Tuesday, March 22, was a historic and terrible day for the city of Brussels and all of Belgium, as terrorists struck Belgium’s capital. But I feel like this tragedy should not stop you from visiting this wonderful country.
Today had me reflecting on the first time I visited Belgium and why it’s such a special place. Belgians are some of the humblest and laid back people I have ever met, and I think that part of the reason their country doesn’t receive heightened attention is because they are sandwiched between France, Germany and the Netherlands. And Brussels is an incredible city that should be at the top of your travel list in Europe.
Brussels and Belgium surprised me during my first visit. In my opinion, the people of Brussels are friendlier than in Paris and Amsterdam, and the Belgian countryside is stunning. Though Belgium is one of the “Low Countries,” it is far from being flat as a pancake. Belgium is full of rolling Ardennes hills connecting historic towns.
Many people look at Belgium as being dull and full of Eurocrats, since Brussels is the capital of the European Union. However, I would argue there are many cool people from Belgium. Did you know that Audrey Hepburn — perhaps the most glamorous actress of all time — was Belgian? As a fan of electronic dance music, two of my favorites are also Belgian — Lasgo and Milk Inc. Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, both Belgians took the tennis world by storm. But as a huge cycling fan, I have most admired Eddy Merckx, a Belgian and the greatest cyclist of all time.
Did you know you can travel directly to Brussels from London? I first traveled to Brussels, also known as Bruxelles (French) and Brussel (Flemish), by train during my university studies when I lived in London. One weekend several of my American friends/roommates invited me on a weekend trip with them to Brugge, a beautiful town of canals and one of Belgium’s most historic cities. Unfortunately, I was working an internship in London, so I could not go with them. But I heard great stories and saw some amazing postcards that they brought back. I knew I had to update my travel list for my grand tour of Europe at the end of my studies.
The Chunnel — one of the world’s engineering wonders — had opened a few years before my university studies providing international train service on two different routes from London directly to Paris and Brussels. I decided to travel to Brussels instead of Paris because I was meeting up later during the day with my uncle in Germany’s Rheinland. After zooming from London through the Chunnel between Dover to Calais, my plush Eurostar train arrived in Brussel’s Zuid/Midi (“south” in Flemish/French) station that morning about two hours later. I had about a couple of hours before my Deutsche Bahn connection to Bingen. So, I made my way to the Grand Place, Brussels grand public square. There I indulged myself at the original Godiva chocolate shop, and had the best Belgian waffles I have ever tasted. I was hooked on Belgium and knew I had to return.
So after traveling through Germany, Austria and Luxembourg, I knew I had to come back to Belgium, and I did later that month. Ever since, Belgium has a special place in my heart. I did not understand much about the country before I first visited, but I want to spread the word about why it’s such a wonderful country.
A little about Belgium
The first thing you need to know about Belgium is people are very multilingual here. Flemish, French and German are all three official languages, although most of the people’s native tongue is French or Flemish. Flemish is a regional variation of Dutch, and is prominent in the northern part of the country, especially in the Flanders region. French is spoken in the Walloon region of the south. Most Belgians also learn another language such as English, Spanish or German during their university studies.
Belgium is not a huge country. In fact, you can travel across the entire nation by car in about three hours. But I would recommend not renting a car because public transportation is excellent, both in big cities like Brussels and by train throughout the kingdom. More than likely, your arrival in Belgium will begin in Brussels, the nation’s largest city.
Getting to know Brussels, pommes frites and waffles
Many Europeans have a disdain for the European Union’s heavy bureaucracy or “Eurocracy.” As Brussels is the home of the European Union and also NATO, many Europeans have pre-conceived notions of a city full of suited civil servants and bureaucrats. It was a pleasant surprise and great irony when I found out laid back and friendly many of citizens are there. Also, the city is very cosmopolitan and has great nightlife, open squares, a cafe culture and leafy parks.
Walk into any cafe in Brussels or Belgium, and the smells will intoxicate you, whether they are traditional sandwich cafes or dessert cafes. Walk into a chocolate shop, and you will swear Belgium has the best chocolate in the world.
My favorite Belgian cafe food is pommes frites med mayonnaise. They are the best french fries in the world, and are freshly made and golden fried. Then they are lathered in creamy mayonnaise. Trust me, you will never want McDonald’s french fries ever again. Some Belgians eat them with with moules (mussels) at a restaurant or at a pub with a Belgian brew. You all also find small carts selling pommes frites in paper cones at squares, like the Grand Place in Brussels.
There is nothing better at the Grand Place than sitting outside in a open-air cafe and taking in the sights. The central square is UNESCO World Heritage Site and surrounded by elegant guildhalls and two larger monumental buildings: the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) and and the (Broodhuis) Breadhouse, which is the Museum of the City of Brussels. The former looks stunning when it is lit at night. Nearby is the beautiful Cathedrale St-Michel et Ste-Gudule, which has some of the most colorful and ornate stained glass in the world. There is so much history surrounding these cobbled streets.
