* As destinations begin to reopen and events resume, hopefully this guide can serve as inspiration and motivation as you plan a future trip. Do check online for the latest information on closures and local measures in place before visiting. *
If you’re planning a visit to Belgium in the summer, this guide on what to know, prepare for, and do is for you! With LONG summer days come festivals, outdoor dining, and the high tourist season. Whether for a brief of extended visit, make the most out of your summer visit to Belgium with insight into seasonal events, bars and cafes to suit your mood, where to find Brussels’ best green spaces, and cycle routes in and outside of the city!
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?
- Belgium experiences a higher volume of visitors during the summer months. It’s when you’ll find some of its touristic towns, like Bruges, at their busiest. Also keep in mind that much of Europe does partially shut down during August when most Europeans takes time off of work for their summer holiday season. The beaches of Southern Europe are especially popular destinations. Expect tourist sites to be open, but some restaurants and businesses to be closed for at least a few weeks in late summer.
- 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 can be seen in one day with plenty of time to cool off with a cold beverage in between visits.
- 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 ﬁnd the original in the Brussels City Museum.
The “sister” and “pet” statues, Jeanneke-Pis and Zinneke Pis, respectively, are an added bonus.
- 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.
Perhaps the most appealing reason to visit Belgium during the summer is to partake in one or more of the seasonal festivals that could coincide with your visit. It’s a good idea to confirm dates, ticket sales, and transportation ahead of time.
- The Tour de France route often passes through part of Belgium when it takes place annually in June and July. In 2019 it even kicked off in Brussels! The timeline and route are announced well in advance so attendees can plan accordingly. For more on my experience watching the 2019 Tour de France, see this blog.
- Gentse Feesten (Ghent Fest) is a multi-day music and cultural festival held in Ghent in mid to late July. Enjoy music and performances at the outdoor stages while walking around this beautiful city.
- Belgium’s National Day is a public holiday commemorated annually on July 21st. Along with a parade and concert, the celebrations in the past few years have included Resto National Day in which diners can partake in an outdoor meal of Belgium’s national dish – moules-frites (mussels and fries).
- As the administrative residence and main workplace of the Belgian king, the Royal Palace of Brussels is open to the public for touring from July 21st (Belgian National Day) until the beginning of September (closed on Mondays).
- Two very popular and large music festivals, Tomorrowland & Rock Werchter, are held north of Brussels in Boom and Werchter, respectively, in July. Tickets for the electronic dance music festival, Tomorrowland, usually sell out within minutes. Rock Werchter has been held since 1976 and hosts both Belgian and well-known international artists.
- Brussels Summer Festival is a cultural and musical festival held in August in the heart of Brussels around the Mont des Arts and the Place des Palais.
- The impressive Flower Carpet is constructed in the Grand Place every other year in mid-August. You can view the expansive carpet for free from ground-level, or purchase a ticket to access the balcony of Town Hall and take in the colorful pattern from above.
Outdoor Sipping & Dining:
Grab a seat in a lively plaza, on a rooftop with city views, or at a hidden gem – just make sure you’re able to enjoy the beautiful weather.
- Café Leffe has ample outdoor seating for you to take a break from your touring and enjoy a beer in a pleasant setting.
- Place Jourdan in the Etterbeek neighborhood is a lively gathering place to enjoy frites from Maison Antoine and a local beer at one of the many cafes with ample outdoor seating.
- For panoramic city views at sunset during summer, try the Secret Rooftop Bar at the Warwick Hotel at the Warwick Hotel in City Center (opens late spring and throughout summer).
- For a bite or drink, the Bois de la Cambre park has a couple hidden gems like the charming Le Kiosque tucked behind the lake, 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 great 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.
- Delicious ice cream can be found at Gaston and enjoyed on the Quai aux Briques in Sainte-Catherine.
The many parks of Brussels offer no shortage of space for summer picnics and relaxation.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Parc de Bruxelles in city center is situated on the site of the gardens of the former Palace of Coudenberg and has a view of the current Royal Palace of Brussels. Its informal beer garden is a great place to stop for a beverage in the shade while touring.
Brussels offers diverse shopping and sales twice a year (January and July), but it’s helpful to know where to head based on what you’re interested in.
- Rue Antoine Dansaert is a long and lively street in City Center with plenty of local boutiques and larger retail stores.
- Avenue Louise is a major city thoroughfare that offers shopping at plenty of recognizable, upscale retail chains.
- The antique stores of the Sablon quarter are fun to check out even if you don’t have room in your suitcase for a tapestry or chandelier.
- The lively Marolles Flea Market at place du Jeu de Balle is open every morning but your best bet for finding something unique may be to avoid the busy weekends and come on a Friday morning.
Belgium by Bike:
Belgium is intrinsically linked to cycling on account of its early adoption of the bicycle, affinity for small town races and clubs, and of course, its hometown icon, Eddy Merckx. Brussels itself is continually working to improve and further develop its biking infrastructure, but you have many options for bike routes outside the city.
- If you’re looking for inspiration for biking in and around Brussels, refer to my comprehensive post with cycling tips and suggested routes that take you from Brussels to fun destinations outside the city.
- Two unique and nature-inspired routes are found in the province of Limburg. Cycle through the water in Bokrijk (Fietsen door het Water) is at node 91 of the cycle node network in Bokrijk. Cycle through trees (Fietsen door de Bomen) is at node 272 of the cycle node network in the Pijnven nature reserve, which is part of Bosland. More information can be found here. Bring your own bicycle or rent one at a rental store nearby. Find a rental point here, reserve your bike in advance and pick it up on the day of your adventure.
- Another unique experience is the rail bike route in Wallonia. Travel by way of a leg-powered bike wagon on old train tracks from Warnant to Falaën and back (8km), Falaën to Maredsous and back (6 km) or the complete trip of Warnant to Maredsous and back (14 km). In Maredsous there is the abbey to visit as well as eateries. With breaks to eat and rest, expect this adventure to take 5-6 hours. This website has helpful explanations of the routes and sites along the way. The rail bike runs adjacent to the Ravel Ligne 150A paved trail which can be biked without rail bikes as well.
If you’re visiting Belgium during winter or spring check on my posts on Winter in Brussels – What to Know & What to See and Spring in Belgium – What to Know & What to See. You’ll find plenty of ideas for year-round indoor activities (museums, European Parliament tour, chocolate-making class, etc.), easy day trips from Brussels and where to see gorgeous tulips and bluebells in bloom.