If Belgium's spotlight on the European stage is a little dim, it's only because its people are rarely boastful. This slow-burning country has more history, art, food and architecture packed into its tiny self than many of its bigger, louder neighbours. Read more...
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Cities and Destinations in Belgium
If Belgium's spotlight on the European stage is a little dim, it's only because its people are rarely boastful. This slow-burning country has more history, art, food and architecture packed into its tiny self than many of its bigger, louder neighbours.
Belgium consists of three regions, listed from North to South:
Flanders : northern, Dutch-speaking regionBrussels : within Flanders, bilingual region of the capital: Dutch, FrenchWallonia : southern, French-speaking region incorporating a small German speaking region in the east near the German border.
Brussels Airport (also known as Zaventem due to the town in which it is mainly located) is Belgium's main airport, IATA code BRU. It is not located in Brussels proper, but in surrounding Flanders. The airport is the base of the national airline Brussels Airlines, which was founded when SN Brussels Airlines and its low budget sister company Virgin Express merged in March 2007. All other full-service airlines use BRU, as well as budget carriers such as Vueling and SkyEurope.There is a train (2.90 €) running every 15 minutes to Brussels centre taking 25 minutes, some of them continuing to Ghent and West-Flanders and a bus line number 12 and 11 (3 €) every 20 to 30 minutes to Place Luxembourg (European Parliament) district. The bus stops at NATO and Schuman (for the EU institutions) on its way to the centre. There are also two trains per hour to Leuven, taking 13 minutes.A taxi to the centre of Brussels costs around 20 € (as of 2004) when booked in advance, otherwise around 30 €. Taxis bleus: 02 268 0000, Taxi Brussels: 02 411 4142, Taxis verts: 02 349 4343.
There are two other airports in Belgium with scheduled flights. Ryanair and Wizzair fly to Charleroi airport (aka Brussels South, IATA code CRL), about 60km away from Brussels. You can get to Brussels Gare du Midi on the Ryanair coach in about an hour (€10.50 each way). If you're going to any other part of Belgium, ask at the Ryanair ticket desk for a combination bus+train ticket via Charleroi Sud station (€10 each way if bought in the airport, but more expensive in stations).
However, if you are really stuck, it is not unusual for taxi drivers to take credit cards. The price of a taxi ride to Brussels is a set fare (approximately 95 Euros as of May 2006) and you can check with the taxi driver if he will accept your credit card(s) or not.
Antwerp Deurne airport (IATA code ANR) has some business flights, including VLM's reasonably priced link to London City airport. Other airports include Oostende, Liège and Kortrijk, but they only handle freight and charter flights.
Flights to airports in neighbouring countries, might be worth considering, especially to Amsterdam Schiphol which has a direct rail link to Brussels and Antwerp.
There are direct trains between Brussels and:Amsterdam, Luxembourg (normal trains, running every hour)Paris, Köln/Cologne, Amsterdam ( Thalys)Lyon, Bordeaux, Paris-CDG airport and many other French cities ( TGV Bruxelles-France).London ( Eurostar) all tickets from London allow you free onward travel within Belgium; all tickets to London include free travel from any Belgian trainstation to Brussels South, where Eurostar departs.Frankfurt, Köln/Cologne ( ICE)Berlin, Hamburg ( night train)They connect with domestic trains at Brussels' Gare du Midi/Zuidstation, and with all Eurostar or ICE and some Thalys tickets, you can finish your journey for free on domestic trains. For all high-speed and sleeper trains, you need to book in advance for cheap fares, either online or using a travel agency.
You might want to check the TGV connections to Lille too. The trains from the rest of France to Lille are more frequent and usually cheaper. There is a direct train connection from Lille Flandres to Ghent and Antwerp. If your TGV arrives in Lille Europe, it will take a 15 min walk to the Lille Flandres railway station.
Plan your trip with the Deutsche Bahn timetable. It has all domestic and international connections across Europe.
Smoking is never allowed in Belgian trains.
Major European highways like the E-19, E-17, E-40, E-411 and E-313 pass through Belgium.
You can get to Belgium from all over Europe on Eurolines coaches. International busses have stopovers in Antwerpen, Brussels Brussels north-station, Leuven & Liege.
There are overnight ferries to/from Zeebrugge from Hull in England and Rosyth in Scotland, but they are not cheap. There's also a vehicle-only daytime service from Oostende to Ramsgate in England.
Being such a small country (300 km as its maximum distance), you can get anywhere 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. A useful site is InfoTEC, which has a door-to-door routeplanner for the whole country, covering all forms of public transport (including train, bus, subway and tram).
A look on the map may suggest that Brussels is a good starting point to explore Antwerp, Gent, Brugge, Namur and Leuven on day trips. Antwerp is popular among those who want to be in a cosmopolitan place, and Ghent is tops with those who like a tad more provincialism. Liège is beautiful, but too close to Germany to be a good base for day trips. Mechelen is considered boring by tourists, but has a very good brand new youth hostel next to a train station with trains to everywhere else every 30 mins.
