Things to Know Before You Go to Belgium

PEANT2 Cafes, restaurants and shops on Academiestraat near Het Tolhuis and Jan van Eyckplein, Bruges, Belgium
PEANT2 Cafes, restaurants and shops on Academiestraat near Het Tolhuis and Jan van Eyckplein, Bruges, Belgium | © Findlay / Alamy Stock Photo
Nana Van De Poel

Belgium might be one of the most overlooked travel destinations in Western Europe, but that’s still no reason to show up unprepared for a visit to this country of small wonders and quirks. Before you set foot on this captivating country, it’s essential to equip yourself with the knowledge that will transform your visit into an unforgettable experience. Here are the dos and don’ts. About a third of them, unsurprisingly, pertain to beer.

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Take it slow on the heavy beers

Experiencing excitement about finally getting to delve into the country’s famed beer culture is natural, but make sure to steady yourself before setting out to sample every Belgian brew under the sun. The stuff Belgians pride themselves on the most – prized drinks such as Westvleteren 12, Gulden Draak, and Rochefort 10 – tend to fall between the 7.5 to 10.5 percent range. So when you make seasoned Belgian drinking buddies at the bar that can down three of such whoppers in rapid succession without blinking an eye, don’t expect to follow their lead without ending up in the gutter.

No reason to rush: Belgium has no last call

Taking it easy on the flavorful heavy brews means you’ll get to – consciously at least – taste more of them. Belgium is one of few countries where a legally mandated last call is simply not a thing. Many bars will stay open all night if the atmosphere is thriving. Not rushing means you have more than enough time to savor many of Belgium’s finest without becoming a drunken mess in the process.

You (the tourist) are actually welcome

Squished between elegant Paris and hip Berlin, quirky Brussels draws the short end of the stick when it comes to tourist numbers. In a funny way, this reason alone is why you should go; aside from Bruges – where tourists mostly annoy each other, and most locals live outside of the medieval center – Belgian cities are hardly suffering from tourist ennui. Brussels proudly identifies as a melting pot, and when a Belgian welcomes you, they’re usually overjoyed to tell you about the things that are unique to their region.

Except for when you nick their beer glasses

The one way for a tourist to get on a Belgian’s bad side, though, is by stealing a beer glass. Like its brews, Belgium takes its glassware seriously. With over a 1,000 different national and local beers on offer, an original glass is designed for almost every single one to make sure the flavors reach their full potential. Many bar owners do their best to stock as many glasses as possible so that you can enjoy your drink of choice the way it was meant to, making it particularly annoying to see a tourist slip one into his or her pocket for a nicked souvenir.

It’s easy to get around

Visiting a country as small as postage stamp-sized Belgium also means limited travel times on trips. Ghent, Antwerp, Liège, Brussels, the forested Ardennes, the soothing seaside, and its picturesque Bruges – they’re all within two hours or less of each other, which means more time to soak up different locales and environments.

Antwerp and Ghent are Belgium’s resident hipster duo

Maurice Coffee & Knits in Antwerp

Looking for coffee shops that double as knitting corners, a good supply of vinyl record stores, and old-school barbers specializing in beard maintenance? Antwerp and Ghent are your new best friends.

The art house cinema is alive and kicking

Cinema Zuid

The hostess with the mostest when it comes to independent movie theaters is Brussels (Vendôme, Styx, Actor’s Studio, Cinema Nova, etc.), but several other big cities are waiving the flag for art house cinema too. In Antwerp, cozy neighborhood theater Cartoon’s has been revived. The student-organized KASK, festival-geared Sphinx, and Studio Skoop with its nostalgic movie-themed café take care of Ghent’s film lovers, while Leuven’s Cinema ZED has just opened a second location to the delight of its movie buff regulars.

Pack a raincoat and an umbrella

Much like in Ireland or England, moderate rain is a regular companion to Belgian life, even at the seaside. But here’s the silver lining: locals deal with the occasional drizzle by packing their cities and coastline full of cozy dwellings where the hot chocolate is to die for, and the waffles provide fluffy comfort.

English? No problem

In all honesty, there’s really no need to learn the language(s) if you’re only going to be visiting for a week. While a danku or merci (thank you in Dutch and French) will certainly get you an appreciating smile, a lot of Belgians speak English well enough to carry on a conversation.

Don’t skip Brussels – it’s not a hellhole

Grand-Place

The newly minted American president rubbed quite a few Brusselaars the wrong way in his candidate days when he called the Belgian capital a “hellhole.” Irked residents were quick to respond by tweeting pictures of their magnificent Grand-Place, the Cinquantenaire Park’s grand arcade, and many other scenic views under the ironic hashtag #hellhole. And if that doesn’t assuage your fears about the heart of Europe, take a look at #bruxellesmabelle – it’s sure to put you at ease.

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