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A low-lying country in the Benelux , Belgium (Dutch: België, French: Belgique, German: Belgien) sits at the crossroads of Western Europe. It marries both the historical landmarks for which the continent is famous with spectacular modern architecture and rural idylls, whilst its capital, Brussels , is home to the headquarters of the European Union.
Despite this, Belgium is not without its divisions. On the contrary, Flanders, the northern part of the country that speaks Dutch and Wallonia, the southern, French-speaking area are frequently at loggerheads and it sometimes seems that their quarrels will split the country in two. Yet, despite this apparent incompatibility, the two halves of Belgium come together to form a country that contains some of Europe's most attractive and historical cities and is a true 'must-see' for any visitor to the continent.
Lying on the North Sea coast, Belgium's immediate neighbours are France to the south-west, Luxembourg to the south-east, Germany to the east and the Netherlands to the north.
Belgium is a densely populated country trying to balance the conflicting demands of urbanization, transportation, industry, and commercial and intensive agriculture. It imports large quantities of raw materials and exports a large volume of manufactured goods, mostly to the EU.
Belgium is the heir of several former Medieval powers, and you will see traces of these everywhere during your trip in this country.
After the collapse of the Carolingian Empire in the 9th century, the territory that is nowadays Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg, was part of Lotharingia, an ephemeral kingdom soon to be absorbed into the Germanic Empire; however, the special character of "Lower Lotharingia" remained intact in the feudal Empire : this is the origin of the Low Countries, a general term that encompasses present-day Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg.
The widely autonomous fiefdoms of the Low Countries were among the richest places in Medieval Europe and you will see traces of this past wealth in the rich buildings of Bruges, Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, Leuven, Tournai, Mons, etc. These cities progressively fell under the control of a powerful and ambitious family : the Dukes of Burgundy. The whole realm of the dukes extended from the Low Countries to the borders of Switzerland. Using wealth, strategy, and alliances, the Dukes of Burgundy aimed at reconstituting Lotharingia. The death of the last Duke, Charles the Bold, put an end to this dream. However, the treasures of the Dukes of Burgundy remains as a testimony of their rules in Belgian museums and landmarks.
The powerful Habsburg family then inherited from the Low Countries. Reformation is the reason that Belgium and Netherlands were first put apart: the northern half of the Low Countries embraced Protestantism and rebelled against the Habsburg rule, while the southern half remained faithful to both its ruler and the Catholic faith. These two halves roughly corresponds to present-day Belgium and Netherlands.
Belgium was called Austrian Netherlands, then Spanish Netherlands, depending on which branch of the Habsburg ruled it. The powerful German emperor and Spanish king, Charles V, was born in the Belgian city of Ghent and ruled from Brussels. Many places in Belgium are named after him, including the city of Charleroi and even a brand of beer. Every year, the Brusselers emulates his first parade in their city in what is called the Ommegang.
Belgium was briefly a part of the Napoleonic Empire. After Napoleon's defeat, a large Kingdom of the Netherlands was created, comprising the whole of the Low Countries. However, the religious opposition still remained and the split was aggravated by political differences between Belgian liberals and Dutch aristocrats. Belgium became independent from the Netherlands in 1830 after a short revolution and a war against the Netherlands.
It was occupied by Germany during World Wars I and II and has many war graves near the battle zones, most of them are around Ieper (in English, archaically rendered as Ypres , with Yperite another name for mustard gas due to intensive use there in WWI). It has prospered in the past half century as a modern, technologically advanced European state and member of NATO and the EU. Tensions between the Dutch-speaking Flemings of the north and the French-speaking Walloons of the south have led in recent years to constitutional amendments granting these regions formal recognition and autonomy.
Flat coastal plains in northwest, central rolling hills, wooded hills and valleys of Ardennes Forest in southeast.
Temperate; mild winters with cool summers. Generally rather rainy, humid and cloudy. Belgium's average annual temperature in the decade between 1976 and 2006 was 10°C - a somewhat meaningless measure for non-meteorologists.
Electricity is supplied at 220 to 230V and 50 Hz. Outlets are CEE7/5 (protruding male earth pin) and accept either CEE 7/5 (Grounded), CEE 7/7 (Grounded) or CEE 7/16 (non-grounded) plugs. Older German-type CEE 7/4 plugs are not compatible as they do not accommodate the earth pin found on this type of outlet. However, most modern European appliances are fitted with the hybrid CEE 7/7 plug which fits both CEE 7/5 (Belgium & France) and CEE 7/4 (Germany, Netherlands, Spain and most of Europe) outlets.
Travellers from the UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Italy, Switzerland and all the other countries using 230V and 50 Hz, which use different plugs, simply require a plug adaptor to use their appliances in Belgium.
Travellers from the US, Canada, Japan and other countries using 110V 60 Hz may need a voltage converter. However, some laptops, mobile phone chargers and other devices can accept either 110V or 230V so only require a simple plug adaptor. Check the voltage rating plates on your appliances before connecting them.
Belgium consists of three regions, listed from north to south:
Belgium has a very high rate of urbanization and has an astonishing number of cities for such a small territory
- Brussels - Belgium's capital and the unofficial capital of the EU. Nice historic centre and several museums of interest. One of the most multicultural cities in Europe.
- Antwerp - Belgium's second largest city, with a giant cathedral, medieval streets and artistic heritage, and a great place for fashion.
- Bruges - one of Europe's wealthiest cities in the 14th century, it is touristy yet still very authentic, medieval and quiet at night, with small guest houses and family businesses greatly outnumbering chain hotels.
- Ghent - once one of Europe's largest cities, now a perfect mixture of Antwerp and Bruges: a cosy city with canals, yet with rich history and lively student population.
