Planning a trip to Europe? Don’t leave Belgium off the list! Here are 25 things Belgium is known and famous for to convince you why it’s unmissable!
Belgium is famous for its food, beer and divine chocolate. There are more castles per meter in Belgium than anywhere else in the world. Iconic landmarks like The Comic Strip Route pay homage to Belgium’s greatest claims to fame, such as Tintin and The Smurfs. Belgium is also known for its role in World War I and being the site of the legendary Battle of Waterloo.
Let’s jump into the long list of what (else) Belgium is famous for!
1. Belgium’s geography
First things first, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Understanding the geography of Belgium is key to understanding what you can expect of each region. It can get a little confusing, so here’s a quick break down.
The Kingdom of Belgium is the collective name for the country, although there are three recognized regions. These are Flanders, the northern half, Wallonia, the southern half, and Brussels Capital Territory in the center.
To complicate matters, there are three official languages in Belgium. Dutch (sometimes called Flemish), is spoken in Flanders. French is used in Wallonia, except the far eastern edge which is home to a small German population (they speak German). The capital is bilingual.
The country was divided this way as a compromise to minimize conflicts surrounding linguistics, economy, and cultural matters. Each region has its own regional flag and is run by federal, regional and community governments. We’ll go into more detail as we go on, but that’s it in a nutshell!
Brussels, the bubbling capital and center of Belgium, is famous for being an international hub of politics, having fabulous architecture, and a chocolate store on nearly every street. Yes, you read that last part right.
Sure, there are those weird peeing statues (more on them later) but there’s also the grand landmark arches of Parc du Cinquantenaire to feast your eyes on. The UNESCO World Heritage site of La Grand Place has 40 guild houses bedecked in gold and twinkling windows. Brussels is often considered to be the capital of Europe, because of its many courts and international institutions located within the city.
Don’t yawn yet, there’s also hundreds of bars up for grabs. It’d almost be rude not to sample Belgian beer in Brussels! The nightlife in Belgium’s capital is also buzzing, so be sure to head to some clubs while you’re there.
3. Peeing sculptures
Belgium is famous for having a slight preoccupation with peeing. Before you get too worried, it’s not the citizens doing it! There are a few sculptures in Brussels which might catch your eye – and make you wish they hadn’t!
The two statues in Brussels of Jeanneke Pis (the urinating girl) and Manneken Pis (the urinating boy) have been voted among the most disappointing attractions in Europe. To that I say – what on Earth were you expecting? They truly are just statues of two children going for a number one. I think the phrase goes “when you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go” but the statues are there to stay.
There’s also the Zinneke Pis, the urinating dog who has lifted his leg against an otherwise typical bollard. This one, bizarrely, has four stars on Tripadvisor. You could almost mistake it for an actual dog, as it’s so inconspicuous.
As we mentioned earlier, Belgium is famous for being the political center of Europe, and Brussels takes center stage. Le Palais De Justice in Brussels is the world’s largest court at 26,000 square meters (28,000 square feet). But that’s not all – there are 40,000 employees working for the European Union in Brussels, and a further 4,000 working for NATO.
World politics aside, Belgian politics is also just as interesting and integral. Because Brussels is its own region within Belgium, it is used as a middle ground between Wallonia and Flanders to ease tensions between the regions.
Belgium also has the oldest compulsory voting system in the world. Men have been forced to vote since 1893 and women since 1948. If a Belgian citizen fails to vote four times in a row, they can lose their right to vote for ten years!
5. Exiles & expats
Belgium is known for its nickname: The Capital of Europe. It wasn’t earned overnight, though. While people don’t exactly flock to Belgium for its tourism, it’s where many foreign nationals choose to live. There are over 220,000 expats living in Belgium today, and in the past many famous faces chose Belgium as a place of refuge during political or social turmoil.
Despite Belgium’s relatively tiny size, there’s plenty of room for everyone. The city of Brussels alone has 27% of its dwellers registered as foreign nationals. Many choose Belgium because of its ideal location for traveling to other European countries. It also has a high standard of living, so why wouldn’t you want to live there? (And the chocolate, but that’s coming up later!)
Some people had to choose Belgium out of necessity, however. Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto while exiled from France in 1848, and Victor Hugo penned Les Miserables in Brussels, during the year of 1857.
6. The Comic Strip route
In 1991, the Comic Strip Route in Brussels became a Mecca for European comic lovers. Feel the pangs of nostalgia as you roam Brussels’ streets. The city has immortalized their fictional famous folks by displaying them to the world. But where do you find them, and why are they there?
Well, Belgium is famous for being the European kings of comics. The Belgian graphic arts scene sprung up as early as 1929 when Belgian George Remi began printing The Adventures of Tintin in a newspaper. Because selling American graphic novels and comics was prohibited during World War II, homegrown satirical comics experienced a boom in sales in Belgium.
The rest of Europe, and eventually the U.S and beyond, became enthralled by the adventures of Tintin. The iconic image of the journo with his characteristic hairdo and canine sidekick, Snowy aren’t easily forgotten. You can spot him on Rue de l’Étuve 37-1000 in Brussels, and keep an eye out for Captain Haddock too! Let’s not forget about Lucky Luke, the lonely cowboy who captured hearts and imaginations by “shooting faster than his shadow”! You can see Luke on Rue de la Buanderie 40-1000.