To do some local sightseeing, especially in Flanders, a lot of infrastructure is prepared for bikes. Bikes can also be rented virtually everywhere. In the country side of Wallonia, mountainbikes are available, and rafting is popular along the border with Luxembourg.
Most of Belgium is well connected by train, run by NMBS (SNCB in French) with most of the main routes passing through Antwerp, Namur or Brussels. This is where you'll arrive on international trains, and both can be reached by train from Brussels airport or by coach from Antwerp or Charleroi airport. Transfers are very easy. Note that all Eurostar & ICE and some Thalys tickets allow free same-day transfers by domestic trains to any other Belgian station. Also, there are Thalys trains from Paris directly to Gent, Brugge and Oostende with no need to switch trains in Antwerp or Brussels. From London (by Eurostar) you need to switch in Brussels for Antwerp, Leuven or Gent, but for Brugge, you can already switch in Lille (France) with no need to make the detour via Brussels. Both in Lille and Brussels the staff are very very helpful, though seldom willing to smile.
The lines are rather punctual and most of the trains are quite 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. 2nd class fares don't go much higher than €20 for the longest domestic trips, and 1st class always costs 50% extra. 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 .b-rail.be/ online or in stations, but not usually in travel agencies. If you want to buy a ticket on the train, you have to warn the train conductor and a supplement may be charged. In the train station, you can pay with cash money or credit card. Not buying a ticket can cost you up to €200. Tickets are cheaper during the weekend (only to and fro).
Normal tickets are sold for a designated day, so there is no extra validation when you step on a train.
The cheapest option if you're planning several train trips is a Go Pass, which gives you 10 single 2nd class trips (including train changes if necessary) for €46. It's valid for a year and can be shared with or given to other people without any restrictions. The only problem is you have to be younger than 26, but there's a more expensive version for older people called a Rail Pass. This costs €71 for 2nd class or €109 for 1st. When using these passes make sure you have filled in the line before you get on the train (strictly speaking: before you enter the platform). The train conductor can be very picky when the pass is not correctly filled in. However, if you address train station staff before boarding, they will be glad to help you.
Please note that train schedules usually change around December 10. Those changes are usually limited to introducing a few new train stations and adding a few regular lines. No lines have been discontinued in a very long time.
Buses cover the whole country, along with trams and metro in the big cities. Most routes cover short distances, but it's possible to go from city to city by bus. However, this is much slower and only slightly cheaper than taking a train. There's also the Kusttram, running along almost the whole Flemish seaside from France to the Netherlands-definitely worth a trip in summer!
Within cities, a normal ticket for one zone never costs more than €1.50, and there are various travelcards available. Note that local transport is provided by different companies-MIVB in Brussels, De Lijn in Flanders and TEC in Wallonia, and outside Brussels they don't accept each others' tickets.
Most tourists will not need the bus companies, as it is much more user-friendly to take trains between cities and go on foot inside them. Only Brussels and Antwerp have a subway, but even there you can make your way around on foot. The historic center of Brussels is only about 300 by 400 metres big. Antwerp's is much bigger, but there a ride on a horse-pulled coach gives a better view than the subway.
Belgium has a dense network of modern toll-free motorways, but some secondary roads are in poor condition in the french speaking part. Signs are always in the local language only, except in Brussels, where they're bilingual. As many cities in Belgium have quite different names in Dutch and French, this can cause confusion. For example, Mons in French is Bergen in Dutch; Antwerp is called Antwerpen in Dutch and Anvers in French; Liège in French is Luik in Dutch and Lüttich in German, and so on. This even applies to cities outside Belgium; driving along a Flemish motorway, you may see signs for Rijsel, which is the French city of Lille or Aken, which is the German city of Aachen.
Drivers in Belgium should also be aware of the priority from the right rule. At road crossings, traffic coming from the right has the right of way unless otherwise indicated by signs or pavement markings. You're most likely to encounter such crossings in urban and suburban areas. Observant visitors will notice a lot of cars with dents along their right sides! Drive defensively and your car will avoid the same fate.
In Belgium the motorway signs are notoriously inconvenient, especially on secondary roads. There is no uniformity in layout and color, many are in bad state, placed in an awkward position or simply missing. A good roadmap (Michelin, De Rouck, Falk) or a GPS system is recommended.
The best place for hitchhikers. Just ask for a lift! Having cardboard signs with towns' names on it can really help to get a quick lift.
