* During this time of social distancing, quarantine, and staying put, hopefully this guide can serve as inspiration and motivation as you plan a future trip. *
If you’re planning a visit to Belgium, or more specifically Brussels, in the spring, this guide on what to know, prepare for, see, and eat is for you! Spring is welcomed with open arms in Belgium as the days get longer, the parks turn green and fill with families, and sweet aromas waft your way as you walk past trees covered in purple blooms. Whether for a brief of extended visit, this is an ideal time to experience Belgium.
While the country of Belgium is small in size, it’s situated in a region known as the Low Countries that has a long history. If you aren’t as familiar with Belgian history, the high-level overview below, with specifics about Brussels, may be helpful.
- The city of Brussels was founded in the 10th century, but it wasn’t until the 12th century that the town’s importance grew on account of it being a stop on the trade route between the port city of Bruges and the prominent medieval city of Cologne.
- The Grand Place became the city’s central marketplace where local merchants and tradesmen gathered until the square was bombarded and mostly destroyed by the French military in 1695. It was rebuilt and further restored over time; today it is considered one of the most beautiful squares in Europe.
- The tides would turn against the French in 1815 when Napoleon, the Emperor of France, would finally face defeat during his last stand just south of Brussels in the Battle of Waterloo.
- A successful rebellion against the Dutch and the subsequent importing and crowning of a German prince led to the creation of the Kingdom of Belgium in 1830.
- As the longest reigning king in Belgian history, King Leopold II is responsible for initiating the construction of many of the prominent public works you see in Brussels. Not as familiar to people are that some of the darkest moments in Belgium’s history are associated with the atrocities carried out under his control and exploitation of the Congo Free State (see book referenced below).
- Belgium was the site of significant and deadly battles in WWI in Flanders Fields to the north of Brussels and in WWII to the south of Brussels in Bastogne at the Battle of the Bulge. Ypres in Flanders and Bastogne in Wallonia are home to memorials and museums honoring those killed, wounded, and missing.
- Belgium was one of the first countries to join the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, and subsequently the European Economic Community in 1957, precursors to the European Union (EU). The founding of the EU and European citizenship occurred in 1993 with Brussels considered the de facto capital of the EU. Today, Brussels is one of the seats of the European Parliament. The city has also been the political seat of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) since 1967.
- There are three official languages of Belgium – Flemish (Dutch dialect) in the Flanders region to the north, French in the Walloon Provinces to the south, and German in the small community residing in the east of the country (bordering Germany).
- For historical and cultural references to Brussels and Belgium, here are a couple of suggested books, movies, and references to Belgian art to read/watch/ listen/ view:
- King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild details the impact of the colonialization of the Congo by King Leopold II including graphic details about the atrocities committed as a result of the forced labor system in the Congo Free State. Many of the prominent public works you see in Brussels were funded by this exploitation of people and natural resources in the Congo.
- A Tall Man in a Low Land: Some Time Among the Belgians is written by Harry Pearson, a British author recounting his first visit to Belgium in 1998. It’s a humorous account of an outsider’s “blunders” in this country and an introduction to the unique customs and cultures of Belgium.
- The movie In Bruges is probably best described as a dark comedy with a quirky story set in Bruges, in the Flanders region of Belgium. The film, with Collin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes, provides a good preview of the historic city center of Bruges, which feels all the more enchantingly medieval on an overcast winter day.
- Nothing to Declare (Rien a declarer) is a Franco-Belgian comedy with English subtitles that humorously depicts a fictional relationship between customs officers at the border of France and Belgium as the elimination of borders goes into effect in the EU.
- Viewing the works of famous artists like the Surrealist Rene Magritte, the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, and the brothers Jan van Eyck & Hubert van Eyck, who created the Ghent Altarpiece (as referenced in the book and movie The Monuments Men), provides perspective on the influence of Belgians in the visual arts.
