By Rick Steves
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- Comprehensive coverage for spending a week or more exploring Belgium
- Rick's strategic advice on how to get the most out of your time and money, with rankings of his must-see favorites
- Top sights and hidden gems, from the European Parliament and Flanders Fields to wafel trucks and popular breweries
- How to connect with local culture: Lose yourself in the art of the Flemish masters, taste fish fresh from the North Sea at the Vismarkt, and sip Trappist ales with friendly locals
- Beat the crowds, skip the lines, and avoid tourist traps with Rick's candid, humorous insight
- The best places to eat, sleep, and relax while you indulge in a chocolate truffle (or two)
- Self-guided walking tours of lively town squares and inspiring museums
- Detailed mapsfor exploring on the go
- Useful resources including a packing list, Dutch and French phrase books, a historical overview, and recommended reading
- Over 300 bible-thin pages include everything worth seeing without weighing you down
- Complete, up-to-date information on Bruges, Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, and more
Welcome to Rick Steves’ Europe
Travel is intensified living—maximum thrills per minute and one of the last great sources of legal adventure. Travel is freedom. It’s recess, and we need it.
I discovered a passion for European travel as a teen and have been sharing it ever since—through my bus tours, public television and radio shows, and travel guidebooks. Over the years, I’ve taught millions of travelers how to best enjoy Europe’s blockbuster sights—and experience “Back Door” discoveries that most tourists miss.
Written with my talented co-author, Gene Openshaw, this book offers a balanced mix of Belgium’s lively cities and cozy towns, from medieval Bruges to slick, fashion-forward Antwerp. It’s selective: Rather than listing dozens of Flemish art museums, we recommend only the best ones. And it’s in-depth: Our self-guided museum tours and city walks provide insight into the country’s vibrant history and today’s living, breathing culture.
We advocate traveling simply and smartly. Take advantage of our money- and time-saving tips on sightseeing, transportation, and more. Try local, characteristic alternatives to expensive hotels and restaurants. In many ways, spending more money only builds a thicker wall between you and what you traveled so far to see.
We visit Belgium to experience it—to become temporary locals. Thoughtful travel engages us with the world, as we learn to appreciate other cultures and new ways to measure quality of life.
Judging by the positive feedback we receive from readers, this book will help you enjoy a fun, affordable, and rewarding vacation—whether it’s your first trip or your tenth.
Have a prachtig trip! Happy travels!
Belgium’s Top Destinations
Map: Belgium’s Top Destinations
Planning Your Trip
DESIGNING AN ITINERARY
Map: Belgium’s Best One-Week Trip by Train
BEFORE YOU GO
Belgium falls through the cracks. Wedged between Germany, France, and the Netherlands, and famous for waffles, Smurfs, and a statue of a little boy peeing, it’s no wonder it can get lost in the mix.
But Belgium rewards with richer sights than you might expect—and fewer tourist crowds. Five hundred years ago, a trade boom left it with dazzling art and architecture. And today it has re-emerged as a trade capital of Europe.
For travelers, Belgium is a breeze—it’s well organized, there’s almost no language barrier, and the people are wonderful. Everything’s close together: My favorite Belgian cities—Bruges, Antwerp, Ghent, and Brussels—are within 90-minute train rides of one another.
Bruges is the Belgium of the past—a wonderfully preserved medieval gem that at one time was one of the largest cities in the world and a powerhouse in commerce and arts. Once mighty, now mighty cute, it comes with fancy beers in fancy glasses, lilting carillons, and filigreed Gothic souvenirs of a long-gone greatness.
The thriving towns of Antwerp and Ghent—also former medieval bigwigs—demonstrate how the country has rebounded to again be a global trendsetter. Design-forward Antwerp offers interesting contrasts, from its high-fashion couture scene to its racy red light district. In the university town of Ghent, you’ll find a richly detailed Renaissance altarpiece amid a vibrant urban landscape.
And finally, there’s Brussels: the unofficial capital of the European Union, with a low-rise Parisian ambience that exudes joie de vivre. With the finest town square in the country (if not the Continent), a chocolate shop on every corner, a French taste for class and cuisine, and a smattering of intri-guing museums (including the Royal Museums of Fine Art, where you can view Flemish and Belgian masterpieces by Van der Weyden, Bruegel, Bosch, Rubens, and Magritte), it’s equally ideal for a quick stopover as it is for a multiday visit.
