Belgium: The Underrated European Tourist Destination

Why do Belgians do what they do?
Why do Belgians do what they do?

Europe is a favorite destination among tourists all year round. From the Christmas markets during Winters to the breathtakingly beautiful flower gardens (Tulips anyone?) in Spring to the sunny riviera beach scenes during Summers, Europe has something to offer to everyone, age no bar, country no bar and interests no bar…

And thus every year people flock in large numbers intending to visit the eternally romantic Paris or the gastronomically delightful Italy or the inexpensive party scenes in the Hellenic islands… But Belgium is often left on the side either unobtrusively ignored or used simply as either airport layovers or a place to change trains when traveling between Paris and Amsterdam.

But I had an inkling of there being something hidden, something extraordinary about Belgium that didn’t quite blatantly advertise itself…

So this year while planning a Mother’s Day gift for my mum and mum-in-law, I decided to take them for a whirlwind Western Europe mini trip centered around Belgium… More about it in a different post πŸ™‚

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Belgium is a hidden gem and if it being the heart of Europe (Euro HQ & NATO HQ) was not enough to impress you then the fact that it offers you a cosmopolitan environment where it’s bigger cities like Bruxelles and Antwerpen are concerned and at the same time has the power to transport you to the Medieval ages through its historical towns of Ghent and Brugge should be something that ought to persuade you to give it a chance…

What I particularly loved about Belgium was the fact that due to the tiny size of the country it is extremely easy to travel from one end of the country to the other via train in under 1.5 hours… This makes it extremely easy to explore, wander and get “lost” to your heart’s content…

Here is my list of 8 things to do in Belgium:

1. Spend the Day at The Grand Place

It may sound as cliche as things come but when in Brussels, The Grand Place is something that is a must to visit… My favorite time of the day to visit this gorgeous square is in the morning and then at dusk… The Grand place not just showcases examples of resplendent architecture but has a number of cute and cozy cafes and restaurants lined along the whole perimeter and though I look down my “snooty” nose at blatant touristy things but having my hands wrapped around a cup of steaming hot chocolate and a plate of delectable Belgian waffles in front of me on a crisp April morning at the Grand Place is my favorite way to start the day…

The Grand Place
The Grand Place, Brussels

At dusk however, this grand setting takes on a different appeal… The twinkling lights and the youthful energy contribute to the milieu of The Grand Place and various artists performing, young people partying on the streets and a general ambience of merriment is something that must be experienced firsthand!

2. Walk the streets of Brussels

The streets of Brussels (Bruxelles) are a delight in itself. With the gigantic murals found in every nook and corner of the city, Belgians’ love for comic and pop art becomes very apparent. Not to be confused with Graffiti, these works of street art don’t just pose as “decorative” pieces but most of them always have a subtle political or global message of either peace or humanity. Pretty unique to Brussels, this is something that one must experience.

Manneken “Peace” – Get It?

If these murals weren’t enough, then you are sure to be greeted by statues of people, animals, actions and anything and everything that you can think of under the blue blue sky.

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I don’t know what prompts Belgians to construct statues depicting mundane and day-to-day things but it sure makes for some quirky sense of humour πŸ™‚

3. After Visiting the Manneken Pis, Go Looking for Jeanneke Pis

The statue (statuette?) of a little boy peeing cheekily in the middle of a busy street is perhaps one of the most iconic symbols of Belgium and thousands of tourists literally flock the street corner that houses this statue… Its funny and cute and there is a sense of childlike mischief that envelopes everybody trying to find an angle for their selfies that would accommodate both their faces and the little boy…

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But…

If you really want to veer off the beaten path and are ready to risk a little awkwardness then I would suggest you to switch on your google maps and search for the “Jeanneke Pis”…

Now you could ask yourself, “could it really be?” a hundred times and the answer would remain the same every single time… Yes… It is the gender opposite of the Manneken Pis and even though I find myself not very easily embarrassed but I will be honest and tell you how even I colored up a little at the sight of a little girl peeing in a quiet corner of the street albeit behind a window with no screens!

Jeanekke Pis
Jeanekke Pis

4. Visit Antwerpen

One of my “favoritest” places in Belgium is Antwerpen. Yes I loved it more than Brussels, Ghent or even Brugge and I feel if I am made to make a list of top 5 places that I would like to visit again in my lifetime, then Antwerp would surely make it to that list!