- You can’t separate Belgium from its beer, but more specifically, its famous abbey-brewed Trappist certified beers. The three criteria for certification as Trappist are: the beer is brewed within the walls of the monastery, the brewery is of secondary importance and follows business practices in line with the monastic way of life, and the brewery is not a profit-making venture with any residual income remaining after expenses being donated to charity.
Belgium can boast that six of the fourteen monasteries producing the Trappist-labeled beer reside within its borders: Westmalle, Westvleteren, Achel, Chimay, Rochefort, and Orval.
- The city of Brussels is officially bilingual, however French is more widely spoken than Flemish. Due to the presence of the EU and other large international organizations, English is also prevalent in Brussels; nonetheless, I would encourage you to learn some French:
- To say hello, use Bonjour
- If you want to greet someone in the evening use Bonsoir
- To toast with your drink, use A santé!
- If you’re looking for the toilet, Les toilettes? will get you pointed in the right direction
- Thanks can be expressed with Merci while sorry is Pardon
- If you want to ask someone if they speak English, say Parlez vous anglais?
- Brussels has an average of 200 rainfall days in a year – it’s prudent to expect some dreary and rainy weather even during a springtime visit. Carrying an umbrella and a jacket will save you when a sudden shower appears, but if you don’t have either on hand, do as the Belgians do and wait out the downpour in a cafe or under building overhang, or embrace the drizzle. Definitely take advantage of sunny days!
- Brussels is centrally located in Belgium and Northwest Europe allowing for convenient commuting between cities and countries. Transportation by way of public transit is a better option than trying to get around with a car in Brussels. Uber is available and cheaper than taxis, especially when commuting to/from the airport.
- Brussels city transit
- From the airport, there is a bus (#12) or Intercity (IC) train that takes you to city center. A bus ticket and train ticket to city center are 4.50 EUR and 9 EUR, respectively (as of February 2020). Alternatively, the Uber pick up point is within the P1 front parking structure.
- From the Midi and Central train stations, there are metro and bus lines connecting you to city center and the surrounding neighborhoods.
- Transit across Belgium
- You can easily reach Ghent and Bruges by train within 30 minutes and 1 hour, respectively. These cities are good to visit in early spring when tourist crowds are not yet overwhelming but be aware that by June they will be getting congested.
- Long distance commutes outside Belgium
- Paris, Amsterdam, and London are all reachable by train within two hours. The Thalys train operates to/ from Brussels, Paris, and Amsterdam, while the Eurostar runs between Brussels and London. Purchase tickets well in advance for these trains as prices increase closer to the date of departure.
- The FlixBus offers low-cost and convenient bus travel to/from Brussels, Paris, and Amsterdam as well.
- Brussels city transit
- In terms of where to stay, the below areas are good places to find hotels and Airbnb rentals:
- You’ll find City Center within the innermost ring road that is shaped like a pentagon. Sablon, Dansaert around Place Sainte-Catherine, and the Mont des Arts are a couple nice neighborhoods in this area.
- Saint-Gilles is just outside of City Center. While still conveniently located to the main attractions, you’ll find interesting and less touristic restaurants and cafes.
- Ixelles is a quieter area with a great weekend market at Place Flagey and Wednesday market at Châtelain. Tram and bus connections make the commute to City Center easy.
- Etterbeek, home to Parc du Cinquanternaire and Place Jourdan, is also outside City Center but again, the tram and bus make the commute to main attractions easy.
- As the home base of the European Parliament and a business nucleus in Europe, be aware that eating out in certain areas of Brussels can be expensive. Also consider the following when dining:
- Make dinner reservations at restaurants, especially if eating outside city center where restaurants don’t necessarily cater to tourists.
- If you ask for a glass of tap water at restaurants and cafes, don’t be surprised if they only offer bottled still or sparkling water that is, of course, not free.
- Tipping in Belgium is not a standard practice as there is a service charge included with the bill, but if you receive excellent service, it’s recommended to leave a few Euros.
