One of Europe's most underrated destinations, Belgium has so much more to offer than just beer, chocolate and chips. Forget the clichés: Belgium is anything but ‘boring’. You can explore perfectly preserved medieval squares, dance ‘til dawn inside converted-church nightclubs, and sing along with your favourite bands at first-rate festivals. Compact and easy to travel around, you can spend the morning fishing for shrimp in Ostend, stop off in Bruges for lunch and end the day dining on moules-frites on Brussels’ UNESCO-listed Grand-Place.
Divided into three regions − Flanders (the predominantly Dutch-speaking north), Wallonia (the predominantly French-speaking south) and the capital region of Brussels − the country offers a variety of flavours, terrains and activities to tempt every traveller’s palette.
Its northern cities are cultural hotbeds filled with museums, medieval architecture and a mish-mash of hip and time-worn bars. The flat Flemish polders are studded with white-washed hamlets and paved with miles and miles of cycling paths, while the windy sands and lightly waved North Sea coastline offers opportunities to try land boarding or kitesurfing. Its seaside restaurants serve locally sourced grey shrimp, and plump mussels and oysters.
Southern Wallonia follows a slower pace. Steeped in folklore and studded with castles and quiet woods, its main towns possess faded French elegance and are ideal jumping-off points for exploring the rolling hills of the Ardennes. Its rivers and rocks provide opportunities for kayaking, caving and hiking. Its homely restaurants dish up rich regional game such as rabbit, venison and wild boar.
Brussels is a blend of Art Nouveau mansions and gleaming skyscrapers, well-stocked art galleries and flea markets, humble fritkot chip shops versus Michelin-starred restaurants. Made up of 19 communes − from the chic Ixelles district to up-and-coming Anderlecht − it’s a city with many faces and each quarter offers a slightly different take on ‘Europe’s capital’.
Underlying it all is a strong thread of history. Seated in the centre of Europe, the area has been invaded and occupied by successive powers over the centuries and has played a pivotal role in the battles which shaped the Europe we know today and shaped the Belgium travellers see today; from the carved guildhouses of Bruges, Ghent and Ypres built from the riches of the medieval cloth trade and the muddy fields that witnessed the Battle of Waterloo, to the cemeteries and preserved trenches left to honour the fallen soldiers who fought in WWI and WWII.
History is living here, but there’s plenty on offer for families too. Children can discover the cartoon-legend Tintin at the Musée Hergé, splash around pirate-themed water parks, gawp at towering sand sculptures and explore the space-age Atomium.
Combine the above with a range of plush B&Bs, quirky hotels and vibrant nationwide youth hostels and exploring Europe’s best-kept secret becomes a no-brainer.