Belgium, grouped with Luxembourg and the Netherlands to make up the Benelux countries, is a fascinating tourism destination. It's a required stop for beer and chocolate lovers, it's lushly green and flat for easy rural walking, and there are plenty of castles and gardens to keep the traveler enamored with the medieval period busy.
Art lovers can be kept busy viewing the likes of Peter Paul Rubens, Sir Antony van Dyck and Rene Magritte. Adolphe Sax, born in Dinant, invented the famous jazz instrument that takes his name--and jazz has become increasingly popular in Belgium in recent years.
Are their tourist favorite cities in Belgium? Yes, Bruges and Ghent exhibit the fine historic architecture tourists crave to see.
And talk about diversity! Belgium is divided into three regions, each with language, culinary and cultural differences. The Flemish Region or Flanders occupies the north, the Walloon Region or Wallonia occupies the south, and the Brussels-Capital Region is central to Belgium.
Belgium takes no prizes in the "What's the best place in Europe to visit?" popularity sweepstakes, which is why I tend to think of it as Europe's Best Kept Travel Secret.
Belgium City and Rail Map
Belgium is small and densely populated; 10 million people fit in its 30,230 sq km of land.
What does Belgium's diminutive size mean for the tourist? You can get around easily on the train.
Let's say you've arrived in Brussels but would like to go to Bruges, a fairy-tale city of stout walls and dreamy chocolate.
The best ways to travel are found by clicking the button below below. The cheapest is by bus, and fastest by train.How to travel from Brussels to Bruges
Recommended Small Cities to See in Belgium
Damme is 4km from Bruges, and you may want to use this pleasant town as a base for travel in Flanders. If you enjoy the countryside life in a town big enough to have services, Damme is perfect; you can take a small canal boat right into Bruges from Damme!
Dinant is a a town spectacularly situated along the Meuse river in the Belgian province of Namur. There is a show cave with waterfalls and stalactites near the train station, a high Citadel and more.
Veurne, a Flemish town on the border of France wasn't occupied by the Germans in WWI and so was spared the normal bombing that the rest of Belgium suffered. There is an impressive market square and lots of interesting architecture. Visitors recommend seeing the Town Hall, the Palace of Justice and the St. Walburga Church.
Diksmuide, between Bruges and Veurne, has been called an "oasis in the polder landscape." The wetlands to the south of the city make for fabulous vistas. Two nature preserves, De Kleiputten and De Blankaart provide artistic landscapes. In town there's a large market square, rebuilt from WWI bombing. The Trench of Death at Diksmuide has become a symbolic spot for the Belgian troops' fierce resistance.
Brugge is full of charm. It's clean, the houses freshly built, painted or sand-blasted (they're mostly brick). Experienced travelers are negative over the Disney qualities of a place that's been rebuilt and gussied up for tourists, and in a way they might be right. But still, a walk along a tree-lined canal bordered by evocative buildings without a lot of car traffic has its charm, and Brugge has it in spades. Besides, you can get that medieval flavor of Brugge without the cholera and other bugs that lurked in the canal water in those ancient times. (Yes, drinking water was illegal then, a boon to the brewers of course.)
The prices of a restaurant meal are quite high; Gent prices are about 40 per cent cheaper in some cases. But that's what you pay when the tourists outnumber the working folks.
Brugge was once known for its lacemaking, and a small and inexpensive lace museum is worth a visit. The old laces were unbelievably detailed and complex. If you go at the right time, there are women there who will demonstrate the craft, although not nearly to the level of detail as the old work.
There is also a small brewery museum; for three euros you can see how many breweries Brugge had in the past and see the process of making beer. Afterwards they'll pour you a free brew of your choice, so you haven't actually paid anything for the museum.
Staying in Bruges
A very "cute" hotel in a great, quiet location near a canal is the Hotel Adornes. Doubles go for 90 to 110 Euros and include a bicycle, breakfast, and parking.
Gent is a thriving city; trams and busses run everywhere. Numerous cafes and restaurants serve all manner of food and drink, and the prices are quite reasonable for Belgium. One of the attractions are the five churches all built along the same street along the east end of the old town. Go to St. Michael's bridge to see the famous Gent towers all at once: St. Nicholas' Church, the Belfry, St. Bavo's Cathederal, the Gothic St. Michael's Church, and the former Dominican monastery 'Het Pand.'
