Belgium – Land of fries, chocolates and beer!
An extremely tiny country by European standards, Belgium is a hidden gem. They have the right mix of art, culture, nature, and nightlife. Some basics – Belgium is divided into 3 parts – Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia. Flanders is the Dutch (or rather Flemmish, a Dutch version) speaking region, Wallonia is French, and Brussels though supposed to be a mix, is primarily French. There is plenty to do in Belgium and is easy to access all other parts of EU. They are famous for their chocolates and beer – and rightly so! The frites (fries) are also a must try! Every city has a weekend market which is a great chance to see the locals sell and buy knick-knacks – good and whacky things at cheap prices.
What to see
The capital city of Brussels has everything that travellers could find in a typical city – great nightlife in the weekends, tall buildings, people of all ethnicity and umpteen food options. But it also comes with all the cons of a typical city – it is expensive. An extremely tiny city (uhm, and they call it a State!) Brussels is perfect for chilling over a weekend. The hotspot for artists from around the world, Brussels is a great weekend place.
You can see everything by asking any local. Right in the busy street very close to the Brussels town hall ‘Grote Markt’, there are loads of things to do. Everyone would recommend Manicken piss to begin with. It’s a top spot in Brussels, but is quite easy to miss – it is after all a statue of a tiny boy pissing (yes, they are weird people). Touch the feet of the lady very close to the centre for good luck. And the flower show in the spring is quite a popular thing in Brussels. The alleyways around Grote Markt are a popular hangout place for pubs (a must try again, the trapiste beer!), international food, shopping, and the palace (the royals don’t live there though).
On specific days, the palace is thrown open to the public and the areas surrounding it give a panoramic view of the city (when it is not raining though). Check out the plays at Bozar, the art at the museum, and try the Ethiopian food at Kokobe (delicious!!!) and Merveillieux at Grote Markt. Brussels is also extremely popular for street art and the centre has a very good walking tour that is just unbeatable! The birthplace of Tintin comics (and the conversation cloud – a trivia!), it also hosts a Comicon that you could catch if you are there. The famous Atomium is great to see, but is not cheap. They also have a ‘Little Europe’ near it, which is again expensive.
If you are in Brussels over the weekend, check out the Flagae market (locale) – perfect way to kick-in a Sunday
The south of Brussels is considered unsafe for sure, while the city in itself is not ideal for walking around alone at night.
Accommodation, in hostels too, is not the cheapest – try your luck though – it is a hub for travellers in Europe. The price range to get a dorm bed in a hostel will be around 20-30 euros. It’s a cool place to hangout. Couchsurfing is the best!
My pick favourite hostel in Brussels: Jacques Brel Youth Hostel. This place was close to all historical sites, the mad weekend nightlife, and all kinds of food. The dorm beds were clean and comfortable. Big news was that the breakfast was free! There’s also a kitchen where I could cook my favourite dishes. They had some cool things like book exchange events.
Belgium in general is not the cheapest place in Europe – would peg it at an average cost-wise. Travel is not cheap. For all those under 26, there is a train pass; though trains are expensive. Brussels has metro and tram additionally. If you get a local sim, can buy bus ticket through sms.
For travelling outside of Brussels, buses are great – check Flixbus. Flights too can be cheap if booked in advance. There are 2 airports in Brussels – Charleroi and Brussels city. Charleroi gives the cheapest flight options. But it is far from the city and requires a bus or train to get there. Brussels airport is closer, but flights are usually expensive – though at times may work out cheaper than travelling to Charleroi.
Other cities in Belgium to check out – day trips OR great places to stay instead of Brussels:
Leuven – A University city, Leuven is extremely lively through the week, right into the weekend. A highly recommended place for travellers, though less known, is a much better option to keep as a base in Belgium. You can find a mix of all nationalities, and many couch surfing options in Leuven. Known for its ‘biggest pub crawl’, the Oude markt is crazy in the weekend. Beer is available cheaper (the breweries are all there!) and is a very young place to get the right Belgian vibes. It also boasts of the oldest pub with the most types of beers on its menu – The Capitol (it’s not cheap though)! You can easily hire a cycle and head into the forests around, or just around the cobblestone streets all day. Locals would be more than happy to chat up with travellers and give all the trivia and history of the place. Just beware of students cycling away in full speed – little ones too!! There is a tradition of Sinter-Klaus (the Dutch Santa who has a very different story!) comes each year in a ship through its canal and greets the children in Leuven – and well, their Christmas market in the tiny square is quite spectacular!
Ghent – Ghent is another Belgian city known for its University and like many other European cities, for its canals. Its old architecture and history makes it quite an interesting place to visit – best with a local. You could easily laze around Ghent as a day trip. The highlight of this place is its Ghent music festival – local artists performing songs of all genres all day for a week, combined with loads of local activities and plays throughout the day. There is a website that gives details of the festival. The best way to enjoy the festival is to spend all day, stay on all night and then head back in the morning. You would find families with kids doing the same. There is loads if local food and cheap beer to dance away through the night.
Dinant – An ideal day trip, Dinant is a quaint town on the Ardennes, Dinant is a postcard-like town along the river Meuse. On a clear day, this is a good chance for kayaking or boating along the river right to the cove-like mouth! Though you have the touristy things like a river cruise or boating, a simple walk along the river, with some packed sandwiches and looking at the beauty around you is perfect. The Saxophone was born here and the church is quite a marvel. You can also do a quick hike up the hill to soak in the view of the whole town watching kayakers in the river. You can see a lot of bicyclists and bikers doing the Ardennes circuit – which by the way is a great experience! A word of advice, food is not cheap in Dinant – so a pack something! Dinant is well connected by trains and buses.
Brugge – This city has gained a lot of prominence in Belgium in the last decade. The cobblestone streets with lace shops and the canals feels like a bygone era preserved like it was. Beware – there are always loads of tourists everywhere! The ‘Begijnhof’ in Brugge is some excellent history to the place. Nuns are till date living in Brugge in the tiny houses in their orthodox ways. They do not speak with the tourists or are seen easily. But check out the church timings and you would find them walking in with their heads bowed down – a sight to see! There are a couple of cheeky pubs that you ought to check out. Brugge is easily accessible by bus and train, and on a weekend, you can also find the flea market to pick up odd and whacky things!
Offbeat experiences in Belgium:
- Hike, or bike (cycle) the Ardennes – it is spectacular
- Beer festival – it is a mad rush across different cities – people from all over the world would be there!
- Hallerbos forest – a lavender coloured seasonal (spring) flower that covers an entire forest – it’s the perfect picnic spot
- Neuheus chocolate factory – it is la-la-land for many! You can taste chocolate for free – and buy at a very cheap price!
- Trappiste beer – these beers are brewed in monasteries (traditionally) – they are the best beers!
When to visit Brussels:
Brussels has a reputation for kind of crappy weather so expect wet and cloudy weather all year long. Summers in Brussels are fairly temperate i.e. 25 degrees. It’s also the busiest time of the year — just like everywhere in Europe. Winter temperatures average around 5 degrees and it sometimes dips below freezing. Snow is rare nowadays, but around the mountains, you can enjoy some skiing. Justr remember that the dampness makes it feel colder than it is. Best time to explore Belgium would be March-May and September-October as temperatures are comfortable and there are fewer tourists.
You would have to set aside a budget of €40-€50/day for those on a backpacker’s budget — though this is a good range for planning purposes.