It may be the European Union capital, but aside from little Luxembourg, it has the reputation of being the least sexy country in the EU.
Think of each country, and a mental image instantly pops into your head:
Spain: Beaches and vibrant cities
France: Paris, vineyards and the Côte d’Azur
Germany: Bavaria, mountains and mega cities including Düsseldorf, Cologne and Berlin
Italy: Tuscany and Rome
Netherlands: Canals, bicycles, and windmills
Belgium: Uhmmm. Wait, wait, I know … that weird Atomium building from the World’s Fair.
And maybe Belgium is a meh destination for short-term vacationers.
But the expat experience is quite different. In fact, this goes to the heart of why having the luxury of living in Europe opens new vistas for expats.
We go in and out of Belgium constantly because the border is seven kilometers from where we live near Eindhoven, Netherlands. Brussels is an hour’s drive. So we know Belgium intimately. Moreover, we lived in Germany from 2002 to 2007, and Belgium was always one of our favorite long-weekend escapes from our drab village near our drab army base.
My wife Cheryl and I realized we say the same thing every time we visit Belgium: “Wow, this is a lot better than I remember.” So, we started putting together a list of recommendations for a country which is assuredly not the most meh travel destination in Europe, but the most underrated.
Brussels really is a fun town. Okay, it’s not funky like Amsterdam or glamorous like Paris. But it has its own merits including having all the arts and entertainment of other capitals while still remaining affordable for weekend visitors.
We’ve been to Brussels multiple times in the last few years for the big Christmas market in the area around the Grand-Place. We spent a weekend there earlier this year and were struck by how lively the Sainte-Catherine area is around where we stayed at the Citadines Hotel off the Grande Place. Another really big city with every amenity – arts, restaurants, shopping and parks. The clubs on our block were packed at 2 a.m. with kids hanging out … good music, good vibe.
A couple of years ago, we stayed on the Avenue de Tervueren near the Montgomery metro stop just east of the center of Brussels in a long-stay B-Aparthotels, our new favorite business-suites chain.
From there, we could walk just about anywhere. But we’ve stayed in just about every part of the city over the years, and it’s all good as long as you’re near the action in the European Quarter and around Grand-Place.
If Belgium is the most underrated country, Brussels has the be the most under-appreciated major European city. Unlike Paris, you’re not in a school of tourists, swimming upstream from the Arch of Triumph to Île de la Cité.
The center of Brussels, with all its attractions, is totally manageable. It has a great selection of good, but not ridiculously expensive, restaurants. Excellent museums such as the Royal Museums of Fine Arts (actually six museums).
You can see everything from Old Masters (a lot of “Dutch Masters” such as Bruges native Jan Van Eyck were really Belgian Flemish painters) to Impressionists to James Ensor, the disturbing Belgian Modernist whose “Christ’s Entry into Brussels” is almost an homage to Bosch in its disturbing, but brilliant, use of grotesques.
Brussels also has a huge amount of acreage dedicated to parks, and great squares with cafes for relaxing.
There’s a completely international feel, and it’s a lot bigger than we remembered from the 2000s.
Must-sees include the Christmas Market near the Grand-Place, the summer-only tours of the Royal Palace, one of the most opulent in Europe (remember, Brussels was once a colonial empire), the area where the EU is headquartered and shopping the Avenue Louise, Brussels version of the Place de Voges.
By and large, the city is really quite handsome and there are lots of hotels and long-term stay options including Airbnb.
Maybe I remember it fondly because Brussels is where I landed on my first trip to Europe many, many years ago. It was magical mostly because it was so different from my native Kentucky. But you know what? For me, it’s still magical.
Bruges is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and with good reason. It’s one of the best preserved Renaissance cities in the world, and many of the buildings date back to at least the 12th century.
With its architecture, canals, museums (there are probably more Jan Steens and Jan van Eycks here than in Amsterdam) and location in the center of Europe, Bruges has been a tourist destination since the invention of tourism.
Even though Belgium has been a battle ground for 500 years (think Waterloo) and saw terrible fighting during both world wars, Bruges avoided the destruction inflicted on other nearby cities such as Rotterdam and Antwerp.
Speaking of wars, I have a different perspective on this unique city. The first time I came here, it was after months in Iraq, and I didn’t remember anything. When we returned the second time with our British friends the Rendells, it snapped me out of my funk.
We just returned last fall and Bruges really is as beautiful as everyone says. And it has the distinction of being a super-touristy destination without having given into the crass commercialization of some sections of Paris or Amsterdam.
Yeah, it’s a touristy thing, but you really should take a canal tour.
• If you can speak French and Dutch, just don’t. Those are rival languages here. Use English and avoid the drama.