- Leuven - a small city dominated by one of Europe's oldest universities. Beautiful historic centre and a lively nightlife.
- Liège - second largest city of Wallonia, along a wide river, industrial cityscape with hiking and resorts in the nearby hills, it has a very strong, independent character and an exciting night-life.
- Mechelen - a small medieval city with a nice historic district around the cathedral.
- Mons - Mons has had the extraordinary privilege of having three sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List and one event on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
- Namur - capital of Wallonia , at the confluence of Sambre and Meuse with the Citadel.
- Ardennes - the most sparsely populated region in Benelux, this is a hilly countryside region covered with forests
- Dinant - small city in a stunning natural setting, a popular spot for adventure sports such as canoeing and rock-climbing, best visited in winter
- Fondry des Chiens
- Pajottenland , also called the "Tuscany of the north", is a green region west of Brussels, consisting of rolling hills, meadows, small villages and castles. Home of the Geuze beer and great for hiking, biking, and horse riding tours.
- Spa - the hot water treatments of the spa town that gave its name to all spas in the world has drawn visitors for centuries.
- Ypres and its surrounding villages - destroyed during the First World War, this former military stronghold is marked by memorials and cemeteries.
- Kraainem is a municipality with a rich industrial history on the outskirts of Brussels with many historical landmarks, ideally suited for a day trip.
Citizens of the above countries are permitted to work in Belgium without the need to obtain a visa or any further authorisation for the period of their 90 day visa-free stay. However, this ability to work visa-free does not necessarily extend to other Schengen countries.
Brussels Airport (also known as Zaventem due to the town in which it is mainly located) is Belgium's main airport (). It is not located in Brussels proper, but in surrounding Flanders . The airport is the base of the national airline Brussels Airlines. Other full-service airlines use BRU, as well as budget carriers such as Ryanair, Vueling, JetairFly and Thomas Cook.
There is a train (€5.10) running every 15 minutes to Brussels centre taking 25 minutes, some of them continuing to Ghent , Mons , Nivelles , and West Flanders and bus lines number 12 and 21 (€3 at the vending machine/€5 on board) every 20 to 30 minutes to Place Luxembourg (European Parliament district). The bus stops at NATO and Schuman (for the EU institutions) on its way to the centre. There are also two trains per hour to Leuven , taking 13 minutes. A taxi to the centre of Brussels costs around €35 - cheaper if booked in advance. Taxis bleus: +32 2 268-0000, Taxis Autolux: +32 2 411-4142, Taxis verts: +32 2 349-4949.
Brussels South Charleroi Airport (), about 50 km south of Brussels, mostly serves low-cost carriers, such as Ryanair and Wizzair. You can get to Brussels Gare du Midi on a coach in about an hour (€13 one way, €22 return). If you're going to any other part of Belgium, buy a combination bus+train ticket via Charleroi Sud train station from the TEC vending machines outside the airport for at most €19.40 one-way.
However, if you are really stuck, it is not unusual for taxi drivers to take credit cards. The price of a taxi ride to Brussels is a set fare (approximately €95 as of May 2006) and you can check with the taxi driver if he will accept your credit card(s) or not.
Antwerp Airport () has some business flights, including CityJet's reasonably priced link to London City airport. Other airports include Oostende, Liège and Kortrijk, but they only handle freight and charter flights.
Flights to airports in neighbouring countries might be worth considering, especially to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport which has a direct rail link to Brussels , also making stops at Antwerp and Mechelen .
There are direct trains between Brussels and:
- Luxembourg (normal trains, running every hour)
- Paris , Köln/Cologne , Aachen , Amsterdam (Thalys 1)
- Lyon , Bordeaux, Paris-CDG airport and many other French cities (TGV Bruxelles-France 2).
- London , Ebbsfleet , Ashford , Lille and Calais (Eurostar 3). Tip: If going to another Belgian city opt for the "any Belgium Station" ticket (£5.50 one-way in 2nd class), and your local transport is included in your Eurostar ticket. Depending on the distance this may work out cheaper then getting a separate ticket. Note: Passengers travelling from the UK to Belgium go through French passport/identity card checks (done on behalf of the Belgians) in the UK before boarding, rather than on arrival in Belgium. Passengers travelling from Lille/Calais to Brussels are within the Schengen Area.
- Frankfurt , Köln/Cologne (ICE 4)
- Zürich , Switzerland, via Luxembourg (normal trains, 2 daily)
There are hourly intercity trains from Brussels via Antwerp to Rotterdam and Amsterdam in the Netherlands. This line was due to be replaced by a new high-speed service called 'Fyra' in December 2012, but after two months of unreliable service the new trains were withdrawn for safety reasons as they literally started to fall apart in snowy conditions. The older intercity services are now restored, from Brussels to Amsterdam via Mechelen, Antwerp, Rotterdam, The Hague and Schiphol. The other direct connection to Amsterdam is the expensive Thalys (book well in advance for reasonable fares). Alternative is to catch a train from Brussels or Antwerp to Roosendaal (NL), where connecting intercity trains to Rotterdam and Amsterdam are available.
International trains connect with domestic trains at Brussels' Gare du Midi/Zuidstation, and with all Eurostar or ICE and some Thalys tickets, you can finish your journey for free on domestic trains. For all high-speed trains, you need to book in advance for cheap fares, either online or using a travel agency. There are no regularly scheduled sleeper trains anymore.
You might want to check the TGV connections to Lille too. The trains from the rest of France to Lille are more frequent and usually cheaper. There is a direct train connection from Lille Flandres to Ghent and Antwerp. If your TGV arrives in Lille Europe, it will take a 15 min walk to the Lille Flandres railway station.
Plan your trip with the Deutsche Bahn timetable 5. It has all domestic and international connections across Europe.
