- Belgium in a nutshell
- Things to arrange in advance
- Public transport
- Additional information
- Our Top 5
1. Belgium in a nutshell
Belgium shares borders with France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Belgium covers an area of 30,528 square kilometres (11,787 square miles), and it has a population of about 11 million people.
Belgium is both multicultural and multilingual. Flanders in the north, a flatland criss-crossed by canals, is proud of its medieval art cities, Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent. To the south in Wallonia, you will find the rolling hills of the Ardennes, countless castles, and the cities of Liege, Namur, and Tournai. The city of Brussels is one of the world's great cosmopolitan capitals, home to both the European Union and NATO, as well as a wealth of international trade and finance companies.
Within the span of one day you can take a romantic cruise down a canal in Bruges, hunt for diamonds in Antwerp, enjoy waffles on the beach in Oostende and explore a fine art museum in Brussels. A dense train network connects all of Belgium and makes navigation simple and comfortable for travellers. You will see superb examples of art and architecture (past and present), such as Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, and Art Nouveau.
Belgians don’t take themselves too seriously, so why should you? Just enjoy your stay and don’t forget to taste some Belgian beer or delicious chocolate!
- Belgium is the world's 3rd country with the most vehicles per square kilometres after the Netherlands and Japan. It has the highest density of roads and the highest density of railroads in the world.
- Belgium has one of the lowest proportion of McDonald's restaurants per inhabitant in the developed world, with only 0.062 per 10,000 people, or 7x less than the USA, 4x less than Japan, and twice less than France or Germany.
- Europe's first Casino (La Redoute) opened in the 18th century, just like Europe’s first modern health resort (Spa).
- The world's deepest swimming pool can be found in the Brussels neighbourhood of Uccle. With it's 35 m (115 ft) in depth, it is a famous place to practise scuba diving.
- There isn't only one ‘Manneken Pis’ in Belgium. Apart from the world-famous statue in Brussels, Geraardsbergen has had a similar boy peeing continuously since the middle of the 15th century (so 160 years older than its nephew from Brussels!).
- The Body Mass Index (BMI), still used today to know one's ideal weight, was developed by the Belgian statistician and anthropometrist Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874).
- Travel documents: Canadians and Americans only need a valid passport, which will allow you to remain in Belgium for a maximum period of 90 days.
- Driving license and registration: For none EU-members a valid driver’s license is sufficient, however some car rental companies may require a International Driving Permit (IDP).
- Medical passport: If you are using medication, ask your doctor for a ‘medical passport’. This can be a signed and dated letter from your physician describing your medical conditions and medications, including generic names which details your affliction and what medicines you need to use. Bring medications in their original, clearly labelled containers. If carrying syringes or needles, be sure to have a physician’s letter documenting their medical necessity.
- Insurance documents (travel/health)
- Tickets and reservations
- Money and credit cards
Belgium has the euro as it’s currency. The seven euro notes come in denominations of € 500, € 200, € 100, € 50, € 20, € 10 and € 5. The eight euro coins are in denominations of € 2 and € 1 and of 50, 20, 10, five, two and one cents.
Belgium is still a largely cash-based society. Locals generally use cash for small purchases so you can’t avoid having at least some cash in your pocket. Automated teller machines (ATM's) are not widespread around the countryside, but are well populated in city centres and at the main international airports. The ATM's in Belgium accept credit and debit cards working on international networks like Maestro, Cirrus or Plus networks. Most commonly accepted international cards are Visa, MasterCard, Diners Club and Eurocard.
The use of credit cards is somewhat less widespread than in Canada or the USA, but they generally accept MasterCard (called EuroCard in Belgium), American Express and Visa. Be aware that not all shops, smaller hotels or restaurants will accept them. Credit cards allow you to get cash advances at most banks.
International traveller’s cheques are widely accepted, especially American Express, Visa or Thomas Cook. Travellers are advised to take traveller’s cheques in Euros and exchange them at the bank. Banks generally open from 9am to 4pm Monday to Friday. In smaller places, they may close for an hour at lunch. A record of the cheque numbers and the initial purchase details is vital when it comes to replacing lost cheques.
Tipping in Belgium
Tipping in Belgium is not obligatory as service and VAT are included in hotel and restaurant prices. As long as service has been good, you should generally leave a little extra by rounding up the bill. If you are in a bar, it would be appropriate to round the bill to the next euro and in a restaurant a little more, up to 10% if you're feeling generous - but it always depends what value for money you felt you got and how good the service was.
Belgium's health service is known for its easy accessibility and high-quality treatment. With four doctors per 1,000 inhabitants, Belgium is well above the OECD 2.9 average and regarded as among the best healthcare systems in Europe. Belgian hospitals are equipped with the most advanced technologies and run by highly qualified staff. With a large number of specialized centres and internationally renowned doctors they provide optimal care in the best conditions and have considerable capacity.
Travellers are advised to arrange for medical insurance prior to departure. Prescription medications should be kept in the original container and packed in carry-on luggage. Chemists or pharmacies are ubiquitous in Belgium, with the green cross sign everywhere. There is a rota system for chemists to open outside of usual hours and through the night. Lists are available from any pharmacy or check newspapers for those open at night in your area.