Of course, there is another Belgian food with a worldwide reputation. The Belgian waffle (gaufre in French and wafel in Flemish) comes in many varieties by region. The type known to Americans is the Brussels square waffle (gaufre de Bruxelles), but there the similarities end. The Brussels type uses batter raised with yeast instead of pancake batter with baking powder. This makes them much more tender, light and sumptuous. You usually have a choice of toppings including confectioners sugar, fruit, chocolate and whipped cream.
The other main type is the Liège waffle (gaufre de Liège or Luikse wafel), which is oval shaped and is thinner and crunchier due to pearl sugar being caramelized into the crust. In Belgium, waffles aren’t really breakfast, but street food, and can be found at just about any street stand or bakery. They are hot and a little taste of heaven.
Other must-visit places in Brussels include the Parlamentarium (European Parliament) to see how European government functions, or misfunctions, depending on your opinion. A little outside the center of the city is the Atomium, one of the city’s icons from the 1958 World Fair. Shaped in the form of an atom, a trip to the top offers a fantastic view of the city.
Of course, there is much more to Belgium than Brussels. I highly recommend a trip to Antwerp, Liege and Brugge.
Antwerp: diamonds, fashion and chocolate
Antwerp is one of the most beautiful cities in western Europe, with inspiring medieval architecture, a busy port and entertaining nightlife. Of course, the city is most well known as the diamond capital of the world. However, Antwerp is also one of the world’s fashion capitals. Not bad for a city of about only one million people!
My favorite part of Antwerp is the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal, Our Lady Cathedral. The gothic cathedral towers above the town’s square and is the highest in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. It started in 1521, but still has never been completed. Inside you will find beautiful paintings by Belgian masters such as Peter Paul Rubens and others by Marten de Vos and Jacob de Backer.
Whether you are in Antwerp, Brussels or any other Belgian town, I recommend a visit to a Belgian chocolatier. Along with swiss chocolate, Belgian chocolate is known as among the best in Europe and dates back to the 17th century. Of course Godiva is famous in Brussels and worldwide, but there are so many tasty chocolatiers all over the nation. You will find cream-filled chocolates, balls, fruits dipped in chocolate and world-famous truffles. Traditional Belgian chocolate truffles often contain wafers, a liquid ganache and are coated in a cocoa powder. Some contain nuts, coffee or fruit.
Another great city is Ghent, known as Gent locally. The city has more historically-listed buildings than any city in Belgium. Gent also has a spectacular church — Saint Bavo’s Cathedral — with its famous altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers called the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. The Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Museum of Fine Arts) has an incredible collection of Flemish Art and sculptures from the Middle Ages until the mid 20th century, notably from Rubens. Another highlight is visit to Gravensteen, Ghent’s medieval castle centered in the middle of the city. The views are unforgettable.
Brugge: Venice of the North
Another town you definitely shouldn’t miss is the small city of Brugge (Flemish, or Bruges in French). It’s known as the Venice of the North due to the winding canals surrounding the city. Its entire city center is packed full of history, stunning architecture and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At one time, due to its port, it was most important commercial city in the world.
The most famous building in Brugge is its belfry, which dates back to the 1200s, and houses a carillon of 48 bells. You can even catch free concerts there often. If you have the stamina, climb the steep staircase of 366 steps to the top for magnificient view of the city and the Markt — or Market Square, below.
Also on the Brugge Markt is the Provinciaal Hof (Province Court), a neo-gothical building that was previously the home of the West Flanders provincial government. You should also visit the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Church of Our Lady), which dates mainly to the 13th century. It’s 400-foot tower is the second-tallest brick tower in the world.
Beer and Cycling
Of course, in addition to taking a boat trip on the canals, no trip to Belgium is complete without sampling the beer. Belgium makes some of Europe’s best brews and the country produces more beer per capita than any country in the word. You may be familiar with Duvel, the blonde ale, and Stella Artois, the holiday beer. Other internationally famous Belgians include Hoegaarden and Leffe. But a great pleasure is just exploring the Belgian pubs for the more than 800 different types of beer in the country.
The national sport — next to soccer — is cycling, which is tremendously popular. The one-day “spring classics” on the cobbled hills are internationally famous here, including the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), with its infamous Koppenberg climb, and ending near the cafes in the town of Oudenaarde. Other famous races include Liège–Bastogne–Liège (oldest of the one-day “monument” races in cycling), Gent–Wevelgem and La Flèche Wallonne. The fans know their cycling and come out in droves to cheer on their heroes such as Tom Boonen. Some of them end up as “schmenges” — rather intoxicated cycling fans lining the roads after hours of drinking. But like Belgium, it’s all fun.