Smoking is no longer allowed in Belgian trains.
The train fare for passengers 65+ travelling within Belgium is often capped at €6.00 and is valid for same-day return but such a fare may require travel only after 9AM.
Major European highways like the E19, E17, E40, E411 and E313 pass through Belgium.
The cheapest way to get to Belgium (€3/100 km) from anywhere in Europe - if you are a little flexible and lucky - is usually taxistop
You can get to Belgium from all over Europe on Eurolines coaches. International buses have stopovers in Antwerp , Brussels North Station , Leuven & Liege .
Due to the Bosnian war in the 1990s there are bus companies serving the Bosnian diaspora, which provide a cheap and clean way of getting to the other side of the European continent. Semi tours runs three times per week from various destinations in Bosnia and Hercegovina to Belgium and the Netherlands, Off-season approx. (€132) for a return ticket.
There are overnight ferries to/from Zeebrugge from Hull in England, but they are not cheap. There was formerly a vehicle-only daytime service from Oostende to Ramsgate in England, but it is no longer operating as of 2015.
- There are domestic Belgian trains that terminate in Lille (station Lille-Flanders).
- Between the De Panne terminus of the Belgian railways (and the Coast tram - Kusttram) and the French coastal city of Dunkerque, there is a bus line run by DK'BUS Marine: 6. It may, however, be operating only in certain time of the year. It is also possible to take a DK'BUS bus which goes to the closest possible distance of the border and then cross it on foot by walking on the beach and arriving at a convenient station of the Coast tram, such as Esplanade.
- You can take a bus between the train stations of Eupen (Belgium) and Aachen (Germany) which is quite fast and less expensive than doing the same trip on an international train ticket.
From the Netherlands
- For a list of border-crossing buses between Belgium and the Netherlands, you may consult the list at 7.
- Apart from being a peculiar result of ancient European history, the town of Baarle (formally Baarle-Hertog in Belgium and Baarle-Nassau in the Netherlands) is a possible change point, since the town's main bus stop Sint-Janstraat is operated by both Flemish (Belgian) and Dutch buses.
- The Flemish (Belgian) company De Lijn operates a border-crossing bus between Turnhout in Belgium and Tilburg in the Netherlands, both of which are termini in the respective country's railway network.
- There's a bus (line 45) operated by the Flemish (Belgian) company De Lijn going between the train stations of Genk (Belgium) and Maastricht (the Netherlands). There is another bus (line 20A) departing from Hasselt, going to Maastricht. A train connection is non-existing in this place, but it is being built at the moment.
Being such a small country (300 km as its maximum distance), you can get anywhere in a couple of hours. Public transport is fast and comfortable, and not too expensive. Between larger cities, there are frequent train connections, with buses covering smaller distances. A useful site is InfoTEC 8, which has a door-to-door routeplanner for the whole country, covering all forms of public transport (including train, bus, subway and tram).
A look on the map may suggest that Brussels is a good starting point to explore Antwerp, Ghent, Brugge, Namur and Leuven on day trips. Antwerp is popular among those who want to be in a cosmopolitan place, and Ghent is tops with those who like a good mix of open-minded provincialism. Liège is beautiful, but too close to Germany to be a good base for day trips. Mechelen is considered boring by tourists, but has a very good brand new youth hostel next to a train station with trains to everywhere else every 30 mins.
To do some local sightseeing, especially in Flanders, a lot of infrastructure is available for cycling. Bikes can be rented virtually everywhere. In the country side of Wallonia, mountainbikes are available, and rafting is popular along the border with Luxembourg.
Most of Belgium is well connected by train, run by NMBS (SNCB in French) 9 with most of the main routes passing through Antwerp, Namur or Brussels. This is where you'll arrive on international trains, and both can be reached by train from Brussels airport or by coach from Antwerp or Charleroi airport. Transfers are very easy. Note that all ICE and some Thalys tickets allow free same-day transfers by domestic trains to any other Belgian station. Also, there are Thalys trains from Paris directly to Ghent, Brugge and Oostende with no need to switch trains in Antwerp or Brussels. From London (by Eurostar) you need to switch in Brussels for Antwerp, Leuven or Ghent, but for Brugge, you can already switch in Lille (France) with no need to make the detour via Brussels. Both in Lille and Brussels the staff are very helpful and willing to smile.
The trains are punctual and mostly modern and comfortable.
Normal fares on Belgian trains are cheap compared to Germany or the UK, with no need nor a possibility to prebook or reserve. 2nd class fares don't go much higher than €20 for the longest domestic trips, and 1st class costs 50% extra. Trains can get very full during the rush hours, so you might need a 1st class ticket to get a seat at those times. You can buy normal tickets online 10 or in stations, but not usually in travel agencies. If you want to buy a ticket on the train, you have to warn the train conductor and a supplement will be charged, unless ticket offices in the departure station are closed. In the train station, you can pay with cash or credit card. Not buying a ticket can cost you up to €200. Return tickets are 50% cheaper at the weekend.
Normal tickets are sold for a designated day, so there is no extra validation when you step on a train.
The cheapest option if you're planning several train trips is a Go Pass 11, which gives you 10 single 2nd class trips (including train changes if necessary) for €50. It's valid for a year and can be shared with or given to other people without any restrictions. The only problem is you have to be younger than 26, but there's a more expensive version for older people called a Rail Pass. This costs €76 for 2nd class or €117 for 1st. When using these passes make sure you have filled in the line before you get on the train (strictly speaking: before you enter the platform). The train conductor can be very picky when the pass is not correctly filled in. However, if you address train station staff before boarding, they will be glad to help you.
