Explore Belgium

Belgium Travel Guide

It may be a little country, but it is a lovely one, so it is sad that Belgium is often overlooked when travellers plan a trip to Europe. Tucked between the desirable and obvious destinations of London, Paris and Amsterdam, Belgium is usually treated as a stepping stone to the English Channel, or, at most, a quick stop-over for a look-see in the capital, Brussels.

Beyond the city of Brussels with its historic Gothic buildings and tall European Union office blocks, is a treasure-trove of undiscovered lazy seaside towns, and the inland wooded gorges of the splendid Ardennes, sprinkled with medieval castles and steeped in folklore. The medieval city of Bruges has character and charm galore with a rich architectural heritage, graceful canals, winding waterways and cobbled streets, and is a favourite with visitors. Belgium is a country that has inspired many artists and writers with the charm of its Gothic cathedrals, town halls, gabled guildhouses and rich museums.

After a busy day exploring it all, evenings are best spent experiencing Belgium's fantastic cuisine and delighting in the country's variety of 300-odd brews of beer. Belgians have a reputation for their gracious hospitality, no doubt due in part to the country's location, which has created an international crossroads for commerce and culture. Despite this, Belgium and its distinct regions of Flemish Flanders (north) and French Wallonia (south) has proudly preserved its traditions and identity.

The borderless region known as the Schengen area includes the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden. All these countries issue a standard Schengen visa that has a multiple entry option that allows the holder to travel freely within the borders of all. Nationals of non-EU countries are recommended to hold return or onward tickets, sufficient funds and documents for their next destination. It is recommended that passports are valid for six months after departure from any holiday destination.

Grand Place (Central Square)

Address: 1000 Brussels Brussels

Admission: Free Daily 9am-8pm

The Grand Place is the heart of Brussels and has been since the Middle Ages. One of Europe's more beautiful squares, it lies in the centre of a confusion of small cobbled streets, and is surrounded by richly decorated 17th century Baroque Guildhouses, various Neo-Gothic buildings and museums.

It is, however, the town hall, a magnificent Gothic building that dominates the square. Markets, flower stalls and various events are held here and this is the place to get to grips with the essence of Brussels, perhaps over a local delicacy at a pavement café.

Manneken-Pis

Address: Rue de l’Etuve 31, located two blocks behind the Town Hall at Grand Place Brussels

Admission: Free

The distinctive statue has been described as the Eiffel Tower of Brussels and tourists throng the streets in search of the tiny urinating urchin. The bronze Manneken is thought to represent the 'irreverent spirit' of Brussels, but there are numerous tales about its beginnings.

Started by Louis XV of France many years ago, it has been the custom of foreign countries, companies, visiting dignitaries or charities to donate an outfit to the Manneken-Pis and the little boy is usually decked out in the latest costume; previous costumes are displayed in the City of Brussels Museum.

As the cheeky fountain is one of the most populat attractions in Brussels, visitors an expect large crowds at most times of day, especially in tourist season.

Hotel de Ville

Address: Grand Place, 1000 Bruxelles Brussels

Admission: Guided tours 5€ adults; 3€ seniors, students, and children 6–12. Free for children 5 and under. Tickets sold at tourist office in Grand-Place. Tuesday 10am-5pm, Wednesday 10am-12pm, Thursday 2pm-5pm

Brussels' city hall is rated as the most splendid civic building in Europe. The foundations were laid in 1402 and it survived the mercifully inaccurate bombing during World War II when most of the other buildings on the Grand Place were destroyed. The façade is embellished with gargoyles and images of nobility while the intricate 100 metre-high tower is resolved by a fine statue of St Michel, patron saint of Brussels. Guided tours are available for a small fee - well worth it to see the fine tapestries and miscellaneous works of art inside.

Galeries Royales Saint Hubert

Address: Galerie du Roi 5, 1000 Bruxelles Brussels

Admission: Free Varied times depending on stores. Check website for details.

Telephone: (02) 545 09 90

Mall lovers everywhere should make a pilgrimage to the Galeries Royales Saint Hubert, the very first shopping arcade in Europe. Opened in 1847, the arcade became a draw card for the cream of 19th century society and today continues to inspire shoppers and browsers alike. People from across the globe, young and old, enjoy perusing here and everyone will find something to their taste.

