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Small, quiet and unassuming, Belgium has everything its popular neighbours have, but goes relatively unnoticed by many travellers. Its extraordinary artistic heritage puts it on the map for art-lovers, but the country's delights extend well beyond the artistic realm. Cities such as Bruges and Ghent harken back centuries, retaining much of their medieval architecture and providing visitors with a fascinating step back in time. Brussels is the proud capital, not only of Belgium, but also of the European Union, and despite the rather deadening effect of dozens of bureaucrats bustling along its streets, Brussels' central square, the Grand Place, is a sensational highlight which should not be missed by any visitor to Belgium. And of course, while there, one should also not miss out on Belgium's fine choice of beers, chocolate and gourmet foods.
For a long time the history of the Netherlands and Belgium went hand in hand. But in 1830 Catholic Belgium declared its independence over the mainly Protestant Netherlands. A year later Leopold I, became the first King of Belgium. In the beginning French was the only official language in this new country, mainly because it was the language of the ruling class, but during the years Dutch gained in importance. In 1898 Dutch became an official language in Belgium, but it lasted until 1967 until the constitution was written down in Dutch.
In 1914 Germany invaded Belgium, and many black pages would be written in the historybooks over the next 4 years. A lot of the fighting during World War I would occur in the western part of Belgium. After World War I, Belgium was compensated by adding pieces of Germany to Belgium, creating the East Kantons, where you will now find the German speaking minority of Belgium that speak German, which is Belgiums third officail language.
In 1940 World War II meant that Belgium again was invaded by German troops. This time the initial war was over quickly, leaving the country occupied for over 4 years. In the months after D-Day Belgium was liberated for the largest part.
After the war Belgium was one of the founding members of what would become the European Union, and it joined NATO. Brussels became the headquarters of the EU. During the years a couple of Belgian politians had a lot of influence in both organisation. Paul-Henri Spaak and Willy Claes became Secretary General of NATO, and in 2009 Herman van Rompuy became the first "President" of the European Union.
Belgium shares borders with France (620 kilometres), Germany (167 kilometres), Luxembourg (148 kilometres) and the Netherlands (450 kilometres). Its total area, including surface water area, is 33,990 square kilometres; land area alone is 30,528 km2. It lies between latitudes 49° and 53° N, and longitudes 2° and 7° E.
The defining feature of the the country is it flatness, although it is not as flat as its northern neighbour. The coastal plain consists mainly of sand dunes and polders. Further inland lies a smooth, slowly rising landscape irrigated by numerous waterways, with fertile valleys and the northeastern sandy plain of the Campine (Kempen). The thickly forested hills and plateaux of the Ardennes are more rugged and rocky with caves and small gorges. Extending westward into France, this area is eastwardly connected to the Eifel in Germany by the High Fens plateau, on which the Signal de Botrange forms the country's highest point at 694 metres. A handy tower allows you to climb an extra 6 metres and attain the lofty height of 700 metres.
Belgium is officially divided into three regions, the Walloon Region, the Flemish Region and the Brussels-Capital Region.
The Flemish Region (or Flanders) is in the northern part of Belgium, where Dutch is the spoken language. The Walloon Region (or Wallonia) is the southern part of the country, where French is the main language. Both of these regions are subdivided into 5 provinces.
The special Brussels-Capital Region is bi-lingual (Dutch and French) and is located within the Flemish Region.
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The small guy, called Manneken Pis, that everybody recognizes as the landmark of Brussels was placed here in 1619, and crafted by Jerome Duquesnoy. It replaced a statue that had stood on the same place, with a similar statue that was made of stone, and that had stood there since the middle ages. The statue can be found on the crossing of the Stoofstraat and the Eikstraat (or in French: Rue de l'Étuve and Rue du Chêne).
Tournai (Dutch: Doornik) is mostly famous because of the Notre-Dame Cathedral, which is on the Unesco World Heritage List. It was built in the first half of the 12th century and is of significance because of its Romanesque nave of impressive dimensions. It also has a wealth of sculptures on its capitals and a transept topped by five towers. These all represent the Gothic style, just like the choir, which was rebuilt in the 13th century.
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Although Belgium has only a short coastline and the weather may not be the same as in Southern Europe, there are some fantastic places to spend a day or so. The beaches are long with fine sand and the waters are safe and clean enough to swim in. The most visited towns and cities are Blankenberghe, Knokke-Heist, Ostend and De Panne, although there are several more. Along the coast there is a tramline, which almost travels the entire length and the boulevards along the beaches are dotted with hotels, appartments and restaurants. Most people who visit these places are from the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and France.
