Backpacking in Europe is almost a rite of passage for all of us non- Europeans. It’s what we all dream of for the summer right after high school and before university. And tourism in Europe caters to this. Youth hostels are abundant and cheap, public transportation domestically and internationally is excellent, and for the less independent, a variety of whirlwind European bus tours exist.
For many, a trip Europe includes stops at all the big names – London, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, and maybe even Berlin. But one country which is all too often overlooked is Belgium. Belgium is conveniently located near Germany, France, and the Netherlands and can be easily reached from any of those countries.
Belgium is also a compact country, which makes it very convenient to travel in. You can go from one end of the country to the other by rail in under four hours, and as you will see, it is packed with reasons why you should not pass it up.
1) Varied Cultures
Belgium is made up of three main cultural groups. The German speakers, the Walloons (French speakers), and the Flemish (Dutch speakers). Each region is unique, with their language, art, food, and politics. Although it can be challenging for those new to the country to read a map (each city has both a French and a Dutch name), it also lends a very cosmopolitan feel to be able to hear the locals converse in several different languages.
2) Varied Landscapes
In tiny Belgium you can really find a little bit of everything when it comes to the vista. Sandy beaches can be find in Oostende, along with rolling sand dunes which provide an otherworldly experience to hike around. The flat plains of Flanders, dotted with windmills provide a stark contrast to the rolling hills of the French speaking Ardennes with their small towns and old monasteries. And for the most die hard of city breaker, there are plenty of urban areas to explore, all within a short train ride from each other.
Belgium is not instantly thought of for its culinary delights – but it should be. Although, most of this food is not very good for your waist line. “French” fries, as any Belgian will inform you, were actually invented here – and of course, should be enjoyed with both mayonnaise and tomato sauce. And after a good dinner of frites (potatoes count as a vegetable right?), you can not forget the amazing Belgian desserts. Waffles and chocolate should be eaten in as much quantity as possible when in Belgium (in my opinion). Even the cheap chocolate is amazing in Belgium. Even the chocolate that comes out of vending machines is amazing in Belgium. And if you do spurge on some of the grommet chocolate – then you better be prepared for a mind blowing experience.
Ok, ok so we all know that Belgium is famous for waffles and chocolate. But something you might not have heard of exists in this country which is possibly even better. Its called Speculoos. Speculoos was traditionally a type of gingery cookie, but now it comes in all sorts of incredibly delicious varieties. The one type to definitely not miss is the speculoos pasta (or paste), a sinfully mouth watering spread for toast (or you can be like me and just eat if out of the jar – on another note – I wonder how I gained so much weight in Belgium….hmmm…)
Although, after time it is possible to become tired of gorging yourself on chocolate and french fries (I’ve been told), so rest assured, there are some more wholesome Belgian specialties as well. Why not try to kilo of Oostende mussels …. cooked in beer? Which brings me to my next point….
Don’t listen to the Germans – it’s the Belgians who are the masters of the beer. And with over 700 different varieties, everyone is bound to find something that they like. Before I moved to Belgium I actually hated beer. I hated the taste, I hated the smell – I hated everything about it.
I started off simple (and girly) by trying as many of the fruit flavoured beers as possible. Kriek – a cherry beer is a great way to ease yourself into enjoying beer. Before I knew it, I was an avid lover of dark beers, and would enthusiastically try to drink my way through the beer cafe’s extensive menus. One at a time of course – I am a weak drinker.
Belgium also produces six of the seven world famous trappist beers. Trappist beers are brewed by monks in a monastery, and all profits must go to either the monastery or to social programs. The most famous, and difficult to obtain, is Westvleteren beer, with only a limited amount produced each year. The most famous internationally is probably Chimay, while my personal favourite is definitely Orval.
Still not convinced? Do you hate all beer? Well Belgium also has its own signature spirit. Jenever is a type of gin and comes in a myriad of flavours. From the traditional jenever, to fruit flavoured jenever, to even creamy jenever (hazelnut is amazing!) – there is really something for everyone.
Lovers of history will find their itineraries packed while in Belgium. Belgium was the site of several WW1 and WW2 conflicts, and those interested in military history will of course want to visit Flanders Fields and the Ypres war memorial.
For those who love beautiful medieval architecture will find everything they are looking for in Bruges (although you will also find a lot of other tourists as well), and for those who love Art Nouveau will love wandering through Brussels which has been recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site for its iconic Art Nouveau houses.
Also not to miss is the old fortress in Ghent, the citadel in Dinant, and the glittery Grote Markt (town square) in Antwerp.
So why not give Belgium a try?
Despite being somewhat of a wallflower when it comes to international tourism, Belgium offers so much to tourists who give it the time. There is really something for everyone packed into this small country, and once you have seen it all, it is just too easy to jet off to yet another European destination. Let the European backpacking tour begin!
This is a guest post by Jade Johnston.
Jade Johnston is a writer at OurOyster.com – the website for budget travellers, long term travellers, and the simply adventurous. She and her partner currently live in Australia and are planning an epic overland trip all over this great country. You can also find her on twitter and facebook.