Lifestyle & Culture

Small but mighty: From Brussels to Bruges, Belgium is the most underrated travel destination in Europe

Poor Belgium.

A chateau on the border of Belgium and Netherlands. You can visit castles, chateaus, and villas across Belgium like this one converted into B&Bs, boutique hotels, and restaurants.

It may be the capital, but aside from little Luxembourg, it has the reputation of being the least sexy country in the European Union.

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 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’re starting to 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 a drab military base.

My wife Cheryl and I started talking the other day, and we 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 not the most meh travel destination in Europe, but the most underrated.

The Grand Place at Christmas

Brussels

We’ve been to Brussels twice just since Christmas when we went to the big Christmas market in the area around the Grand-Place.

And every time, it never fails: We always ask ourselves, “Selves, why don’t we come here more often?”

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.

Brussels might be at its best during Christmas. From left, Lucy, Charlie, and Lale in the Grand-Place during the Christmas Market.

Recently 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.

Our daughter Lucy’s Belgian boyfriend Charlie de Wilde was working at the Aloft Schuman Hotel in Brussels at the time and gave us a real insider’s look at the city.

Here’s why you should visit Belgium:

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.

As I wrote earlier, we stayed at the B-Apart, where we had two floors in a great part of town. But over the years, we’ve stayed in apartments all over town, and they were all good.

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 (or Brugges if your French)

Bruges

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.

Bruges is a great family destination, with lots to see and space for kids to roam. With the Rendells in 2005.

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.

It really is as beautiful as everyone says. And it has the distinction of being a super-tourist 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.

Also, if you can speak French and Dutch, just don’t. Those are rival languages here. Use English and avoid the drama.

Bonus suggestions:

• If you like Bruges, you’ll love Ghent. This is a city that’s really off the radar for tourists. It’s a college town, and almost as spectacular as Bruges.

• Also, Hasselt has a most impressive center square for sitting and people-watching.

Tongeren

Just what you needed, right? It’s all at the Tongeren antiques market.

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.

Just a few weeks 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.

A warm Sunday in the courtyard of St. Benedictus-Abbey is a great place to hang out and drink beer.

The Middle of Nowhere

Hey, I’m in Belgium. Now I’m in the Netherlands. Wait, now I’m in Belgium.

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 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 or 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.

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