The Local Experience: Belgium

Belgium is a tiny country packed full of sights. We are known for our many beautiful cities and countryside, fashion, diamonds, delicious food,… You can read all about the touristic highlights of our country online (they are all really worth a visit!), but I’d love to tell you some of my personal very local favorites.

First, I’d like to start with my hometown. I was born and raised in Hoeilaart, a little town just outside of Brussels but next to the Sonian Wood. It’s also known as the Glass Village (‘Het Glazen Dorp’) for the 13.000 greenhouses that once filled the town. Each autumn, this is where you can find Europe’s best table grapes. You can buy them straight from the farm shop – we usually even pick the one we want by ourselves in the greenhouse. The grapes are easily twice the size of regular ones and they are so sweet and soft and juicy and tasty… Yummmm… And every year in September (for 70 years already!) Hoeilaart has it’s own Grapes Festival. What started out as a festival showcasing the local grape harvest has evolved now into a giant community celebration with music, shows, fairs, light parades, cheesecake competitions, a flea market and more.

My favourite places near my hometown are Solvay Park with Château de La Hulpe and the park in Tervuren with it’s Royal Museum of Central Africa and Kolonial Palace. This castle and palace both lie in the middle of a huge nature domain which is free to access and walk in. Many weddings are hosted in both locations and I have great memories of learning how to ride my bike or having a picnic at these magical places. If you are visiting Brussels don’t forget this insider information, it’s all just a 15 minutes’ drive!

Speaking of Brussels, there are a lot of fun and alternative ways to visit the capital of Europe. You can for example discover the city by walking the comic book route. All through the city center there are paintings of comics on the walls of houses and buildings. Or you can do city, playing golf on historical locations in the city while getting some explanations about them. I can recommend both!

But in my opinion, the best way to see Belgium as a local, is to use the extensive cycle and walk node networks. All throughout Belgium, there are numbered ‘nodes’ (knooppunten) where cycling or walking paths intersect. You can use these nodes to map out an itinerary and decide for yourself how long you want the trip to be and where you want to go. These routes go through wonderful countryside as well as highlights and hidden gems in cities. I loved to bike through the blossoms in the fruit-growing region of Limburg during spring (Blossom Routes in Haspengouw), to discover new places near our house by trying new walking routes, to visit cities by using these paths and discovering nice car-free roads. These networks are something I really miss here in Poland.

Everyone knows, when in Belgium, visit Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, Brugge, Leuven, Dinant, Namur,… But if you have done it all and want to discover some small but very beautiful cities, I can certainly recommend a trip to Veurne or Lier. They are beautiful well-preserved towns with a lot of historical sites to visit and they are way less crowded by tourists then the more popular destinations in Belgium.

For families, the website “Uit Met Vlieg” will be a huge help in finding fun musea, activities and trips to do with kids all over Belgium. A lot of castles and musea have their special kids’ tour with quests and tasks keep them entertained and busy while at the same time learning something. If your kids are into science, don’t forget to visit Technopolis. It’s an interactive and hands-on museum with numerous workshops, exhibitions, shows and demonstrations that will inspire young and old.

What I miss most about Belgium though is the food!! Belgian chocolates, Brussels waffles, Belgian fries and Belgian beers are very well known worldwide, but I also adore “mattentaarten” from Geraardsbergen, Liege waffles, smoutebollen (typically you buy these on a fair) and speculaas. I miss the Belgian bakeries, with their tasty bread and “koffiekoeken”. Every Sunday, breakfast was a feast at our home, buying these “koffiekoeken” and not minding any calories or health concerns! And if you like to go out for a really fancy dinner, you can choose out of more than 120 Michelin starred restaurants (there’s only one in Poland). For some of these, you need to book your dinner a year in advance!

You can see how I love Belgium. I can only recommend a visit and the good news is… all of this is just a 2 hours direct flight away!

By Laura Debray


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