What do you know about Belgium? Chocolate, waffles, beer – perhaps some of us know Belgium a little too well, thanks to last Friday night’s triple IPAs. But there’s so much more beyond the gluttonous activities. Let’s explore the sweet little country.
Nestled between France, the Netherlands and Germany, Belgium is the perfect pit-stop on a European adventure. Considering its central location, it’s natural to swing through Belgium via train coming to or from Berlin, Amsterdam or Paris. An ideal stay, in my opinion, is two days. Make your first stop Brussels, the capital, and on Day Two, venture to Bruges for a day trip. (Though you could also choose to visit Antwerp or Ghent.)
Here’s what you need to know about visiting Belgium, from food to language barriers to that peeing boy statue.
Language: This is a sensitive subject. There are three official languages of Belgium: French, Dutch, and German. Residents in the southern part of Belgium (Wallonia) speak French, while those in the northern part (Flanders), where Brussels is located, speak Flemish, a.k.a. Dutch. And, for good measure, about 10,000 or so folks on the eastern side speak German. Nearly everyone you’ll encounter will speak English though, so oddly enough, to avoid offending anyone on the north/south language divide, it’s best to stick to English.
Electric: Type C two-prong plug.
Currency: Euro (€). As with most of Europe, credit cards are commonplace, but hit an ATM and grab a stack of euros soon after arriving, just in case of cash-only instances.
Tipping: A service charge will already be added to your bill, but if you carry that American tipping guilt with you abroad, it’s polite to round up a few euros or leave extra change.
Weather: Belgium is fairly temperate all four seasons, but to escape elbowing your way around during peak tourist season, consider going April to May or September to October.
Getting around: Within the cities – Brussels, Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp – your own two feet will do. For day trips, you can hop on a quick train ride; a few euros and an hour will land you in another city. If you’re interested in visiting the countryside (say, for a brewery tour) then you may want to consider renting a car.
Belgium is not for the faint of starches and carbs. First things first: head to a friterie, as French-speaking Belgians call them, for a cardboard cone of fries. The stands are numerous, dotting nearly every public square, but the ABCs of each are similar: long strips of taters are sliced thick on site, then fried to order. You’ll have upwards of a dozen options for toppings, mostly mayo-based, but first-timers may want to stick to the classic: plain mayonnaise. You may never eat mayo again, but it’ll be worth it. Maison Antoine is often bestowed the crown of best, and Friterie du Miroir, slightly out of city-center, is a charmer too.
For your main course, comes the waffle – a Belgian waffle. Forget what you know about the bastardized American version. In Belgium, waffles are eaten as street food, on the go with a delightfully mini fork, with or without toppings. Maison Dandoy, family-owned and focused on using all-natural ingredients, is a fan favorite waffle shop. For a sit-down experience, head to Mokafe. You know it’s good when it’s located in tourist central but is still packed with locals. As for toppings, sometimes simple powdered sugar will do. Other times, Nutella and strawberries. Either go wild or keep it simple.
And finally, for dessert: chocolate! Immediately you’ll mourn all the years you were subjected to Hershey’s. If you’re in Bruges, head straight for The Chocolate Line, where locals and tourists alike admire the work of Dominique Persoone, renowned chocolatier and potentially crazy mad scientist. (He loves chocolate so much he snorts it!) His flavors range from traditional to you-can-put-that-in-chocolate?! How does saffron curry, Moroccan pink, Cabernet Sauvignon, lemongrass or lavender chocolate sound? The best part of visiting his shop though is the open kitchen, where you can watch chocolate makers do your dream job.
Back in Brussels, home of Godiva, premier chocolatiers scatter the city, so you’ll do no wrong. With a million+ residents and approximately 500 chocolatiers, you do the math. Kidding! I’ll do it for you: that’s about one chocolate maker for every 2,000 people. Belgians consume over 15 pounds of chocolate each year; no wonder they seem so happy.
In Brussels, check out Alex & Alex, part Champagne bar, part chocolate bar, part heaven on earth. Some say their chocolates are some of the best in the city, but that could be the Champagne talking.
While in Brussels, make your first stop at Grand Place, aka Grote Markt, the centuries-old central square. Surrounded on all sides by ornate Gothic architecture dating back to the 17th century, you’ll feel transported back to medieval times… if you can overlook the green glow of a Starbucks out of the corner of your eye. If you’re planning on visiting in August coincide your trip with the unveiling of the flower carpet, when every other summer Grand Place is covered in 600,000 flowers. Incredible.
While exploring Grand Place you’ll likely stumble upon a group of tourists crowded around The Manneken Pis Statue. It’s silly, sure, and kind of crass, yes, and it does mean what you think it means – “The Little Man Pee.” Still, the small statue is history, put in place around 1618, so go see it. The goofy little guy has an expansive closet (900+ costumes!) and officials often dress him up.
Next, take a stroll through Mont de Arts, a park with an incredible overlook, arguably the most beautiful view of Brussels. Sit on a bench along the expanse of flowers, resting your feet and taking in the local artists, musicians and skateboarders who populate the park during the day.
Next, venture to the outskirts of Brussels to see The Atomium, the iconic sculpture built in 1958 as part of the World Fair exhibition. It still draws oohs and ahhs and “what the hell is it?” from visitors. Worth a look.
Take a Day Trip to Bruges
Just a quick train ride away from Brussels, Bruges feels like a step back into medieval times. Set on a network of canals connecting to the North Sea, Bruges is perfect for a boat or walking tour. Winding cobblestone streets and canals make for a picturesque stroll, while majestic historic buildings – the Stadhuis, Belgium’s oldest town hall, dates back to 1376! – will give you a taste for time and architecture.
Art, history and architecture buffs alike: while in Bruges, pay a visit to Church of our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk in Dutch). Construction began in 1220 and took nearly 200 years to complete, and it’s the second tallest brickwork building in the world. It’s also home to Michelangelo’s world-famous Madonna and Child, made around 1504 and the one piece of his to leave Italy during his lifestyle.
Where to Call Home
There’s a cheeky humor to Vintage Hotel, a family-run hotel in Brussels. The interiors are colorful and the details, such as itty bitty Rubik’s Cube adorning your room-key ring and miniature versions of The Atomium throughout the breakfast room, are truly delightful.
If you’re in Bruges, treat yourself like royalty at Hotel Dukes’ Palace, a hotel occupying a 15th century, well, palace. It’s polished, it’s grand, it’s centrally located and it’s not as expensive as you may think.
If Airbnb is more your speed, this no-frills flat near Grand Place, this black and white tiled beauty and this masculine loft are all worth a booking.
See above for the breakdown of the language lines in Belgium. English will do you just fine in Belgium, but if you’re in Dutch-speaking territory and want to flex your language muscles, here are a few common phrases to get you by.
Images via Megan McCarty
Megan is a writer, editor, etc.-er who muses about life, design and travel for Domino, Lonny, Hunker and more. Her life rules include, but are not limited to: zipper when merging, tip in cash and contribute to your IRA. Be a pal and subscribe to her newsletter Night Vision.
BY Megan McCarty - September 30, 2017
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.