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. Here are 10 dos and don’ts. About a third of them, unsurprisingly, pertain to beer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, and Cinema Zuid with its screenings of classics and silent films accompanied by live piano music has always been the home of the true cinephile. 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.
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.
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.
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.