Belgium’s town squares bristle with soaring spires and warm-brick gables. Its museums house lush paintings celebrating the glories of everyday life. And away from the quaint-but-touristy central squares, the back streets host a Belgium that’s lived-in, a bit funky, and authentic.
A bit smaller than the state of Maryland and with nearly 950 people per square mile, Belgium is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe. Despite its small size, it’s divided—linguistically, culturally, and politically—between French-speaking Wallonia in the south and Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, with the bilingual capital city Brussels in between and a small population of German-speakers in the east. (The Dutch spoken in Belgium is also called “Flemish.”) And, because of Brussels’ international business and political connections, English is frequently spoken as a common language there.
Baroque portrait by Peter Paul Rubens; gabled architecture in Brussels’ Grand Place
In contrast to its own divisions, Belgium flies the unifying flag of Europe more vigorously than any other place on the Continent. There’s a feeling of being at the center of global events. The “Benelux” economic union (joining Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg) was established in Brussels in 1944, planting the seed that today has sprouted into the European Union.
Belgium is at the crossroads of Western Europe, where Romance languages meet the German world, and where the Protestant north meets the Catholic south. It was born as a merchant entity in medieval times (c. 1300-1500), when energetic traders made it one of Europe’s richest, most cosmopolitan, and most sophisticated countries. On the other hand—located as it is in the crossfire between larger powers—Belgium has also been Europe’s battlefield. From Charlemagne to Napoleon, from the Habsburgs to Germany in two world wars, this country has paid a heavy price.
But even with a thousand years of history behind it, the country seems determined to write a new chapter in its long and illustrious tale. Tiny Belgium has survived by producing savvy businesspeople and excellent linguists, and by welcoming new trends. I recently asked a local, “What is a Belgian?” He said, “We are a melting pot. We’re a mix culturally: one-third English for our sense of humor, one-third French for our love of culture and good living, and one-third German for our work ethic.”
Belgians have a directness that some find refreshing (and others find brusque). They revel in their wry, sardonic sense of humor—it can be hard sometimes to tell whether they’re putting you on. The art of the comic strip is deeply respected: The Smurfs and Tintin were created by Belgians.
Outdoor dining in Brussels; beer tour in Bruges
Belgians are said to be born with a “brick in their stomach”—meaning they feel a deep-seated need to own a house, decorate it just so (hence the abundance of furniture and antique shops), and invite their friends for dinner. Belgians are social, meeting up at sidewalk cafés or cozy pubs after work. On a beautiful spring day, it might seem like nobody here has a job—they’re all outside drinking beer.
Belgians take their beers as seriously as the French do their wines, even pairing beer with food. When it comes to variety, Belgium has more than any other country—with hundreds of breweries and local brews, including a heavily fermented type brewed by Trappist monks. Belgium is also home to some of Europe’s finest cuisine, including the creamiest chocolates and tastiest french fries.
Go ahead...indulge in Belgium’s many delights. Digging into a dish of mussels while seated on a sunny square beneath the outline of a lacy medieval spire...you’re in Belgium.
Belgium’s Top Destinations
It’s a small country, but there’s plenty to see in Belgium. This book presents the best of its four great cities: fine food, rich history, and sensuous art, as well as the modern scene that makes Belgium the face of Europe today.
To help you decide where and how to spend your valuable time, I’ve ranked Belgium’s top places and suggested a minimum number of days to allow for each.
▲▲▲Bruges (allow 2 days)
A perfectly pickled Gothic city of charming cobbles and cozy squares, Bruges has fanciful gilded architecture, serene Flemish masterpieces, and, according to locals, the best beer in the world. Here you can bike along a dreamy canal, savor heavenly chocolate, and see Flemish Primitives and a Michelangelo—all within earshot of a bell tower with a hyperactive carillon. Sights include a top collection of Flemish paintings at the Groeninge Museum, Hans Memling’s glowing Primitive masterpieces displayed in a medieval hospital, the mansion of a 15th-century wealthy Bruges merchant, and two fun brewery tours.
▲▲Brussels (2 days)
The urbane capital of Belgium, the European Union, and NATO, Brussels boasts one of Europe’s grandest squares, colorful urban zones, and a beloved statue of a little boy peeing. There’s lots to see, including the European Parliament and a wide array of museums (Old Masters, turn-of-the-century art, and the Magritte’s surrealism; musical instruments; Belgian history; fashion and lace; comic strips; and more).
