flanders. Bruges, a perfectly preserved medieval town, is popular among tourists for its gothic, medieval, baroque and neo-classic architecture. You should also plan to eat in Bruges. The city has one of the highest ratios of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world. In Ghent, once the world’s cloth capital, marvel at the massive crenelated walls of the the 12th-century castle, Gravesteen. Admire the city’s 15th-century architecture or see St. Bavo’s Cathedral where you can learn about the storied painting called Mystic Lamb by Flemish Painter Jan Van Eyck.
Antwerp, a city historically famous for diamonds and the art of Rubens, draws visitors for haute couture shopping and nightlife. If you get tired of shopping, head to Lier, where you can see what’s called Belgium’s prettiest street. Outside of town, find the largest American military cemetery in the country and the Blegny Mines, one of four authentic coal mines in Europe.
Don’t overlook the smaller villages which feature lovely town squares and unique histories in their own right. Once a prosperous cloth town, Ypres experienced fierce fighting during WWI and has been completely rebuilt since being all but destroyed. Tour military cemetery and memorials around Ypres where 300,000 Allied soldiers died defending the city. A ceremony is held every day at 8 p.m. in front of Ypres’ eastern gate. If you want some rest and relaxation, head to the sandy beaches of the coast.
The French-speaking region of Belgium, Wallonia is less densely populated than Flanders. Biniche is famous for its four-day carnival that starts the lenten season. If you miss carnival, stop by to see the town’s well-preserved ramparts on its medieval walls. In the cultural center of Liege, the birthplace of Charlemagne, you’ll find the country’s largest palace, old churches, museums ad the region’s only opera house. Tour Jehay Castle, built in 1550. Namur is one of the largest cities in Wallonia and draws tourists to it museums and historical structures. Nearby in the village of Temploux, one of Europe’s largest second-hand markets is held each August. The city of Spa boasts the world’s oldest health resort at its thermal springs and the world’s first casino.
Before you start packing, learn about the adventures to be had in the compact country of Belgium. Our insider guide to Belgium will help you determine your itinerary and those sights you just can’t miss!