Underappreciated Belgium Packs Plenty of Surprises

By Rick Steves

Belgium falls through the cracks. Nestled between Germany, France and Britain, famous for waffles, sprouts and endives, its no wonder many travelers don't even consider a stop here. But as many who visit remark, Belgium is one of Europe's best kept secrets. There are tourists, but not as many as the country's charms merit. The country is split between the French-speaking Walloons in the south and the Dutch-speaking Flemish people (60 percent of the population) in the north. The capital city, Brussels, while mostly French-speaking, is officially bi-lingual. There is a small minority of German-speaking people and, because of Belgium's international importance, over 20 percent of its residents are foreigners.

It is in Belgium that Europe comes together: where Romance languages meet Germanic languages, where Catholics meet Protestants, where the Benelux union was established in 1944, planting the seed that today is sprouting into the unification of Europe. Belgium flies the flag of Europe as vigorously as any place you'll visit. While there are obviously more places to visit than Bruges and Brussels, they are the best two first bites of Belgium. Brussels is one of Europe's great cities and a capital of the European community. Bruges is one of Europe's medieval gems, a wonderfully preserved town which expertly nurtures its tourist industry, which brings it prosperity like it hasn't enjoyed since it helped lead northern Europe out of the middle ages, 500 years ago.

Eleven million Belgians pack into 12,000 square miles (the size of Maryland). At 915 people per square mile, it's the second most densely populated country in Europe. This population density coupled with a well-lit dense rail and road system causes Belgium to actually shine at night when viewed from space, a phenomenon NASA astronauts call the "Belgian Window."

Belgians brag they eat as much as the Germans and as well as the French. They are the world's leading beer consumers and among the world's leading carnivores. With your meat you'll get a pile of Europe's best fries. Fritjes, the local french fries, are a treat. Proud and traditional frituur serve tubs of fries and various local-style shish-kebabs everywhere. Belgians dip their fritjes in mayonnaise but ketchup is there for the Yankees (along with spicier sauces). For a quick, cheap, and scenic meal hit a frituur and sit on the steps or benches overlooking the Market Square of any Belgian city. And you can wash things down with a local brew. Belgium boasts more than 350 types of beer. Straffe Hendrik (strong Henry), a potent, powerful, local beer is — even to a Bud-Lite kind of guy — obviously great beer. Among the more unusual of the others to try: Kriek (a cherry-flavored beer) and Trappist (a dark, monk-made beer). Each beer is served in its own unique glass.