Belgium is a small nation with a big role to play in European life and world history. If you are interested in the First World War, Belgium has a million sites to keep you busy during your visit. But what people mostly come here for is the beer, chocolate, and fries. There are over 1,000 breweries in this little country. Belgium’s chocolate rivals the Swiss, and the frites will make you look at french fries differently for the rest of your life. This country usually just gets glossed over as travelers visit Brussels before moving on, however it has a lot of great medieval towns, historical sites, and breweries worth sticking around for. This travel guide to Belgium will help point the way.
Accommodation – Prices will really vary for a night’s stay depending on where you are in the country. A night in a hostel dormitory room will start around 20 EUR, though none are more than 30 EUR. Private rooms are around 25-35 EUR per night for a double room. Budget hotels start at around 45 EUR per night for a single room, but in a place like Bruges, your best value option is going to be renting a guest house or a room from a local.
Food – Casual meals and fast food cost around 12 EUR. A meal in a sit down restaurant with table service will cost about 23 EUR. Frites (french fries and a great snack) cost around 4 EUR. If you want to cook your meals, there are some great markets throughout the country that will allow you to eat cheap. Expect to pay around 55 EUR for a week’s worth of groceries.
Transportation – City metro tickets are roughly 2-3 EUR per ride. Travel around the country isn’t expensive as the country is small and easy to get around. Most intercity train tickets cost around 15 EUR for a second class fare.
Activities – Belgium is all about soaking up the local culture, whether it’s the international flavor of Brussels or the historic cobblestones in Bruges. Museums vary in cost from 5-14 EUR, but can be affordable, especially if you have a student card to get discounted entry. Free walking tours around town will give you a glimpse into the country’s history – information is easy to find at hostels around town.
Money Saving Tips
Metro passes – Day passes for the metro will save you money over the cost of a single ticket. For example, a day ticket is 7,50 EUR, whereas a single is 2,10/2,50 EUR (purchased outside/inside vehicle) on the Brussels metro.
Skip the bread – Be careful when ordering food in tourist hotspots as a familiar trick is to offer you items which you might presume are free (bread rolls for example) but then end up on your bill!
Eat cheap – Eat at little sandwich, kebab, or frites shops to save money on food.
Drink beer – If you want to drink, this country has so many breweries (the most per capita in any country in the world!) that beer is the cheapest form of alcohol. A beer will set you back just a few Euros.
Top Things to See and Do in Belgium
Brussels – Brussels is the capital and the administrative center of the European Union. Visit the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts for its large collection of paintings, drawings, sculptures, and magnificent central square, Grand Place where you will find lots of cafés, chocolate shops, and the Town Hall. Watch out.
Ghent – The city of Ghent is often overlooked compared with other cities in the country, but this university town is charming and has a lot less tourists. To visit the city at its liveliest you should go in July when the largest cultural outdoors festival in Europe, the “Gentse Feesten”, takes place with food, music, and street entertainment.
Flanders Fields – Flanders was the site of around half a million deaths in the horrific trenches of World War I. There are numerous military cemeteries and ‘Missing Memorials’ in the region, commemorating those of all nationalities who fell in battle. At the Flanders Fields museum in Ypres, visitors can discover what it was like to be a soldier in the trenches.
Eat and drink – For such a small country, Belgium certainly has a few culinary aces up its sleeve. Waffles, chocolate, and frites (a bit like french fries) shops dot every street, and beer is produced in massive quantities. There are over 1000 breweries. Drink, and drink well. If you are especially keen, you can go on a tour of a brewery. Belgium is simply the place to indulge in food and beer.
Bruges – With its interesting architecture and tasty delights, it is not to be missed. Key attractions include the 14th-century town hall, the Belfry Tower, the Cathedral of the Holy Saviour, its market squares, and canals. Colin Farrell said in the movie “In Bruges” that this place was hell, but he was wrong- it’s beautiful. Go visit, though keep in mind it is a bit touristy and can be boring if you are there alone for a few days!
Castles – There are more castles per square mile in Belgium than anywhere else in the world, and with over 3000 to explore, it’s hard to know where to start. Castle of Bouillon in the Ardennes is one of the most interesting ones. Other must sees are Beersel and Gravensteen.
Antwerp – The country’s second largest city, Antwerp is an excellent shopping location and offers an extraordinary variety of local food and beer for visitors to enjoy. For those interested in art, the Royal Fine Arts Museum houses the world’s best collection of the Flemish Masters’ works, including the largest group of Rubens masterpieces in existence.
Waterloo – At the site of the famous battle, there is a memorial in the form of a statue of a lion (looking towards France) on a hill, with 226 stairs, called La Butte du Lion. Other attractions related to the battle are the Wellington Museum and the Roman Catholic Church of St. Joseph.
