Is Belgium Europe's Best Kept Travel Secret?

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••• Gent Center, from the Bell tower. James Martin, Europe Travel

Belgium: a compact country packed with interesting medieval cities, quaint towns, Gothic cathedrals, castles, great beer, diamonds, fries, and endive - what more could you want?

  • 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. No need to take a flight between cities; the train is fast and efficient.
  • Like the diamonds Antwerp is famous for, you'll be visiting a country that exhibits many facets. Take languages, for example: the Northern Flemish speak Dutch, while the southern Walloons speak French. English is widely spoken everywhere tourists might go.
  • Belgium has a high standard of living.

Getting To Belgium by Air

Brussels Airport, east of Brussels, is the only international airport in Belgium. "Taxis with a taximeter are permanently available in front of the arrivals hall. Licensed taxis can be recognized by the blue and yellow emblem. Travellers are advised to avoid unlicensed taxis!" There is also bus service. 

Getting to Belgium by Train

The Eurostar goes between Brussels and London and fast TGV trains link Brussels with Paris and Amsterdam. There is a Benelux rail pass available as well as one which adds France, and one which adds Germany. See our Belgium Map and Travel Essentials for more detailed transportation information.

Suggested Cities to Visit in Belgium

Brussels

The capital of Belgium is Brussels, a good destination from which to start your exploration of Belgium. Here are some highlights:

  • Manneken Pis - the famous peeing boy, who sometimes pees beer.
  • Mini Europe - the major monuments of the European Union in miniature (eliminating the need to go to the rest of Europe!) Get off at the Heysel Metro Stop.
  • The Atomium - the Expos of 1935 and 1958 took place north of the center of Brussels, in the Heizel/Heysel plains. The Atomium is the only remaining part of the '58 exhibition and is the visual representation of the concept of an "atom", symbolizing an elementary iron crystal with its 9 atoms magnified 150 billion times. Each "electron" has a diameter of 18 meters and one even contains a restaurant! You can get fine views of Brussels from the highest one.
  • The Grand'place (Grote Markt - Market Square) - one of the most beautiful town squares in Europe.

Antwerp

Antwerp is the second largest city in Belgium with 500,000 inhabitants. It is the diamond center of the World (the diamond district is around the railway station). It is also becoming the fashion capital of Belgium. The painter Rubens lived here and you can visit the house and Museum that he lived in from 1616 to his death in 1640.

Bruge (Brugge)

Bruges is the capital of the province of West-Flanders and is a town notable for its medieval architecture, the quality of its beer, and it's overall "quaintness." The town was extensively renovated in "recent" 19th century Gothic, leading some to criticize it as a "fake" medieval town, but shouldn't the tourist be considering why medieval architecture is so alluring in order to see its styles continue?

Ghent

The historic center of Ghent shows a bit of the Middle Ages. There's a fine old port with guild halls and a magnificent Castle of the Counts of Flanders. The botanical garden has around 7500 species of plants.

Smaller Recommended Cities 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 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.

What to Eat and Drink

Frites - the misnamed "french" fries. Pretty much the national dish, except for the superb waterzooi. You have them with mayonnaise. 

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.

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.