If you're visiting a certain event or concert, be sure to check if your train travel isn't already included in the ticket. Some mayor festivals and concert like Rock Werchter, Pukkelpop or I Love Techno include train travel in the ticket price. For visiting special places like theme parks or museums, inform for the option 'B-Excursions'. That way you buy your entrance ticket and train ticket in one at the train station. This always is low-priced, normally resulting in normal entrance ticket price + only €4-5 for travel. The desk man will surely point you out the details.
The NMBS website has a searchable timetable 12 with delay information, and a fare calculator 13 . You can also find a map of Belgian railways and stations 14 and another one, more detailed, but not printable 15 .
Please note that train schedules usually change around December 10. Those changes are usually limited to introducing a few new train stations and adding a few regular lines. No lines have been discontinued in a very long time.
By bus and tram
Buses cover the whole country, along with trams and metro in the big cities. Most routes cover short distances, but it is possible to go from city to city by bus. However, this is much slower and only slightly cheaper than taking a train. There is also the Kusttram 16, running along almost the whole Flemish seaside from France to the Netherlands-definitely worth a trip in the summer.
Within cities, a normal ticket for one zone never costs more than €2.00, and there are various travelcards available. Note that local transport is provided by different companies: STIB/MIVB in Brussels 17, De Lijn in Flanders and TEC in Wallonia, and, outside Brussels, they don't accept each other's tickets. Tickets are cheaper when bought at ticket machines.
Most tourists will not need the bus companies, as it is much more user-friendly to take trains between cities and go on foot inside them. Only Brussels and Antwerp have a subway, but, even there, you can make your way around on foot. The historic center of Brussels is only about 300 by 400 m long. Antwerp is much bigger, but a ride on a horse-pulled coach gives a better view than the subway.
Belgium has a dense network of modern toll-free motorways, but some secondary roads in Wallonia are poorly maintained. Signs are always in the local language only, except in Brussels , where they're bilingual. As many cities in Belgium have quite different names in Dutch and French, this can cause confusion. For example, Mons in French is Bergen in Dutch; Antwerp is called Antwerpen in Dutch and Anvers in French; Liège in French is Luik in Dutch and Lüttich in German, and so on. This even applies to cities outside Belgium; driving along a Flemish motorway, you may see signs for Rijsel, which is the French city of Lille or Aken, which is the German city of Aachen. Exits will be marked with the word 'Uit' (out) in Flemish areas, 'Sortie' in Walloon areas and 'Ausfahrt' in German-speaking ones.
Drivers in Belgium should also be aware of the "priority from the right" rule. At road crossings, traffic coming from the right has the right of way unless otherwise indicated by signs or pavement markings. You're most likely to encounter such crossings in urban and suburban areas. Observant visitors will notice a lot of cars with dents along their right sides! Drive defensively and your car will avoid the same fate.
In Belgium the motorway signs are notoriously inconvenient, especially on secondary roads. There is no uniformity in layout and colour, many are in bad state, placed in an awkward position or simply missing. A good roadmap (Michelin, De Rouck, Falk) or a GPS system is recommended. Belgium is one of the few countries to solely use the European E numbers on major routes.
As well as fixed speed cameras on motorway and secondary roads the are also average speed cameras that run for a good number of miles on motorways around major cities.
Some hire cars come equipped with sat nav but it's a good idea to request this when you book your car. It's probably the most reliable way to get from A to B in Belgium. This way you will get to see some of the sites of Belgium, as flat as it may be, but architecture in the towns is something to be admired. You will be pleasantly surprised at just how clean the towns and villages of Belgium are. Drive through on any afternoon and you will see people caring for the street in front of their homes - a real, backdated village community feel.
Speed traps are positioned along roads frequently and drunk driving of only small amounts comes with serious penalties, such as €125 on the spot fine for 0.05 per cent and 0.08 per cent. Over that amount of alcohol in your system and you face anything up to 6 months imprisonment and loss of driving licence for 5 years.
The best place for hitchhikers. Just ask for a lift! Having cardboard signs with towns' names on it can really help to get a quick lift.
- Leaving Brussels: Heading south (e.g. Namur) get to the underground station named 'Delta'.
Next to it you have a huge 'park and ride' and a bus stop. Hitchhiking near the bus stop should get you a ride in less than 5 minutes during traffic hours.
- Heading to Ghent/Bruges: Good spot near the Shopping Mall called 'Basilix' in Berchem-ste-Agathe. You can reach this place with the bus N°87.
An alternative spot to go to the north is in Anderlecht, near the Hospital Erasme/Erasmus (Metro station Erasme/Erasmus.)
- Heading to Liège/Hasselt: Take the pre-metro to the station 'Diamant' in Schaarbeek. When leaving the station you should see a lot of outgoing cars just below you. Just walk and follow the roadsigns mentioning 'E40'. You should arrive in a small street giving access to a road joigning the E40 (the cars are leaving a tunnel at this point). Just hitchhike on the emergency lane at this point, in the portion near the tunnel. Cars should still be riding slowly at this point and see you are visible to them, so it's not that dangerous.
- Leaving Louvain-la-Neuve (University) to Brussels (north) or to Namur (south), stand at the roundabout next to exit/entrance "8a" near to "Louvain la Neuve-centre" road signs. Quick lift guaranteed. Avoid exit 7 or 9, since they have far less traffic.
Mostly known for its key role in European Union administration, the small nation of Belgium might leave you surprised by its rich and gorgeous heritage. It boasts a number of fascinatingly historic cities packed with medieval and Art Nouveau architecture and famous for their long traditions in arts, fashion and fine dining. If you've seen the best of them, the Belgian countryside offers anything from sandy beaches to the densely forested hills and ridges of the Ardennes .
