By Jennee Grace U. Rubrico

Belgium, a tiny country in western Europe, is easy to overlook. Nestled among bigger and more popular travel destinations, the de facto capital of the European Union rarely comes out as the first — or second, or even third — option of holidaymakers when they plan a trip to the continent.

Few seem to know what Belgium can offer that its neighbors do not already do better. It has a fashion capital in Antwerp, for instance, but it is Paris that is widely recognized as the City of Style.

Belgium is overshadowed by other European countries in terms of tourism readiness. In the 2015 edition of the World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Rankings, which looks at countries’ tourism environment, infrastructure and cultural resources, Belgium takes the 21st spot out of 141 countries, lagging behind most of the countries with which it shares borders. France comes in second, Germany, third, and the Netherlands 14th. The UK, at fifth place, also outpaces Belgium. The only neighbor that Belgium overtakes is Luxembourg (26th).

The recent terrorist attack on Zaventem airport and the Maelbeek subway station in Brussels have not done the country’s tourism sector any favors.

But if Belgium is eclipsed by the tourist magnets that are its neighbors, it is because the country is judged on standards that play on the strength of others. Enveloped in an irreverence that borders on flippancy, Belgium revels in its role as the eccentric sister in a family of aristocrats that is Europe.

Belgium’s reputation of being cold, apathetic and boring is contradicted by its graffiti-embellished walls, famous comic strip characters, and a beer-making industry that has spawned hundreds of beer varieties. When a country’s national mascot is a little boy urinating, it cannot be completely oblivious to fun or devoid of personality — even if this can be on the unconventional side.

VIEW OF the canal and buildings in Bruges, about an hour away from Brussels. — FREEPIK.COM

Here are 10 reasons to visit Belgium: 

Europhiles will have the time of their lives visiting the institutions of the EU. Power emanates from Rue de la Loi in Brussels, where the buildings of the European Commission and the headquarters of the Council of the European Union stand. The Belgian branch of the European Parliament is also within walking distance. Although restricted to the public, the EU institutions hold an open house during the Fete de l’Europe (Europe Festival) in May, making it the best time to visit.

If a trip that coincides with the festival is not doable, drop by nonetheless. The Parlamentarium — the visitor center of the European Parliament — is open every day to visitors who want to know more about the EU’s history, objectives, and vision. Entrance is free.

A MINIATURE of Manneken Pis

Opened in 1847, Les Galeries Royales Saint Hubert is a Brussels landmark. It is a cluster of three buildings — the Galerie de la Reine, the Galerie du Roi, and the Galerie de Princes — and is the go-to place, along with Avenue Louise, for luxury shopping in the city. The galleries also house restaurants, chocolatiers, boutiques, lace shops, a theater and a cinema, among others. Walking around the arcade is an experience in itself — the glass roofs and the wide aisles lend themselves to natural lighting, and the area is conducive to photo taking and window shopping.

For high street shopping, Rue Neuve in Brussels is the main destination. European chains H&M, Mango, Zara, Superdry, and Celio have shops in the avenue, as does Primark, the Irish apparel brand that is so popular that queues form outside the store before it opens and guards are stationed at the entrance to control the number of people going in. Rue Neuve is also a one-stop shop for luggage, chocolates, chargers, souvenirs and practically anything that tourists want for themselves or as pasalubong.

The best time to go shopping in Belgium is during the summer sale, when goods sell for up to 70% less. A note for ladies with tiny feet — shops rarely sell footwear that are smaller than size 6.

For three weeks during spring, the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken open their doors to the public. For a €2.50 entrance fee, visitors gain access to the grounds of the Laeken Palace, the official residence of the King of Belgium, where they can explore the serres, as the greenhouses are better known. Plants of all colors, shapes, and sizes brighten up the greenhouses, while cherry blossoms and other imported and endemic trees complement sculptures, ponds, and the pagoda that adorn the sprawling estate.


The greenhouses themselves are works of art — designed by architect Alphonse Balat, the domed buildings make use of iron and glass to create wide, functional, and elegant spaces for the flora. At night, after the sun has set and the moon takes the sky, the serres cast an eerie glow that can send shivers down many a visitor’s spine.

For the rest of the year, Brussels offers its parks as free alternatives to the serres. Cinquantenaire is one of the biggest, housing museums, Victor Horta’s Temple of Human Passions, a mosque, and installation art in 30 hectares of land. On sunny days, locals head to the park to sunbathe in their underwear, play ball, practise walking the tightrope, or have a picnic.

Belgium claims to be the cradle of lacemaking. Brussels is a lace lover’s paradise with numerous lace shops that sell everything from doilies to table runners. Bruges is another well-known lace buying destination, as is Ghent. Those looking for something to bring home can easily find machine-made, mass-produced lace at affordable prices. For as little as €5, made-in-Belgium lace-decorated goods could be had. Handmade lace can still be purchased from some shops, but they fetch a hefty price.

A SQUARE in Antwerp at night. — FREEPIK.COM

The Grand Place, a town square that is surrounded by centuries-old buildings that were used by different trade guilds, is where everything happens in Brussels. The gilded buildings now house restaurants, bars, cafés, souvenir stores, lace shops, and other commercial establishments.

The square and its alleys are a labyrinth of surprises. Vendors hawk flowers or prints of Belgian scenery at the square, and murals and sculptures meet ramblers who wander off into narrow streets. To the right of the town hall, the Everard t’Serclaes monument, which depicts a reclining man, latches on to the wall of a building. Legend has it that tourists who touch the sculpture are guaranteed a return visit to the country. Following the side street would lead strollers to the most famous fountain in the country: the Manneken Pis, the cheeky toddler who pisses in front of everyone with a grin that tells his audience exactly how much he cares about manners and propriety.

