I really enjoy Belgium. I spent a week there doing a study abroad in 2014 and absolutely loved it. The class I took was in Brussels, the capital, but we also did an internship near the city of Charleroi. I then spent the weekend in Bruges, which, despite what Colin Ferrell says in the movie In Bruges, is not a shithole (and yes, you really need to watch that movie if you haven't). Other parts of the country are beautiful, but I do not have firsthand experience.
Belgium is part of the European Union and Brussels is the de facto capital of the EU. Belgium also hosts the main NATO command center. As part of the EU, Belgium uses the Euro. The languages of the country are Dutch (Flemish) and French, with Dutch being most prevalent in the north and French in the south. Brussels is officially bilingual, but most people speak French. There is a lot of diversity in Brussels, with many Turks (and good Turkish street food like the kebab and falafels. There are also a lot of Africans, since the Congo was long a Belgian colony.
The most iconic of Belgian foods are the french fries. The story is that an American (of course!) soldier during WWI did not realize he was not in France, because everyone was speaking French, so he called them french fries. The other story and the one I think is more believable is that cutting into small sticks is calling frenching, so they were frenched fries. They invented them and they are simply amazing. There are fry shops everywhere. They are usually double fried, so they get really crispy on the outside and served in a paper cone. They have an assortment of sauces they either serve separately so you can dip your fries in it, or smother it on top, but they give you a tiny plastic fork to eat them with. There are also other foods available at most fry shops, mostly also fried. One good option is the Mitraillette, or submachine sandwich. This is a baguette with a meat of some sort, usually a sausage, and then fries and sauce on top. My favorite is andalouse sauce, which is a semi-spicy combination of mayonnaise, tomato paste, and peppers. Samurai sauce is a little spicier, and there are others that are much more mild, including just simply ketchup or mayonnaise. One of the most traditional meals is mussels with fries. There are various liquids they use to boil them, each imparting their own special flavors, and of course the fries are present.
Belgium is also famous for their beer. There is a huge variety, literally hundreds. Each beer is supposed to be served in its signature glassware. Of particular note is the Trappist beers, Chimay, Westmalle, and D'Orval are the largest producers, but there are other brands. Chimay also makes cheeses that are delicious. The Biertempel just off the Grand Place has a selection of over 250 beers and the glassware to go with them.
Of course, there are waffles. There are two types of waffles in Belgium, the Brussels waffles, which are more the style you'll find in the United States, and the Liege waffle. The Liege waffles are awesome, the use pearled sugar that caramelizes on the surface of the waffle, giving it a sweet, hard crust. I make these at home now and they are delicious. On top of the waffle, you can get fruit, whipped cream or any number of toppings. Belgians do not view this as a breakfast food, like in the United States; it is more used as an afternoon snack. There are plenty of stands or food trucks around selling them.
The last food to make sure you get is chocolate. Belgium is famous for their chocolate, especially the more bitter dark chocolate. Godiva and Leonidas are the two most prolific shops, and both will give allow you to select what chocolates you get and charge by the kilo (a half kilo is just over a pound and is usually around 7 Euros) or they have preselected assortments for sale. There are other single shops around as well, and in general, Leonidas is slightly cheaper than Godiva, but both are very good.
Brussels is a great city. The best place to start is the main square, the Grand Place. This is the heart of the city and absolutely beautiful. The buildings are lit up at night, and they can do various colors. When I was there, it was during the World Cup, and when the Belgian national team was playing, the square was lit in red, the color of the team (the Red Devils). Every other year, on even numbered years, in August, they construct a carpet of flowers on the square. There are also many things to see on the square itself. The first thing is the Town Hall. This building is beautiful. Across from it is the Maison du roi (the King's House, even though a king never lived there). This building now hosts a museum detailing the history of the city. This includes a collection of outfits that have been used to dress the famous statue Manneken Pis (the peeing boy). To the east side of the square is the Hard Rock Cafe, if you're into that sort of thing, as well as a few restaurants. In the southeast corner is a building where Karl Marx lived while he was exiled from England and wrote the Communist Manifesto. In the basement, there is a beer museum, which also offers samples with your paid admission. The guildhalls surrounding the square are beautiful.