Brussels , the country's vibrant capital, is a modern world city with a highly international character. It combines massive post-modern buildings in its European Quarter with impressive historic monuments, such as the World Heritage listed Grand Place, surrounded by guildhouses and the Gothic town hall. There's Laken Castle and the large St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral, dedicated to the cities patron saints. The Royal Palace is a more recent but no less grand structure. One of the city's most famous landmarks is the Atomium, a remarkable steel structure and remnant of the 1958 World's Fair. And yet, with all those magnificent sights at hand, many travellers' favourite is a tiny bronze fountain in the shape of a peeing boy: the curious Manneken Pis. The Walloon Brabant province, a few kilometers south of Brussels, is certainly worth a visit. There you can visit the Lion's Mound in Waterloo or the beautiful Villers Abbey in Villers-la-Ville.
Perhaps the most popular of the Belgian cities is Bruges . Much of the excellent architecture that arose during the towns Golden Age, roughly the 14th century, remains intact and the old centre is a valued UNESCO World Heritage Site . Among its most prominent landmarks is the 13th century belfry, where the carillonneur still rings the bells on a daily basis. With countless other noteworthy monuments, Bruges is a highly popular destination and get a bit overcrowded during holidays. And then there's Ghent , which in ages past was one of the wealthiest cities in northern Europe. Although larger and much busier than Bruges, its excellent medieval architecture can definitely compete. Its beguinages, belfry and former cloth hall are World Heritage Sites. Or visit Antwerp , the country's current place to be as it is a hotspot of the Belgian fashion, clubbing, arts and diamonds scenes. Nevertheless, the city's timeless old centre is right up there with the others, boasting the countries most stunning cathedrals. Other pleasant cities with good sights include Leuven , with the oldest Catholic University still in use and Liège .
In Wallonia, don't miss the city of Mons which is the Cultural Capital of Wallonia since 2002. In 2015 the city will have the singular honour of being the Cultural Capital of Europe. Mons is the largest and most important city in the Province of Hainaut, of which it is the administrative and judicial centre. Its primary aim more recently, however, has been to safeguard its heritage to better share it with the growing numbers of tourists to the area. Three major masterpieces, the Belfry, the Neolithic flint mines at Spiennes and the Doudou, all of which have been added to UNESCO's World Heritage List, can be found in and around Mons .
For hiking, biking and camping, head to the rugged hills of the Ardennes with their tight forests, caves and cliffs. They are home to wild boar, deer and lynx and hide a number of friendly villages, lots of castles and a few other notable sights. The impressive caves of Han-sur-Lesse , the castle of Bouillon and the modern Labyrinth of Barvaux are some of the best picks. The city of Namur makes a great base from where to explore the Ardennes and has some fine sights itself too. The city is beautifully located along the rivers Meuse and Sambre and from the ancient citadel you'll have a great view over town.
The Belgians brought forward a good number of world famous masters of art, and their love for arts is still today reflected in the range of fine arts museums. The Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp are just a few excellent examples. However, the Belgians love museums, with over 80 of them in the capital alone. Besides arts, they display anything from history and folkore to industry and technology. As some of the worst fighting of both World Wars took place on Belgian territory, there's also a large number of memorials and museums dedicated to those dark times, along some humbling military cemeteries.
- Mons International Love Film Festival : yearly festival of cinema (February)
- Ritual Ducasse of Mons : Doudou is the popular name for a week of collective jubilation that takes place in Mons on the weekend of the Trinity each year. There are four key moments: The Descent of the Shrine, The Procession, The Ascent of the Car d'Or and The Battle called Lumeçon (Trinity Sunday).
- Ethias Tennis Trophy : one of the best challenger of the world! (October / Mons)
- Ommegang : a parade in Brussels that celebrates the beginning of the reign of Charles V of Habsburg. It takes place on the stunning cityscape of the Grand Place and involves thousands of stunts in period costume.
- Zinnekeparade : the yearly celebration of the Brusseler's spirit - the theme changes each year and involves costumes & chariots made by volunteers and locals.
- Atomium built for the 1958 Brussels World Fair (Expo '58), it is a 102 metre tall representation of an atomic unit cell. More precisely, it is symbolic of a unit cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. Nine steel spheres 16m in diameter connect via tubes with escalators 32m long.
- 24 hours cycling, Louvain-La-Neuve Louvain-La-Neuve is in the Wallonia not far from Brussel, it's a small pedestrian city created in the 60's for the French-speakers students. Every year, in October, they organized a bicycle competition. Actually, the course is a pretext to enjoy the event... And to drink beers. This party is one of the most important consumption of beers of the whole Europe.
- Belgian Beer Tour Belgian Beer Tour is a tour operator specializing in tours of Belgium breweries. It offers a great way for beer lovers to visit their favourite breweries and discover new ones. The tours cover a wide range of beers and appeals to connoisseurs and amateurs alike.
- ''See also: Dutch phrasebook , French phrasebook
Belgium has three official languages at the federal level: Dutch , French and German . However, English is widely spoken by the younger generations in the Dutch-speaking areas. In contrast, due to a lack of exposure, English is not as widely spoken in the French-speaking areas, though it is still possible to find English speakers if you try hard enough. You will find that some older people do speak English, especially in Flanders, but it is less likely.
Although Belgium has three official languages, that does not mean that all of them are official everywhere. The only official language of Flanders is Dutch; Brussels has both Dutch and French as its official languages, though French is the lingua franca; and the only official language of Wallonia is French, except for the nine municipalities (including the town of Eupen and its surroundings) of the German-speaking community.
A very small number of inhabitants of Wallonia, particularly the older generations, still speak the Walloon language. This language, while not official, is recognized by the French Community of Belgium as an "indigenous regional language", together with a number of other Romance (Champenois, Lorrain and Picard) and Germanic (Luxembourgian) language varieties.
