Belgian waffles. Belgian chocolate. Belgian beer. Belgian champagne. Belgian shrimp fishing? Taking a cue from Sesame Street – Which one of these just doesn’t belong?
Actually, that is a trick question because every one of these things can be found in Belgium! And to prove it to you I invited Marco Frank who is the Trade Manager for Visit Flanders which is part of Belgium’s Visitors Bureau to chat with us about all that and more. Marco is my contact to everything on the ground in the Flanders region of the country. He is the one who gives me the inside scoop on everything that I need to know to curate the perfect itinerary for you.
So, grab some chocolate or a waffle or a beer or – yes – champagne – or sparkling wine (you’ll understand that better later) and prepare to indulge in the bounties of Belgium!
Getting There: My east coasters will be happy to know that you are able to get to Belgium very easily – and directly – from New York, Newark, Washington and Atlanta – and from Chicago as well. And one beautiful thing is that because they are so super close to everything else in Europe like Paris, London, Amsterdam and Cologne – and all these four major cities are less than two hours away – you don’t have a direct connection to Brussels. You can easily fly into one of them, hop on the train and in under two hours end up right in the heart of Europe! And that is a really great point – because Belgium can be easily be combined with other countries within Europe for a multi-destination adventure!
Geography: So, you may be wondering where – or what – is Flanders. And as Marco cheekily pointed out a lot of people think “Oh yeah that’s Flanders from The Simpsons!” and while that is not incorrect Flanders is actually also a region in Belgium. And if you are wondering just what a region is – Marco compared it to what we know as a state here in the US – as Flanders consists of six major cities – Brussels, Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent, Leuven and Mechelen. The population of Flanders is about 7.8 million people and that would put it roughly about the size of the state of Connecticut.
Art and Heritage: If you’ve ever wondered “Why should I travel to Belgium? What’s there to see? Why should I go there?” Marcos assured us that it is NOT for safaris or for climbing the Alps. You visit Belgium for so many other reasons – and a huge one is for the art and heritage that is so prevalent there. Here you get to see and experience Old Europe in a very positive sense – where history is still very much omnipresent and is very well-preserved. It is here you can see the Grand Place in Brussels, you can take boat rides through the canals of Bruges and so much more.
You might also come for the old artwork that you can view in the numerous museums and churches. For instance, here you can see the Ghent Altarpiece that was actually made famous – as Marco put it AGAIN – since it was already famous thanks to being one of the first northern renaissance paintings – by the 2014 Hollywood The Monuments Man. Which I must say is a really good movie based on facts of what really happened when the Nazis were trying to destroy artwork and other culturally important pieces to destroy it and the American GI’s came in to find and save them. Here you will also find artists like Peter Paul Rubens who was considered the most influential artist of the Flemish Baroque tradition. But even though old artwork is very prevalent in the art gallery’s found in Belgium – there is also plenty of modern art and modern architecture to be found as well – such as the Port House in Antwerp – giving you an eclectic mix of the old and the new.
Gastronomy: Guys when I say Belgium is truly a gastronomy adventure I am not kidding! As Marco said – when we travel, we have to eat and there is no better place to travel and eat then Belgium where they feed you well! Of course, they are known for their Belgian waffles – but there are a lot of other foods – and beverages – they are known for in this foodie’s paradise. Among them are beer, chocolates, Belgian French fries, Mussels in Brussels and shrimp just to name a few!
- Chocolates: You may say so what – I can go to my local Safeway supermarket and buy chocolate! Let me assure you – it is soooo not the same chocolate! Belgium is home to over 320 artisanal chocolate makers that make over 660,000 tons per year! And they come up with very innovative products and – creative and shocking combinations of the finest quality. And in Belgium can do so much more as far as chocolate experiences! You can sign up for a chocolate workshop where you make your own chocolate and then you get to you it. You can do a chocolate and beer pairing experience. You can take chocolate tours of all the chocolatiers in the area – each city or village has a variety of them. And don’t forget – if you want to do any of these things as a private experience – just you and your travel partners – I can certainly make that happen with Marco’s help!
And remember we talked about the art history – well they actually have a chocolate shop in the very historic building in Antwerp which just happens to be Napoleon’s former residence. So, you see – you have all these chocolate experiences that you cannot have in a domestic supermarket! Fun Fact: In Belgium when they eat and cook with chocolate, they are also using it for its health benefits and wellness. Now that is my kind of wellness!
- Belgium Beer: Per Marco beer is the go-to beverage in Belgium – in fact – they take it as seriously as the French take their wine. It has been around for a very long time – and he kids that mankind often debates – which came first – bread or beer? Well … some say we invented beer first and then we learned how to make bread much later. But seriously – Belgium has really excelled in beer brewing and offer tons of different varieties and flavors for you to taste – about 1600 to 1700 to be exact! Plus, they produce 20,616,000 hectoliters – that is 5, 446,171 gallons – per year.
And how can you experience the beer culture here? Well, I am glad you asked. You can visit and tour breweries – there are 160 of them – as well as brewery museums. You can participate in beer and food pairings or beer and chocolate pairings. Or you can attend beer festivals.
