Belgium is mini-Europe in its own right; you will find people from different descents (a sizable Moroccan population; did you know that?) and speaking Dutch, German, French, Flemish and a few other languages in one place. It is Europe’s cultural melting point. Belgium’s capital, Brussels, is the center for major European Union organizations such as the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament. NATO’s headquarters is in Brussels too.
It is a constitutional Federal monarchy, and it is one of the most densely populated countries in western Europe. If you fancy those adventurous stories of Tintin like me, you’re in the right place!
Safety and local expectations
Belgium is, in general, a safe place; general safety norms to be followed. Brussels is a very crowded city, and pick-pocketers might try their luck in touristic places such as the Grand Palace. Be mindful of such people on the outskirts of Antwerp too.
Take care of your belongings at train stations and have a heighten sense of your surroundings when traveling/ walking at night will be enough to make sure you are safe. If you are traveling by car, do not leave your valuables in the car; parking lots can be notorious places.
Visa requirements for Belgium are similar to other Schengen countries. The good news is that you may travel to other Schengen countries once you have a Schengen visa. If you get your Schengen visa from Belgium embassy, you need to make sure that either your point of entry is Belgium or you spend maximum amount of your time in Belgium.
Check if you need visa here-https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visa_requirements_for_Indian_citizens
This is where I check if I need visa (I mostly do :-D); just change the name of your country in the above link to suit your needs.
You might have heard me say this a few times, and I will repeat myself again- I love traveling in Europe because the transportation system is well thought through and integrated. You have more than enough choices to choose from- be it the trend-setting jet traveler or a train/ bus hopping budget traveler.
Air: You probably will land at Brussels airport; it is around half an hour drive from Brussels city. Most of the full service airlines and low-cost airlines land here; it is also the base for Brussels airlines. The second airport where people land is Brussels South Charlerol airport (approximately 50 kilometers south of Brussels) and Antwerp airport. You might prefer to land either at Brussels airport or into a neighboring country as Brussels is well connected through rail and road.
Rail: Direct trains run between Brussels and London, Paris, Frankfurt, Luxemburg, Amsterdam and other big cities in Europe. Within Belgium, traveling in trains can be one of the most easiest and picturesque ways to see this country.
Road: You may rent a car (there is Europcar, Sixt, Hertz, Avis and other companies to choose from) and drive around Belgium as it has some of the finest highways and well-connected motorways. Please note that it might be the cheapest and most convenient way though.
Buses: I personally like the hop-on and hop-off bus services in Europe and there are some good ones in Belgium too. The local buses and trams within the cities are good ways to move around cities in Belgium.
Tours: There are a lot of tour companies that will offer you not only 1 day tours to other cities within Belgium, such as Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent etc., but also to neighboring cities, for instance Amsterdam and Luxembourg.
When to go
With temperate climate, Belgium is good to enjoy in any season; however, summer is the most popular time for tourists to come here. That’s pretty much the case for Europe. Please note that July and August can be extremely crowded months, especially for the coastal town of Bruges.
March, April, September and October months can still be pleasant and not too crowded months to discover this country. October to March period can not only cold but it rains quite a bit during this time.
Where to Stay
There are a lot of bed and breakfast places that you can stay at very nominal rates. Belgium has a lot hotels to choose from; they range from budget hotels to high-end hotels. Hotel prices also vary drastically during different times of the year. During a business or diplomatic meet, hotel rates in Brussels can sky-rocket.
You can camp or be in you caravans, if you plan to stay near Ardennes area. Book well ahead in time as spaces might be limited.
What to Eat
You might know (or not) that the Belgians claim that they discovered the potato fries and not the French. Belgians will get offended if, when ordering potato fries, you call them French fries 😀 You can find them in local cafes; savor the mayonnaise that comes with it, while walking around the historic places/ promenades.
Your trip to Belgium is incomplete without Belgian chocolate; some of the famous brands include Godiva, Guylian and others. I suggest that you try out some local boutiques selling locally made chocolate.