Just south of the Grand Place is Manneken Pis. The statue has become a symbol of Brussels and the irreverent spirit of the city. They commonly dress the statue is various costumes, and as mentioned above, some of the more famous ones are on display at the city museum. There are various stories about what inspired the statue, from an infant duke placed in a basket who urinated on the enemy as his soldiers fought, to a merchant who found his lost son urinating in a local garden. My favorite is the story of Brussels being under siege, but the besieging army was growing desperate so they decided to pack gunpowder against the city wall. The wall was saved when a young boy urinated on the lit fuse, thus extinguishing it. The statue is surprisingly small, just 24 inches. Also around town is a girl peeing (so that there's gender equality), but I was unable to locate it. I heard there is also a peeing dog statue somewhere, but not sure where.
St. Michael's Cathedral is a good example of the Gothic style. When I visited, there was an organ concert going on and that was delightful. There are a number of beautiful churches in Brussels. The biggest is the National Basilica of the Sacred Heart. This is one of the biggest Catholic churches in the world by area. The church is in the Art Deco style, which I like a lot.
The Museum of Natural History is another good bet, especially with kids. This is one of the better dinosaur bone collections in Europe.
Also in the park is the Great Mosque of Belgium. The mosque was built with Saudi money, but has become fairly controversial in Belgium because of the belief that some of the imams who have come to the country are extremists who are seeking to radicalize young men to commit terrorist acts. The headquarters of the European Union are close to Cinquartenaire park, but aside from a museum about the foundation of the EU, there is not a lot to really see.
The Atomium is a 300 foot high model of an iron atom built for the 1958 World's Fair. You can take an elevator to the top and the view is quite good. There is also a miniature Europe below the structure. This site is a bit far away from the city center, but reachable by the metro. Due to the owners trying to sue people who post pictures online, I'm not going to post one.
Food, Lodging, and Entertainment
As far as entertainment in Brussels and were to stay, the best locations are downtown by the Grand Place, but of course, the prices go up a lot. I stayed one night at the Sleep Well hostel. It was right next to the university I attended, which was close to downtown and the main business district. It was nice and a dorm was fairly cheap. During my class time, they had us all at the Hotel Marivaux. I quite liked the hotel, it was a good location and nice.
There are a number of restaurants to try. One of the top rated was Chez Leon, along Rue Bouchers. This is sort of restaurant row and most cater to tourists, so watch for prices. I had mussels there, they were good. It was a little more than I would have preferred to spend, but the friends I was with insisted and it was fun anyway. Any number of the friteries are great, and they are everywhere. Also waffle places abound. For more substantial meals, there is always any of the halal vendors, with the kebabs and other things.
I visited numerous bars with my classmates. The ones we really liked were Celtica (an Irish pub with a traditional pub and TV on the first floor and then a dance club upstairs. We also visited Delirium. Delirium had the world's record for number of beers on tap, which was like 150. It was loud and hot, especially for a July night. I did not particularly enjoy it, but it was worth a stop. Another we enjoyed was Rooster's, in the same general area as Celtica.
One money saver for Brussels is the Visit Brussels card. I purchased a 48 hour card, which includes a metro ticket for the duration as well as entrance to everything I listed above and a few more I didn't mention for 32 Euros. They also have 24 and 72 hour cards available. With this card, if you plan your route, you can save a bundle and see everything.
Bruges (is not a shithole)
After my class, I had a weekend before my flight left from Paris, so I visited Bruges. I loved Bruges, it's like a fairytale place. Yes, you really do need to see that movie if you haven't yet. Ok, to start out, we'll go from the main square. The Grote Markt, as it's called in Flemish, is the heart of the city. The square is dominated by the Belfry. The Belfry has a bell carillon that allows the bells to be played with a keyboard. The bells can be heard all through the old town, and in the tourist season, they have regular concerts. You can reach the top of the town by climbing 366 steps.
Note the two green frites carts. These are quite possibly the best fries anywhere. Either cart is great, I don't know which is better, but this is the place to get fries. Also at the bottom of the Belfry is a Salvador Dali exhibition. If you like Dali's work, this isn't a bad stop. The pieces are also available for purchase. Please don't be an idiot and complain that the pieces don't conform to your artistic tastes like the lady who was doing that when I visited. If you don't know Dali, don't be upset that it's Dali.