4. Public transport Belgium
Being such a small country (300 km as its maximum distance), you can get anywhere in Belgium in a couple of hours. Public transport is fast and comfortable, and not too expensive. Between larger cities, there are frequent train connections, with buses covering smaller distances.
The SNCB (http://www.b-rail.be/main/E/) is Belgium's main rail operator. It is the country's largest operator and its trains serve every station on the network. The trains are punctual and mostly modern and comfortable. Normal fares on Belgian trains are cheap compared to Germany or the UK, with no need nor a possibility to prebook or reserve. Trains can get very full during the rush hours, so you might need a 1st class ticket to get a seat at those times. You can buy normal tickets online or in stations.
The countries around Belgium are served through different trains:
- Thalys, the European high-speed network, connects Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands.
- The Eurostar is a high-speed train which connects London to over 100 destinations in Europe, including Brussels and Lille.
- There are 8 TGV’s departing from Brussels every day to cross France.
- Every day, the InterCity Express (ICE International) connects Frankfurt or Köln with Brussels and Liège.
Buses cover the whole country, along with trams and metro in the big cities. Most routes cover short distances, but it is possible to go from city to city by bus. However, this is much slower and only slightly cheaper than taking a train. Most tourists will not need the bus companies, as it is much more user-friendly to take trains between cities and visit the cities on foot (for example, the historic centre of Brussels is only about 300 by 400 m long).
Only Brussels and Antwerp have a subway. The Brussels metro is a real museum. More than sixty works of art decorate the platforms and corridors of the stations, making the network the country's largest art gallery, for all genres: paintings, sculptures, photos, stained glass... and all materials: from canvas to bronze and wood to glass via steel.
Bicycles can be taken onto metros and new, low floor trams. Only two bicycles per tram are allowed. The new VILLO bike-share network (www.villo.be) in Brussels promotes 'green' cycling throughout the city. There is also the Kusttram running along almost the whole Flemish seaside from France to the Netherlands, which definitely is worth a trip in the summer.
All taxis in Belgium should be metered. They can be recognized by the blue and yellow emblem. Taxis normally can’t be hailed off the street, you must go to one of the taxi stands located throughout a city or outside hotels and train stations. For a rural pick up or door-to-door service you must phone ahead; your hotel or accommodation can do this for you. Tipping is expected, but rounding up to the nearest euro is often enough.
Just like most countries in Europe, Belgium is safe to travel. Still, in order to have a hassle-free holiday in Belgium you should take the usual precautions to protect yourself, your passport and other valuables when out and about. Try to utilize hotel safe facilities and if driving, do not leave valuables in the vehicle. In crowded areas like airports or train stations be aware of pickpockets and bag snatchers. Common sense is the best defense against petty crime.
In case of an emergency, you can dial the following numbers when you’re in Belgium:
112 - Pan-European emergency number (medical, fire or police)
100 - Medical Service
101 - Police (Federal)
100 - Fire Service
- Bring an adapter for the 220Volts/AC system to charge your phone, computer, etc. (European - two round pins, 220Volts/50 Hz.).
- Belgium is in the Central European Time zone (Greenwich +1h).
- The international access code for Belgium is +32. The outgoing code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0044 for the United Kingdom). All numbers must be preceded by 0, whether originating in Belgium or out, unless calling a mobile phone. To call from Canada or the U.S. to Belgium you have to dial 011 + 32 + City Area Code + Number.
- National holidays in Belgium: 1 January (New Year’s Day), Easter Monday, 1 May (Labour Day), Ascension Day, Whit Monday, 21 July (National Holiday), 15 August (Assumption Day), 1 November (All Saints’ Day), 11 November (Armistice Day), 25 December (Christmas).
- Georges Rémi aka Hergé (1907-1983), writer of The Adventures of Tintin
- Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993), actress
- Jacques Rogge (1942), President of the IOC
- Herman van Rompuy (1947), first President of the European Council
- Jean-Claude van Damme (1960), actor
- Toots Thielemans (1922), jazz musician
- Jacques Brel (1929-1978)
- Raymond van het Groenewoud (1950)
- Dani Klein (1953), Vaya Con Dios
- Sarah Bettens (1972), lead singer K’s Choice
- Moules frites (mussels and chips)
- Endives (white vegetables used in many dishes)
- Paling in ‘t Groen (eel in a green sauce of mixed herbs)
- Waffles (to main styles are Brussels and Liège)
- Vlaamse Stovery (Flemish beef stew cooked in beer)
- Jacky Ickx (1945), racing driver
- Eddie Merckx (1945), cyclist and 5 times winner of the ‘Tour de France’
- Tia Hellebaut (1978), high jumping
- Justine Henin (1982), tennis
- Kim Clijsters (1983), tennis
- Jan van Eyck (1395-1441), painter
- Simon Stevin (1548/49-1620), mathematician and engineer
- Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), Baroque painter
- Adolph Sax (1814-1894), inventor of the saxophone
- Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-2009), anthropologist and ethnologist