The Ghent Belfry
Go to the Belfry and take the trip up to the top. You'll learn a whole lot about Gent history, and not just the dry facts. You'll see the mechanism that drives the 49 bells (think gigantic music box here). And if you wondered why there's a pretty girl and a lion on each bell, well, that's the symbol of Gent that came about when the city fathers commissioned an artist to create a symbol of "power" for the city. Evidently, the word for "power" and the word for "virgin" were almost identical, so the artist heard "virgin" as artists do, and off he went to paint one scantily clad. The lion was evidently added later to appease the fathers.
And to top it all off, there's a view of the whole city you won't forget.
Find out more: website of the Ghent Belfry
Staying in Ghent
Design B&B Logidenri is located in the center, a 5-minute walk from the UNESCO heritage listed Beguinage.
Known for its diamond industry (a majority of the world's diamonds pass through Antwerp's Diamond Quarter) as well as a city of art, Antwerp is home to many tourist attractions, including Peter Paul Rubens' house and garden (a bit of which is shown above), numerous art museums, one of Europe's finest railway stations (called the "railway cathedral") and much more to keep the tourist occupied, including some fine Belgian Waffles, as you can see from our Antwerp picture gallery below.
Oddly, the most popular attraction in Antwerp is its central station, called the "Railway Cathedral" by train aficionados (pictured below). Building started in 1895.
You'll also find interesting the Gothic Cathedral of Our Lady, built between 1352 and 1521, as well as a small castle called 't Steen, the oldest building in Antwerp.
Foodies will take to the Grote Markt, lined with historic guild houses. And you know what the tallest secular building in Antwerp is? The Old Butcher's Hall, The Vleeshuis. a 500 year old building built during Antwerp's Golden age, when Antwerp became Europe's third largest city and most important trade center.
Those of you who lament the loss of fine printing will want to visit the first museum to be placed on UNESCO's World Heritage List, the Plantin-Moretus Museum.
Tourist information has a wonderful book of bed and breakfasts with many pictures, so you might want to check that out. It's behind the belfort.
Staying in Antwerp
The Ibis Centrum offers rooms in a central location near the cathederal for a reasonable price.
Brussels, The Capital of Belgium
Brussels is the Capital of Belgium and the European Union. A majority of the Brussels metropolitan area's 1.8 million inhabitants speak French, but Brussels is historically Dutch-speaking.
Although Brussels dates from the 19th Century, most of Brussels old town was destroyed for new construction between 1880 and 1980, so very little of the old city is preserved. The Grand Place-Grote Markt is the exception, and it's the tourist center of Brussels.
But potential tourists should not despair, Brussels has an extraordinary number of interesting museums, restaurants, and galleries to visit.
When to go to Brussels? Folks from Brussels take July and August vacations, so summer isn't a bad time to check out the city. For climate charts see: Travel Weather Brussels.
Restaurants in Belgium
A restaurant in Belgium is a pretty elegant eating place. If you're looking for something a little more informal, look for a bistro, café, restaurant-café, or brasserie. While food is relatively expensive in Belgium, you can also find broodjeswinkel (sandwich shops), or pannekoekhuije (pancake houses) offering good bargains in food.
Lunch is generally served from 12 to 3pm and dinner from 7 to 10 pm.
A "menu" refers to the special of the day.
What to Eat in Belgium
Service charges are included in hotel, restaurant, shopping bills and taxi fares. Belgians commonly round up the total amount to determine the tip.
Frites -or the misnamed "french" fries. Pretty much the national dish, except for the superb waterzooi. You have them with mayonnaise or other sauces.
Waterzooi-from a flemish word meaning "simmering water" comes a hearty stew of local fish (or chicken) with vegetables and herbs, often enriched by a trio of the kitchen god's best: butter, egg yolks and cream.
Carbonnades - meat cooked with brown beer, the national dish of Belgium. (Carbonnades Flamandes recipe)
Belgian Endive - White Gold, an endive kept in darkness for most of its life. Often served braised.
Chocolate - Belgian Chocolate! Yes, it goes without saying.
Beer - Aficionados of Bud Lite need not read further. The rest of you who like variety and flavor must try one of these: Lambic Ale, Abbey and Trappist Ale, Witbier (wheat), Sour Ale, Brown Ale, Amber Ale, or Strong Golden Ale. You can even order Pilsner.
When to go to Belgium
I prefer the fall, when fall colors set in. But many people also like the spring, as does Lonely Planet:
The best times to visit this small corner of Europe are spring and fall, when the weather is mild, and the sights are not overcrowded. These are also the perfect times for nature lovers, who will appreciate spring’s flower fields and fall colors in the forests of the Ardennes.