The most popular attractions for tourists are ideal for enjoying on a clear, cool spring day.
- The Grand Place is the central square known for its beautiful aesthetic. Surrounded by the former guild houses, the City Hall and the Maison du Roi (King’s House), it’s perhaps even more impressive when lit up at night.
- The city’s emblem and a main tourist attraction, Manneken Pis, is a statue of a little boy peeing that is located just a few blocks from the Grand Place. What started as a fountain dispensing drinking water to the city residents in the 1400s has evolved into this iconic ﬁgurine. The original Manneken Pis statue installed in 1619 was replaced with a replica in 1965, but you’ll ﬁnd the original in the Brussels City Museum.
The “sister” and “pet” statues, Jeanneke-Pis and Zinneke Pis, respectively, are also found in City Center.
- The Atomium is another unique symbol of Brussels. Originally constructed for the 1958 Brussels World Expo, it is now a museum. Take in the view of the nine connected stainless steel-clad spheres constructed in the shape of a unit cell from the ground or pay admission to tour the interior of the structure. Adjacent to the Atomium is the Mini Europe park where you can stroll through miniaturized towns of Europe. Note that a combo ticket includes this and the Atomium.
Across Brussels and in neighboring towns, you will find ample green spaces in which to admire gorgeous flowers in bloom and appreciate the soft hum of a forest coming alive after winter.
- If you are visiting Brussels in mid to late April, try to make a visit to the bluebell carpeted Hallerbos public forest to see the bright ﬂowers in bloom. Once at the forest, just outside of the city of Halle, the trails will lead you on a walk or bike ride through the heart of the Bluebell Forest for gorgeous views. You have a few options for getting there:
- Commuting by bike will take you about 75 minutes and you’ll be able to follow a fairly direct path along the Brussels Charleroi Canal. You’ll ride on mostly well-paved surfaces and only encounter hills when you reach the city of Halle. Day bike rentals are available at several stores in Brussels; a hybrid bike is your best bet for comfort on paved surfaces and navigating trails in the forest.
- Public transit is available to take you from Brussels Central station to Halle station via the S6 InterCity train to Aalst. From the Halle station, take the 114 bus to the Halle Vlasmarkt stop and walk five minutes to the Hallerbos Museum and P8 parking lot. This is just under an hour commute.
- Driving from Brussels to one of the Hallerbos designated parking lots will take about 30 minutes. These lots do fill up quickly when the forest is blooming so your best bet may be to go as early as possible in the morning.
- The Royal Greenhouses of Laeken open to the public for three weeks starting in mid-April. Visitors can walk through the large steel and glass greenhouses to admire the array of exceptional ﬂowers and trees.
- The Jardin de l’Abbaye de la Cambre sits on the grounds of a former Cistercian abbey in Ixelles. The picturesque estate and flowering trees in this oasis near busy Place Flagey make it ideal for photography lovers.
- The Bois de la Cambre is a spacious urban park on the edge of the idyllic Sonian Forest. It’s ideal for outdoor exercise or an afternoon of rowing on the pond in front of Chalet Robinson, the restaurant from where the boats can be rented.
- Parc Tenbosch in Ixelles is an urban botanical garden with lush and diverse greenery. Bring a blanket, snacks and beverages for a relaxing picnic in the park.
- Parc du Cinquantenaire is an attractive urban park whether you want to run laps or sprawl on the lawn. You can also enjoy the view from the terrace at the top of the massive arch known as the Arcade du Cinquantenaire. To reach the rooftop terrace and enjoy the panoramic view, enter the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History, turn left and cross two rooms to the lift at the back near the staircase.
When the weather is nice in Brussels, grab a seat outdoors at a café or on a terrace:
- The view of the city from the Mont des Arts is great but to take it to the next level, visit the terrace and restaurant on the 10th ﬂoor of the Musical Instruments Museum. Even if you aren’t interested in the more than 1,100 historical and modern musical instruments in its collection or don’t want to eat in the restaurant, you can still take the elevator up to the rooftop for free.