Leaving Brussels: Heading South (e.g. Namur) get to the underground station named 'DELTA'.Next to it you have a huge 'park and ride' and a bus stop. Hitchhiking near the bus stop should get you a ride in less than 5 minutes during traffic hours.Heading to Ghent/Bruges: Good spot near the Shopping Mall called 'Basilix' in Berchem-ste-Agathe. You can reach this place with the bus N°87.An alternative spot to go to the north is in Anderlecht, near the Hospital Erasme (Underground station Erasme.)Heading to Liège/Hasselt: Take the pre-metro to the station 'Diamant' in Schaerbeek. When leaving the station you should see a lot of outgoing cars just below you. Just walk and follow the roadsigns mentioning 'E40'. You should arrive in a small street giving access to a road joigning the E40 (the cars are leaving a tunnel at this point). Just hitchhike on the emergency lane at this point, in the portion near the tunnel. Cars should still be riding slowly at this point and see you are visible to them, so it's not that dangerous.Leaving Louvain-la-neuve (university) to Brussels (north) or to Namur (south), stand at the roundabout next to exit/entrance 8a near to Louvain la neuve-centre road signs. Quick lift guaranteed. Avoid exit 7 or 9, since they have far less traffic.
When to go
Except for certain neighbourhoods in central Brussels and the outer edge of Antwerp (the port and docks), Belgium is a safe country. Belgians are somewhat shy and introvert, but generally helpful towards strangers in general. For those landing in Charleroi and Liège, those are the regions that boast the highest criminality rate in Southern Belgium. But if you keep an eye on your belongings, and don't wander alone at night, nothing really serious can happen to you.
Muslims and people of North African ancestry may experience mild forms of resentment, a problem that is particularly acute in Brussels and Antwerp.
Always use your common sense, of course. Don't walk in empty streets in the middle of the night, showing off your expensive equipment or jewelry.
Marijuana laws are quite lenient, with small amounts only punishable by fines.
In the winter, like most other European countries, only influenza will cause you a considerable inconvenience. No inoculations are needed to enter or leave Belgium.
Belgium's big-gun neighbours France, Germany and England (which faces it across the North Sea) long favoured this little nation as a nice spot to kill each other. Conquered by German tribes, Christianised by the 7th century and carved up during the Frankish Empire in 1100, much of Belgium enjoyed a golden age of prosperity and artistry under the French Duke of Burgundy during the 14th century. This was a boom time for the cloth-trading Flemish towns of Ypres, Bruges and Ghent. With the demise of Bruges due to British competition and a silted river, Antwerp soon became the greatest port in Europe.
The golden age began to tarnish in the mid-15th century when the Low Countries (present-day Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) were inherited by Spain, igniting a long battle against Catholic Spanish rule. The fanatically Catholic Philip II of Spain sent in the Inquisition to enforce Catholicism. Thousands were imprisoned or executed before full-scale war erupted in 1568. The Revolt of the Netherlands lasted 80 years and in the end Holland and its allied provinces booted out the Spaniards. Belgium and Luxembourg stayed under Spanish rule. Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Waterloo near Brussels led to the creation, in 1814, of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, melding Belgium and Luxembourg into the Netherlands. But the Catholic Belgians revolted, winning independence in 1830.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place (aka France and Germany), Belgium managed to retain its neutrality throughout the century, at the end of which Flemish nationalism flowered. Meanwhile, King Leopold II began to amass a fortune for himself (and, indirectly, for his subjects) by his genocidal exploitation of his holdings in the African Congo.
Despite Belgium's neutral policy, the Germans invaded in 1914. Another German attack in 1940 saw the entire country taken over within three weeks. King Leopold III's questionably early capitulation to the Germans led to his abdication in 1950 in favour of his son, King Baudouin, whose popular reign ended with his death in 1993. Childless, Baudouin was succeeded by his brother, the present King Albert II.
Postwar Belgium was characterised by an economic boom, later accentuated by Brussels' appointment as the headquarters of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The Belgium of today is home to a vast army of diplomats, and with them has come a rampant, highly bureaucratic form of internationalism-followed closely by bland skyscrapers and intimidating restaurants. While the country's number one city is being busily groomed to suit the rest of Europe, the Belgians themselves remain nonchalant-the true spirit of the country will always emanate from its people and its past.
In December 1999, Prince Philippe, 39-year-old heir to the Belgian throne, married a speech therapist with Flemish and Walloon roots, finishing an eventful century with what many Belgians saw as a promising flourish.
Belgium was rocked during the '90s by public revelations of incompetence during the investigation of a paedophile case. This prompted 300, 000 Belgians to march through the streets of Brussels in 1996 to protest against the country's malfunctioning police and judicial systems. In 2004, Marc Dutroux was finally given a life sentence for the rape and murder of several young girls.
In 2003, controversial legislation was implemented giving Belgian courts the authority to bring foreigners to trial for war crimes and human rights violations. The legislation was soon dropped, however, following intense lobbying by-among others-US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, who hinted that Belgium's role as the seat of NATO might be jeopardised by the law.
Belgium has recently become a world leader in moral freedoms. It is the second country (following the Netherlands) to legalise both gay marriage and euthanasia.
Quick Facts about Belgium
10,379,067 (July 2006 est.)
Dutch (official) 60%, French (official) 32%, German (official) less than 1%, 8% bilingual Dutch-French
Country Dialing Code