▲▲Antwerp (1 day)
This gentrified port city offers Belgium’s best fashion and an engaging mix of urban grittiness and youthful trendiness. Among its top sights are a cathedral with paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, an Industrial Age train station, and interesting museums covering printing, emigration, aristocratic home life, and more.
▲Ghent (1 day)
A pleasant, lively university city, Ghent has a fine historic quarter and several worthwhile museums (fine art, design, and history). The vast St. Bavo’s Cathedral hosts the city’s top sight: the breathtaking Van Eyck altarpiece.
Flanders Fields (1 day)
An easy day trip from Bruges by bus tour or car, the infamous WWI battlefields near Ypres are filled with artillery craters, memorials, and cemeteries, set amid pastoral pastures and fine museums.
Colorful Market Square in Bruges; cheeky Manneken-Pis in Brussels; somber Flanders Fields; detail of Van Eyck’s altarpiece in Ghent
Planning Your Trip
To plan your trip, you’ll need to design your itinerary—choosing where and when to go, how you’ll travel, and how many days to spend at each destination. For my best general advice on sightseeing, accommodations, restaurants, and more, see the Practicalities chapter.
DESIGNING AN ITINERARY
As you read this book and learn your options…
Choose your top destinations.
My recommended itinerary (see the sidebar on here) gives you an idea of how much you can reasonably see in a week, but you can adapt it to fit your own interests and time frame.
Decide when to go.
For tourist hot spots like Bruges, peak season is summer, especially June and early July. Business towns like Brussels, Antwerp, and Ghent tend to be more crowded in spring and fall. With long days, lively festivals, and sunny weather, summer is a great time to visit despite the crowds in places like Bruges. It’s rarely too hot for comfort. Plus, Brussels’ fancy business-class hotels are discounted in the summer.
Late spring and fall are also pleasant, with generally mild weather and lighter tourist crowds (except during holiday weekends—see “Holidays and Festivals” in the appendix).
Travel from late October through mid-March is cold and wet, as coastal winds whip through the low, flat country. It’s fine for city visits, but smaller towns and countryside sights feel dreary. Some sights and tourist information offices (TIs) keep shorter hours, and many outdoor activities vanish altogether.
For weather specifics, see the climate chart in the appendix.
Connect the dots.
Link your destinations into a logical route. Decide if you’ll travel by car or public transportation. With Belgium’s short distances and excellent rail system, trains make it easy to connect Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges, and Brussels. Flanders Fields is easiest to reach by car or with a bus tour, but you can also get there from Bruges or Ghent via train.
Begin your search for transatlantic flights at Kayak.com. For a multicountry trip, decide which cities you’ll fly into and out of.
To determine approximate travel times between destinations, visit Bahn.com for train schedules or, if driving, check Google Maps.
Note that Brussels can splice neatly into a wider-ranging trip, with direct train connections to Amsterdam, Cologne, Paris, and London. Compare any long train ride with the cost of a budget flight; check Skyscanner.com for intra-European flights.
It’s easy to reach most destinations within Belgium by train; connections are fast and frequent.
Write out a day-by-day itinerary.
Figure out how many destinations you can comfortably fit in your time frame. Don’t overdo it—few travelers wish they’d hurried more. Allow enough days per stop (see estimates in “Belgium’s Top Destinations,” earlier).
To minimize one-night stands, consider taking a late-afternoon train ride or drive to settle into your next destination for two consecutive nights—and gain a full, uninterrupted day for sightseeing. Staying in a home base (like Bruges) and making day trips can be more time-efficient than changing locations and hotels.
Take sight closures into account. Avoid visiting a town on the one day a week its must-see sights are closed. Check if any holidays or festivals fall during your trip—these attract crowds and can close sights (for the latest, visit www.visitflanders.com). Note experiences where advance reservations are smart.
Give yourself some slack. Every trip, and every traveler, needs downtime for doing laundry, picnic shopping, people-watching, and so on. Pace yourself. Assume you will return.
