How to Plan a Trip to Belgium
A small country packing a big punch in terms of tourist attractions, Belgium sits at the crossroads of Western Europe, its cities soaked in history and famed for their lively arts, fashion, and dining scenes. Although it advertises itself simply as "A Food Lover's Dream," this country of just 11 million people boasts a rich architectural heritage, world-famous breweries, pristine natural areas, and touching memorials marking major battlegrounds from both World War I and World War II. Put the elegant cities of Brussels and Bruges at the top of your Belgium itinerary, but don't forget that the less-explored countryside offers dense forests, rolling hills, and lush valleys.
Places to Visit in Belgium
Regions of BelgiumFlanders
: At the crossroads of Belgium's French and Dutch cultures, the northern region of Flanders boasts beautiful medieval towns, lively festivals, and lush hikable countryside.West Flanders Province
: Bordering the North Sea, well-known medieval cities like Bruges and lesser-known towns like Ostend and Veurne draw visitors to this serene province. Wallonia
: With an abundance of small towns, flat cycling paths, and historical castles, Wallonia offers visitors a glimpse into Belgium's rural past and present. Antwerp Province
: Flemish-speaking Antwerp province is home to its attractive namesake city, but also a relatively untraveled southern section, home to quaint Flemish towns with Gothic churches.The Ardennes
: Awash with forested hills, low mountains, natural caves, and gentle rivers, the Ardennes offers lots of Belgium vacation ideas for nature-lovers and adventure-seekers. East Flanders Province
: Known for the medieval city of Ghent, East Flanders Province is also home to a scenic countryside and the town of Sint-Niklaas, where you can find the largest market square in Belgium.Liege Province
: Golf courses, ski resorts, medieval towns, hiking trails, war memorials--Liege Province may be small, but it packs all of this and more. Hainaut Province
: The westernmost province in Belgium, Hainaut is often overlooked by tourists despite its World Heritage-listed flint mines. Luxembourg Province
: An agricultural province once belonging to the neighboring country of the same name, this area draws travelers to the towns of Durbuy and Bastogne.Namur Province
: Offering scenic natural areas and picturesque wilderness for adventure-seekers, Namur Province also draws visitors to the eponymous city's medieval citadel and old town. Flemish Brabant Province
: The province surrounding Brussels forms the heart of the Belgian beer territory, where family-run and industrial breweries abound--a must for any gastronomic Belgium tour. Walloon Brabant Province
: A network of walking and cycling routes allow visitors to discover Walloon Brabant Province's green farmland, quaint villages, and rural charm at their own pace.
Top Cities in Belgium
- Brussels: One of the veritable capitals of Europe, Brussels ranks among the star Belgium attractions, and for good reason: beautiful squares, highly rated restaurants, and traditional bars abound in the multicultural capital.
- Bruges: Almost entirely designated as a World Heritage Site, this "Venice of the North" prides itself on winding cobbled lanes, charming canals with bridges, and a famed 13th-century belfry.
- Antwerp: Belgium's largest city and an important trade port, Antwerp continues to draw visitors to its renowned cathedral, medieval monuments, and the artistic heritage of Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens.
- Ieper (Ypres): Ieper impresses with its extensive moat and 14th-century ramparts, and draws those wishing to memorialize World War I at its cemeteries, museums, and memorials.
- Ghent: Less crowded than Bruges but rivaling its beauty, Ghent features stunning Flemish architecture, an extensive pedestrian zone, and enough cafes and bars to keep you hydrated for days.
- Liege: Birthplace to Charlemagne, this industrial city offers numerous attractions in its historical center, including museums, cathedrals, and a modern train station recently featured in Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy" (2014).
- Leuven: Easily bikeable and packed with typical Belgian tourist attractions like breweries, restaurants, and beautiful architecture, Leuven makes a satisfying day trip from Brussels or Bruges.
- Ostend: A Belgian beach town, Ostend draws crowds to its lively harbor in the summer and to festivals year-round.
- Mechelen: A hidden gem, this Flemish town offers visitors peace and tranquility with its cafe-lined pedestrian streets and medieval architecture.
- Brugelette: Brugelette is home to an elegant 18th-century castle along the river Dendre and an impressive zoo.
- Dinant: Fortress ruins, a clifftop citadel, and river cruises bring visitors to this crowded yet charming town.
- Mons: Mons boasts a former home of Vincent Van Gogh, now classified a World Heritage Site, as well as the annual Ducasse de Mons festival featuring a parade and a mock battle.
