Think of Belgium and you probably picture its medieval old towns, Brussels’ whimsical Manneken-Pis statue and, of course, Grand Place, widely considered one of Europe’s most beautiful squares. But while its art and architecture may symbolize its rich past, Belgium lives very much in the moment. Dining is a celebratory event, whether it involves drinking one of the country’s countless varieties of beer or sampling its world-famous chocolate.
There are many ways to appreciate Belgium, from soaring above the countryside in a hot-air balloon to cycling alongside the locals down picturesque village streets. Click through our slideshow to see some of the unique experiences you can have on your trip to Belgium.
See Belgium on Two Wheels
The Belgian love of cycling knows no bounds, and the country has dedicated bike paths that crisscross its most beautiful historic areas. You can literally pedal for miles without seeing a car. It’s easy for visitors to join in the fun; you can either head out on your own, stopping along the way at any of the country’s countless B&Bs, or take an organized tour, where your route is preplanned and your luggage is sent on ahead.
Eurocycle runs a seven-day bike and boat trip through the Flemish countryside, stopping in Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges and more. Consider renting an e-bike, where an electric motor helps your pedaling and turns hills into flats. BikeTours.com also offers a handful of bike vacations in Belgium.
Make Your Own Chocolate
Chocolate is one of Belgium’s best-known exports, and its Godiva brand is a household name around the world. But it’s from some of its local chocolatiers that you can best learn the secrets of these beloved sweets. Laurent Gerbaud, widely considered one of the best chocolate artisans in Belgium today, displays his creations in his Brussels
shop and in an adjoining cafe. (Our favorites? His ginger and fig chocolates, along with his truffles.) You can try your own chocolate-making skills under Gerbaud’s guidance in one of his Saturday workshops.
The shop Planete Chocolat, also in Brussels, also offers weekend chocolate workshops. You even get to dress like a real chocolatier, complete with apron and chef hat. The workshop runs about an hour and a half, and you go home with your own chocolate goodies.
Choco-Story, a chocolate museum in Bruges, offers a number of hands-on workshops for adults or families, including lessons on making pralines, truffles and mendiants. Workshops last 30 to 60 minutes and also include entrance to the museum.
One of the most distinctive parts of Belgian culture is the locals’ love of comic strips, dating back to the 1920s. You can learn about this history in Brussels at the Belgian Comic Strip Center, an impressive Art Nouveau building that holds a collection of comic strips featuring characters from Tintin to the Smurfs.
Beyond the museum, visitors can appreciate the “ninth art” on the walls of Belgium’s cities. Brussels has a comic strip walk that includes not only illustrated walls but also comic shops and galleries. Antwerp has also recently launched a series of comic murals around the city; you can check out the map online to craft your own walking tour, or book a three- to four-hour guided excursion to see all 10 walls.
Soar in a Hot-Air Balloon
There’s no better way to appreciate the beauty of Belgium than from the air — which is why hot-air balloon rides are so popular here. Most companies offer morning and evening flights, and many will pick you up from your hotel.
Bruges Ballooning departs from Bruges, offering views over this charming historical city and the surrounding countryside. HotAirBalloon.be is another option, launching not only from Bruges but also from Ypres, Ghent, Ostend and Tournai.
Dine with a Local
For those who love food, adventure and meeting new people, there’s no better experience than Bookalokal. Often called the Airbnb of dinner parties, the site originated in Belgium and has expanded around the world. Locals host dinner parties in their homes, and guests reserve their seats via the Bookalokal site, paying a fee to cover the meal. Though the dinners generally win rave reviews, it’s the connections made between the locals and the guests from around the world that are the real appeal.
Brussels is one of the top cities on the site, and dinners here range from free to more than $100 per person (with most costing $20 to $30). It’s not all Belgian food either; when we last checked the site, we saw everything from Indian to Portuguese. You’ll enjoy good food and companionship, and learn the secret attractions of Belgium from someone who calls it home.
Relax in a Salt Cave
Take time out from seeing the sights at the Paradis de Sel, which offers a uniquely Belgian style of relaxation and therapy. This old vault in the center of Aubange is 200 years old, and its walls and floor are covered with 15 tons of salt, brought here from the Himalayas and the Dead Sea. Beach lovers know the restorative powers of salt air, and spending time here is said to be even more therapeutic, helping to relieve stress, insomnia, migraines and fatigue.
This “salt spa” consists of two dimly lit orange- and ocher-colored rooms. The temperature is in the low 70s Fahrenheit, the humidity between 40 and 60 percent. You lie back in a deck chair, taking in the saline air. A 12-minute session is long enough for the salt to work its magic, though some visitors recommend as long as 40. You can extend the experience even further in the adjoining salionarium, where you rest on a bed of warmed bricks. You’ll emerge both soothed and invigorated, ready to take on more of Belgium’s attractions.
Have a Beer
Beer in Belgium is more than just a beverage; it’s a religion. With more than 450 different varieties, Belgians are as discriminating with beer as the French are with wine. It’s easy to visit one of the country’s countless breweries, which are not hard to find. Every city — from Bruges to Antwerp — has its own brewery, which is usually open to the public. One bucket list brewery is the Cantillon in Brussels, which hasn’t changed in more than 100 years.
For those who can’t get enough of Belgium’s favorite beverage, consider attending a beer festival. The options are numerous, including the Bruges Beer Festival, held each February, and the Zythos Beer Festival, held near Leuven in April. You can also take dedicated beer tours with companies such as Belgianbeerme.com, which includes itineraries centered on the most popular beer festivals.
See the Deadly Weapons of War
The war to end all wars ended almost a century ago, but its weapons are still deadly today. More than a billion shells were fired in World War I, and as many as 30 percent of them did not explode. The Belgian bomb disposal unit is called out almost every day to defuse live shells, and 20 of its members have died in the process.
Because of the danger involved, tourists do not accompany them into the field. But if you’re interested, you can contact the Ypres Tourist Office to help you set up a visit to the unit’s headquarters in Ypres. (Visit ToerismeIeper.be/en.) You can see the memorial to the bomb disposal members who’ve died, along with some of the defused souvenirs of World War I.
Solve a Mystery
If you like mysteries and thrillers — especially those involving you — you’ll find Escape Hunt a fun activity. Part of a fast-growing category of what’s called “themed entertainment,” this is a live game in which a group goes into a locked room and must solve a series of clues in order to get out.
The first Escape Hunt opened in Bangkok in 2013, and the Brussels branch opened a year later. The game is now played in dozens of cities around the world. Each branch offers different challenges, so even if you’ve played it before, the Brussels game may be new to you. The complete experience lasts about 90 minutes. It’s great for playing with friends and family, and for whiling away a rainy day in Brussels.
Like most European countries, Belgium offers its warmest, sunniest days during the summer months, particularly July and August — so that’s also when you’ll find larger crowds and higher prices. Opt for the cooler spring and fall months and you’ll save on airfare and hotel rates. Winters in Belgium are usually mild, but chilly, rainy days are common, especially on the coast. Speaking of rain, it’s wise to bring an umbrella no matter when you visit; passing showers are a year-round hazard.
Traveling to Belgium can be pricey, particularly when the euro is strong. Avoiding the peak summer travel season will help you trim the cost of airfare and hotels. You should also look into hostels or apartment rentals to save over more expensive hotels. When you’re buying Belgium’s famous chocolates to take home as gifts for others (or for yourself — we won’t tell!), don’t buy them in souvenir shops. Instead, do as the locals do and pick up your goodies at a grocery store, where the prices are much lower.
–written by Susan Farewell