When my company relocated me to Belgium in 2016, I was ignorant about this amazing country. Or, more accurately, I was totally clueless. So were many of my fellow Americans. In fact, I think only a handful of my friends and family (travel industry buddies excluded) could correctly mark Belgium on an unlabelled map. “Good luck in Germany,” some exclaimed. Others asked what it would be like living in France.
I was just as bad. When I lived in London for two years, I would visit “the continent” regularly. I traveled to the Amalfi Coast, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Bari, Frankfurt, Copenhagen, Lucerne, Munich, Paris, Pisa, Rome, Venice, and dozen of other cities. But I never went to Belgium. I had no idea what I was missing.
Located on the North Sea across the channel from England, Belgium is nestled between the Netherlands, Germany, France and Luxembourg. Its climate is temperate and a welcome respite from the weather extremes I experienced in the Midwest and New York.
The Beating Heart of Europe
Brussels really is the capital of Europe. Its central location makes it an ideal jumping-off point for visits to other European cities. Train transportation is fast, easy and reasonably priced. There are two airports, one in Zaventem and the other in Charleroi. They serve the country for regional and international flights.
With NATO and EU headquarters here, Brussels is truly an international city. Yet, it’s not intimidating for foreign visitors. A friend of mine calls it “Europe Lite.” Language isn’t much of a barrier for American tourists. The official languages of Belgium are Dutch, French and German. But almost everyone speaks English. If you run into a barrier, just grab Google Translate or iTranslate for some assistance. Yes, it’s helped many tourists muddle their way through conversations with the locals.
Last year was a record year for Brussels tourism, according to Visit.brussels. Accommodation, museums and tourist attractions all saw an increase in attendance. Leisure overnight stays also jumped with occupancy increasing 4 points to 74.7%. More people are discovering the magic of the city and country.
Business travel brought most American travelers to Brussels (57%). Only 43% traveled for leisure. We haven’t discovered what the Brazilians (69% leisure) and Spanish (62% leisure) have. Belgium is an amazing place for a vacation.
Why the Heck Should You Visit Belgium?
Why should you visit? Well, culture, history, cuisine! And chocolate, waffles, fries and beer, not necessarily in that order! Brussels is home to world-class museums, spectacular gardens and parks, and magnificent Art Deco and period buildings. There are countless historic sites and mouth-watering gourmet restaurants. It really is a challenge to get a bad meal in Belgium.
And there’s just so much to do. Festivals, exhibitions and sightseeing. I love the giant murals that decorate so many buildings. Look for the “approved graffiti” and tours celebrating it. Or explore antique shops, great shopping areas, open-air markets and a wide variety of music and cultural options.
The jewel of Belgium is Grand-Place, called Grote Market in Dutch. Located in Brussels, it is the most magnificent town square in Europe, in my humble opinion. It’s pictured above with the bi-annual floral carpet. A million flowers take up the center of the market square, attracting hoards of tourists and locals. Yes, you’ll want to bring your camera.
In 1998, Grand-Place joined the UNESCO World Heritage List for its cultural, commercial and political value. You HAVE to see it to believe it. Discover a breath-taking square that blends architectural and artistic styles representing the culture and society of the area. It truly showcases the best of a city at the height of its prosperity. It’s the place to go for concerts, special events and a Christmas market.
Brussels is world-renowned for its role in government. It hosts the headquarters of the main European Union institutions. And you can learn about the European Parliament at the Parlamentarium. More than 2 million visitors have discovered it already.
Most Popular Cities for Visitors
Antwerp, Bruges, Brussels and Ghent are popular with Americans. During the summer months, they can be overcrowded, but nowhere near as insane as Prague or Venice. Maybe it’s because so many tourists have yet to discover it.
Go off the beaten path a bit and visit other Belgian sites. Try the beautiful university town of Leuven, the rugged terrain of the Ardennes or the beautiful seaside towns of Knokke, De Haan and Ostend. There are countless other villages, towns and cities waiting to be discovered, too.
Airfares are reasonably priced during the off season, so maybe it’s time for YOU to discover Belgium. You won’t regret it.
Brussels is easy to speak English because Flemish speaking people prefer English over you trying to speak French and French speakers also prefer English over you trying to speak Flemish. However, if in Mouscron, I try to speak French. If in Antwerpen, I have no choice but to speak English because I only know a few words of Flemish.
You should consider reading King Leopold’s Ghost before your trip. You will have a deeper perspective while admiring the country and it’s impressive architecture from the early 1900s