- Bastogne: Bastogne played a pivotal role in World War II during the Battle of the Bulge, and continues to pay tribute to that dramatic episode at its war memorial and museum.
- Zonnebeke: Despite its near-destruction during the World War I Battle of Passchendaele, Zonnebeke continues to thrive and attracts visitors to its central 1920s chalet-style mansion.
- Waterloo: A town cast to modern legend, Waterloo was the site of Napoleon's defeat in 1815. Its preserved battlefield and occasional battle reenactments make it among the top places to visit in Belgium for history buffs.
- De Panne: With seaside activities and beachside beer stalls, the coastal town of De Panne offers a leisurely respite from cathedrals and squares.
- Wavre: Despite being filled with cultural and historical monuments, Wavre is most famed for the family-friendly theme park Walibi.
Things to Do in Belgium
Popular Belgium Tourist AttractionsGrand Place
: Brussels' majestic central square, a World Heritage Site dating back to the 16th century, is a central stopping point on nearly every Belgium vacation.Historic Centre of Brugge
: Often described as resembling a fairy tale, Bruges' well-preserved Gothic center boasts cobbled streets, numerous canals, and countless chocolate shops. Atomium
: A contemporary symbol of 20th-century Belgium, this atom-shaped structure offers spectacular views of Brussels from its top sphere. Manneken Pis
: Just off the Grand-Place, this curiously famous statue of a urinating boy is as quintessentially Belgian as chocolate and fries. Central Station
: Often considered one of the world's most beautiful train stations, Antwerp's Central Station features a marble and stone interior interspersed with seamless modern renovations. Belfry of Bruges
: Dominating Bruges' historical center, this symbolic landmark can be ascended for a panoramic view of the city's streets and canals. Boottochten Brugge
: Discover Bruges from its famous canals by taking a boat tour of the Bruges Waterways.Musical Instruments Museum
(MIM): Explore Belgian and international music traditions through the Musical Instruments Museum's massive collection of instruments. Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert
: A Belgium holiday would seem incomplete without a stop at a chocolate shop. Thankfully, Les Galeries Saint Hubert boasts several under a single large glass roof, along with clothing boutiques and cafes. Basilica of the Holy Blood
: The Romanesque Basilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges houses the relic of the Holy Blood, a cloth that allegedly contains Christ's blood.
Planning a Belgium Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit in Belgium with KidsBrussels
finds its way onto most Belgium itineraries because it caters well to all ages. Spend a few days in Brussels to allow your family time to see all of the city's best attractions, from the Atomium
to the Musical Instruments Museum
. For a whirlwind tour of Europe in under three hours, check out Mini-Europe
, a theme park with miniature versions of the continent's famous landmarks and interactive exhibits. Keep your kids alert while exploring Brussels' famous landmarks by seeing how many Tintin Mural Painting
they can spot.
From Brussels, Bruges
are both likely choices for Belgium sightseeing with kids. A visit to Bruges' historical center is an experience for children of any age, while The Chocolate Line Bruges
impresses with its enormous and innovative selection of fine chocolates. Alternatively, Dinant keeps kids busy with its various nature reserves and outdoor activities.
Things to Do in Belgium with Kids
Belgium's large cities offer an abundance of museums, landmarks, and attractions for families to enjoy. It is also a great place for outdoor activities--a mild summer climate and well-marked terrains make it easy to plan a tour of Belgium's countryside. Flanders
are both ideal regions for hiking, cycling, or simply hopping between villages and castles by car. For beach- and sea-lovers, West Flanders Province
, particularly the resort town Ostend
, is not to be missed.
Tips for a Family Vacation in Belgium
Belgium is packed with family-friendly attractions and navigating the country by its well-connected rail lines is easy. Give your family enough time to see all of the top attractions on your itinerary by planning where to go in advance. Train tickets can also be significantly cheaper when purchased in advance, so knowing where you want to go is key. While Belgium is quite a safe country to visit and explore, use common sense in public--especially in large train stations, where pickpockets may lurk.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Belgium
Cuisine of Belgium
Belgium's cuisine is renowned, and Belgians love to enjoy leisurely meals in traditional restaurants or along city streets in the summer. Most local taverns serve everything from snacks to full meals at affordable prices, and a hotel manager can usually point you to his or her favorites.
For a delicious street snack, look for a local "frituur" or "friterie." Despite their name, french fries are claimed by Belgians as one of their national dishes. Fried twice and served with a cup of mayonnaise, these frites are a must on any Belgium trip. Pair them with mussels ("Moules et frites" or "Mosselen met friet") for a full meal in almost any restaurant.