The building itself is an architectural marvel: arcaded shop fronts across two floors are separated by pilasters, conceived in a Cinquecento style. The roof above is made of arched glass panes connected by a delicate cast-iron framework - very photogenic! In between the various shops you'll find cafes, restaurants, a theatre and even a cinema; with so much to see and do here, this attraction is family friendly and one the kids will enjoy too.

Palais Royal

Address: Rue Brederode 16, B-1000 Bruxelles Brussels

Admission: Free Open Tuesday to Sunday, 22 July to 4 September

Belgium's magnificent Royal Palace was built in the 19th century as the official residence of the Belgian Royal family although today is used for official functions and other ceremonial purposes. The palace is positioned in front of Brussels Park, itself well worth exploring, and directly opposite the modern Parliament building as if symbolically representing the country's system of government, a constitutional monarchy. Tours are only possible in summer and commence after the National Holiday on 21 July. Inside are a multitude of historical artefacts and some impressive contemporary art, commissioned by the queen in 2002.

Royal Museums of Fine Arts

Address: Rue de la Régence 3 Brussels

Admission: €13 for all museums. Weekdays 10am-5pm, Weekends 11am-6pm

An unmissable attraction for art lovers: the Royal Museums of Fine art are Brussels' premier art museums. Consisting of the Musée Old Masters Museum, Musée Modern Museum, Musée Wiertz Museum, Musée Meunier Museum, Musée Magritte Museum and the new Musée Fin-de-Siècle Museum.

The largest is the Old Masters Museum, opened in 1887, featuring the best collection of Flemish art in the world; highlights include works by van Dyck and over 20 paintings by Rubens. The Museum of Modern Art was opened in 1984 and includes fine examples from Belgium's best artists over the past century, plus modern legends such as Francis Bacon.

The Magritte Museum is devoted to works of famous Belgian Surrealist René Magritte, and houses more than 200 of his works; while the new Musée Fin-de-Siècle Museum is dedicated to the 1900s, when Brussels was the capital of Art Nouveau.

Belgian Centre of Comic Strip Art

Address: Rue des Sables 20 Brussels

Admission: €8 adults, €6 children 12-18. Other concessions available. Tuesday to Thursday 10am-5pm, Friday to Saturday 10am-6pm, Sunday 12pm-6pm.

Telephone: (0)2 219 1980

Belgium's love of wacky humour and comic book art come together in this wonderful museum housed in a fabulous Art Nouveau building designed by Victor Horta. Permanent exhibitions detail the history of European comic strips, and ever-changing temporary exhibitions focus on specific artists, time periods, and political contexts.

Visitors can see plenty of its most famous subject, Hergé's Tintin, as well as the Smurfs, and art from over 670 cartoonists. This is a temple to cartooning, now considered an art form worthy of serious consideration, and so the museum aims to trace the history and development of the discipline rather than to entertain. Guided tours are available for larger groups.

Royal Museum of Central Africa

Address: Leuvensesteenweg 1302 Brussels

Admission: €4 (adults), €1.50 (youths). Other concessions are available Tuesday to Friday from 10am to 5pm; Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 6pm

Telephone: (0)2 769 5211

Under the direction of King Leopold, the Belgian Congo returned fantastic riches to Belgium in the 19th century, yet the people of that colony paid a terrible price. This museum was founded to explore the relationship between European colonial powers and the people they subjugated. Recent exhibits have broadened the museum's focus to include environmental issues and ethnography in Africa, Asia and South America. The museum is situated on beautiful grounds in the Flemish commune of Tervuren, just outside of Brussels.

Bruparck

Address: Eeuwfeestlaan 20Bd du Centenaire Brussels

Admission: Varied ticket prices. Check website for details. Vary depending on specific attractions

Telephone: 02 474 8383

This village was originally created for the 1958 World Exhibition and houses some of Brussels' most popular tourist attractions. The Oceadium water park, Mini Europe, a Kineopolis cinema and the world-renowned Atomium are all located here, making this a great day out for the whole family with plenty of eateries to stop and grab some refreshments and a bit of fuel for the next attraction.

Mini Europe is an interactive area that recreates all of Europe on a miniature scale, giving visitors a good perspective on the continent in a new, fun way. Built for the 1958 World Fair, the Atomium takes its shape and proportions from the internal lattice of an iron atom. There are nine spheres linked by escalators and each contains exhibition rooms hosting a rapidly changing series of exhibitions. There is a great view from the deck of the uppermost sphere.