Waffle is a street snack in Belgium and you can relish it throughout the country. Choice for toppings is endless- from strawberries to chocolate syrup to powdered sugar.
My favorite beers are from Belgium. You will find the traditional malted barley beer, but a must try are the flavored beers. Are you up for a coconut beer or cherry beer? J there are a lot of local pubs and breweries around Belgium. Let’s raise a toast to the age old brewing culture!
Mussels is one of the favorite sea-food for Belgians and tourists alike.
Top Things to See and Do
Brussels is the melting pot of Europe. You will get a sneak-peak into what other countries in Europe have for you. French and Dutch are the two languages that are spoken here; majority of the young population also speak English fluently.
Grand Place area is the main attraction, and it has a lot of museums too. Manneken Pis statue, statue of a boy urinating in a pool, is in one of the lanes in Grand Place area. If you’re lucky, you might find him dressed in one of the thousand dresses that Belgian have created for him. Jeanneke Pis was created for gender equality; it is worth checking out too. You may shop around in the Grote Markt area as it is close to Grand Place.
Atomium is an iconic structure in Brussels and a must visit. Apart from a few exhibitions that run there, Atomium gives a bird’s eye view of the city. Palais de Justice and Palais Royale are worth exploring and the entry is for free. Basilica Koekelberg is the 5th largest church and has intricate designs.
There is a plethora of museums in Brussels- from Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium to Natural Sciences Museum of Belgium to Horta Museum; Belgian Comic Strip Center is an interesting place to spend an afternoon. Beer museum in Grand Place area will tell you all about beer making, but please know that it is an extremely small place.
Around 55 kilometers north of Brussels, Antwerp is one of the best options for a day trip. Antwerp is a major hub for diamond trade; more than 80% of rough cut diamonds of the world pass through Antwerp.
In old days, Antwerp port used to be an important trading center for Europe an Asia. You can take a bus or the train from Brussels to Antwerp. Antwerp is well connected to other major European cities by road and by air.
Within Antwerp, most of the places can be discovered on foot; you may choose to buy a day pass that will let you ride trams, buses and trains for the whole day.
The central station is an iconic building and worth a visit if you do not plan to arrive here by train. Other historical buildings are Cathedral of Our Lady and Saint Paul’s Church. Rubenshuis and Museum Plantin-Moretus are intriguing places to know about the artist Ruben and the history of printing press.
Your journey is incomplete without walking around the Diamond District; it is also the center of Jewish community; however, the Indian influence is on the rise. Although you might be tempted to buy a diamond from Antwerp, please be aware of the touristy traps. The old diamond museum is apparently closed now; check out Diva, a new Diamond museum, instead if you want to learn more about diamonds.
If historical places excite you, Ghent is the place for you. You get a feel of late medieval times with its churches and other architectures. Ghent is a half an hour drive from Brussels and is easily accessible from other cities in Belgium too. Ghent can be discovered on foot, once you are in the central area of the city. From the central station, you can take the tram; it is a 10-15 minutes ride to the center of Ghent.
To get an aerial view, go up the upper gallery of Belfry. Some of the worth visiting churches are Sint- Baafskathedraal, Het Gravensteen and Sint- Niklaaskerk. To get a panoramic view, head over to St. Michale’s Bridge (Sint- Michielshelling).
You can also take a canal cruise in Ghent; remember to book it in advance during summmer. There is a huge young crowd in Ghent as it has the popular Ghent University.
Bruges is one of the most well-preserved coastal city in Europe; the cobblestone paths make it a perfect place to walk around on a sunny day. Finding a sunny day is a challenge, even during summers as the weather in Bruges is more like Irish weather- it can rain any day and at any time.
It is a 50 minutes journey from Brussels and trains run every 30 minutes. Once you are in the city center, you can saunter around this historical city. You might think that Amsterdam is the city with most number of bicycles, but you will be pleasantly surprised that one of the best ways to discover the neighboring places in Bruges. You can choose from a lot of bike rental companies.