Tipping in Belgium is not obligatory as service charge is always included. However, people often give tips as a sign of appreciation. Usually, this is done by paying in bank notes with a total value slightly higher than the price of the meal and telling the waiter/waitress that they can keep the change.
- Belgian chocolate: A long tradition has given Belgian chocolate a superior refinement process that is recognized worldwide.
- Laces in Bruges
- Designer fashions in Antwerp
- Jewelry in one of Antwerps many jewelry shops
- Belgian comic books and related merchandising, especially in Brussels
Belgians like to eat. Belgium is famous for its good cuisine and people like to go to restaurants frequently. Best description for Belgian food would be " French food in German quantities".
- As anywhere else in the world, avoid the tourist traps, where the touts are trying to get you in the restaurants. You will get average to bad quality food for average to high prices, and, at busy times, they will try to get rid of you as soon as possible to make space for the next customer. A good example of this is the famous "Rue des Bouchers/Beenhouwersstraat" in Brussels in this picture.
- Belgium is a country that understands what eating is all about and can be a real gastronomic paradise. You can have a decent meal in about every tavern, from small snacks to a complete dinner. Just pop into one of those and enjoy it.
- If you want to eat really well for not too much money, ask the local people or the hotel manager (that is, supposing he does not have a brother restaurant-manager) to give some advice for a good restaurant. Not a bad idea is to find a restaurant or tavern a little bit outside of the cities (if advised by some locals) they are usually not too expensive but deliver decent -> high quality food. And ordering the specialties during the season will be both beneficial for your wallet and the quality of the food.
- Quality has its price: since the introduction of the euro, price for eating out in Belgium nearly doubled. Expensive food like lobster or turbot will always cost a lot of money at any restaurant. But you can also find some local and simple dishes, rather cheap and still very tasty (such as sausages, potatoes and spinach). Normally a dinner (3 dishes) will be around €30-50 depending your choices of food and restaurant. And for cheep, greasy food, just find a local 'frituur', it will be the best Belgian Fries you'll have had in ages
A number of dishes are considered distinctly Belgian specialities and should be on every visitor's agenda.
Mussels are a firm favorite and a side-dish of Moules et frites/Mosselen met friet (Mussels with French fries). The traditional way is to cook them in a pot with white wine and/or onions and celery, then eat them up using only a mussel shell to scoop them out. The top season is September to April, and as with all other shellfish, do not eat the closed ones. Belgium's mussels always come from the nearby Netherlands. Imports from other countries are looked down on.
Balletjes/Boulettes are meatballs with fries. They will either be served with a tomato sauce or with the sauce from Liège, which is based on a local syrup. For this reason they will often be introduced as Boulets Liégeois.
Frikadellen met krieken are also meatballs, served with cherries in a sauce of cherryjuice. This is eaten with bread.
Stoemp is mashed potatoes and carrots with bacon and sausages. It is a typical meal from Brussels.
Stoofvlees (or Carbonade flamande) is a traditional beef stew and is usually served with (you have guessed it already) fries.
Witloof met kaassaus/Chicons au gratin is a traditional gratin of chicory with ham and a cheesy bechamel sauce, usually served with mashed potatoes or croquettes.
Konijn met pruimen: rabbit cooked in beer and dried plums.
Despite the name, French fries (frieten in Dutch, frites in French) are proudly claimed as a Belgian invention. Whether or not this is true, they certainly have perfected it - although not everybody agrees with their choice of mayonnaise over ketchup as the preferred condiment (ketchup is considered to be "for kids").
Every village has at least one frituur/friterie, an establishment selling cheap take-away fries, with a huge choice of sauces and fried meat to go with them. The traditional thing to try is friet met stoofvlees, but remember the mayonnaise on it .
Waffles (wafels in Dutch, gaufres in French) come in two types:
- Gaufres de Bruxelles/Brusselse wafels : a light and airy variety.
- a heavier variety with a gooey center known as Gaufres de Liège/Luikse wafels.
The latter are often eaten as a street/ take-away snack while shopping and therefore can be found at stands on the streets of the cities.
Last but not least, Belgian chocolate is famed around the world. Famous chocolatiers include Godiva, Leonidas, Guylian, Galler, Marcolini and Neuhaus, but the best stuff can be found at tiny boutiques, too small to build worldwide brands. In nearly all supermarkets, you can buy the brand Côte d'Or, generally considered the best 'everyday' chocolate (for breakfast or break) among Belgians.
As a small country in the centre of western Europe, the cuisine is influenced not only by the surrounding countries but also by many other countries. This is also emphasized by many foreigners coming to this country to make a living here, for instance by starting a restaurant. You can find all types of restaurants:
- French/Belgian: A traditional Belgian restaurant serves the kind of food you will also find in the best French restaurants. Of course there are local differences: at the coast (in France as well as in Belgium) you have a better chance to find some good seafood, like mussels, turbot, sole or the famous North Sea shrimp. In the southern woods of the Ardennes (remember the battle of the Bulge?), you are better off choosing game or local fish like trout.
- English/Irish: There are Irish bars and pubs everywhere and Belgium is no exception, try the Schuman area of Brussels for more Irish pubs than you can shake a stick at. There is also an English pub just off of Place de la Monnaie in central Brussels.
- American: There are McDonald's or lookalikes in most every town. The Belgian variant is called "Quick". You may also find a local booth serving sausages, hot dogs or hamburgers. Try it: the meat tastes the same, but the bread is much better. Ketchup in this region is bland and made with less sugar (even the Heintz brand). Pizza Hut, Domino's, and Subway also have establishments. There are no real American restaurants, although there is an American bar on the Toison d'Or in Brussels that serves food.
- Mexican: Only in the cities and rather costly for only medium quality. ChiChi's (near Bourse) serves Mexican American food but would not be considered a good value by American standards. ChiChi's uses reconstituted meats.
