België. Belgique. Belgien. It’s a country I never really thought to put on my bucket list, but peer pressure had me buying a cheap plane ticket from Ireland with fellow students in 2010. Much to my surprise, I fell a little bit in love, and now I’ve been twice!
You don’t have to know French, Dutch or German to enjoy Belgium. Here’s a list of my favorite Belgian things from the combined experiences of both trips.
1. The chocolate. I know it’s stereotypical. But do you really want to return home and have to reply “I don’t know,” to the inevitable question “How’s the chocolate?”
The good stuff will inevitably be pricy, so grab a (small) box of that for Mom and Dad, but get the cheap stuff for yourself — it’s just as good! You can get a chocolate mix by weight at Colruyt, and probably other grocery stores, as well. (Just check the labels to make sure you’re getting Belgian chocolate!)
And though it will be painfully touristy, try the waffles. If you’re strong enough, you can skip the chocolate and fruit toppings to take the touristy edge off the purchase. Or so I was told. I wouldn’t know — I doused that fried bread in chocolate!
Try the fries (“frites”) with mayonnaise, too!
2. Open air markets. You could not avoid them if you tried. But don’t try! The markets in Brussels are fantastic, and I’m sure other cities have them, too. My favorite was the flea market on Place du Jeu de Balle in the Marolles. (Marolles is an ancient district in Brussels.)
I bought a ring at the Brussels flea market that I still wear nearly every day — 3 years later.
After my friend Katie & I bought from this man, we talked a bit. Some of the best conversations of your life will be 50%(or more) “broken” English. (I prefer the term “second-language English.”) This guy asked where we were from. We said, “The United States.” His reply? “Ohhh! Elvis!”
He also told me that the ring I’d just purchased was all the way from Mexico. Travel halfway ’round the world to buy jewelry from your home continent? Wamp wamp. But we also saw a tiny Billiken figurine, the mascot of my alma mater, which is rare to find anywhere else! That’s what you get from a Belgian flea market: good or bad, surprises galore!
3. Kriek. It’s cherry beer. No other explanation necessary.
4. The buildings. The buildings of Belgium are beyond words. You could scrutinize a single building for hours and not see every detail.
Brussels. Leuven. Ghent. Bruges. Wherever you are, wander. Even if you don’t know the language. Especially if you don’t know the language! One of my most memorable experiences was when I went in search of the Brussels flea market by myself. I didn’t know a word of any of Belgium’s official languages. That was the strongest feeling of freedom I’ve ever experienced.
Moral of the story: You don’t need a map of tourist destinations when the buildings are this pretty.
Oh, and if you’re in Leuven, take a wander through the béguinage, a tiny walled town where women (who were not nuns) lived and worked together. Read all about them here. There are béguinages in Bruges, Ghent and many other cities, too.
5. Bike riding. Belgium is obsessed with bikes. No joke.
So hop on a bike (rentals are everywhere) and join in the fun! See a whole lot more, a whole lot faster.
If you’re near Leuven, Heverleebos is a great place for a ride. Just be prepared to get very lost and spend a few hours trying to get back to the city. (Or just bring a better map than we did.)
So, if you’re headed for Belgium, don’t worry! No matter what city you’re headed for, it’s probably going to have all these great things!