Marco noted that there are those people that do not like beer – that they are into wine or whiskey or what have you – then he jokingly added that is primarily the case because they’ve only tasted Bud Light in the past. He assures us that Belgium beer is quite different and since there are so many different types and styles – from sweet beers to sour beers from hoppy beers to non-hoppy from fruit beers to wine beers to champagne beers and more – there is sure to be one they like. And for my beer aficionados out there – let’s talk and get you a trip coordinated because this is absolutely one of the top beer adventures you can have!
- Michelin Starred Dining: Dining is a national pastime in Belgian and that is thanks to its world class gastronomy. It just so happens that Belgium excels in Michelin starred restaurants and they have 128 of them to be exact – which is a very impressive number to say the least. So, my wonderful foodies – you will have plenty to visit while there, but you are going to need reservations and having somebody who knows how to get you in – especially during your limited dates of travel is especially important. But you have no worries because your Travel Guru knows just who to go to!
Now, many are not aware of where the Michelin star guide comes from, but it actually has a historic background. To answer your first questions – yes – it comes from that Michelin – yes, the tire company. But how and why? So, the Michelin Guide that we typically talk about is the Michelin Red Guide and it has been published since 1900 and – Michelin being a French tire company – the first ones were published in France. Why? Why to boost tire sales of course! How? Well, you have to drive around to wear out your tires and how do you get people to drive around – you tell them where to eat! What an ingenious idea. So anyway – the Belgium edition has been around since 1904 and inspectors were – and still are – completely anonymous – even within the organization itself.
The star rating was actually developed a little bit later on and these are the original meanings:
- One Star: A very good restaurant in its category – which basically meant – in connection to driving – it was worth a stop on a drive that you are already on.
- Two Stars: Excellent cooking, worth a detour – so if you’re on a drive but it’s just a little off the beaten path to get to – it is worth it.
- Three Stars: Really exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey – so you don’t have to be out on a drive – it’s worth a trip to the restaurant by itself.
Now – what does it take to be a Michelin starred restaurant? Well naturally it takes a lot of persistence, a lot of effort, a lot of dedication and a lot of skill – as they are really extremely strict in the analysis. Getting these stars is exceedingly difficult. As many of you guys know I went to culinary school and I studied in Switzerland for hospitality management, so my background is in food and beverage and how to attain one of these stars. I vividly remember all of the work that went into it and the passion of the people in the kitchen to make it a reality. And why so many Michelin starred restaurants in Belgium – due to the infrastructure. They have 22 hotel management schools, so a lot of talent is groomed there.
Marco also pointed out an especially important to point – it does not cost an arm and a leg to eat in one of those restaurants in Belgium as say in the US. He told the story of how he ate a one-star Michelin restaurant in California last year and the cost was $800 – or $400 per person. However – his last one-star Michelin dinner in Belgium came in at just a little bit over $65 per person.
Finally – many of you know that one thing that I love to do in terms of my itineraries is
to create either a private cooking class or some type of opportunity for you to get cultural immersion via the local food. What a great place to pair you up with a chef in their home or in their restaurant and have them teach you one of their specialties!
Wellness: As Marco so diplomatically put it – “Because we eat a lot – we also gotta burn off the calories!” Now we know that wellness can take on many different forms, shapes and sizes. There is the wellness experience where you go to spa and get pampered – or there is the wellness where you get your heart rate up and your adrenaline going. As Marco said – sure there are spas in Belgium – but it’s not what you go there for – not like say the Caribbean. Fun Fact: The word spa actually does come from Belgium more specifically the town of Spa in south Belgium. Home to thermal hot springs this town actually gave name to the word spa!
So, what kind of wellness is Belgium great for? Active wellness – in particular, cycling! Cycling is extremely popular in Belgium simply because it’s something every skill level can participate in. Meaning – depending on what type of cycling you do – you can do it here – whether hard core, road biking or leisurely rides along the canals – it’s flat so it’s super easy.
Plus, there are different types of bikes available like electrical assist bike, city bikes, touring bikes, racing bikes – whatever fits your bill. Which means you don’t need to bring your bike with you from the US and we can organize it so that once you do arrive in your hotel, you actually have a bike waiting for you – and can do so in each different destination you visit.
Once cool thing Belgium has are dedicated cycling road networks that are signposted and super easy to navigate. The entire network is about seven and a half thousand miles long and you can plan your routes in advance by using an app, a good old classic map or you can just like start peddling and get lost and explore the neighborhood! Or you can take a thematic bike tour that have focuses such as bike routes on beer, architecture, art history, castles and more.
And if my avid bikers want to do some long-distance cycling where you start in one area and end in another – I can arrange to have your luggage transported to where you end up. The long-distance network in Belgium is actually part of the Pan European cycling network so for the those of you that are really doing this hardcore – Belgium does ten routes – it’s almost 1000 miles long. And if you want to connect to something in France or in Holland or Germany the whole European network is really interconnected. Plus, the infrastructure is great as there are about 400 hotels that are bicycle friendly which basically means there’s storage there for your bike, there are maps and there are tools there for you to repair or service your bike if needed.
