Belgium, a place that is sometimes dismissed as ‘boring’ (by those who have never been), is really anything but! Mons, capital of Culture in 2015, the brewing centre of Leuven, the Magritte Museum in Brussels and the superb contemporary architecture of the Liège-Guillemins railway station all testify to that.
Belgium is a small, relatively flat, country of 11 million people sandwiched between France and Germany and bordering the Netherlands. Independent since 1830 when it seceded from the Netherlands, it is a founding member of the EU, hosting several of its main institutions.
The population, split into two linguistic groups, broadly coincides with the two Provinces of Flanders and Wallonia. Flanders in the North is Dutch speaking and Wallonia in the South is French speaking. The Brussels region is separate from both and, while it is nominally in Flanders, many of its inhabitants speak French.
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Flanders boasts amazing cities with fascinating medieval centres such as Gent, Antwerp and Bruges.
Bruges: Canals, quaint bridges and cobblestones are some draws of this World Heritage-designated medieval city centre. Visiting for a day is downright magical, but you’ll wish you were staying for a week. Brugge (Dutch spelling) or Bruges (French spelling) more than deserves its nickname of the ‘Venice of the North’, which leveraged its coastal location into a strategic trading port for spices and wool. Architectural gems include a 13th century bell tower and the Church of Our Lady with one of the world’s tallest brick spires and a Michelangelo marble Madonna. The Groeninge museum houses Flemish expressionist art, a world famous collection of Flemish Primitive paintings and renowned contemporary exhibitions.
By all means, look for waffles, chocolate, beer and fries (there’s a museum here dedicated to fries). But don’t miss the local fish stew, summertime mussels, crevettes gris (little grey shrimp, known as North Sea caviar), and hearty beef stews. They suit everyone from foodies to just-plain-hungries.
Ghent city with all the right ingredients for a weekend away, a place where culture and history meet contemporary in a very pleasing way. The medieval houses of the Graslei are a stunning backdrop for riverside cafes and bars in Ghent – a meeting place for locals and visitors, and especially attractive at night. But Ghent much more to offer – famous for its vegetarian food, it also boasts the amazing Adoration of the Mystic Lamb tryptych by the Van Eyck brothers at St Bavo’s Cathedral and the city’s Castle of the Counts, to name a few. Ghent is the festival city of Flanders, hosting the largest outdoor city festival in Europe… To learn more abut Ghent go to www.visit.gent.be and to give our specialist writer, Heather Tucker, time to write about the destination, we’ve sourced a great itinerary from Visit Ghent.
Antwerp, where medieval architecture, trend-setting fashion and serious food and beer culture mix “is a pocket-sized city; many attractions are within walking or biking distance of each other. It’s a charming medieval town, chock full of remarkable buildings and narrow streets, and historical tidbits highlighted by picturesque anecdotes.”
Those interested in WWI history should visit Ypres. The moving Menin Gate Memorial and the fabulous Flemish architecture of the Cloth Hall are well worth seeing.
Except for the old city of Liége, Wallonia in the South can’t compete with Flanders for Medieval town centres but it does offer the vast forest of the Ardennes with its fast flowing rivers and Beaux Villages. There are opportunities for walking, cycling, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, caving and horse riding, while in winter it is even possible to do a bit of skiing.
And then there’s the beer. Belgian beer is world renowned and the great variety of beverages on offer are worth a trip to Belgium. If you don’t drink alcohol, then just admire the vast displays of bottles on display in some bars and off-licences.
Oh, and before I forget. How about Eddie Merckx (Cyclist), Jean Claude Van Damme (Actor), Anthony Van Dyck (Artist), Hergé (Cartoonist) and Audrey Hepburn (Actor). All Belgian and all famous.
Belgium is a year-round destination – great Christmas Markets in the Winter can be found in all the cities from the end of November till at least the end of December.
However, if you plan to explore the cities, or indeed the countryside, the best times are from late Spring to early Autumn as Belgium can be quite cold during the Winter months!.