Flanders Battlefield Tours

Address: Slachthuisstraat 58, Ypres

Admission: €30 (standard tour, includes museum admission). Times vary. Advance reservations highly recommended. Check website for details.

During World War I, the medieval town of Ypres in the Flanders region of Belgium was the epicentre of fighting on the Western Front, with the Allied army suffering its heaviest losses in history. Flanders Battlefield Tours, run by an informed, sensitive and knowledgeable group of Great War scholars, ensure that the memory of that 'lost generation' is preserved and respected.

The tour has been roundly celebrated for the vividness of the battle accounts it gives - much of the information is supplemented by personal artefacts, such as old maps, photographs, diary extracts and poems - and visitors are sure to be awed, spending time in areas where on average every square metre of earth witnessed the death of 35 young men. A solemn, moving and important experience, Flanders Battlefield Tours have been described by travellers as 'the best of [their] kind in Europe'.

Choco-Story Museum

Address: Wijnzakstraat 2, Sint-Jansplein Bruges

Chocolate lovers can't take a holiday to Bruges without stopping at the Choco-Story Museum, which details the history of chocolate dating back to the Mayans in 250 BC, and also demonstrates how the raw ingredients of cocoa are turned into the sweet treats everyone loves.

Of course each tour includes a tasting session, and plenty of time in the gift shop. It's tempting to buy right then and there, but keep in mind that Bruges has more than 40 chocolate shops throughout the city!

Bruges Diamond Museum

Address: Oude Gentweg Bruges

Bruges has a long history of diamond polishing, going back to 1450 when local goldsmith Lodewijk van Berquem invented the modern technique of using diamond powder on a rotating disk. The Bruges Diamond Museum (Diamantmuseum Brugge) has a variety of exhibits on this craft, as well as mining and setting diamonds.

The museum also offers live polishing demonstrations each day, and often hosts temporary exhibitions with famous stones and jewellery. The gift shop stocks rough and synthetic diamonds, as well as more reasonably-priced souvenirs.

Groeninge Museum

Address: Dijver 12 Bruges

Considered one of Bruges' best museums, the Groeninge Museum houses a large collection of fine art going back to the 15th century, including works by famous Flemish painters Jan van Eyck, Hieronymus Bosch, Rogier van der Weyden and Hans Memling.

Though some of the works are from recent years, the museum's collections focuses exclusively on works with classical techniques, and has some beautiful pieces. for fans of classical art and those wishing to gain an insight into Belgiana and European life in the past, this is a museum not to be missed.

Bonsoir Clara

Address: 22 Rue Antoine Dansaert Brussels

Food Type: International

Located in the fashion district of Brussels, this trendy restaurant offers diners a selection of both traditional and international cuisine. The menu features a variety of Belgian, Italian and Asian dishes including cold pea soup, fish lasagne, roast lamb and cod carpaccio. Open Monday to Friday for lunch and dinner, and for dinner on weekends. Reservations recommended.

La Maison du Cygne

Address: 2 Rue Charles Buls Brussels

Food Type: Local

Once frequented by the likes of Karl Marx and the Belgian Socialist Party, this 17th century house now offers diners a traditional ambience, enhanced by richly coloured décor and polished walnut walls. The menu features mainly Belgian and French cuisine including lobster salad with apples and a curry sauce, beef fillet with a three pepper sauce, and lemon-scented codfish. Open Monday to Friday for lunch and dinner, and for dinner on Saturday. Reservations recommended.

t Brugs Beertje

Address: Kemelstraat 5 Bruges

't Brugs Beertje is a popular beerhouse that offers unpretentious pub fare for a cheap meal in Bruges. The real star of the show is the beer though, as there are more than 300 Belgian beers available. The staff is knowledgeable and friendly, and the pub is open for dinner Thursday to Monday.

Aux Armes De Bruxelles

Address: 13 Rue des Bouchers Brussels

Food Type: Local

Founded in 1921, this is a true Brussels legend that serves the freshest of mussels and finest of French fries. Approach the Bruxelles-style by eating the first mussel with your fingers and then use the shell to eat the rest. The entire menu is excellent, especially the beef stewed in beer and the delicious The front room's vintage Art Nouveau interior is delightful. Open for lunch and dinner daily, reservations recommended.

