People traveling to Belgium are likely to be surprised by the amount of activities and sights on offer. Less well-known than its neighboring countries Germany, Holland and France, Belgium has more than enough things to do and see to keep visitors occupied for months.
There are, however, some interesting things all visitors should know when traveling to Belgium. It is a complicated country with a rich history after all.
Traveling to Belgium: 5 Essentials
1. The Languages
Although a lot of people still think that Belgians speak French, Belgium is in fact a trilingual country and Dutch is the most spoken language. The Flemish north has a population of roughly 6.5 million Dutch (Flemish) speakers, while the 3.5 million people of Wallonia in the south speak French. A small region in the east of Belgium, bordering Germany, speaks German, which is the official third language of the country.
It is almost impossible to explain the political structure of Belgium to foreigners. Belgium is a constitutional monarchy and at the moment there are two kings and three queens. The political power in Belgium is mainly organized around the main cultural communities and there are several political parties: liberals, socialists, Christian democrats, nationalists, environmentalists and a few smaller ones.
Traveling to Belgium can be complicated when knowing that there are three separate communities and three different regions, which aren’t the same. There are the Flemish, French-speaking and German-speaking communities and the Flemish, Walloon and Brussels-Capital regions. All six have their own government. The federal government adds to a grand total of seven governments in such a little country.
Belgium’s capital, Brussels, is also the capital of the European Union and has the same city state status as, for example, Canberra in Australia and Washington DC in the United States.
3. Food and Drinks
Luckily tourists aren’t generally bothered by all this political complexity when traveling to Belgium. They can focus on the good stuff. And there is some good stuff indeed. Belgium is world-famous for its food and beer. The mix of influences from abundant France and the more sober northern European countries result in a fantastic Belgian cuisine. The country’s most well-known export products are chocolate, waffles and beer. Also, Belgium is the place where ‘French’ fries where invented, probably the world’s favorite fast food. Talking about fast food, Belgium even has its own chain: Quick.
Belgian beers are renowned around the world and there are hundreds of varieties, most of them brewed in their own brewery. Belgium truly is the world capital of beer, a fact that is proved by the countless bars and brown bars that can be found in even the smallest village.
4. Sights and Sites
Although the country itself didn’t technically exist until 1830, its oldest towns have been around since Roman times. Several medieval Belgian cities were extremely prosperous and have been major trading cities since the Middle Ages. Cities such as Bruges, Antwerp, Ghent and Brussels were important cities in their heydays. Now they all are stunning historic cities, home to several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, great museums, beautiful town squares and chocolate shops. Smaller towns that are worth a visit are Tongeren (Belgium’s oldest), Leuven (college city and home to the Stella Artois brewery), Dinant (birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone) and Ostend (Belgium’s main seaside city).
In addition to that, Belgium used to be the preferred battlefield of the large European powers. Napoleon was defeated by the Prussians and the English in Waterloo; Ypres and Flanders Fields were one of the epicenters of battles during the First World War; and Bastogne has become world-famous as the center of the Battle of the Bulge in the Second World War.
Traveling to Belgium requires a visit to a festival as well. The country has probably the most festivals per square kilometer in the entire world. There are literally hundreds of festivals – nearly every city, town or village has its own specific annual festival. Most of them are large music festivals. The most well-known are Rock Werchter (voted as the world’s best festival several times), Pukkelpop and Tomorrowland. These enormous festivals attracts crowds of hundreds of thousands of people. Another great festival is the Gentse Feesten in Ghent with its several stages, performances and food and drink stalls that are spread out across the historic city center. Smaller niche festivals can be found throughout the country as well, covering music styles ranging from reggae and punkrock to folk and dance.
Traveling to Belgium is bound to be an exciting, culinary, cultural and musical experience.