- Chinese: They have a long tradition of restaurants in Belgium. Rather cheap, but an acceptable quality.
- German/Austrian: Maxburg in the Schuman area (next to Spicy Grill) makes a good schnitzel.
- Greek/Spanish/Italian: Like all over the world, nice, rather cheap, with a good atmosphere and typical music (Greek: Choose meat, especially lamb) (Spanish: Choose paella and tapas) (Italian: Choose anything).
- Japanese/Thai: You usually find them only in the cities and they are rather expensive, but they give you great quality. The prices and thequality are both satisfying in a concentrated cluster of Thai restaurants near Bourse station. Avoid Phat Thai though if you don't want disruptions - as they let pan handlers and flower pushers enter and carry out their "work".
- Arabic/Moroccan: Rather cheap, with a great variety of local dishes, especially with lamb; no fish or pork or beef.
- Turkish: Rather cheap, with a great variety of local dishes, especially with chicken and lamb and also vegetarian dishes, dishes with fish are rare; no pork or beef.
- Belgium offers a wide selection of other international restaurants.
For party-minded people, Belgium can be great. Most cities are close to each other and are either large urban areas (Brussels, Antwerp) or student areas (Leuven, Liège, Ghent), etc. In this little region, you will find the most clubs, cafés, restaurants per square mile in the world. A good starting point can be places with a strong student/youth culture : Leuven around its big university, Liège in the famous "carré" district, etc. You can expect a wide variety in music appreciation, going from jazz to the better electronic music. Just ask around for the better clubs and there you will most likely meet some music fanatics who can show you the better underground parties in this tiny country.
The government has a mostly liberal attitude towards bars, clubs and parties. They acknowledge the principle of "live and let live". As long as you don't cause public disturbance, vandalize property and get too drunk, the police will not intervene; this is also one of the main principles of Belgian social life, as drunk and disorderly behaviour is generally considered offensive. Of course, in student communities this is more tolerated, but generally, you are most respected if you party as hard as you like- but with a sense of discretion and self-control.
Officially, drugs are not allowed. But as long as you respect the aforementioned principles, you are not likely to get into serious trouble. Beware though, that driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs is not tolerated and traffic laws are strictly enforced in this matter. Especially in the weekends on main roads, you have a good chance of being stopped for an alcohol control.
Tap water is drinkable everywhere in Belgium, but most restaurants do not serve it. Hot spring or some other mineral water is typically served and costs about €2 per bottle. Spa is like bru and chaudfontaine a very famous water brand.
Belgium is to beer what France is to wine; it is home to one of the greatest beer traditions in the world. Like other European countries in medieval times, beers were brewed in a huge variety of ways with many different ingredients. In addition to the standard ingredients of water, malted barley, hops and yeast, many herbs and spices were also used. This activity was often done in monasteries, each developing a particular style. For some reason, uniquely in Belgium many of these monasteries survived almost into modern times, and the process was handed over to a local commercial brewer if the monastery closed. These brewers would often augment the recipe and process slightly to soften the taste to make it more marketable, but the variety survived in this way. These beers are called Abbey beers and there are hundreds and hundreds with a range of complex tastes unimaginable until you've tried them.
The Trappist label is controlled by international law, similar to that of Champagne in France. There are only six Trappist Abbeys in Belgium that produce beer qualified to be called Trappist. In order to carry the Trappist label, there are several rules that must be adhered to during the brewing process. The beer must be fermented within the walls of the abbey, the monks of the abbey must be involved in the beer-making process, and profit from the sale of the beer must be directed towards supporting the monastery (similar to a non-profit organization).
Belgium offers an incredible diversity of beers. Wheat / white beers (with their mixture of barley and wheat) as well as Lambic beers (sour-tasting wheat beers brewed by spontaneous fermentation) originated in Belgium. For the non-beer lovers, lambic beers are still interesting to try, as they are often brewed in fruity flavors and don't have a usual beer taste. Several well known mass-produced Belgian beers are Stella Artois, Duvel, Leffe, Jupiler, Hoegaarden. The names given to some beers are pretty imaginative: e.g. Verboden Vrucht (Forbidden Fruit), Mort Subite (Sudden Death), De Kopstoot (Head Butt), Judas and Delirium Tremens.
Warmly recommended are also Kriek (sweet and sour cherry beer) and, for the Christmas season, Stille Nacht (Silent night).
Plain blond draughts (4%-5,5%): Stella Artois, Jupiler, Maes, Cristal, Primus, Martens, Bavik.
Trappist ales (5%-10%): Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westvleteren, Westmalle.
Geuze: Belle-Vue, the lambic Mort Subite (Sudden Death), Lindemans in Sint-Pieters-Leeuw , Timmermans, Boon, Cantillon, 3 Fonteinen, Oud Beersel, Giradin, Hanssens, De Troch.
White beers: Hoegaarden, Dentergemse, Brugse Witte.
The city of Hasselt is well known in Belgium for it's local alcoholic beverage, called jenever. It is a rather strong liquor, but it comes in all kinds of tastes beyond your imagination, including, but not limited to, vanilla, apple, cactus, kiwi, chocolate and much more. Hasselt lies in the east of Belgium, and is about one hour away by train from Brussels and 50 minutes from Antwerp. Trains go two times an hour from Antwerp.
Pubs, or cafés, are wide spread. They all have a large variety of alcoholic and non-alcoholic, hot and cold beverages. Some serve food, others don't. Some might be specialised in beer, or wine, or cocktails, or something else. Smoking in pubs is forbidden by law.
Belgium has many fine hotels. Capital Brussels has countless rather expensive business hotels catering to the European Union's bureaucrats, and while you can usually get a good room for under €100, prices can spike if there's a big EU shindig in town.
