Belgium for first-comers: expect the unexpected

For the past several years, Belgium has become an attractive country to visit. Beyond any doubt, the reasons for that are many. First and foremost, Belgium is a short train journey away from some major European metropolises, such as Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris and London. That aspect alone provides a plenitude of options for day or weekend trips. But before you jump on a train for some outside destinations, you should first explore this amazing country. Try to visit any of the many Belgian cities, towns and villages, as they are all so different, whimsical in their own way and full of surprises. Together with the usual must-see attractions, you will dive in an ocean of multicultural diversity of music, people, food, fashion, literature, art and places. One thing is sure - Belgium for first-comers is everything but boring. So, stand ready to expect the unexpected.

Brussels – the capital of Europe

Let’s start with the capital, Brussels, the largest epicenter of cultural events in the country. There are over 2,000 theatre troupes alone that carry out a different kind of stage performance every night. Imagine operas, concerts and festivals going on all the time, often creating dilemmas as to which one to attend. Actually, every commune and neighborhood, every town and village, have their own festive traditions, such as La Fête des Voisins (The gathering of the neighbors), the decoration of Grand Place, the dressing up of the world-famous Manneken Pis statue, or the laidback jazz festivals and the cinema in the square events.

© iStock/IvanKatsarov

If you are in Brussels for a few days only, I would suggest that you start with a visit to the historical landmarks and main attractions - the Atomium and Mini-Europe, the Japanese Tower and the Royal Greenhouses (open to visitors for a limited time only during the spring), which are all in the same area of the city.

© iStock/olrat

Do not let the distance on your favorite maps app scare you though. Belgium has the public transport system that is fast, cheap and always (well, usually) on time. The subway in Brussels covers the pretty much the entire city, but you also have bus and tram lines that can bring you practically everywhere. 

© iStock/Alexander Reshnya

I would suggest that you make your next stop the Palace of Justice of Brussels. The nearby Elevator to the Sky or Brussels Panorama is situated on a little square, from where you could enjoy a bird’s-eye-view of the city. For all the talk about Belgium's flatlands, the Panorama is a tale of two cities and offers a spectacular view of the downtown area.  

© iStock/chachastephane

Take the free elevator to descend and start with your proper stroll around the city center. While there, do keep on the lookout for the Franco-Belgian comics painted on the walls of the building facades – some of them are hard to miss! And once you reach the heart of the city, prepare to be stunned by the Baroque-Gothic beauty of Grand Place and tempted by the artistic party spirit of Place Sainte-Catherine.

© iStock/bbsferrari

Manneken Pis is one of the “must-take-a-selfie-with” world-famous landmarks. For its size (a 61 cm bronze statue of a little boy), Manneken Pis is an important part of Belgian history and folklore. The sculpture will be either naked or dressed up in one of its unique outfits. And by the way, I am pretty sure that you did not know that the boy also has a sister and a dog. I will not spoil everything, though - the challenge for you is to find them!  

© iStock/efreet

Flanders? Where is Flanders?

The Flemish region is the Dutch-speaking area of Belgium. Put your comfy shoes on and discover all the breathtaking sights of Flanders.  


First stop is Antwerp. Hosting the second largest port in Europe, Antwerp also happens to be one of Belgium's coolest cities, where history and culture mingle perfectly with contemporary art and trendy places. Antwerp is rather close to the other magnificent towns in Flanders Leuven, but also Ghent with its worth-seeing Castle of the Counts. Finally, one of the most popular destinations – Bruges, is the chocolate pearl of Belgium, also known as the “Little Venice of the North”.


The beauty of Wallonia


Wallonia is a southern French-speaking part of Belgium, and it does not yield a millimeter in beauty to Flanders, but it is a different kind of beauty. Stunning views, fascinating nature and unique villages, the southeast of Belgium has plenty to offer.  


Begin with Waterloo and Mons, if you are into history and want to see where some of the biggest war conflicts of Europe took place. And after a decent dose, move on to the other picturesque towns of the French-speaking area by visiting Liège, Namur, Spa, Han-sur-Lesse and the jewel of the Ardennes – Dinant.


The greatest Belgian contributions to the world


You may be pleasantly surprised to find out how many important inventions and essential things this small country gave to the world. What instantly comes to my mind is the first world’s beauty pageant, Le Concours de Beauté, together with the first casino and the first official spa resort, all of these held or built in the town of Spa. A small town, but obviously full of creative people! These are but a little part though because Belgium gave to humanity also the comics, the saxophone (its inventor, Adolphe Sax was born in Dinant), the speculoos spread, the chocolate pralines and truffles, the waffles, over 3,000 kinds of beer and apparently the famous French Fries, which are actually Belgian.


Food, traditions, folklore


Belgian folklore and cuisine are of the most diverse ones in Europe. A big part of them is unique and region-specific. Mussels with fries, beer and a chocolate waffle are a typical local lunch. With the Flemish and the French-speaking areas, the Capital, the North Sea region, the Ardennes and the East Cantons (the German municipalities), you will face an enchanting mixture of traditions, customs and legends. Belgians know how to perpetuate and celebrate all of them with frequent festivals, ceremonies, galas and food markets. Some of the most popular among them are the Carnival of Binche, the Flower Carpet festival in Brussels and the Boombal festival of folk music and dance.


The spooky face of Belgium

©iStock/kim willems

Belgians are really full of surprises. Who would have guessed that the locals are such big fans of creepiness? Abandoned towns, ominous buildings, and beautifully sinister woods are a small part of the country's dark side. If you are an admirer of the secrets of the bizarre, be sure to visit the Hallerbos forest, the ghost town of Doel or the Oosterweel Church.


One article is hardly enough to describe the charm and the uniqueness of Belgium. It is a privilege for me to live here for more than a decade and explore this amazing country every day, always discovering something new and intriguing. One thing I learned - when in Belgium, a first-comer or a connoisseur can always expect the unexpected.


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