Wedged between Germany, France, and the Netherlands, and famous for some of Europe’s finest cuisine, including the best beer, creamiest chocolates, and tastiest French fries, rich history and fairytale cities, a thriving culture and art scene – everyone should visit Belgium at least once in their lifetime! Belgium is simply one of the world’s most fascinating places, punching far above its weight in all sorts of ways.
The country’s historic cities – most famously Brussels, Bruges, Antwerp and Ghent – are the equal of any in Europe; and its cuisine is reason alone to justify a visit, with a host of wonderful regional specialties. Belgium also boasts some pockets of truly beautiful countryside in its hilly, wooded south and the flatter north – and, perhaps most famously, it produces the most diverse range of beers of any country on the planet.
Historically, Belgium is one of the most complex and intriguing parts of Europe. Belgium occupies a spot that has often decided the European balance of power. It was here that the Romans shared an important border with the Germanic tribes to the north; here that the Spanish Habsburgs finally met their match in the Protestant rebels of the Netherlands; here that Napoleon was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo; and – most famously – here, too, that the British and Belgians slugged it out with the Germans in World War I. Indeed, so many powers have had an interest in this region that it was only in 1830 that Belgium became a separate, independent state.
Wherever else you go in Belgium, allow at least a little time for Brussels, which is undoubtedly one of Europe’s premier cities. First-time visitors to Brussels are often surprised by the raw vitality of the city center. It isn’t neat and tidy, and many of the old tenement houses are shabby and ill-used, but there’s a buzz about the place that’s hard to resist. The city center is divided into two main areas. The larger westerly portion comprises the Lower Town, fanning out from the marvelous Grand Place, with its exquisite guild houses and town hall, while up above, on a ridge to the east, lies the much smaller Upper Town, home to the finest art collection in the country in the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts.
Brussels has actually become an undeniable force in the worldwide artist community. There is a reason the esteemed ‘Independent Art Fair’ ventured outside its New York home for a first edition abroad in 2016, and selected Brussels to plant its European roots. While an expansive gallery landscape has long bloomed in the Belgian capital, international artists have recently taken to adopting the city as a convenient pied-à-terre, centrally located and less frantic than Paris or London.
Traveling to Belgium in February?
Make sure not to miss ‘Bright Brussels – The Festival of Lights’, a light festival consisting of a dozen light installations throughout Brussels (February 22 – 25, 2018, 6:30 – 11 pm). This year, the 3rd ‘Festival of Lights’ will illuminate a number of symbolic venues throughout the city center.
The Quay and Sainte-Catherine districts will flaunt their most beautiful features with 11 illuminated installations and animations. International artists and groups will invade the most emblematic places to beautify them. Among them are TETRO (from France), in association with Whitevoid (from Berlin), who will provide creative lighting for the future Kanal (the former Citroën garage and future Museum of Contemporary Art) by installing the imposing work “Stalactite”. Bright Brussels, Festival of Light will offer visitors and residents a unique opportunity to see the authentic districts of the capital in a very different light. In particular, they will be able to explore hidden treasures, such as the Béguinage district and the Pacheco Institute.
Belgium divides between the Flemish (Dutch-speaking) north of the country, known as Flanders, and French-speaking Wallonia in the south. There’s more to this divide than just language, though – the north and south of the country are visually very different. The north, made up of the provinces of West and East Flanders, Antwerp, Limburg and the top half of Brabant, is mainly flat, with a landscape and architecture not unlike the Netherlands. Antwerp is the largest city here, a sprawling, bustling old port with doses of high fashion and high art in roughly equal measure.
Further west, in the two provinces of Flanders, are the great Belgian medieval cloth towns of Bruges and Ghent, with a stunning concentration of Flemish art and architecture. Bruges in particular is a major tourist attraction, and although this inevitably rather crowded, it should be part of any Belgium itinerary. The entire city of Bruges is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its most common nickname is “the Venice of the North”.
Beyond lies the Belgian coast, which makes valiant attempts to compete with the seaside resorts of the rest of Europe but is ultimately let down by the coldness of the North Sea. Nonetheless, there are a couple of appealing seaside resorts, most notably De Haan, and the beaches, interludes with dunes, along the coast make a delightful stop.
While waffles, beer, and fries are all fine Belgium fare, they do tend to detract from the country’s more gastronomic delights. Perhaps a trait borrowed from their influential southern neighbors, Belgians like to eat well. Traditional comfort dishes, such as ‘carbonnade flammmade’ (a beer-braised stew) and ‘waterzooi’ (a chicken or fish broth, served with veggies and potatoes) are mouthwatering staples at many taverns, and fine dining never far off with an astounding amount of Michelin stars per capita.
In recent years, the city of Ghent has fought its way onto the world stage with a new generation of inspired restaurants. Courtesy of a movement credited to the “Flemish Foodies”, a young trio of Ghent-based chefs, Europe’s veggie capital is no longer taking its cue from Michelin inspectors. Instead of starched white table cloths, relaxed decors in repurposed industrial spaces have become the norm, with sustainable ingredients and homegrown vegetables as the real stars. Not that it kept restaurants like Olly Ceulenaere’s Publiek from bagging that star anyway, or Kobe Desramault from receiving international acclaim for his warm bakery-cum-restaurant, where the bread is baked in a central wood oven on the spot.
When to Go?
Belgium enjoys a fairly standard temperate climate, with warm – if mild – summers and moderately cold winters. Generally speaking, temperatures rise the further south you go, with Wallonia a couple of degrees warmer than Flanders for most of the year, though in the east this is offset by the more severe climate of continental Europe, and emphasized by the increase in altitude of the Ardennes. Rain is always a possibility, though you can expect a greater degree of precipitation in the Ardennes and upland regions than on the northern plains.
The cities of Belgium are all-year destinations, though you might think twice about visiting Bruges, the region’s most popular spot, during August, when things get mighty crowded. The best time to visit Flanders is any time between early spring and late autumn, though winter has its advantages too – iced canals and hoarfrost polders – if you don’t mind the short hours of daylight. Wallonia, especially the Ardennes, is more seasonal, with many things closing down in the winter, so try to visit between April and October.
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