On the sweeter side, Belgian waffles ("wafels" or "gaufres") are a popular dessert and afternoon snack. The "Gaufres de Liège" or "Luikse wafels" variety is heavier than the airy Brussels version and served with an assortment of toppings, from whipped cream and chocolate sauce to fresh fruit.
Shopping in Belgium
One of the country's most famous exports, Belgian chocolate is recognized worldwide as some of the world's best. Chocolate shops can be found in nearly every Belgian city or town, and generally sell sealed boxes that make excellent gifts or souvenirs. Dumon Chocolatier
and The Chocolate Line Bruges
are particularly renowned.
For more upscale shopping, Antwerp
offers a great selection of designer fashion boutiques and jewelry shops. Fans of comic books, especially the crime-fighting Tintin, can easily find Belgian books and related merchandise in Brussels
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Belgium
History of Belgium
During the Middle Ages, present-day Belgium--along with neighboring Netherlands and Luxembourg--formed Lower Latharingia. The autonomous fiefdoms of this area, including Bruges, Brussels, Ghent, Antwerp, and others, were among the richest places in medieval Europe. Traces of this rich legacy and the area's ambitious rule by the Dukes of Burgundy are evident throughout Belgium's countless manors, belfries, and museums.
Following various reformations that saw the area pass from Austrian to Spanish, German, and French control, Belgium was claimed by the Netherlands following Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815. This lasted briefly, with a revolution in 1830 bringing full independence for Belgium, establishing the country's southern provinces as Catholic and French-speaking and its northern provinces as Protestant and Dutch-speaking. These cultural and religious divides continue today.
Belgium was occupied by Germans during both World Wars, and was also the site of various significant battles. Traces of this dark period can be found in Ieper (Ypres)
's In Flanders Fields Museum
and the Bastogne War Museum
. Since World War II's end, Belgium has prospered as a modern European state and a central player in the European Union--indeed, Brussels is home to the European Parliament (Hemicycle visits)
Customs of Belgium
Considering Belgium's disjointed history, it is important to be respectful of the country's "dual identity" when touring Belgium's many towns and attractions. To avoid insulting or disrespecting Belgians, understand whether you are in the country's French or Flemish region. Speaking the "wrong" language can be considered offensive in either region; your best bet is to simply initiate conversation in English. Similarly, avoid commentary about the controversial Wallonia-Flanders cultural separation, but don't insist that either are French or Dutch simply because they may speak that language.
Finally, avoid equating Belgium with the European Union. Despite Brussels' being home to much of the EU's headquarters, Belgians pride themselves more strongly on their rich traditions and unique identity than on their place within the organization.
Holidays & Festivals in Belgium
Various national and regional festivals provide tourists with plenty of things to do in Belgium during holidays. Brussels
celebrates the "Ommegang" at the ends of June and July by parading actors and stunt artists in period costumes through the city's lustrous Grand Place
. If Ghent
features on your Belgium itinerary, try to coincide your visit with the Gentse Feesten in the latter part of July. This ten-day celebration is one of the biggest street festivals in Europe, and is not to be missed by festival-lovers. If you're lucky enough to be in Belgium on Trinity Sunday (57 days after Easter), make your way to Mons
for the famous the Ducasse de Mons. This quirky festival features parades, concerts, and a reenactment of Saint George's legendary battle with a dragon.
Belgium Travel Tips
Climate of Belgium
Belgium features a temperate maritime climate: cool in the summer, while mild and rainy in the winter. There is little variation in climate from region to region. It is always a good idea to have a light jacket or sweater handy during the summers' cooler days.
Transportation in Belgium
Belgium is small and well-connected, making it easy to go almost anywhere in just a couple hours. Trains run by NMBS are quick and reliable, and are often more affordable and convenient than renting a car. Parts of the country, especially in Flanders, have well-developed cycling infrastructure. Renting a bike is easy almost anywhere and allows you to experience a unique Belgium sightseeing tour.
Language of Belgium
Belgium has three official languages: Dutch, French, and German. Flanders is officially Dutch-speaking, and Wallonia officially French-speaking except for nine German-speaking communities. Language is a divisive and sensitive subject in Belgium, so it is important to communicate with the "correct" language wherever you are; the exception is Brussels, where both Dutch and French are common. As a rule, the Dutch-speaking Flemish are also more proficient in English than the French-speaking Wallonians. Consider a phrasebook to make traveling in the latter more convenient.
Tipping in Belgium
Tipping is by no means obligatory, but a tip of 50 cents to 2.50 euros on meals shows appreciation for the service and is considered very generous.