The Ardennes are the higher forested areas in the east of the country in Wallone. They also stretch into Luxemburg and northern France though. Most of the area is between 350 and 500 metres high, with the highest point almost being 700 metres in the northeast towards the borders with Germany, where it joins the Eifel Mountains. Forests, rocks, waterfalls, rivers, there are many great things to explore including some fine small towns, with abbeys, castles and other ancient buildings. It is a popular place to go kayaking, biking, hiking or just explore the large area by car.
Belgium’s annual festival and event calendar begins late on New Year’s Eve with parties, outdoor and indoor gatherings, street parades, and special events in bars and pubs - all going on before the magic stroke of midnight starts the firework displays put on to welcome in the New Year. Live music is a permanent staple, as is festive food and huge quantities of beer.
The origins of the February Carnival are linked with the Roman Catholic period of Lent. This is traditionally a time of excess and indulgence in food, drink, and fun before the dietary restrictions of religion kick in. Brussels is the best place to experience Carnival, with its colorful street parades, local street parties, live music events, decorated homes and costumed residents, and food and beer extravaganzas.
This international film festival is based in Bruges, Belgium and draws movie professionals from across the world. Held every March, it’s a truly international event featuring full-length and short films, as well as documentaries from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The event lasts 10 full days, with screenings taking place at the Lumière Art House and the Liberty blockbuster cinema.
This massive celebration of theater, music, and dance begins in April, closes in October, and takes place in venues across Brussels and all over Flanders. Fine performances of classical music, theater shows of all kinds, and dance are held in public venues, including historic buildings, abbeys, churches, town halls, theaters, and even outdoors during the summer months.
This stunning Christian pageant was first held in Bruges, Belgium in 1150, and is one of Europe’s most important religious festivals. Every May, the relic of the Holy Blood, donated to the town in 1149 by the Count of Flanders after his return from the Crusades, is paraded through the town’s medieval streets. Its journey takes a mile and the procession holds 1,500 chosen townspeople.
The Zinneke Parade is held in Brussels amid the transformation of the city into a colorful hub of lively activities. Known as Big Z-Day by the locals, every May, the parade includes live music, concerts, dance, street parties, the wearing of costumes by all and sundry. Bar and pubs put on their own events and specials, and everyone has a grand old time.
This unique annual event is a must for all visitors who’re in Belgium in June. Held in the town of Mons, it’s one of the most ancient festivals in Europe and has its origins in folklore passed down over many centuries. It’s based on a giant re-enactment of the St George and the Dragon legend, with the battle between good and evil taking place in the town square before thousands of spectators. After the dragon has been defeated, the parties run through the night.
Although Belgian National Day is celebrated all over the country on July 21, its biggest events take place in Brussels. Firework displays, street performers, costumed characters, and a huge military parade in the Brussels Park commemorate the country’s independence, achieved in 1830 after the Belgian Revolution.
Held in Brussels, Belgium, Meyboom is the oldest traditional festival in the country. Mostly celebrated outdoors in the warm August weather, the event includes brass bands, a display of giant puppets, dancing, traditional folk music, and loads of food and beverages.
The last week of August is eagerly awaited by residents and visitors to Ardennes alike, as it sees the fabulous Formula 1 Grand Prix race at the city’s Circuit de Francorchamps. The race draws thousands of visitors, with hotels full to capacity and bars, pubs, and restaurants crammed to the brim. Room rates soar and advance booking is essential. Whichever driver wins, it’s an amazing spectacle.
This much loved celebration of Belgium’s most famous product takes place in Brussels three days in September. Held at the grounds of the Grand Palace, it features stands selling almost every variety of the country’s superb craft beers, all at reasonable prices. Entry is free, and live music makes the giant party go with a swing.
Held every October at the capital’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart, this show is a must for lovers of floral extravaganzas, with the spectacular building filled with water displays, glorious floral arrangements, and rare plants.
Belgian a country of music lovers. Every city or town has its own musicfestival. Rock Werchter is the biggest festival together with Pukkelpop. These have an international line up and draw tens of thousands of visitors to Werchter and Kiewit, a small town near Hasselt. There are also a couple of festivals that take place in the cities, like the Gentse Feesten, Marktrock in Leuven and the Cactus Festival in Bruges.