Comme Chez Soi

Address: 23 Place Rouppe Brussels

Food Type: French

This gourmet pilgrimage site never fails to impress, with exceptional quality, refined flavours and an ambient Art Nouveau design. The restaurant boasts both a warmly welcoming atmosphere and truly memorable dishes, such as red mullet fillet with karides or beef fillet with black truffles. For dessert, try the chocolate cake with almonds and hazelnuts. Advanced booking is essential. Closed on Sunday and Monday, and on Wednesday for lunch.

La Truffe Noire

Address: 12 Boulevard de la Cambre Brussels

Food Type: French

For those with a passion for truffles, pay a visit to this shrine created by Italian chef Luigi Ciciriello. It is a friendly establishment renowned for serving superb truffle-focused dishes in its warm and relaxed environment. Don't miss the carpaccio truffles with olive oil and parmesan for starters and the roast duck with Canary Island bananas for mains. Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner, only open Monday and Sunday for reservations of 30 or more guests.

La Quincaillerie

Address: 45 Rue du Page Brussels

Food Type: Gastropubs

Housed in a former hardware store, La Quincaillerie has all the raw materials for a fabulous dining experience. The staff are friendly if slightly frenetic; the interior's Horta-inspired industrial qualities are striking; and the food is quite simply fantastic, especially the impeccably fresh seafood. Open for dinner all week, and lunch Monday to Friday. Bookings essential well in advance.

Gelataria Da Vinci

Address: Geldmuntstraat 34 Bruges

Food Type: Ice Cream

Anyone with a sweet tooth will want to be sure to stop at Gelateria Da Vinci, a popular ice cream parlour near the centre of town. Offering a wide variety of gelato and dairy-free sorbet, the bustling shop has a relaxed atmosphere and is the perfect place for a treat. Note that the shop tends to be busy, and seating is not always available.

Les Brassins

Address: 36 Rue Keyenveld Brussels

Food Type: Local

Belgian brasseries are scattered throughout Brussels so it's hard to tell which are truly outstanding and worth seeking out - we've heard consistently good reports about this local secret, tucked away at the end of a back street in Ixelles. Enjoy tasting some of the 50 local brews while tucking into hearty dishes like rabbit cooked in cherry beer, or the meatloaf with mustard sauce. Open daily for lunch and dinner, reservations recommended.

Chez Leon

Address: 18 Rue des Bouchers Brussels

Food Type: Local

Don't be put off by the picture menu and touristy look, this is the real deal! For celebrated mussel dishes, as well as local fare such as rabbit stewed in kriek (cherry) beer or stoemp (bubble and squeak), the original Chez Leon (near the Grand Place - watch out for imitations!) is the perfect place to dine. Open daily for lunch and dinner, reservations recommended.

Gingerbread Tea Room

Address: Amandsstraat 29 Bruges

Food Type: Brunch

Gingerbread Tea Room is a sweet little family-run tea house offering delicious homemade breakfasts and lunches. Specialties include comfort food like bagels, quiche and soup, however be sure to sample their selection of teas and sweet baked treats. Note that only cash is accepted as payment.

La Porteuse d Eau

Address: 48a avenue Jean Volders Brussels

Food Type: Local

This beautiful art deco restaurant not only stuns with amazing decor, but keeps locals coming back for more with classic Belgian cuisine and selection of over 70 Belgian beers.

Gruuthuse Hof

Address: Mariastraat 36 Bruges

Food Type: Belgian

Reservations are a must at this small restaurant. Gruuthuse Hof offers excellent Belgian cuisine in an elegant environment. If possible, book one of the few outdoor tables for a leisurely lunch and people-watching. Closed on Wednesday and Thursday.

Park Restaurant

Address: Minderbroedersstraat 1 Bruges

Food Type: European

Park Restaurant is one of the most popular eateries in Bruges, known for its classic, romantic atmosphere. Its location near prominent attractions makes it convenient for sightseers. The food is simple and filling, however note that on weekends and holidays only four-course set menus are offered.

No vaccinations are required for travel to Belgium. Medical facilities and care in Belgium is excellent but expensive so travellers are advised to take out medical insurance. UK citizens receive emergency medical care for a reduced cost, but should have a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) to qualify.

Belgium law requires everyone to carry some form of official identification at all times.

Service charges are included in bills in Belgium and tipping is not necessary, unless for exceptional service. Porters, coatroom and bathroom attendants are generally tipped.

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