History: There is one amazing piece in Belgium that many of the other countries don’t have and those are historic World War I sites and so I requested that Marco give us some information on this for all my history buffs!
As you probably know from world history World War One happened between 1914 and 1918. In memoriam, Belgium held a big centenary from 2014 to 2018 but of course everything is still there for you to see today – the infrastructure, the museums and the trenches. Marco noted that in the last couple of years many people that were visiting were combining World War II and World War I because of the anniversary of the Normandy landing beaches. Unfortunately, many of the victory celebrations didn’t happen due to the pandemic. But what a great idea to combine these different destinations within the same area in Europe. And thanks to the train system you can easily hop over and do a day trip into Luxembourg where you have the Battle of the Bulge historic sites – so you can have a little bit of both sides so to speak.
Off The Beaten Path Experiences: Even if you have already been to Brussels or to Bruges you certainly haven’t see it all! Apart from the cities Belgium also offer countryside as in the coast and the Ardennes.
- The Coast: The beaches are easy to reach and are very relaxed and family friendly with your choice of what to do once you arrive – whether it be sunbathing, walking along the shores or hiking among the dunes. The coast is also home to a lot of art gallery’s as well as a lot of open-air art. There are fabulous restaurants and bars including Michelin star rated restaurants of course!
The coast also offers the opportunity to experience shrimp fishing on horseback which is actually was actually named to the UNESCO World Heritage intangible list – which by the way – the beer culture in Belgium is on as well! And you guys know how I feel about traveling as a family to family friendly areas where the kiddos can attend “life school” as opposed to learning from a textbook. Experiencing life as it is today – as well as things that happened in past history firsthand are lessons your children will never forget.
- Flemish Ardennes: More of a little hilly area than the coast the Flemish Ardennes’s are the place to go for hiking or biking or just to bask in the tranquil villages and rolling hills. Here you will find picturesque farmlands and pastures filled with cows. There is also a forest area called Hallerbos Forest that lies south of Brussels is actually relatively close to it. So, you certainly won’t lack for nature in Belgium – between all this plus the nature reserves and national parks!
- Castles: Now most of you probably don’t think of Belgium when you think of castles, but it is actually home to over 3000 castles – with 400 of them open to the public – which is the highest number of castles in Europe per square mile. And you can pretty much find them everywhere including in the city center as well as on the outskirts and some are home to art galleries and others to restaurants. Oh, and if you want to feel like a queen or a king – or perhaps a princess or prince – there are castles that have been turned into hotels that you can stay overnight in.
- Comics: Comics are very, very big in Belgium and are a part of everyday life. In Belgium is not uncommon for adults to read comics and print circulation is actually increasing. Fun Fact: A lot of comics originated in Belgium – such as the Smurfs, Tintin and Lucky Luke. And for those of you that are comic fans – there are comic museums to visit as well as comic walks in Brussels where you can visit those museums as well as check out the different murals around the city. There are also a couple of comic installations at the airport for you to check out. It really is a noticeably big part of the Belgian experience and culture.
- Museums: The museum landscape here is incredible – I mean it is amazing how many different types of museums there are! Brussels alone is home to over 80 museums so if you wanted to make your vacation experience all about museums this is the place to go! And they cover all sorts of topics – such as the Comic Strip Museum that we just talked about, the Diamond Museum, Autoworld and Train World in Brussels, History of Fries Museum, Chocolate Museum, Beer Museum, Fashion Museum and Art Museum. Fun Fact: Train world is interesting because Belgium was home to the first railroad in continental Europe – after the UK – which of course is not part of continental Europe as we Marcos jokes, they always hear from the Brits – so in continental Europe Belgium lays claim to the first railroad. And Marcos also made sure to highlight the Royal Institute of Natural Sciences as it like the Belgium edition of the Smithsonian and it’s ranked #3 in the world of natural science museums.
- More Than Just Beer: If you venture out a bit off the beaten path for our beverages you will find that although Belgium is an awesome beer destination – there’s more than just beer that is pretty tasty here! And that would be Belgium wine, Belgium whiskey and Belgium gin. So, let’s talk wine. The reason why their wine is so fabulous is partially because of climate change – it is getting warmer and so the Belgian grapes do get more sun. The other reason is that the champagne region here is the same as the France region which is south of the Belgian border but it’s the same valley. Which means it is the same soil. And … the French side is actually getting a little bit too hot these days so technically the Belgium champagne is now better than the French ones – thanks to the right climate and right grapes. However – they cannot call it champagne as it’s a protected trademark name – so Belgium sparkling wine it is. Fun Fact: Wine has been grown there since Roman times so it’s a long-standing tradition.
Updated COVID-19 Information: As of this writing the CDC recommends travelers avoid all nonessential international travel to Belgium.
So, what do you think? Pretty cool country – huh? Ready to make those plans for 2021? If so, now is the time to start planning, creating those itineraries and taking the first steps to make it happen!
For more details on things to see and do in Belgium, where to stay, it’s price points and more – contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!