Allow at least week one to see all the cities but if you are only visiting Brussels then three days should be sufficient. Of course if you have more time there’s plenty to do and see – you might even want to spend a few days relaxing in one of the North Sea resorts!
Local Events include:
Early February – Salon du Chocolat Brussels
Late February-early March – Foire du Livre (Book Fair) Brussels
Early March – Carnival Parade of Malmedy
1st Sunday of Lent – Great Traditional Bonfire of Bouge (Namur)
Late March-early April – Carnival of La Louviere
Early April – The Flower Market of Tournai
Mid-April – Book Festival of Redu
Early May – The Liege Jazz Festival
Mid-May – Belgian Pride
End of May – The Brussels 20Km
Mid-June – Fête de la Musique Brussels
Late June-early July – Ommegang Pageant Brussels
mid-July till late August – The Phantom of La Roche
All August – Royal Palaces of Brussels open
All August – Midi-Minimes Festival (Brussels)
Early September – Comic Strip Festival Brussels
Early September – Belgian Beer Weekend Brussels
Mid-September – Festival of Walonia Namur, Liège & Charleroi
Early October – Fête des Hurlus Mouscron
Late November – Brussels Christmas Market
December (all month) – Christmas Markets at Brussels, Mons & Liège
Belgian Holidays include:
January 1st New Year’s Day
May 1st or the first Monday in May
Ascension Day (40 days after Easter)
May Whit Monday – 7th Monday after Easter
July 11th – Celebration of the Golden Spurs (Flemish Areas only)
July 21st – Belgian Independence Day
August 15th Assumption Day
November 1st – All saints Day
December 25th: Christmas Day
December 26th: Boxing Day
Consult this online calendar for further information.
Belgium is located in the Central European Time (CET)
Daylight Saving Time (DST) happens in the Spring (last Sunday in March at 1AM) when clocks are advanced one hour. In the Autumn (last Sunday in October at 1AM), clocks shift back one hour to standard time to give more daylight in the morning.
Belgium is not an expensive country but expect the big cities like Brussels and Antwerp to be a little pricier than the smaller towns.
Check out Pricing, Insurance, Air Travel & Car Rental, Currency/Money, ATMs & Credit Cards, Tipping and Other Costs by clicking the Grey panel on the left.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in €.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
€ => Tickets less than €15 per person
€€ => Tickets €15- €30 per person
€€€ => Tickets €30 per person
Sleep — Out of town/rural
€ => Rooms less than €60 for a double
€€ => Rooms €60 – €100 for a double
€€€ => Rooms €100 for a double
Sleep — Large Cities
€ => Rooms less than €100 for a double
€€ => Rooms €100 – €150 for a double
€€€ => Rooms €150 for a double
€=> €5- €10 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
€€ => €10 – €25 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
€€€ => €25 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
€ => Tickets less than €25 per person
€€ => Tickets €25 – €50 per person
€€€ => Tickets €50 per person
Fly the Friendly Skies
Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.
But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.
Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.
That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings. European operators such as easyJet, Ryanair, Air France-KLM, Jet2, British Airways, flybe and Lufthansa offer an extensive range of routes in Europe.
Have Car, Will Travel
Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping.
Zipcar is another choice for rentals. Available in many major cities, Zipcar is a great alternative for super-short term rentals. Picture this scenario: you are in a big city with terrific public transport, so you don’t need a car. But then you hear about an amazing restaurant 20 miles away in the suburbs. You can’t go home without trying it. A taxi would cost a fortune. You’d have to wait a long time to get a return taxi. Download the Zipcar app; search for a nearby Zipcar locale. Memberships cost about €8/£6 a month; rentals are about €8-13.50/£6-10 per hour; fuel and insurance are included.
Ride-sharing companies, such as Uber, are also ubiquitous in major cities. Through a smart phone app, you can line up rides all over town. It’s convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and it’s usually cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know that they are on their way and how long it will be. Try that with a cab.
All the major car rental companies such as Avis, Sixt, Hertz and Europcar operate throughout Europe. It is not normally possible to rent in the UK and take the vehicle to mainland Europe or vice versa.