Across the square is the Historium Bruges, which is a newer sort of interactive exhibit tour that seem to be popping up around the world. It's fun, and the view from the 2nd story balcony is great, but you walk through various rooms and watch videos of actors telling about the history of Bruges as a story.
Through a small alley is the other main square of the city, the Burg square. This hosts a few sites, but most importantly the Basilica of the Holy Blood. This building contains an upper and a lower chapel, two different styles. The upper chapel contains a small vial said to contain the blood of Jesus collected by Joseph of Arimathea and brought back to the city by a crusading knight. They have a festival every year to celebrate the artifact and parade in period dress though the town. For a few euros, you can go to the top of the altar and venerate the relic.
The Town Hall is also on this square. The inside of the building is richly decorated and with ceiling murals. The facade is also beautiful. The building next to the Town Hall contains an exquisitely carved mantlepiece called the liberty of Bruges that is worth the stop to view.
Through the alley off this square is the canals of the town. They do regular boat tours of the canals, and this was probably my favorite thing in Bruges. Bruges was a seaport for centuries, the center of the Flanders cloth trade, but the old harbor silted up and so it lost it's importance. Across the bridge is the old fishmarket, which has good tourist items for sale.
Just off the canal is the Church of Our Lady of Bruges. The church itself was under renovation while I was there in 2014, but the most important thing in the church is a simple statue. The Madonna of Bruge by Michaelangelo is the only work by the artist to leave Italy during his lifetime. This is located in a side chapel, and of course there is a small admission fee (just a few Euros). The St. Salvator Cathedral is the seat of the Bishop of Bruges. The tower is one of the largest brick towers in the world and there is some nice art inside.
The art museums of Bruges are also great. The old Hospital of St. John contains a Pablo Picasso exhibit with pieces from other modern artists. The hospital was founded in the 11th century and the building is beautiful.
My favorite museum was the Groenigemuseum. This art museum holds works by Jan van Eych, a native of Bruges, and many others. I really like Hieronymous Bosch and his last judgement is there.
I really love van Eych's use of aquamarine, the blue color here. It is still vibrant and was the most rare of pigments from the renaissance.
Other museums in the city are the chocolate and the french fry museum. These are more fun and less serious than the art museums. The fry museum details the history of the french fry and the frites culture of Belgium. In the basement is a friterie. The chocolate museum has a viewing gallery where you can see chocolatiers dipping chocolates. There is also a diamond museum in town, which was mildly interesting.
The parks and waterways of the town are beautiful. The boat tours on the canals really give you the best views and are well worth the trip.
I really enjoyed just walking around town, along the canals.
When I visited, I stayed at the Ibis budget hotel by the train station. The location was great, the price good, the rooms were tiny, but it didn't really matter because I did not require a lot of space. Staying in the center of town is much more expensive and some of the streets are foot only, so it sucks if you have to haul a lot of luggage, which is why I chose the hotel I did. It was a great base to explore from and hauling my luggage was just a short distance to the train. The Thalys train does do daily runs from Bruges to Paris, for about 45 euros or so, but they do dynamic pricing things, so the price always fluctuates. Pay attention and sometimes you can snag a first class ticket for the price of 2nd class and that includes a meal.
Lodging, Food, Entertainment
There are plenty of hostels in town, one includes a bowling alley. I heard good things, but did not experience it. Food is generally expensive in the old town. I ate at a friterie and it was about 20 euros for nothing special, which was still half of what the restaurants in the area wanted. So beware. There is a Carrefour Express (French version of Walmart with their big superstores and the express stores are more like a small grocery store) by the train station. The pastry shop at the train station is also pretty decent and cheap which is what I did for breakfast. There was a small pub near the train station I stopped at that was showing World Cup matches. The lady who owned the pub liked my cowboy hat so much, she offered to trade me for a Belgium soccer jersey (I collect soccer jerseys) and some other memorabilia which I gladly accepted. I believe my hat is still in place above the bar.
Bruges also has a tourist card, the Brugge city card. This was a great value.