It may be a little country, but it is a lovely one, so it is sad that Belgium is often overlooked when travelers plan a trip to Europe. Tucked between the desirable and obvious destinations of London, Paris and Amsterdam, Belgium is usually treated as a stepping stone to the English Channel, or, at most, a quick stop-over for a look-see in the capital, Brussels.
Full country name: Kingdom of Belgium
Area: 30,278 sq Km
Population: 10,5 million
People: 55% Flemish (of Teutonic origin), 33% Walloons (French Latin) and about 10% foreigners
Language: Flemish, French and German. Most Belgians also speak English.
Religion: 75% Roman catholic
Government: Constitutional Parliamentary monarchy
Unemployment: Flanders 10%, wallonia 18%, Brussels 21%
Major industries: Services, agriculture, chemicals, engineering, metal products, car manufacturing, iron and steel, textiles and food
Major trading partners: EU (esp. Germany, France, Netherlands, UK), USA
Visas: EU citizens can enter on an official identity card. Travellers from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, the USA and many other countries just need a valid passport (no visa). Unless you re a citizen of a developing country, you can probably stay up to three months.
Health risks: None, except the cost of medical care.
Time: GMT/UTC +1 (+2 in summer)
Electricity: 220V, 50Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
When to go
There’s a reason radio DJs in Belgium love the Beatles’ 1969 classic ‘Here Comes the Sun’. The weather here is fickle, and when the sun comes out everyone celebrates. To avoid major dampness coupled with biting cold, plan a visit for May to September (late spring to early autumn). For hiking and outdoor pursuits in the Ardennes and Luxembourg, these are certainly the months to go.
The disadvantages of this time include considerable crowds at tourist sights in a few places and, depending on where you go, a scarcity of accommodation – Bruges is the most problematic in both these areas. Brussels, on the other hand, is quieter from mid-July to mid-September and, because of this, some hotels cut prices. Discounting is also common on weekends.
The mild winter conditions from November to March usually mean grey, wet days with occasional light snow. Pack the right clothes and you can take advantage of uncrowded museums and plenty of cosy cafés.
As a weekend break Brussels, Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent, Ostend or Leuven are all perfect, and all easily accessible from London on the soon-to-be-even-faster Eurostar or from other neighbouring countries using the Thalys fast train network. If you can tack on an extra day to your trip, choose Friday not Monday, as many museums in these cities close on Monday, and shops often take Monday mornings off.
You might want to time your trip for a local celebration, both countries are big on festivals, but the lion’s share of events take place over summer.
Outdoorsy types tend to head straight for the Ardennes, Belgium s year-round outdoor playground. Here you can ski in winter and in summer kayak or go hiking or mountain biking (using a vélo tout terrain, or VTT) along a good network of forest tracks. Another worthy attraction are the prehistoric limestone grottoes and caves in the area (particularly around the towns of Han-sur-Lesse, Rochefort and Dinant), which offer plenty of scope for subterranean explorers.
Attractions - Brussels
Grand Place (Central Square)
The Grand Place is the heart of Brussels and has been since the Middle Ages. One of Europe's more beautiful squares, it lies in the center of a confusion of small cobbled streets, and is surrounded by richly decorated 17th century Baroque Guildhouses, various Neo-Gothic buildings and museums. It is, however, the town hall, a magnificent Gothic building that dominates the square.
Belgium's magnificent Royal Palace was built in the 19th century as the official residence of the Belgian Royal family although today is used for official functions and other ceremonial purposes. The palace is positioned in front of Brussels Park, itself well worth exploring, and directly opposite the modern Parliament building as if symbolically representing the country's system of government, a constitutional monarchy.
Galeries Royales Saint Hubert
Mall lovers everywhere should make a pilgrimage to the Galeries Royales Saint Hubert, the very first shopping arcade in Europe. Opened in 1847, the arcade became a draw card for the cream of 19th century society and today continues to inspire shoppers and browsers alike.
Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate
The Chocolate Museum is a fitting tribute to both the history of the cocoa bean and the Belgian's famed love of chocolate. The first chocolatier in the city appeared in the 1600s and today Belgians eat an average of 9kg a year! Visit on Tuesday to Friday between 10am and 3pm and you'll to see the master chocolatier at work and get to taste his handiwork.