The different stages of education are the same in all communities:
- Basic education (Dutch: basisonderwijs; French: enseignement fondamental), consisting of
- Pre-school (kleuteronderwijs; einseignement maternel): -6 years
- Primary school (lager onderwijs; enseignement primaire): 6-12 years
- Secondary school (secundair onderwijs; enseignement secondaire): 12-18 years
- Higher education (hoger onderwijs; enseignement supérieure)
- University (universiteit; université)
- Polytechnic (hogeschool; haute école)
Education is organized by the regions (Dutch-speaking Flanders on the one hand, French and German speaking Wallonia on the other) and the small federal district of Brussels has schools run by both the Flemish and Walloon authorities. Both states recognize independent school networks, which cater to far more students than the state schools themselves. Most Flemish students go to a Flemish Catholic school. However, every independent school needs to follow the official state curriculum, and Catholicism in Flanders has long been extremely liberal anyway.
Having one of the highest labour taxes in Europe, Belgium is struggling to reposition itself as a high-tech country. In that struggle, Flanders is far ahead and much wealthier than Wallonia, in contrast to the previous decades, where Wallonia's steel industry was the main export of Belgium. Highly skilled people will have the most chance to find work, and knowing multiple languages (Dutch, French, English and perhaps German) is almost a standard requirement. Interim offices providing temporary jobs are flourishing in a search to avoid the high labour taxes.
Belgium has one of the highest tax rates in the world. An employer who pays a salary about €1500 a month actually pays another €1500 or more in taxes. Where does this money go to? It goes to social security. People only pay a small charge for healthcare, for example. And the budget for education, arts and culture is enormous. The budget for defense is however very tiny.
Although Belgium is undesirable for building wealth, it's a good place for someone who already is wealthy to reside because there is very little capital gains tax (some forms of capital gain is not taxed at all).
Except for certain neighbourhoods in central Brussels and the outer edge of Antwerp (the port and docks), Belgium is a safe country. Belgians are somewhat shy and introverted, but generally helpful towards strangers.
For those landing in Charleroi and Liège , those are the regions that boast the highest crime rates in southern Belgium. But if you keep an eye on your belongings, and avoid wandering alone at night, nothing really serious is likely to happen to you.
Muslims and people of North African ancestry may experience mild resentment, a problem that is particularly acute in Brussels and Antwerp . The Burqa is illegal in public.
Marijuana laws are quite lenient, with small amounts only punishable by fines.
The emergency phone number in Belgium (fire, police, paramedics) is 112.
In the winter, like most other European countries, only influenza will cause you a considerable inconvenience. No inoculations are needed to enter or leave Belgium.
Belgium has a modern telephone system with nationwide cellular telephone coverage, and multiple internet access points in all cities, free in most libraries. Also in multiple gas stations, NMBS/SNCB train stations and diners on the highways there is Wi-Fi available.
- Many cafés offer free Wi-Fi nowadays, but don't write it on the door for whatever reason...
- if you can't find any you can always fall back on Quick, McDonalds, Lunch Garden, Carrefour Planet or Starbucks which all offer free Wi-Fi.
Belgium uses the GSM standard of cellular phones (900 MHz and 1800 MHz bands) used in much of the world except parts of the Americas. There are three main companies (Proximus, Orange and Base, and a large number of MVNOs) offering wireless service. The country is almost totally covered.
If you stay for some time, it may be advisable to buy a pre-paid cell phone card that you can use in any phone that supports the GSM standard on the 900/1800 MHz bands. With these cards, incoming calls and SMSes are generally free. You can get SIM cards for the three main companies in dedicated phone shops. SIM cards from the MVNOs are readily available at supermarkets (Carrefour, Aldi, and Colruyt, to name a few, all have their own brand).
All networks provide UMTS and HSDPA (3G) mobile internet coverage, and are presently rolling out a 4G network, mainly in the big cities.
- Belgians don't like to talk about their income or politics. You might also be better to avoid asking people about their views on religion.
- The Flanders-Wallonia question is a controversial topic and might be best avoided too.
- Do NOT try to speak French in Flanders, and Dutch in Wallonia! Speaking the "wrong" language can be considered very offensive in the two regions, and you will either be ignored or at worst get an icy response and substandard service. However, the closer you get to the language border this will happen less frequently. Across the country, the lingua franca between both Flemings and Walloons has become English especially among the younger generations, to avoid being spoken to in the "other language". That is why as a tourist, it is best to start a conversation in English or the "correct" language, i.e. Dutch in Flanders and French in Wallonia.
- Do NOT tell the Walloons (and most of the people of Brussels) that they are French. Most Walloons, despite speaking French, are not and do not consider themselves French and dislike being associated with their neighbour France.
- And, for similar reasons, do NOT tell the Flemish (and also the people of Brussels) that they are Dutch. Most Flemings, despite speaking Dutch (Flemish), are not and do not consider themselves Dutch and dislike being associated with their neighbour, the Netherlands.
- Finally, the same applies to the 75,000 German-speaking Belgians, who have a heavy historical background with their neighbour Germany.
- Belgians in general are very proud of their comic book artists. The "Belgian school of comic books" is hailed as a national point of pride. In Belgium, comic books are valuable books printed with a hard cover. There are dozens of beautiful yet expensive merchandizing items, and the Belgians are fond of them. A plastic figurine of a comic book character or a special artwork of a hailed comic book artist would be a perfect gift for your Belgian friends and in-laws, for example.
- Giving a tip shows that you were satisfied with the service given, but you are certainly not obliged to do so. It is sometimes done in bars and restaurants. Depending on the total, a tip of €0.50 to €2.50 is considered generous.
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