Belgium is a small country located in Western Europe. It’s small in size (a little bit more than 30.000 km2) but there’s a lot to see and do, don’t be misled by its size. The country is geographically well located on the continent, pretty much in the center of Europe, and that makes Brussels – the capital – a stopover point to visit other countries around, such as France, Germany, and The Netherlands.
I called Belgium home for a while, I lived in Antwerp in 2016 and 2017. During this time I explored and discovered many sites that were never on my radar. It was also easy to travel around and visit other famous European capitals. And, I was able to verify that the fame of Belgium (and I’m talking about beer, fries, chocolate and art here) is well-deserved.
Here’s a quick guide for your first time in Belgium
OFFICIAL LANGUAGES: Flemish, French, and German
Belgium is divided into regions, and the language changes depending on where you are. In the north (Flandres) the language spoken is Flemish, a variation of Dutch. In the south (Wallonia), and in Brussels, you have to french it up; French is the main language. Close to the German border people speak German. But if you don’t speak any of those languages, fear not, English is well accepted. When you ask a Belgian if he/she speaks English, you can hear from a big (and sometimes a bit offended) “Of course!” to a shy “Just a little bit.”
Cards (Visa, Master) are usually well accepted, especially in touristic places. But it’s always good to have cash on you because some restaurants, bars, and stores don’t accept cards at all – it’s good to ask before ordering anything. There are many ATMs around the cities, airports, and train stations. Also, some places do accept card, but only Belgian cards.
WHEATER: How can I say that?
Truth be told, you are not going to Belgium because of the weather. One time I didn’t see a blue sky in Antwerp for three weeks.
In the summer the weather is not too warm, comparing to other cities in Europe – such as Lisbon, Berlin, Paris. The winter is quite cold; it gets under 0°C in December and January (there was even a blizzard in December of 2017). And the rain, oh, the rain, you’ll just have to get used to it, no matter the season. Welcome to Belgium, here’s your umbrella!
But don’t feel discouraged, there are blue-sky days in Belgium, and on those few days when the weather is good… Well, the streets get packed, the restaurants and bars put tables outside, and everybody seems to be happier with their beer on the hand.
GASTRONOMY: Waffles, fries, chocolate…But there’s more!
There are many foods to try in Belgium, besides the classics – Waffles, fries, and chocolate. Moules-Frites (mussels with fries), carbonade flamande/Flemish stew (meat cooked in beer, served with fries and mayonnaise), vol-au-vent (a hollow case of puff pastry filled with a creamy sauce), cheese and shrimp croquette, just to list a few. By the way, the Belgian cuisine is influenced by its neighbors – France, The Netherlands, and Germany -, so you’ll find some delicious gastronomic connections.
BELGIAN BEER: Beer lovers, you’ve found heaven on earth!
Without any doubts, beer is a serious thing in Belgium; it’s part of the culture. Belgium is one of the best countries in the world for beer enthusiasts – and has this reputation since Middle Ages. Besides the famous worldwide labels (Delirium, Leffe, La Chouffe, Stella Artois), you’ll also find several craft beers commercialized by small producers at stores and beer fairs. An interesting fact is that every Belgian beer has a personalized glass to be served, and some of these glasses are quite elaborate.
HOW TO GET AROUND: Train, rented car, walking
- From one city to another
The country is connected by train lines; you can go to many cities using the system (some small ones are not accessible though). A good deal to pay less for the ticket is traveling during the weekend. The Weekend Ticket is half price (from Friday to Monday), and it’s valid to any destination in Belgium. You can buy it online (here), at the ticket offices, the machines at the stations or on board (there’s a surcharge of €7 in this case).
You can also rent a car to explore the country; you’ll have the freedom to choose and change the route, and also stop in little villages where the trains can’t get. I explored the south of Belgium twice using a rented car, and it was great to be able to go anywhere at any time. But I wouldn’t recommend renting a car to explore larger cities where the public transport works well (like Brussels or Antwerp).
- Around the city
The best way to explore a new city is walking around. If the city is big, like the capital Brussels, you might have to use public transportation depending on where you stay, or if you want to visit some attractions that are out of the historic center, such as Atomium. In smaller cities, such as Bruges and Ghent, you can do everything by foot.
CITIES TO VISIT: Small country, many cities!
Brussels, Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent, Knokke, Durbuy, Dinant, Namur, Mechelen, Leuven, La Roche-en-Ardenne, so many. I had the chance to explore a big part of the country while I was living in Antwerp, and I guarantee that there’s more to see than just Brussels.
Brussels is famous for many reasons, and you should visit if you have the chance (it can be a good base to explore smaller cities). But there are a lot of other places in Belgium that you might want to take a look, especially if you like medieval towns.
Take a look at these posts about some Belgian cities:
- Visiting the Citadel of Namur in Belgium
- How to spend an afternoon in Dinant
- Pictures to inspire you to visit Ghent
- Visiting the Exotic Market in Antwerp
- 5 facts & curiosities about Bruges (part I)
- Pictures to love Antwerp at night
- The Citadel of Namur in photos
- Vrijdagmarkt: Street auction in Antwerp
- How is the free walking tour in Bruges
QUICK QUESTIONS: What else you should know
What is the easiest way to get in the country? If you are already in a country nearby (France, Germany, Netherlands) you can get in Belgium by train or car. If you are far away the best option is to fly to Brussels Internation Airport (Zaventem). There’s another airport, Charleroi, but it’s harder to get there by public transportation.
Which is the best city to stay? If you want to stay in a big city with nightlife, shops, and museums… Pick Brussels, and from there you can travel to other cities. If a medieval town is what you are looking for, Bruges and Ghent are good options. If your intention is to rest and enjoy the nature – and you don’t care about nightlife -, then you can stay in a small village, such as Durbuy or La Roche-en-Ardenne.
Which cities are easy to visit if I’m staying in Brussels? Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Leuven, among others. In 40 minutes (or less) by train, you can be exploring another Belgian city.
How long to stay? It depends on what you want to see in each city of your itinerary. To see the basics, I would say two days in Brussels (if you want to enter the museums, then stay longer), one day in Bruges, and one day in Ghent (you can go to both cities by train from Brussels). If you want to explore the south of Belgium, I would say at least two more days to hit the charming villages.
Is it an expensive country to travel? It might be expensive if you compare it to Portugal, and it might be cheap if you compare it to Denmark.
Is there Uber in Belgium? Only in Brussels.
How much should I tip in restaurants and bars? Tipping is not common in Belgium, you can pay the amount that came in the bill. The service is already included. If you had an amazing experience you can tip if you want, but they don’t expect you to do it.