Chocolate confections in Antwerp; Brussels’ Atomium exterior (right) and interior (bottom); cozy Bruges hotel room
Belgian experiences: fine dining; Belgian waffles; a visit to Brussels’ Royal Army and Military History Museum
BEFORE YOU GO
You’ll have a smoother trip if you tackle a few things ahead of time. For more details on these topics, see the Practicalities chapter and RickSteves.com, which has helpful travel-tip articles and videos.
Make sure your travel documents are valid. If your passport is due to expire within six months of your ticketed date of return, you need to renew it. Allow six weeks or more to renew or get a passport (www.travel.state.gov). Check for current Covid entry requirements, such as proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test result.
Arrange your transportation. Book your international flights. Overall, Kayak.com is the best place to start searching for flights. Figure out your transportation options: It’s worth thinking about renting a car, buying train tickets online in advance, getting a rail pass, or booking cheap European flights. (You can wing it once you’re there, but it may cost more.)
Book rooms well in advance, especially if your trip falls during peak season or any major holidays or festivals.
Hire local guides in advance. Reserve ahead by phone or email; popular guides can get booked up.
Reserve ahead for key sights. While most of Belgium’s sights do not require advance reservations, it can be smart to prebook online to view the Ghent Altarpiece on weekends or from July through August.
Consider travel insurance. Compare the cost of insurance to the cost of your potential loss. Check whether your existing insurance (health, homeowners, or renters) covers you and your possessions overseas.
Call your bank. Alert your bank that you’ll be using your debit and credit cards in Europe. Ask about transaction fees, and, if you don’t already have one, get a “contactless” credit card (request your card PIN too). You don’t need to bring euros; you can withdraw euros from cash machines in Europe.
Use your smartphone smartly. Sign up for an international service plan to reduce your costs, or rely on Wi-Fi in Europe instead. Download any apps you’ll want on the road, such as maps, translators, transit schedules, and Rick Steves Audio Europe (see sidebar).
Pack light. You’ll walk with your luggage more than you think. I travel for weeks with a single carry-on bag and a day pack. Use the packing checklist in the appendix as a guide.
- "The country's foremost expert in European travel for Americans."—Forbes
- "Steves is an absolute master at unlocking the hidden gems of the world's greatest cities, towns, and monuments."—USA Today
- “Every country-specific travel guidebook from the Rick Steves publishing empire can be counted upon for clear organization, specificity and timeliness."—Society of American Travel Writers
- "Pick the best accommodations and restaurants from Rick Steves…and a traveler searching for good values will seldom go wrong or be blindsided."—NBC News
- "His guidebooks are approachable, silly, and even subtly provocative in their insistence that Americans show respect for the people and places they are visiting and not the other way around."—The New Yorker
- "Travel, to Steves, is not some frivolous luxury—it is an engine for improving humankind, for connecting people and removing their prejudices, for knocking distant cultures together to make unlikely sparks of joy and insight. Given that millions of people have encountered the work of Steves over the last 40 years, on TV or online or in his guidebooks, and that they have carried those lessons to untold other millions of people, it is fair to say that his life’s work has had a real effect on the collective life of our planet."—The New York Times Magazine
- "[Rick Steves] laces his guides with short and vivid histories and a scholar's appreciation for Renaissance art yet knows the best place to start an early tapas crawl in Madrid if you have kids. His clear, hand-drawn maps are Pentagon-worthy; his hints about how to go directly to the best stuff at the Uffizi, avoid the crowds at Versailles and save money everywhere are guilt-free."—TIME Magazine
- "Steves is a walking, talking European encyclopedia who yearns to inspire Americans to venture 'beyond Orlando.'"—Forbes
- “…he’s become the unofficial guide for entire generations of North American travelers, beloved for his earnest attitude and dad jeans."—Outside Magazine
- "His books offer the equivalent of a bus tour without the bus, with boiled-down itineraries and step-by-step instructions on where to go and how to get there, but adding a dash of humor and an element of choice that his travelers find empowering."—The New York Times
- "His penchant for creating meaningful experiences for travelers to Europe is as passionate as his inclination for making ethical choices his guiding light."—Forbes
- "[Rick Steves'] neighborhood walks are always fun and informative. His museum guides, complete with commentary about historic sculpture and storied artworks are wonderful and add another dimension to sometimes stodgy, hard-to-comprehend museums."—NBC News
- On Sale
- Apr 18, 2023
- Page Count
- 376 pages
- Rick Steves