Any adventure to a new place is a balance between figuring out everything that can be done versus the essential things to do. I had to find that balance when recently visiting Belgium for the first time. Here are my top four unique experiences to have in the country.
Drink Belgian Beer
Drinking beer was not unfamiliar to me when I arrived in Belgium. But the variety and flavor depth to Belgian beer is almost unparalleled throughout the world, so investing time in beer while there is essential.
Westmalle Dubbel is pretty amazing (it’s a darker beer), and available at a lot of places. Belgium isn’t a big IPA country — if you ask for something “like an IPA,” bartenders will say “Ee-pa?” (say it phonetically). But Duvel has a Tripel Hop that I tried; it’s fairly good as well.
I drank a few Trappist beers (here’s a list of the authentic ones) and it’s hard to go wrong with those. La Trappe Quadrupel is awesome, but be careful — it’s 10.3 percent alcohol by volume. I didn’t get the “rare beer that the monks sold to pay for their roof” a few years ago (it’s called St. Sixtus), but everyone in Belgium talks about it. (You can get it, it’s just a very long process.)
There are lots of good bars in Belgium, but Kulminator in Antwerp is considered world-class. The Manneken Pis Café across from the famous statue in Brussels (read on for more on that) is very good too.
Explore Belgium’s World War I Sites
Belgium has rich historical significance for those interested in both World War I and World War II, as do many European countries. But a poem by a Canadian doctor really put the country on the map for World War I in particular.
“In Flanders Fields” was written after the Second Battle of Ypres (known as Ieper in Dutch). A memorial to the poem and its author, John McCrae, exists just outside the city. Also in the area are:
- Tyne Cot, the ultimate resting place of 12,000 soldiers (making it one of the largest cemeteries in the world)
- Langemark Cemetery, where Hitler fought as a soldier in World War I (and was almost killed in battle)
One essential tidbit: since 1928, the city of Ieper has done “Last Post” (a tribute to fallen soldiers) every single evening at 8pm sharp. It’s been performed more than 28,500 times since its inception. “Last Post” is a stirring, beautiful ceremony – akin to “Taps” being played at funerals in the United States – that often fills up quickly.
Two bar/restaurants near Menin Gate, where the ceremony takes place, are good locations to observe the ceremony. You can see what’s happening, although the view is somewhat obstructed (albeit much warmer in winter months). Arrive around 7 pm for the best sightlines.
Go Shopping In Antwerp
Antwerp is only about 40 minutes by train from Brussels, which is the primary tourist hub (and largest airport) in Belgium. It’s become something of a European fashion capital in recent years, with native son Dries Van Noten (who has designed for Nicole Kidman and Michelle Obama, among others) having a design studio and flagship store in the city. (Virtuoso travel advisors, including Belgium specialists, can arrange private tours of the facilities.)
Most major luxury brands have a store in Antwerp, and the city is also considered to be the diamond capital of the world. By some measures, 70 percent of all to-market diamonds pass through the city at some point.
The Antwerp train station, which would be your arrival point if based out of Brussels on your trip, was voted the fourth most-beautiful train station in the world by Newsweek. You can get an idea of its beauty in this “Sound of Music” flash mob filmed there a few years ago, with millions of YouTube views:
Visit Grand Place and Manneken Pis in Brussels
Grand Place (a massive city square) and the Manneken Pis statue (literally, a little man relieving himself) are two of the major attractions in Brussels. Conveniently, Virtuoso property Rocco Forte Hotel Amigo is directly between those two popular locations.
The Grand Place is a UNESCO World Heritage site. While Europe is known for its majestic city centers, the Brussels version is quite beautiful. It’s ringed with some amazing chocolate shops off its connected streets.
Manneken Pis is representative of Brussels’ rebellious spirit; the clothes on the statue of the young boy have been changed more than 900 times. The statue itself has helped water flow in that area of Brussels since the 15th century.
Another great choice for lodging is the Sofitel Brussels Le Louise, located in a charming neighborhood filled with designer boutiques and Art Deco mansions.
One final important tip: Brussels is worth visiting on its own and can also be a good base for a European adventure. It’s 1.5 hours to Paris by train, 2 hours and 20 minutes to London, 2.5 hours to Amsterdam, and 3.5 hours to Frankfurt. Brussels tends to be less expensive than most of those cities as well so makes a good base of operations.