Ardennes Forest – Ardennes Forest is the place to go for skiing or hiking. Aside from sporting pursuits, there is a lot of good meat here: game, wild boar, venison, smoked ham, the region’s famous paté, as well as the world-renowned Trappist beers.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame – The Cathedral of Our Lady in Tournai is one of the most striking examples of Romanesque architecture in Europe and is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The cathedral has five towers, magnificent stained-glass windows, and paintings by Rubens and Jacob Jordaens.
Mannenken Pis & Jeanneken Pis – These two iconic sculptures can be found in Brussels and are considered by many as a ‘must see’. There is always a group of people checking them out. They are simple, nude male and female children’s figures, peeing. The male is often dressed up in costumes. They are pretty weird tourist attractions.
Antwerp Zoo – Located in the center of Antwerp next to the train station, this zoo is a full afternoon attraction. Open since 1843, it is one of the oldest and most famous zoos in the world. There are several exhibits and unusual garden features to be seen, including crazy animal sculptures.
Oostende Fish Market Visserkaai – This is where the Ostend fishing fleet sells their catch. If you’re a fan of seafood, this is an awesome place to check out. There are numerous restaurants set up all along the seafront, and you are guaranteed to get a fresh meal.
Cinquantenaire – This museum complex started in 1880 and has continued to expand over the past several years. It lies on the South-East side of Brussels and is host to the Army Museum, the Auto World Museum, an art museum, and more.
Belgium isn’t considered a big tourist destination. In fact, I bet most people couldn’t even locate it on a map or name another city in it besides Brussels. But, mention Belgium, and most people will be able to at least tell that the beer is good, the chocolate amazing, the waffles delicious, and the frites amazing. Despite its small size, Belgium holds its own in the culinary world and, while the food may not be the healthiest in the world to, it is certainly the delicious:
Belgium is probably most famous for its beer. It has been brewing beer since the Middle Ages and there are approximately 125 breweries in the country. These 125 breweries produce about 800 standard beers. When special one-off beers are included, the total number of Belgian beers jumps to about 8,700! Belgium is clearly for beer lovers.
One of the most famous beers here is the Trappist beers. These are beers brewed in a Trappist monastery where the monks a role in its production and policies and the profits from the sale must be used to support the monastery. Only seven monasteries currently meet these qualifications, six of which are in Belgium and one in the Netherlands.
Another main beer is Lambic beer, a wheat beer brewed in the southwest of Brussels by spontaneous fermentation. Lambic’s fermentation is produced by exposure to the wild yeasts and bacteria in the air. This is the type of beer brewed in Brussels’ only remaining brewery. These beers can be aged for up to three years! I found it very dry, acidic and sour. An acquired taste maybe?
Belgium chocolate is supposed to be the best in the world. I’m not a chocolate expert but I do know that I almost ate all the free samples at the Chocolate museum. Belgian chocolate has a high quality of ingredients and producers strongly adherence to Old World manufacturing techniques. When the EU allowed manufacturers to use a percentage of vegetable oil in chocolate productions, Belgiums balked- only 100% cocoa butter for them!
Belgian chocolate itself has been popular since the 18th century, but increased its popularity during the 20th century when prices dropped and it became more affordable. The most popular variety here are chocolate pralines that can be filled with a variety of flavored creams, alcohol, fruit or more chocolate. You’ll find a chocolate store on every corner in Belgium. The expensive stores Like Neuhaus and Godiva are worth the money.
Belgian waffles, those large, light, and thick waffles, are famous worldwide. However, the Belgium waffle is really the Brussels waffle. Most waffles in Belgium (indeed in most of the low countries) are large and flat. It was introduced by Maurice Vermersch in the ’60s. Originally called Brussels waffles, Vermersch decided to change the name upon observing the poor geographical skills of Americans. Belgian waffles were popularized in the United States during the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
While in Belgium, I noticed the majority of “waffle shops” had the popularized version closest to the tourist areas where in the local areas there was more of a mix and more often sold as a pastry instead of a breakfast food. I’m too used to eating it for breakfast though. For me, they are best served with lots of powered sugar, strawberries, and maple syrup. However, you cna get hem with bananas, ice cream, chocolate, nutella- whatever your heart desires.
Frites, or french fries, is an on the go specialty in many parts of Europe. In Belgium, it is an art. Everywhere you go you see a frite seller and locals walking around with a cone of frites and some mayo. (Probably walking to burn off the calories!) Everyone claims to know the best frite place in “insert town name here”. I found the ones in the center of Brussels and Brugge to be average. A friend did take me to a place called “Maison Antione” in Place Jordan. I thought they were very good and the long lines seemed a testament to that. I mean any place that gets you to wait 30 minutes for fries must be good. And when you eat the frites, make sure you eat them with mayo. It’s delicious.
Belgium may be small but it packs a powerful culinary punch. There’s nothing better than sitting outside on a nice day with a cone of frites in one hand and hearty Belgium beer in the other. None of the food will ever be considered “healthy” but it will always be considered mouth watering delicious.