Come here for the beer and the fries, the mussels and the Belgian chocolate. Either way, you'll end up staying for the picture-perfect architecture, the winding canals, the chilling war memorials, the endless castles and the intriguing art history.
  • Belgium
    © Martin Molcan / 123RF
  • Belgium
    © Paul Grecaud / 123RF
Amy Adejokun
Amy Adejokun Expert destination Belgium

Treasure trove

So small is this European nation that it often goes un-noted on the itineraries of travellers, holidaymakers and day trippers alike. Big mistake. Don't be deceived by its size, nor by the modesty of the locals, because in actual fact Belgium is a sparkling treasure trove of ancient architecture and art history, coupled with the unmistakeable traces of a devastating world war.

North vs South

Like so many of its neighbours, Belgium draws a distinct divide between North and South. Unlike many of its neighbours however, its split is reinforced not only by geography but by language. Venture into the predominantly French-speaking Wallonia to the south and you'll find rural castles and scattered villages, making a delightful countryside trail to discover at your own pace.

Flanders Fields

In Dutch-speaking Flanders, the endlessly flat landscapes of the north await, punctuated every now and again by historic cities full of architecture, packed with museums and bursting with beer. In Flanders Fields lie the buried battlegrounds of World War One, commemorated with swathes of poppies, vast cemeteries and moving monuments to all those missing soldiers who were never found.

The Capital of Europe

The great bastion of the north, Brussels plays host to European representatives, NATO elites, intertwining cultures and arguably some of the best festivals on the planet. Get lost in the busy streets, stumble into random chocolate shops, dip into interesting art galleries, emerge onto the Grand Place or window-shop the countless boutiques - just don't plan ahead.

Venice of the North

Yes it has canals and yes they loop in and out of the city on endlessly complicating paths, but Bruges has a personality that is entirely its own. Never has a city crammed so much medieval architecture into one place, from belfries to basilicas, market squares to chocolate museums. Quietly compact, this is a great place to explore on foot, interspersed with regular beer stops.

Belgium's best kept secret

You may not even have heard of Ghent, let alone put it on your travel list. So much the better for those who have, and who come to wander aimlessly over the gorgeous cobblestones of this city on two rivers. Come for nearby Gravensteen castle, with its UNESCO-recognised bell tower, the grand houses and the never-ending bridges, and make sure you leave with plenty of Ghent chocolate.

Belgium: the key figures

Surface area : 30527.0 km2

Population : 10438353 inhabitants

  • The architectural and cultural richness of the towns.
  • The friendly locals.
  • Its proximity to the UK.
  • The flat countryside can seem monotonous.
  • The often grey weather.
  • The rivalry, both linguistic and cultural, between the Walloons and the Flemish.

Belgium: what to visit?

Belgium: what to buy?

Brussels and Bruges both sell extremely fine lacework and tapestries, though sales of these items are declining rapidly throughout the country. Also consider bringing back pralines and comic strips. However, you may find what you're looking for in the many flea markets and second-hand shops.

If you still haven't found the perfect souvenir, try the antique shops and famous Anvers diamonds. For fashion, head to the shops in Dansaert Street in Brussels, or discover the young designers in the town of Anvers, which is becoming known as the youngest capital for innovation.

Shops are normally open from 9:00 am to 6:00 or 7:00 pm, Monday to Saturday.

Belgium: what to eat?

You may like to begin by trying shrimp croquettes or 'anguille au vert'. The latter dish is accompanied by a sauce containing aromatic herbs and onions. Otherwise sample the seafood with mayonnaise or ham and sausage from the Ardennes.

As for the dishes, try waterzooi (this typical preparation consists of cooking the fish or chicken in a vegetable stock). Flemish carbonade (beef stew) is also very popular. It is impossible to get away from chips and mussels, but they can be prepared in a thousand different ways and you will never taste quite the same thing twice.

If you are staying in the capital, why not try the infamous Brussel sprouts and don't forget the waffles! Enjoy the pralines, a worldwide favourite and plenty of beer, drunk at any time of the day or night. There are hundreds of different types, Gueuze, aLambic, Faro and Kriek to name just a few. If the beer is not to your taste however, try Spa Elixir, a type of mandarin liqueur.

Belgium: what are the cultural particularities?

Belgians are extremely modest people, with a real love of the simple things in life. To that end, Carnaval season is is one of the best times to see the country in fully fledged party spirit, especially in Wallonia which hosts no less than 17 different carnavals. Here they follow secular tradition, with strict rules on attire and accessories.

If you only have time to see one Carnaval parade, head to Binche, whose festivities were recognised by UNESCO in 2003. In this small community of 33,000 people, the parade is the event of year and locals prepare themselves six Sundays in advance to be fully ready for the day.

Belgium: travel tips

Though it should certainly not be discounted from your itinerary, southern Wallonia has a far less developed tourist infrastructure than the north. The landscapes here are great for cycling and absorbing a unique side to Belgian culture, but you must be content to slot into local life rather than sightseeing and museum-touring.

Wherever you choose to go, you will be greeted by one of the finest selections of beers in the world. This tiny nation has over 1,000 breweries producing extremely good quality and varied beers. A quick word of advice, try the local variations wherever you happen to visit for the best taste. In Ghent, for example, have go at Delirium Tremens, or Straffe Hendrik in Bruges, brewed in the city centre itself.

If you like diamonds, stop in Anvers. This town is actually a world centre for trading in these precious stones. You can therefore have a broader choice and more interesting prices for the same quality. Several jewellery shops, certified by the Anvers association of jewellers, can be found on Vestingstraat and Rufstraat.

Belgium: Latest hotel reviews
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