Architecture aficionados would enjoy exploring the area for old churches. The most striking one is the gothic Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. Those who need to rest their feet can watch the buskers. If you like them enough, they can probably sell you their CDs.

BELGIAN BEER brewery turned into a museum.

The country that released the Smurfs and Tintin onto the world has a thriving comic strip industry and the Museum of Original Figurines (MOOF) is the best place in Brussels to get a crash course on it. A giant Smurf welcomes visitors at the entrance of the MOOF at Rue de Marché aux Herbes near the Brussels Central Station, hinting at what the museum has to offer: Comic strip lovers are let in on trivia about their favorite characters; there are movies to watch, as well as figurines of all sizes to pose with, including the venerable Asterix and Obelix, who are, alas, not Belgian but French. The museum’s souvenir shop sells all things Smurf, with some pieces capable of breaking the bank.

Within walking distance from the MOOF, at Rue Montagne de la Cour 2, a museum that houses musical instruments collected from different parts of the world attracts music lovers and curious visitors alike. The Museum of Musical Instruments is housed in a 100-year-old building that has one of the best views of the Brussels skyline, but that is just one of its draws. Four floors of the building are allocated for showcasing musical instruments that range from the conventional — such as music boxes and clavinovas — to the unusual, including the hurdy gurdy, the geigenwerk, and flutes fashioned from human bones.

Brussels also has a museum that houses all of the clothes used by the Manneken Pis, a weapons museum that has an extensive collection of World War II planes, and an underground museum. Art museums, including the one that houses the works of Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte, are also popular in the capital.


Whether it’s a hearty meal or a snack, Belgium has some of the best gustatory offerings in western Europe. Red meat dishes, such as the Flemish beef stew, are as much a hit in cold and nippy Belgium as anywhere else, but the must-try are the moules frites, or mussels served with fries. The dish is served everywhere, but is best eaten at coastal areas, where the mussels are harvested. Don’t skip the fries — crunchy and chewy, Belgian frites are arguably the best in the world. Belgians take their fries so seriously that they have a museum in Bruges dedicated to the history of its production.

Fastfood lovers should head to Quick Burger, which is the country’s answer to McDonald’s.

For lighter fare, the speculoos at Maison Dandoy is famous. The queue for the biscuit is seldom short, but those who manage to get a bite of it say it’s worth the wait.

But if you can only try one thing in Belgium, let it be the waffles. Sprinkled with sugar or topped with ice cream or chocolate syrup — or even Nutella — Belgian waffles have the power to make anyone forget that other kinds of waffles exist.

THE SMURFS comic franchise was created by Belgian artist Peyo in 1958.

Chocolate making is a major industry in the country, and Belgium is said to have invented the praline. Official statistics put Belgium’s chocolate production at 172,000 tons per year, boosting its reputation as the chocolate capital of the world. Neuhaus and Leonidas are the popular brands for premier chocolates, but convenience store staples Dolfin and Cote d’Or are also worth a taste.

In chocolate shops, ask the storekeeper if you could sample the goods. If your stars align he or she may invite you to have a taste of his brand’s best sellers to help you decide on your purchases. And when you’ve paid for them, he or she may offer you some pralines, “to eat while walking around.” To guarantee freshness, stocks are replaced frequently, and some chocolate sellers would rather give the chocolates away than throw out as much as 25kg of the sweets per week.


Germany has Oktoberfest, but Belgium has the most number of beer brands in the world, with over 450 varieties made in the country, according to the official count (unofficial figures reach up to more than 1,000). Some of these, such as Hoegaarden and Stella Artois, enjoy international recognition and commercial success, but a lot more of the brews are tucked in cellars, accessible only to those who look for them.

Westvleteren 12, ranked the best brew in the world for a number of years, is the holy grail of Belgian beer. The elusive brew is not produced commercially — buyers must get it from the abbey that produces it in Vleteren, Belgium, and even there, supply is rationed. Some specialty beer shops, however, manage to stock up on the beer and sell it to those who ask for it — only, it won’t come cheap (one shop sold it for €15 per bottle). Those who cannot get a bottle or three of Westvleteren 12 can troop to Delirium Café and nurse a glass of Delirium Tremens, also acknowledged to be among the best brews in the world. The adventurous may want to try the Mort Subite Oude Kriek, a lambic beer that is fruity, tangy and different, or others. There is no shortage of exotic brews in the country.

Venturing out of Brussels into other equally picturesque districts in Belgium is also an opportunity to try brews that are only available in these localities.


As the capital city of Belgium and the European Union, Brussels is a bustling city, with heavy foot traffic. It has a lot to offer, but far from the madding crowd, many other districts and towns are waiting to be explored. Connectivity is not a problem in Belgium, and tourists can easily board a bus or take the train from the capital to any point in the country.

Bruges, which is about an hour away from Brussels, is one of the more popular side destinations. The district hosts UNESCO heritage sites, museums, and a canal that is perfect for a water cruise. Its beguinage is a joy to wander around in the morning, and the geese that flock around the waterway have their own story to tell.

Nearby, the university town of Ghent, with its gabled houses and old buildings dominating the skyline, also has its share of admirers. Don’t miss out on Gravensteen castle — the enormous fort houses an extensive and well-preserved weapons museum and has one of the best vantage points for enjoying the view. And those who want to combine sightseeing with alcohol bingeing can hop on to one of Ghent’s mobile beer kiosks for a fun and intoxicating ride. An interesting quirk of Ghent — every time a baby is born, the lights in the town square would flicker to mark the occasion.

With three regions and 43 administrative districts to choose from, visitors of Belgium will not run out of things to do or places to explore.