- Café Leffe has ample outdoor seating for you to take a break from your touring and enjoy a beer in a pleasant setting.
- The top ﬂoor of the Jam Hotel in Saint-Gilles has a pool-side bar where you can enjoy a drink in the sun.
- Delicious ice cream can be found at Gaston and enjoyed on the Quai aux Briques in Sainte-Catherine.
- The popular Parc de Bruxelles is ideal for a stroll and mid-tour stop at the small beer garden.
- For a bite or drink, the Bois de la Cambre park has a couple hidden gems like the petit Le Flore café and Chalet Robinson restaurant which sits on the small Robinson Island and can only be reached by ferry.
- PamPam bar in Ixelles is ideal if you’re travelling with a group as there is plenty of outdoor seating.
- In the Saint-Gilles neighborhood, Kami and Cup 28 are welcoming cafés with both indoor and outdoor spaces perfect for coffee and a delicious breakfast or lunch.
Just outside of Brussels you will find a couple places that make for easy day trips:
- The Gaume is a small but breathtakingly beautiful region in the south of Wallonia reachable by car or train.
- Orval Abbey is one of the six Belgian monasteries brewing Trappist beers. This is a popular spot for the beer and cheese, but visitors should not miss the opportunity to walk in the old monastery ruins. They Abbey was founded in 1132 and has withstood the tests of time and humanity, including a destructive and retaliatory fire ignited by the French in 1793 during the French Revolution. The Monastic Museum explains the community’s history and strong brewing tradition. Admission is seven euros (for adults).
Visitors can see the brewery installations twice a year when the brewery opens its doors to the public. Check their site for information about the visits and the installations.
The Abbey has a shop that sells beer, cheese and souvenirs, but just down the road at A l’Ange Gardien cafe you can enjoy a glass of Orval Vert or choose between a bottle of the Orval young or old, served fresh (cold) or at cellar temperature (room temperature). It is a full-service restaurant.
- There are many trails in the area, a number of which take trekkers by the winding Semois River. One such place to walk is the nature reserve in Epioux, situated between the small towns of Florenville and Neufchâteau.
- Situated on an outcrop at a sharp bend in the Semois River is the Châteaux de Bouillon (Bouillon Castle). Tickets to tour cost 11 EUR (adult), but I recommend paying the 1.50 EUR extra for the English pamphlet that provides explanations about the history and construction of the castle. Tour this medieval castle and then enjoy a meal in the city of Bouillon.
Not only does the fortress provide gorgeous views of the Semois River, but also an opportunity to learn about medieval fort defenses and the Crusades. Godfrey of Bouillon was a leader of the First Crusade – you can find an equestrian statue erected in his honor in the Royal Place back in Brussels (near the Mont des Arts).
- If you’re looking to spend a night in the Gaume region, I would recommend the comfortable A Quiet Place guesthouse in Rossignol (Tintigny). The owner, Jacqueline, greets guests warmly and kindly offers insight into the culture, food, and must-see sites. Get to know her and the Gaume in my previous post.
- To the north of Brussels is Antwerp, Belgium’s second largest city which is accessible by way of a 45-minute train ride.
- Since you will likely be arriving by train, take a minute to admire the work of art that is Antwerp Central Station before embarking on your visit to this lively city.
- Antwerp’s main square is called the Grote Markt; the Brabo Fountain in front of City Hall in this square depicts the legend behind the city’s name. Rubens House, an exhibit on the life and work of the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, is found in his hometown. Conversely, the Red Star Line Museum showcases the stories of European emigrants leaving their homes for America who were processed in this Antwerp hall.
- For a local beer, tour and taste at City Brewery De Koninck and then choose where to eat from the wide selection of trendy cafes and restaurants across the city. The Vrijdagmarkt and Het Zuid areas of the city are popular.
