Belgium travel guide
The “boring” tag is laughable – Belgium, pretty and creative, is one of Europe’s most underrated travel destinations. Beer, chocolate and moules-frites might be the starting points for many first-time visitors, but while you’ll eat and drink well, the country’s other selling points are no less weighty.
Medieval cities like Brussels, Bruges, Antwerp and Ghent play home to some stunning architecture, while a military legacy that covers everything from Waterloo to WWII holds its own interest. It’s compact, easy to travel around and boasts no fewer than 60 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. On top of that it hosts riotous festivals like they’re going out of fashion and has a world-class arts heritage, to boot.
What Belgium isn’t, however, is straightforward. Divided into three regions − Flanders (the predominantly Dutch-speaking north), Wallonia (the predominantly French-speaking south) and the capital region of Brussels – it’s still very much split down linguistic lines. Even Belgians themselves will often refer to their homeland as an “artificial country.” In many ways, this only makes the place more fascinating.
Flanders is filled with museums and medieval architecture, its countryside studded with white-washed hamlets and paved with miles and miles of cycling paths. Its North Sea coastline offers opportunities to try land boarding or kitesurfing. Wallonia, meanwhile, follows a slower pace. Steeped in folklore, its main towns have a faded French elegance and are ideal jumping-off points for exploring the rolling hills of the Ardennes. In both halves of the country, there are some genuinely beautiful landscapes.
Brussels itself is a blend of Art Nouveau mansions and gleaming skyscrapers, art galleries and flea markets, “fritkot” chip stands and 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. Each quarter offers a different take on the personality of “Europe’s capital,” which is apt in itself: in Belgium, very little matches the monochrome preconception.
30,528 sq km (11,787 sq miles).
11,401,889 (UN estimate 2016).
370.9 per sq km.
Constitutional monarchy. Federal state comprising three autonomous regions.
King Philippe since 2013.
Prime Minister Charles Michel since 2014.
220 volts AC, 50Hz. European plugs with two round pins are standard.
Last updated: 13 March 2017
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. ‘We’ refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
Petty crime rates are similar to the UK, but on the increase. You should take sensible precautions to protect yourself and your belongings.
Take only the minimum amount of cash, credit cards and personal ID necessary when you go out. As far as possible leave jewellery, other valuables and documents in a secure place like a hotel safe. Avoid carrying money, bank/credit cards and your passport in the same bag or pocket. Leave a photocopy of your passport and itinerary with a contact in the UK. Enter next-of-kin details into the back of your passport.
In the event of theft, contact the nearest police station and get a police report. If you lose your passport, you should also contact the British Embassy in Brussels. If you have difficulty reporting the theft of your cards to your UK card issuer, you can ask the Belgian group ‘Card Stop’ (telephone: +32 (0) 70 344 344) to send a fax to your UK card company to block your card. Alternatively, if you have Belgian issued bank/credit cards, Card Stop will be able to block them.
Be vigilant and take extra care in major railway stations, and on public transport, particularly late at night. Thieves and muggers operate around the Brussels Gare du Midi/Zuidstation (Eurostar terminal), Gare du Nord and Schuman (the EU quarter). Pickpockets also operate on international trains, mainly Paris-Brussels and Amsterdam-Brussels.
Never leave luggage unattended. There have been reports of luggage being stolen from the racks at the end of carriages in high-speed trains (TGV and Thalys), usually just before the doors close.
Do not leave valuable items visible in your car, even when you are in it. Keep car doors locked and windows secure at all times. It is increasingly common for thieves, usually on motorbikes, to break a window and snatch valuables from the front or back passenger seat when the vehicle is stationary at traffic lights. Car jacking, especially of up-market vehicles, remains a risk.
If you wish to drive in Belgium you must have a valid UK driving licence, insurance and vehicle documents. If you are driving a vehicle that does not belong to you then written permission from the registered owner may also be required.
Traffic is fast and Belgium’s accident rate is high mainly due to speeding. In 2015 there were 755 road deaths in Belgium (source: Department for Transport). This equates to 6.7 road deaths per 100,000 of population and compares to the UK average of 2.8 road deaths per 100,000 of population in 2015.
Speed traps, cameras and unmarked vehicles are in operation throughout the country.
Drivers must give absolute priority to vehicles joining a road from the right, even if they have stopped at a road junction or stopped for pedestrians or cyclists. Exemptions to this rule include motorways, roundabouts, roads sign-posted with an orange diamond within a white background, and drivers who are attempting to join a road after having driven down a street in the wrong direction.
Trams have priority over other traffic. If a tram or bus stops in the middle of the road to allow passengers on or off, you must stop.
There is a speed restriction of 30 kms/hr in school areas, which is valid 24 hours (even when schools are closed), unless indicated otherwise. The start and finish of these zones are not always clearly marked.
Fines have increased dramatically (up to € 2,750 for exceeding the speed limit by40 km/h and a possible court appearance for exceeding the speed limit by more than 40km/h). If you are unable to pay an on the spot fine your vehicles may be impounded. More detailed information is available on the Embassy website.
Don’t drink and drive; frequent alcohol checks are made. Less than 0.05% alcohol in the bloodstream is allowed (a lower level than in the UK). A blood sample will be taken if you refuse to be breathalysed. Fines are heavy depending on the degree of intoxication and range from € 1,100 to € 11,000. In certain cases driving licences have been confiscated immediately.
Using a mobile phone while driving is not allowed; the use of ‘hands free’ equipment is allowed.
Information on road travel (in French) can be found on the website of Le Soir.