Soak yourself in the beauty of the medieval buildings; they might look too neat and clean to be that old, but they sure are old(other parts of the world can learn about cleanliness from them); this makes the historical area a World Heritage Site of UNESCO . Like Ghent, Bruges also has a Belfry tower. Climb up 366 steps to get an aerial view of the city. Grote market is an excellent place to soak up the ambience and enjoy a drink or two. You can take a canal ride to see the city.
The famous buildings in Bruges are Church of our Lady, Basilica of the Holy Blod, Old St. John’s Hospital, Saint Salvator’s Cathedral, Groeningemuseum, Provincial Court, etc.
The first time that I landed in Brussels was more than 10 years ago; I’ve been going to Belgium since then and I must admit that I always have a good time. On day 1, after enjoying the hustle and bustle of the Grand Place area, I was on a quest to discover the Manneken Pis. My assumption was that it will be a big statue of a boy peeing. I was wrong; it is a small statue. The walk on the small windy cobblestone roads in Grand Place area gives you an old world feel. There are a lot of souvenir shops and eatery places; I enjoyed walking into those boutique chocolate stores. It was a hot day; I stopped at a home-made ice cream place. There are a lot of museums that you can stop at; museum of the city od Brussels is worth visiting if you would like to dig deeper into the history and folklore of Belgium. The building that houses the museum is a gothic style one and is worth admiring; I spent around 2 hours in the museum.
I then took the hop-on hop-off bus to Atomium, and I was mesmerized by the beauty and universality of it. The scientific Aiena came alive and I was left asking these questions to myself- aren’t we all made of atoms, and isn’t it the same red blood corpuscles running in our veins? Then why do we fight over petty things- between individuals or countries?
Delirium café is my place to try out all kinds of beer in the evening; the place holds the Guinness world record of having the most kind of beers.
My second day was spent discovering the beer museum and museum of cocoa and chocolate. I also relished the various kinds of waffles Belgium has to offer; it sure a foodie day. I did incorporate a visit to St Michael’s Cathedral, Basilica of Koekelberg, St Mary’s Church, Court of Justice and the Royal Palace.
The next day, I took the train to Antwerp; I started early and came back late to my hotel. I adored the central train station building and decided to take the tram to the city center. After walking around the central area and discovering a few churches, I headed to the Diamond museum; I’ve heard that the old museum is now closed and a new one is in place. This is a great place if you want to know where Diamonds come from (remember the movie Blood Diamond), how they are made, what makes a diamond stand out and where they end up selling. I saw a few Indian merchants in that street full of diamond shops. Beware that most of them would try to woo you into buying diamonds, but I believe that you can now find diamonds in most parts of the world.
I was still full of energy and ready to discover another city the next day. After sleeping like a baby, I was up early again the next day. It was time to discover Ghent; I took a tour from the hotel and they picked me up around 0730am. I got to see scenic and green countryside on my way to Ghent. The walking tour took us around Belfry tower, St Bavo Cathedral, St Nicolas Church and the Castle of the Counts of Flanders. We then took a one hour canal ride (this was booked for us in advance); I was intrigued by the beautiful and practical houses created by some locals.
The next day, I was ready to discover Bruges on my own. I visited the Lake of Love (Minnewater) and the Beguinage, and then I had brunch in a restaurant, facing the canal. With a full stomach, I then headed to Our Lady Church, which has a statue by Michelangelo; Market Square with the Belfry; and Town Hall Square (Burg), with the Chapel of the Holy Blood. I still had the option of taking a canal cruise, but to tell you the truth, I done doing them 😀
I’ve been to Belgium quite a few times after that, mostly to Brussels, and I end up discovering some other part of the city or try out a different kind of food and even the not so usual historical place, for instance the Herge museum (about Adventures of Tintin). Let’s keep this conversation running; comment below.