Tomorrowland is an outdoor dancing event (festival) organized every year in the Flemish town of Boom since 2005. Famous DJ's that have been performing during the festival, held late July, are Fedde le Grande, Ferry Corsten, Armin van Buuren, DJ Tiësto, Carl Cox, Swedish House Maffia, Afrojack, Faithless and David Guetta. The festival is organized by ID&T, the same company behind the succes of the Dutch Mysteryland since 1993. There are different music styles with jump, groove, club and hardstyle being the most important ones. There are both campingfestivals as well as the main festival. If you stay on the camping grounds, you can also go to the campingfestival. Tomorrowland finishes with huge fireworks. The festival is gaining in popularity every year and starting with just one day in 2005, it extended into two days from 2007 and three days from 2011 onwards.
Belgium has a mild climate with almost no extremes. Summers are relatively cool with average daytime temperatures around 20 °C, although temperatures of 35 °C are not impossible on some days and they can vary from one place to another. The coastal areas will generally not have temperatures over 30 °C, while more inland it can be 5 °C to 10 °C warmer. The higher parts in the east are a bit cooler during summer nights.
Winters, on the other hand, are mild, and temperatures below 0 °C during the day do not occur that often. A snow carpet lasting for more than a few days is relatively rare, except in the Ardennes region in the east where the higher parts might be white for days, if not weeks.
The best months to travel around Belgium are probably May and June, when days are long and apart from occasional showers, rainfall is lowest. September is fairly good as well, although days are shorter. July and August can be good, if it weren't for the crowds on some places.
Brussels Airport (BRU) is the primary international airport. It is located in the small town of Zaventem, near Brussels. It deals primarily with flights from and to European cities, although a number of African and Middle Eastern cities are serviced and Jet Airways provides flights from India and the USA.
The second major airport is Brussels South Charleroi Airport (CRL), which is used primarily for Ryanair flights. There are smaller international airports at Antwerp, Liège and Ostend. The latter two are primarily used for charter flights.
There are many options if you want to travel to Belgium by train. The main hub is Brussels, from where trains leave in all directions, including direct trains to London, Paris and Amsterdam and even as far as Moscow!
For travelling from London check the Eurostar website for details, including connections to Paris. And remember that this ticket is valid to all other Belgian cities for the same price as Brussels if travelling within 24 hours of your Eurostar trip.
The Thalys has connections to Amsterdam, Paris and Cologne. From Brussels with the TGV you can travel further south to Bordeaux, Lyon, Marseille and Nice, some of them directly. Sometimes it is cheaper to go to Lille first, and connect there to the TGV southwards.
The ICE connects Brussels with German cities like Frankfurt and Cologne.
Check the Deutch Bahn Timetable for all other destinations further away in Europe.
There are many roads including major European highways that link Belgium with France, the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium. The most important ones are (E numbers are generally used):
Eurolines offers connections throughout Europe from Brussels with regular connections in Antwerp and Liege.
There are a few connections by ferry.
As distances are small, there are no regular passanger flights between cities in Belgium.
Belgium has an extensive train network. Check the NMBS website for information about connections, prices and other details.
There is also an enjoyable Coastal Tramline (Dutch only).
Belgium has a well lit Highway Network. That said, compared to its neighbours roads are slightly less maintained and more fatal accidents happen as well. Also, signs are sometimes placed in wrong positions. But generally though it is a fairly safe and enjoyable way of getting around. Most international agencies offer rental cars at airports or their downtown offices. Hertz and Avis, as well as Budget are safe options.
There is not really a need to travel around by boat, other than some some short trips within cities like Bruges or crossing the Schelde River in Antwerp. Also, there are no regular ferries linking the ports in Belgium as most transport is by the coastal tram or other modes of transport (see above). That said, you can join a cruise and relax on one of many rivers and canals.
If you are a European Union (EU) citizen, you may enter without any restriction as per your EU citizenship rights. If you are not an EU citizen and Belgium is the first stop on your visit, you will need to obtain a Schengen Visa. This visa is valid for any country in the Schengen zone.
See also: Money Matters
Belgium has adopted the Euro (ISO code: EUR, symbol: €) as its official currency. One Euro is divided into 100 cents, which is sometimes referred to as eurocents, especially when distinguishing them with the US cents.
Euro banknotes come in denominations of €5, €10, €20, €50, €100, €200, €500. The highest three denominations are rarely used in everyday transactions. All Euro banknotes have a common design for each denomination on both sides throughout the Eurozone.
The Euro coins are 1 cent, 2 cents, 5 cents, 10 cents, 20 cents, 50 cents, €1 and €2. Some countries in the Eurozone have law which requires cash transactions to be rounded to the nearest 5 cents. All Euro coins have a common design on the denomination (value) side, while the opposite side may have a different image from one country to another. Although the image side may be different, all Euro coins remain legal tender throughout the Eurozone.
