Belgium Tourist Information and Tips
Belgium has three official languages: Dutch, French and German. However, English is widely spoken by the younger generations. You will find that some older people do speak English but it is less likely.
Please note that although Belgium has three official languages, that does not mean that all of them are official everywhere. The only official language of Flanders is Dutch; Brussels has both Dutch and French as its official languages albeit the lingua franca is French. The only official language of Wallonia is French, except for the nine municipalities (including the town of Eupen and its surroundings) of the German-speaking Community.
A number of inhabitants of Wallonia, particularly the older generations, speak the Walloon language. This language, while not official, is recognized by the French Community of Belgium as an "indigenous regional language", together with a number of other Romance (Champenois, Lorrain and Picard) and Germanic (Luxembourgian) language varieties.
Belgians like to eat. Belgium is famous for its good cuisine and people like to go to restaurants frequently. Best description for Belgian food would be "French food in German quantities".
- As anywhere in the world, avoid the tourist traps, where the touts are trying to get you in the restaurants. You will get average to bad quality food for average to high prices and they will try to get rid of you as soon as possible to make space for the next customer at busy times. A good example of this is the Famous "rue des Bouchers" in Brussels on the picture .
- Belgium is a country which understands what eating is all about, and can be a real gastronomic paradise. You can have a decent meal in about every tavern, from small snacks to a complete dinner. Just pop into one of those and enjoy it.
- If you want to eat really well for not too much money, ask the local people or the hotel manager (that is, supposing he does not have a brother restaurant-manager) to give some advice for a good restaurant.
- Quality has its price: since the introduction of the EURO, price for eating out in Belgium nearly doubled. Expensive food like lobster or turbot will always cost a lot of money at any restaurant. But you can also find some local and simple dishes, rather cheap and still very tasty (e.g. sausages, potatoes and spinach).
A number of dishes are considered distinctly Belgian specialities and should be on every visitor's agenda.
Mussels are a firm favorite and a side-dish of mosselen met friet (mussels and fries). The traditional way is to cook them in a pot with white wine and/or oignons and celery, then eat them up using only a mussel shell to scoop them out. The top season is September to April, and as with all shellfish it's best not to eat the closed ones. Belgium's mussels always come from nearby Holland. Imports from other countries are looked down on.
Stoofvlees is a traditional beef stew and is usually served with (you have guessed it already) friet.
Witloof met kaassaus / Chicons au gratin is a traditional gratin of chicory with ham and a cheesy bechamel sauce, usually served with potatoe mash or croquettes.
Konijn met bier : rabbit cooked in beer.
Despite the name, French fries ( friet in Dutch, frites in French) are proudly claimed as a Belgian invention. Whether or not this is true, they certainly have perfected it — although not everybody agrees with their choice of mayonaise over ketchup as the preferred condiment (ketchup is considered to be "for kids"). Every village has at least one frituur/friterie , an establishment selling cheap take-away fries, with a huge choice of sauces and fried meat to go with them. The traditional thing to try is friet met stoofvlees , but don't forget the mayonaise on it .
Waffles ( wafels in Dutch, gaufres in French ) come in two types:
- Gaufres de Bruxelles / Brusselse wafels : a light and airy variety.
- a heavier variety with a gooey center known as Gaufres de Liege / Luikse wafels .
The latter are often eaten as a street/ take-away snack while shopping and therefore can be found at stands on the streets of the cities.
Last but not least, Belgian chocolate is famed around the world. Famous chocolatiers include Godiva, Leonidas, Guylian and Neuhaus, but arguably the best stuff can be found at tiny boutiques in the Flemish cities, too small to build worldwide brands. In nearly all supermarkets you can buy the brand Cote d'Or, generally considered the best 'every-day' chocolate (for breakfast or break) among Belgians.
As a small country in the centre of western Europe, the cuisine is influenced not only by the surrounding countries, but also by many others. This is also emphasized by many foreigners coming to this country to make a living here, for instance by starting a restaurant. You can find all types of restaurants:
- French/Belgian: A traditional Belgian restaurant serves the kind of food you will also find in the best French restaurants. Of course there are local differences: at the coast (in France as well as in Belgium) you have a better chance to find some good seafood, like mussels, turbot, sole or the famous North Sea shrimp. In the southern woods of the Ardennes (remember the battle of the Bulge?), you are better off choosing game or local fish like trout.