• Don’t do Bruges during tourist season. When we visited last March (2023), the trains from Brussels were already crammed, with the tourist invasion in full swing. Make this a fall or winter trip
We hadn’t been to Ghent in years – not since a weekend sometime after 2000. We didn’t remember much about that trip except we stayed at a swanky B&B with a nautical theme, and the owners showed up every morning with a fantastic breakfast.
We returned in October 2022 and were immediately struck by the fact the small city we remembered from that trip was in reality huge. We were just daytripping, but we saw most of the center of the city.
The most happening area is on the Leie River harbor at the Grasbrug Bridge just south of the Castle of the Counts. This area has to have the largest concentration of Flemish architecture in Belgium. There is a row of canal-side cafés with outdoor seating and a boarding area for the canal boat trips. On the other side of the canal is a line of even more impressive Medieval guild halls dating back to the 1100s that are just so Flemish.
Our vote for the loveliest spot in Belgium, if not all of Europe, it’s that cool.
We wandered off the main square and found a small café with cocktails in a quiet back alley. All in all, it was crazy quaint.
The only negative was the Museum of Fine Arts, which was fine … but when you live in the Netherlands, with the Mauritshuis, the Kröller-Müller and the Rijksmuseum, the Ghent Museum is underwhelming.
On a beautiful October day, we should have stayed in the Old City.
Where we stayed:
Cheryl found the perfect place … a small, stylish red house about a 15-minute drive from the center of Ghent. Scandinavia Near Home in Laarne had one bedroom and a huge kitchen/living room with a wood pellet stove. It’s one of the best places we ever stayed. One of the many, many amenities is that it’s in a very rural setting, with country roads and horse farms. Quiet and great for walks. Yet there are two great restaurants you can walk to in five minutes.
It doesn’t seem to be listed now on Airbnb, but here’s the ink on Booking.com.
Never heard of Tongeren? Well then, you’re not into antiques.
The weekly antiques market in Tongeren, which is just west of Maastricht in the Netherlands, has more city blocks of antiques, collectables (and junk) than any other antiques market we’ve ever visited. And trust me, we’ve hit every one between Bodrum, Turkey, and the above-mentioned Ghent including the famous Metz market in France.
This trip takes some planning. The Tongeren market doesn’t last long. It’s up and going by 8 a.m. every Sunday of the year, and it’s mostly over by noon.
Pickers from antiques stores and interior decorators swarm in and grab up the best stuff really quickly. One time, I spotted a painting I thought might be a Eugène Boch. But instead of grabbing it, I decided to look around for 15 minutes. You guessed it … gone.
A couple of years ago, we saw an English butler’s serving table for 250 euros. We thought about it, then decided to hold off until we could compare prices. When we started checking similar items online, we find out 800 euros would be a good price. We go back the next week, and the dealer looks at us like we’re crazy. “It’s gone.”
“D’oh,” as Homer Simpsons says.
There is always someone at Tongeren who knows more than you do about paintings, ceramics, furniture or what have you. You have to be quick if you see something good.
This is a big expat destination, especially for American military families in Germany. And there are several good restaurants in Tongeren, which is pretty big, for lunch.
The Middle of Nowhere
We really like the Middle of Nowhere, whether we’re in Turkey, France or Belgium. And Belgium has a couple of spots that are super.
Close to us is the Saint-Benedictus Abbey in Achel, Belgium. This is a great place to hike or bike, then grab a beer.
The abbey itself is a business, where the Cistercian monks operate a Trappist brewery, bakery and a religious store with books and artwork from Christianity as well as from other religions.
Most of the people come here for the beer, which is either blonde or dark. Also, the brassiere has all sorts of Dutch/Belgian style food. Beer is 3 euros for a large glass, and you can get it to go by the six-pack.
The abbey also has a guest house. Outside the gates, you’re in the Netherlands … specifically in the Leenderbos and Groote Heide (moors, or heathlands), 2,000 acres of forests, swamps and fields, with miles and miles and miles of bike paths, hiking and trails for horseback riding.
Bring your own horse.
While you’ll never see a foreign tourist here, this rare wide-open space is super-popular with Dutch and Belgian people, who come all year ’round to hike, camp and ride bikes.
• Spa in the Eifel area is also worth a trip for the hiking, or if you like spas, Formula 1 racing and casinos. Circuit Spa-Francochamps race course also offers a chance to drive cars at speed (your own, or a racing rental) as well as an auto racing museum.
• If you’re a World War II buff or historian, the Bastogne War Museum at the site of the most crucial crossroads during the Battle of the Bulge is really well done. There’s also a tower on the property from where you can view the surrounding terrain and understand just how the battle developed.
We could go on and on. But our point is simple: Belgium might be a small country, but per-square-mile, it’s really one of the most inviting destinations in Europe.