- Lisse, Holland is home to Keukenhof which attracts over a million visitors annually who arrive by tour bus, car, and bike to admire the enchanting tulips that typically bloom throughout the month of April.
- If you’re coming by car, there are a couple of attended parking lots (that charge by vehicle), but the best advice is to arrive early to secure a spot and avoid the crowds. Admission to the Keukenhof botanical gardens, one of the world’s largest flower gardens, costs 18 EUR.
- For those who prefer to view the endless rows of tulips growing on local farms, bikes can be rented just outside the gardens so you can avoid the admission fee. The rental company has friendly staff who recommend a route for you based on how much time you have and what you want to see. For a change of scenery, you can take the bikes to the sand dunes along the coast. While on the coast, I would recommend a stop at Hoogies for their chicken sandwiches and frites.
- It’s also imperative to note that while it may be tempting to frolic amongst the florals in the fields, it is important to be respectful of the farmers’ livelihood and admire without intruding or trampling.
Eat & Drink:
What’s not to love about a country known for their frites, mussels (in season from around September to February), waffles, chocolate (the praline was invented here), and beer. Do try these crowd pleasers, but don’t forget about national dishes like boulets (meatballs), Flemish vol-au-vent (a creamy chicken dish served over puff pastry), carbonnade flamande (ale casserole with beef), steak tartare (raw ground beef), or even rabbit served in a kriek (cherry) sauce.
Expect indulgent French and comforting Dutch inspired cuisine, but know that there’s plenty of great options for globally inspired menus. A couple of specific restaurant and café recommendations for your visit include the following, starting with “snacks” and moving to meals:
- Delirium Café is just a few side streets away from the Grand Place and while it’s a touristy atmosphere (BEWARE of pickpockets), it’s a lively environment in which to sample the famous Delirium Tremens (voted “best beer in the world” at one point) or one of the other thousands of choices offered. The “companion” to the Manneken Pis statue, Jeanneke-Pis, is next to the entrance to the bar.
- You can find waffles sold throughout the city, but for my personal favorite, go to Maison Dandoy near the Grand Place and Brussels City Museum at Rue Charles Buls 14. Maison Dandoy is a bakery chain you’ll find throughout Brussels, but their waffles are only found in this location, hence you’ll often encounter a line out the door – if it’s a short queue though, definitely stop in.
- After finishing your visit at the European Parliament, walk through Parc Léopold to Place Jourdan for frites with a side of mayo (or any other sauce) at Maison Antoine.
- There is no shortage of chocolate shops in Brussels, but while you’re walking through Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, try the chocolate at Neuhaus, Leonidas, Chocolaterie Mary, Pierre Marcolini, or Godiva.
- Le Marmiton, near Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert and the Grand Place, caters to tourists with an approachable menu, but doesn’t feel overly touristy, especially given its location. As you walk Rue de Bouchers towards the Grand Place, you will encounter plenty of “offers” from restaurant staff beckoning for your business at some of the best tourist traps.
- Le Troisième Acte and C’est bon C’est belge are both near the Royal Museums of Fine Arts Belgium and offer great food in a comfortable setting at prices that you would expect for the area.
- Restobieres and Le Renard Bleu restaurants are next-door neighbors situated on a narrow street not far from the Justice Palace. You’ll feel at home if you’re looking for a traditional Belgian meal in a cozy atmosphere.
- Ma Jolie in Saint-Gilles serves delicious cuisine in a comfortable and warm setting. The staff are attentive and it’s easy to make a reservation online.
- For a reasonably priced vegetarian option, Le Botaniste serves has an appealing lunch and dinner menu not far from the European Parliament.
If you’re visiting during winter or are in search of more indoor activities year-round (museums, European Parliament tour, chocolate-making class, etc.) check on my post on Winter in Brussels – What to Know & What to See.
More to come on Summer and Fall in Belgium!