I could sum this blog post up in one quick sentence…
Any place that’s known for Waffles, Chocolate, Diamonds, and Beer, is probably a place you want to visit.
So here’s the rub on Belgium…
On my social media feeds (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) I follow hundreds of people. Many of these are real-life friends and I also have hundreds of folks I follow who are social-media-only-acquaintances. It’s no surprise that this time of year a lot of people are traveling in Europe – there’s almost always somebody on my feed snapping a selfie in Paris, London, or Rome. I also see occasional pics in Amsterdam, Berlin, Barcelona, Cinque Terra, Munich, and Prague. Yet rarely (if ever) have I seen anyone post pictures of their visit to Belgium. The country is simply off the radar – particularly for American’s who will bypass it on their way to the more “popular” and “glamorous” locations nearby, such as Amsterdam and Paris. I literally have friends who just spent a two week trip visiting every nook-and-cranny in the Netherlands without stepping foot in Belgium. That’s really too bad… especially because Belgium is so accessible (1 hour train ride or 2 hour car ride from Amsterdam) and there’s so much that can be seen in such a short amount of time. Even if you only have a day or two – Belgium is still worth squeezing into your European itinerary. Why? Beauty, Culture, Food, the list goes on… but let me make my case by highlighting a few of best places to visit in Belgium.
BRUGES… It’s a perfectly preserved medieval canal town that was once one of the wealthiest cities on the continent. Bruges was a financial and commerce center for over 300 years. Today it’s mostly a modest tourist town… but a really good one. Just to give you some perspective, one of the most well-traveled individuals I have ever known called Bruges his favorite place in all of Europe. That’s a pretty high bar… and while it’s not quite my favorite-of-all-favorites… it’s certainly high up on the list. Best of all, it’s a town that can be fully enjoyed in just one day. The town square is unique and you can check out some of the art exhibits or climb to the top of the Belfry tower while enjoying it’s famous chimes. Oh yes… then there’s the chocolate… make no mistake… Bruges is the epicenter for Belgian chocolates. Virtually every other shop in town is a chocolate shop with a new variety of confections and goodies. On my last visit I had some pecan encrusted chocolate wafers that were good beyond description. One of my favorite memories was walking through Bruges with my wife some time ago… we made a cognizant decision to just skip lunch one day and instead stop in each chocolate store to purchase (and eat) just one treat… a chocolate lunch. It was a decadent experience to say the least… a great memory… even though we were sick of chocolate for day or so afterwards.
If you make it to Bruges… the Crowne Plaza Hotel is a terrific spot to stay in the heart of the old city (a room can typically be found for about 150 Euros or less). I also recommend seeing Michelangelo’s Madonna sculpture in the Church of our Lady Bruges Cathedral. The sculpture itself has a fascinating history (which is prominently featured in the movie Monuments Men with George Clooney).
Restaurants I recommend in Bruges include:
Breakfast: Jan Van Eyck (waffles with strawberries and chocolate – of course)
Lunch: Brugs Pittahuis (delicious pitta sandwiches and burgers)
Dinner: Brasserie Mozarthuys (shrimp scampi cooked on the hot stone)
BRUSSELS… The capital of Belgium and the administrative capital of the European Union – Brussels is the largest city in Belgium. The city has plenty to offer, but here’s the skinny: the town square in Brussels is arguably the most beautiful in all of Europe. It features the Grand Place, and dozens of stunning guild halls. The architecture on display in the town square alone is divine and almost impossible not to appreciate (even for those who don’t have any sense of culture). There are countless numbers of shops and restaurants near the town square… and you can wander from the Grand Place down to the famous Manneken Pis statue in just 5 minutes. Manneken Pis itself is a bit underwhelming in my opinion, but certainly worth checking off your personal bucket-list (it’s on virtually every worldwide travel list of “things to see before you die”). On the outskirts of Brussels is the Atomium, a unique 300ft tall stainless steel structure originally built for world fair in 1958. The Atomium is a museum that is surrounded by a park and some beautiful gardens. If you’re lucky enough to visit in April and May you’ll get to witness the beautiful tulips in the nearby gardens which were on par (or better) than virtually anything I’ve seen in the Netherlands.
Last year while passing through Brussels, I made an effort to head to the Waterloo historical battlefield – site of Napoleon’s last stand and arguably the most famous battle in history. The site is located just a few miles south of Brussels and it’s very easy to access if you have an automobile. The museum is fantastic and you can climb to the top of an artificial hill to overlook the entire battlefield. A unique and worthwhile experience if you’re a history buff.
ATWERP & GHENT… Both of these towns are beautiful and probably see fewer tourists than either Brussels or Bruges. I’ve admittedly spent much more time in Antwerp as it is home to one of the largest ports in all of Europe and I’m there on business fairly often. Antwerp has a unique town square with beautiful guild halls and dozens of restaurants and shops near the square and towards the waterfront. The gothic cathedral in the central part of town is extraordinary. Antwerp is known for being the diamonds capital of the world. Billions of dollars worth of diamonds are cut and polished in the Antwerp diamond district every year. I’ve never been shopping for diamonds in Antwerp, but some friends that live in the city assure me that if I were in the market for a diamond, Antwerp would be the ideal place to shop.
Hotel Recommendation in Antwerp: The Ibis Antwerpen Centrum is a clean budget hotel that is on the edge of the downtown area. Rooms are small, but relatively cheap (Approximately 80 Euros / Night). Beds are comfortable and you can access the walkable downtown area and town square with ease from the Ibis.
Restaurant Recommendation: Het Pomphuis (The Pumphouse) is a fantastic high-end restaurant located in an old pumphouse near the waterfront (just outside the downtown area). Food here is terrific – it’s the perfect restaurant to host a client or nice business luncheon.
Some people say that Ghent may be the most beautiful town in Belgium. They certainly have an argument – there’s not a town square that really compares to Brussels, Antwerp, or Bruges, but with Ghent you have a unique waterfront area that features some of the same architecture you’ll see in other Belgium towns, but situated on a river with walkable shops, stores, and restaurants on both sides.
Regardless of where you are in Belgium, do yourself a favor and order a fresh waffle with chocolate syrup. Trust me now and thank me later… Belgium waffles will live up to their worldwide reputation. If you’re a beer drinker you should probably partake of some of the finer Belgium brews available as well. I’m a teetotaler so I don’t have much insight or information other than to say Belgian Beer is probably as world famous as its waffles and chocolates.
WRAPPING IT UP… Belgium should be on your list – even if just passing through for a day or two between Paris and Amsterdam. It’s a quick stop and the payoffs are high, whether you like history, architecture, waffles, beer, or chocolate. You can’t go wrong with Belgium!