Belgium - Good Things Come in Small Packages

by Alison Cornford-Matheson / Mar 11, 2011 /

Grand Place, Brussels, BelgiumWhen travellers think about touring Europe, Belgium isn’t normally the first destination that springs to mind. Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Barcelona and London all tend to top the ‘great European cities’ lists, with nary a mention of Brussels.
 
However, this little country and its capital city have much to offer visitors. Belgians aren’t big on self promotion, so you may have to work a bit harder to find the good stuff. Trust me, it’s worth the effort.

  
My first trip to Europe was a whirlwind bus-tour of 16 cities in 18 days – None of them were in Belgium. In fact, the only time we stopped in Belgium was while we the bus sat in traffic. It wasn’t until I moved here that I started learning about all of the great things Belgium has to offer visitors.
 
Size – They say good things come in small packages and this is certainly the case for Belgium. You can cross the entire country in a couple of hours. As a traveller, this means you can see most of the country easily, by car or train. If you base yourself in Brussels (or any large city with good rail links) you can day-trip out to other areas of Belgium while only having to unpack once.
 
Two cultures for the price of one – Despite Belgium’s small size, you can experience two completely distinct cultures, the Flemish and the Walloons. (You can even experience a third if you venture to the tiny German community that gets equal government representation). North of Brussels is the Flemish (Dutch) speaking Flanders, where you can visit such cities as Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent. To the South of Brussels, you have French speaking Wallonia with cities like Charleroi, Mons and Namur.
 
Multicultural Brussels – If two (or 3) cultures isn’t enough diversity for you, spend time exploring the neighbourhoods of Brussels. International institutions such as NATO, the European Commission, NGOs and Multinational businesses draw expats from around the world. These expats in turn bring food and customs from their home countries, making it possible to eat an authentic Moroccan Tajine before heading to a Brazilian street fair.


Belgium is a Foodie HeavenFoodie Heaven – Speaking of food, you’ve probably heard of Belgian waffles, chocolate and beer. But did you know Belgium has more Michelin starred restaurants per capita than France and that French fries actually come from Belgium? Belgians love good food and you can find it to suit all budgets – from excellent street food, to three-star decadence.
 
Museums – For the culturally minded, Belgium has a museum to suit every taste. Brussels has world class art galleries ranging from Ancient to Contemporary works. Charleroi is home to a wonderful photography museum while Antwerp houses the fashion museum. But there are lots of quirky museums also: The Musical Instrument Museum that includes an audio tour of the instruments on display, the Comic Strip Museum and even an Underwear Museum, in Brussels.
 
Spas – Travelling can take a lot out of you and there is no better place to relax than a Belgian Spa. In fact the word ‘spa’ comes from the Belgian town of Spa, famous for its healing, thermal waters.  These days Spa is home to a multi-million dollar thermal complex with pools, saunas and hamams – perfect for a day of relaxation. Or, enjoy one of the many smaller spa complexes near Brussels and doted throughout the country.
 
Art Nouveau Windows by Victor HortaArchitecture – Although just about any style of architecture can be seen in this little country, from gothic to contemporary, Belgium is particularly famous for its Art Nouveau architecture. Led by Belgian architect, Victor Horta, the Art Nouveau movement took hold in Belgium and beautiful examples of his work can be admired in Brussels and Antwerp.
 
Festivals
– Despite Belgium’s reputation for being a bit boring (and as you can see, it is anything but), Belgians love a party. In fact, they’ll use any excuse to throw a parade or a festival. Belgium is home to several of the biggest music festivals in the world, including Rock Werchter each summer. If you’re after something a bit more unique, you can catch the Cat Parade in Ypres or the Bathtub races in Dinant.
 
So while other tourists are following a well-trodden route through Europe, enjoy what Belgium has to offer in relative peace. You’ll discover great things if you take the time to unwrap this tiny package.

Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian writer and photographer, and our Expat Living Editor. She is the founder of http://CheeseWeb.eu - a travel resource for expats in Belgium and abroad. She's spent the past 6 years uncovering Belgium's hidden travel gems.