Hopefully, your trip to (or within) Europe goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation — About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical — Travellers within Europe from European Union member states should obtain an EHIC (European Health Insurance Card) card which entitles them to healthcare on the same terms as citizens from the country they are visiting. This is a reciprocal agreement which means for example that EEA visitors to the UK will receive free care in NHS hospitals in the same way that UK residents do. Some countries e.g. France make a charge known as a patient contribution for GP visits or stays in hospital for both their own citizens and visitors from the EEA. Even so, travellers are well advised to have additional medical insurance to cover for example the cost of repatriation, mountain rescue in ski resorts and other emergencies.
For travellers from outside the European Union the cost of health services in Europe, while not as high as in the US for example, can be relatively expensive for the uninsured. For this reason it is essential to consider purchasing medical insurance. If you have a Health Care Plan back home it may cover you for most situations which arise abroad but you need to check this out and in any case additional medical travel insurance will cover you for private health care or other expenses.
Some countries outside the European Union have a reciprocal agreement for healthcare with certain European countries. For example Switzerland has an agreement with all European Union countries and Australia has agreements with the UK, the Netherlands, Italy and others. It pays to check before leaving home.
Trip Interruption — For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay — Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage — Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travellers.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip is expensive it’s essential and even if it isn’t it’s certainly a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. Your English or other European language skills are also crucial because insurance policies often include concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework — check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregates like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).
In Europe the largest insurers are Allianz, Axa and Zurich but there are many smaller providers such as insureandgo and Direct Line.
Pre-existing health conditions — Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition or charge an additional premium related to the condition. Some companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance — If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.
The main currency of Europe is the Euro which is currently used in 25 countries a few of which are not even EU members. Some countries within the European Union have retained their original currency including the UK (Pound), Denmark (Kroner) and Poland (Zloty). Most non-EU countries such as Switzerland (Swiss Franc) and Turkey (Lira) continue to use their own currency. All are decimalised and have 100 ‘pennies’ in each main unit.
Euros come in €5, €10, €20, €50, €100, €200 and €500 notes. They vary in size, from 120mm x 62mm (€5) to 160mm x 82mm (500), and colour, so it is easy to differentiate between them. All feature European architecture throughout the ages. (Smaller businesses may not accept the larger notes, so plan to have €20s or smaller notes in hand)
There are eight denominations of euro coin: 1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 50 cent plus a €1 and €2 coin. All have a common side and a national side. Remember to spend all coins before you leave – they can’t be exchanged!
Many travellers like to have a small amount of local currency when they arrive in a country but this is becoming less and less important as ATMs and Bureaux de Change appear everywhere especially in transport terminals.
The good news for travellers in Europe is that you don’t need to get stressed about tipping – you don’t have to do it and when you do it really should reflect good or excellent service rather than be something you are expected to do. On the whole workers in tourism are reasonably well paid and don’t depend upon tips to make up their wages. In some cases over-tipping can be embarrassing for all concerned.
Many restaurants include a ‘service’ charge in the price so check and, if it isn’t mentioned, then a tip of between 5 – 10% is quite enough. Even where it is included but you feel that you’ve had really excellent service then the same amount is adequate but ensure that your server receives this by handing it directly to them.
Other methods are to add a euro/pound for each member of the party or round up the bill to the nearest 5 or 10 euros.
In the UK many restaurants add an ‘optional’ amount to the bill when you are paying with plastic, but in many cases the servers don’t receive any of this and it simply becomes an extra profit for the owner. The server won’t mind if you decline to do this!
With taxis, just round up to the next euro for a short journey or, for a long ride, to the nearest ten. Again 10% is the maximum you should consider unless of course the driver carries your bags into the hotel or airport when a little more will be appreciated.
You may wish to give the porter a euro for each bag he carries but, while it will be appreciated, it is not normally expected. Similarly you may wish to leave a small tip for the housekeeping staff, especially if they have been particularly helpful, but this is completely up to you.
Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between €10 and €40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, insect repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery, super/hypermarkets and pharmacies will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above.