Having one of the highest labour taxes in Europe, Belgium is struggling to reposition itself as a high-tech country. In that struggle, Flanders is far ahead and much wealthier than Wallonia, in contrast to the previous decades, where Wallonia's steel industry was the main export of Belgium. Highly skilled people will have the most chance to find work, and knowing multiple languages (Dutch, French, English and perhaps German) is almost a standard requirement. Interim offices providing temporary jobs are flourishing in a search to avoid the high labour taxes.
Belgium has one of the highest tax rates in the world. An employer who pays a salary about €1500 a month actually pays another €1500 or more in taxes. Where does this money go to? It goes to the social network. People only pay a small charge for healthcare, for example. And the budget for education, arts and culture is enormous.
Belgium has many good Universities and cities like Leuven are famous for their student population. If you can, try to stay here for a year or so.
Belgium has three official language. Besides German which is spoken in a small part in the east, these include French in Wallonia and Dutch in Flanders. Brussels is officially bi-lingual.
English is widely spoken by the younger generations in the Dutch-speaking areas. In contrast, due to a lack of exposure, English is not as widely spoken in the French-speaking areas, though it is still possible to find English speakers if you try hard enough. You will find that some older people do speak English, especially in Flanders, but it is less likely.
A number of dishes are considered distinctly Belgian specialities and should be on every visitor's agenda.
Belgium has a wide range of accommodation options, ranging from budget campings and hostels to 5* luxury hotels in the main cities. In between there are pensions, guesthouses, homestays, B&B's and many midrange hotels.
Belgium means beer! And although beer might have its origin in the Czech Republic (or at least that what's the city Plzen is all about!), and although countries like the UK and Germany have more breweries, for such a small country it has a lot to offer for people who like beer. There are over 800 standard beers and you should at least try a few of the main ones. The choice is wide, but at least see if the next ones have something that might be something for you!
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See also: Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Belgium.
See also: Travel Safety
Except for certain neighbourhoods in central Brussels and the outer edge of Antwerp (the port and docks), Belgium is a safe country. Belgians are somewhat shy and introverted, but generally helpful towards strangers.
For those landing in Charleroi and Liège, those are the regions that boast the highest crime rates in Southern Belgium. But if you keep an eye on your belongings, and avoid wandering alone at night, nothing really serious is likely to happen to you.
Internet is widely available in Belgium, but internet cafés are not common, because most people have internet access at home or through wifi. There are multiple internet access points in all cities and it is free in most libraries. Also in multiple gas stations, train stations and diners on the highways there is Wi-Fi available. Many cafés offer free Wi-Fi nowadays and if you can't find any you can always fall back on Quick or McDonalds which both offer free Wi-Fi.
See also: International Telephone Calls
The country calling code to Belgium is: + 32. To make an international call from Belgium, the code is 00.
Belgium has a modern telephone system with nationwide cellular telephone coverage. Belgium uses the GSM standard of cellular phones (900 MHz and 1800 MHz bands) used in most of the world outside of the U.S. There are three main companies (Proximus, Mobistar and Base, and a large number of MVNOs) offering wireless service. The country is almost totally covered. If you stay for some time, it may be advisable to buy a pre-paid cell phone card that you can use in any phone that supports the GSM standard on the 900/1800 MHz bands. Then incoming calls and SMSes are free. You can get sim cards for the three main companies in dedicated phone shops. Sim cards from the MVNOs are readily available at supermarkets (Carrefour, Aldi, Colruyt to name a few all have their own brand). All networks provide UMTS and HSDPA (3G) mobile internet coverage, and are rolling out a 4G network, mainly in the big cities and eventually in the whole country.
De Post is the national postal service of Belgium, with Dutch, French and German versions. They offer generally fast, reliable services. It's a relatively expensive service though, with normal domestic post (cards, letters etc) up to 50 grams costing €0.61. To other European countries it costs €1.03 and outside Europe it's €1.34. At the post offices, you can buy stamps and they have other services as well, including international money transfers. The opening times of post offices are 9:00am or 10:00am until 4:00pm or 5:00pm, depending on whether it's the main central one or a smaller branch or in towns. Some of them might be open on Saturday mornings, and remember that quite a few still close for lunch break! De Post also offers the sending of parcels, but you could also use private international companies like UPS, TNT or DHL, as they offer roughly the same services and prices, but are generally faster.
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