Antwerp is beautiful in a way that it is very cosmopolitan and yet it has a “small town” feel to it when you compare it to Brussels. People in general are nicer, friendlier and I met the most friendly shop owners (in the whole wide world) in Antwerp… Apart from the people, the city boasts to be an inspiration to aspiring architects with its ancient Gothic architecture at one end of the spectrum and neomodern structures at the other end…

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The Antwerpen Central train station needs a special mention since it will probably be your entry to this spectacular city… The train station is a stunning example of Gothic architecture and it remains my most favorite memory of Antwerpen. The fact that my AirBnB apartment was right next to the station obviously played a significant role…

Antwerpen-Centraal
Antwerpen-Centraal
Fancy Zara Store in Antwerpen
Fancy Zara Store in Antwerpen

There is a lot to do for everyone in Antwerp and the 3 days I spent in this beautiful city was not enough… I wish to come back and explore it to my heart’s content… One day…

5. Fill Yourself up with Belgian Frites & Waffles

Synonymous with Belgium are its waffles and fries actually called Frites! These are delectable irrespective of where you eat them – at a posh restaurant or on the street. Though for me what really works is – waffles in a cozy cafe with hot chocolate and not coffee (surprise!) and frites (and beer) from a street vendor.

Belgian Waffles
Belgian Waffles

When I traveled to Italy a few years ago, all blogs and travel websites would just go on about how serious Italians were about their food and how everything really revolved around food. But Belgium gave me a delightful surprise with how the locals were just as serious about their frites and beer as an Italian about his pizza and wine (coffee probably comes close!)

Belgian frites are the ‘old fashioned’ fries. If you compare them to the American Mc Donald’s type fries that has strangely become the yardstick with all fries are measures, then you are sure to be disappointed… Belgian frites can be compared to the Mc Donald’s potato wedges and they come with all kinds of sauces possible under the clear blue sky!

For vegetarians though, I’d suggest check the fat the frites are fried in. At most places we ate, they used animal fat that imparted a distinct meaty flavour to the fries that well made all the (yummy) difference!

6. Visit Ghent & Brugge

Now this is a must do and while I did visit Ghent and loved it, I could not make time for Brugge (one of my regrets) but the pictures I have seen of Brugge makes me want to apply for another Schengen visa and visit Belgium just to walk the streets of Brugge and Ghent again. The medieval architecture, the languid way of life and the simply stunning mileau is something that beckons me ever so often.

Ghent Train Station
Ghent Train Station
Ghent Town
Ghent Town

Brugge may be called the Venice of the North but Ghent is one town that captures your imagination and if you are a history buff then you sure are in for a beautiful treat!

7. Take a Train to Nowhere

This is probably my favorite thing to do in any country I visit because I believe taking the train actually helps you understand and assimilate the culture of a particular place. Often times we get to know a city really well by traveling by the city’s Mass Transit System like metros and trams and the like but if you want to experience the country as a whole then trains are the best way to do it…

That said, since Belgium is such a small nation (area wise), it doesn’t eat too much of your time to travel by train from one end of the country to another. They even have a tram service running along the north-south coast!

We took a train out of Antwerpen to Ostende via Ghent. Then we took the coastal tram from Ostende to Knokke-Heist. From Knokke-Heist we walked up to the Knokke train station and then took a train back to the Antwerpen (this time not via Ghent). The train back to Antwerpen from Knokke was not listed anywhere on the train schedules or time tables. It was more of a “local” train with older carriages much like the ones we get in India (the kinds that have iron seats welded to the floor and the welding residue is painted blue too!).

Black Arrows – Train | Green Arrow – Tram
Oostende Train Station
Oostende Train Station
Coastal Tram
Coastal Tram
Knokke Train Station
Knokke Train Station

It was fun to say the least but was more of an adventure because the sea coast of Belgium in April can be FREEZING at 4 degrees!

8. Buy Local European Liquor at Brussels Duty Free

This will make sense to you if you are leaving the EU by flight from the Brussels airport. Brussels airport is a haven for shopaholics especially because it is very well organized, is huge but doesn’t give you the impression of so and hence doesn’t overwhelm you.

The best part however about the Brussels Duty Free was that all kinds of European Liquor was available and that too at astonishingly affordable prices. We bought Grappa (Italian), Etter (Swiss/French), Ouzo (Greek), Genever (Dutch/Belgian) and what not from the duty free and we still had budget to buy Scotch from Mumbai Duty Free *shrugs*

Local European Liqour
Local European Liqour

All in all Belgium is a delight and must-visit country on its own accord…


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