- English/Irish: There are Irish bars and pubs everywhere and Belgium is no exception, try the Schuman area of Brussels for more Irish pubs than you can shake a stick at. There is also an English pub just off of Place de la Monnaie in central Brussels.
- American: There are McDonald's or look-alikes in most every town. The Belgian variant is called "Quick". You may also find a local booth serving sausages, hot dogs or hamburgers. Try it: the meat tastes the same, but the bread is much better. Ketchup in this region is bland; made with less sugar (even the Heintz brand). Pizza Hut, Domino's, and Subway also have establishments. And what about real American restaurants? None really, although there is an American bar on the Toison d'Or in Brussels, they do serve food.
- Mexican: Only in the cities and rather costly for medium quality. ChiChi's (near Bourse) and Pablo's (near Port des Namur) serve Mexican American food, neither of which would be considered a good value by American standards. ChiChi's uses reconstituted meats. Pablo's uses higher quality meat, but you pay a premium for it.
- Chinese: They have a long tradition of restaurants in Belgium. Rather cheap, but for an acceptable level of quality.
- German: Maxburg in the Schuman area (next to Spicy Grill) makes a good schnitzel.
- Greek/Spanish/Italian: Like all over the world, nice, rather cheap, with a good atmosphere and typical music (Greek: Choose meat, especially lamb) (Spanish: Choose paella and tapas) (Italian: Choose anything).
- Japanese/Thai: You usually only find them in the cities and they are rather expensive. But they give you great quality. The prices and quality are both satisfying in a concentrated cluster of Thai restaurants near Bourse station. Avoid Phat Thai though if you don't want disruptions - as they let pan handlers and flower pushers enter and carry out their "work".
- Arabic/Moroccan: Rather cheap, with a great variety of local dishes, especially with lamb; no fish or pork or beef.
- Turkish: Rather cheap, with a great variety of local dishes, especially with chicken and lamb and also vegeterian dishes, dishes with fish are rare; no pork or beef.
- And many, many others! Belgium offers a wide selection of international restaurants.
Belgium is to beer what France is to wine, it is home to one of the greatest beer traditions in the world. Like other European countries in medieval times, beers were brewed in a huge variety of ways with many different ingredients, apart from the standard water, malted barley, hops and yeast many herbs and spices were used. This activity was often done by monasteries, each developing its particular sort. For some reason uniquely in Belgium many of these monasteries survived almost into modern times, and the process was handed over to a local commercial brewer if the monastery closed. These brewers would often augment the recipe and process slightly to soften the taste to make it more marketable but the variety survived in this way. These beers are called Abbey beers and there are hundreds and hundreds with a range of complex tastes unimaginable until you've tried them.
Less than 10 of the original monasteries still make beer, this according to traditional methods going back to the Middle Ages. These monasteries make Trappist ales and in order to carry this badge of honour the monastery has to abide to strict rules regarding only using the best natural ingredients and only traditional, non-mechanised brewing processes. These amazingly rich and complex beers are truly artisanal products in that sense, and can confidently be considered the best in the world.
Belgium offers an incredible diversity of beers. The most well known mass-produced ones are Stella Artois (tastes like heineken), Duvel (literally: the Devil, beware, 8.5%!), Leffe (a must try), Jupiler (plain standard beer), Hoegaarden (white beer). The names given to some beers are pretty imaginative: eg Verboden Vrucht (Forbidden Fruit), De Kopstoot (Head Butt), Judas and Delirium Tremens.
Warmly recommended are also Kriek (sweet and sour cherry beer) and, for the Christmas season, Stille Nacht (Silent night).
Plain blond draughts (4%-5,5%): Stella Artois, Jupiler, Maes, Cristal, Primus, Martens, Bavik.
Trappist ales (5%-10%): Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westvleteren, Westmalle.
Geuze: Belle-Vue, the lambic Mort Subite (Sudden Death), Lindemans, Timmermans.
White beers: Hoegaarden, Dentergemse, Brugse Witte.