7. Comic Museums
If the Comic Strip Route just isn’t enough for you, you’re in luck. Belgium has two museum alternatives for comic book lovers to quench your thirst for graphic novel trivia! It won’t hurt if we give you a head start. Did you know that The Adventures of Tintin has been translated into 70 languages and sold 230 million books worldwide?
The Comic Strip Center in the heart of Brussels is a museum dedicated solely to permanent and temporary displays of comics, ranging from European to Japanese Manga, and many more besides. You can also learn more about Peyo, the creator of The Smurfs. There’s even a 3D Smurf village in there! As an aside, I had the delight of sampling Smurf-flavored ice cream last time I was in Belgium. It tasted like bubblegum. Try it!
There’s also the MOOF (Museum Of Original Figurines) which has collections of rare transcripts and iconic works of graphic art.
8. World War I
If only violence had been limited to comic books. The Flanders region of Belgium is famous for being the site of the Western Front, where many of the largest battles of World War I took place. Three million soldiers fought at The Battle of The Somme in Belgium, and four months later when it ended, one million of them had lost their lives.
There are many monuments, cemeteries and remembrance rituals that you can attend in Flanders today. Many of the trenches remain intact, although it’s advised you walk with a guide as some areas are still deemed unsafe. I can recommend a visit to the In Flanders Fields Museum, or a visit to Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth military cemetery in Europe. It’s believed there are almost 12,000 graves there, and whilst it’s an overwhelming sight it’s incredibly thought-provoking.
You can also attend The Last Post Ceremony which takes place at 8 o’clock in the evening every day at the Menin Gate, Ypres. The huge archway depicts the names of soldiers who died there, and again, it’s as beautiful as it is bleak. If you’re interested in World War I, a visit to north-west Flanders is an absolute must.
Modern-day Flanders isn’t all centered around horrors of the past, however. It’s wise to mix in a few other sights of the Dutch-speaking region to appreciate the rest of what Flanders has to offer.
Flanders’ cities like Ghent, Bruges and Antwerp have plenty to offer in the way of tourism. Quirky Ghent is a mix of old and modern, with castles and cobblestones as well as impressive glass towers. It’s also been given several nicknames like “Medieval Manhattan” and the Veggie Capital of Europe, as Ghentians have been encouraged to go vegetarian on Thursdays since 2009.
However you spend your time in Flanders, you’re sure to fall in love with something. Next, we’ll talk about Antwerp and why all that glitters is actually made of diamonds, not gold!
Antwerp needs plenty of space to thrive, on this list as well as in real life. It’s Belgium’s second largest city, and its main industry may surprise you. Antwerp is the Diamond Capital of The World, and it doesn’t get much bougier than that. 50% of the global production of rough, polished and cut diamonds pass through Antwerp at some point, so the title is well earned.
Diamonds have provided industry in Antwerp for 500 years, and it’s no mistake it ended up there. It’s home to Belgium’s largest port, and the first diamonds were brought over from India where they were examined and redistributed throughout Europe. The Diamond District is located just around the corner from Antwerp’s central train station, so you don’t have far to go before everything you lay your eyes on starts to glitter.
But it’s not all expensive diamonds. Antwerp is the unofficial capital of Flanders, and is where you’ll find the iconic building of The Port House, headquarters of the Antwerp Port Authority. If you prefer old-school architecture, check out Steen Castle. Hailing from the 11th century, the castle invites visitors to discover its gruesome history as a prison and join in the fairytale atmosphere against the backdrop of the Scheldt river.
11. Belgian chocolate
What better reason to visit Belgium than to sample some of the world’s best chocolate? Switzerland and Belgium have been fierce rivals when it comes to who is the real master chocolatier, but one thing is clear: the Belgians have an advantage.
Belgium is famous for having the world’s largest chocolate factory, located in Wieze, east Flanders. They produce about 270,000 tons of chocolate a year – which I’m sure you’ll agree is both impressive and lucky for us. Belgium’s chocolate industry is 400 years old, and was brought to Europe by Belgian colonizers when they returned from The Congo, Africa.
Belgians take chocolate pretty seriously – there are chocolate laws which constitute what can truly be called “Belgian” chocolate. It must contain 35% cacao – American chocolate contains just 10% cacao on average, so it may taste richer than what you’re used to! It’s estimated that there are 2,000 chocolate companies and stores in Belgium, and that’s nothing compared to their output. Belgium exports roughly 578,000 tons of chocolate every year, earning them an annual turnover of €4 billion.
12. Unusual museums
You aren’t alone if you’ve always thought of Belgium as a rainy, flat country with not much going on. Even some Belgians thought that, and that might be why so many extraordinary museums have popped up all over the country.
High brow leisure can be a bit draining, so why not explore Belgium’s alternative side by…stopping by the underwear museum? Located in Lessines, the Underwear Museum houses the underpants of Belgian celebrities, including former Brussels Mayor, Yvan Mayeur.
If that doesn’t take your fancy, you can also go to the Carrot Museum in Berlotte, where carrot memorabilia is the pinnacle of interest. The Laundry Museum is in the town of Spa, where you can see how your great-grandmother might have washed her clothes. There’s also the National Museum of The Playing Card, if you’ve ever wondered what 16th century playing cards looked like.
Wallonia, the southern part of Belgium, is famous for its varied climate, industrial achievements in a bygone era, and many quirky things besides. In some respects, Wallonia greatly resembles parts of France in varying degrees – country châteaus, rolling hills, and even vineyards in the Lorraine area.
During the Industrial Revolution, Wallonia was actually the second most industrialized area in the world thanks to coal and iron factories. This once prized claim has left scars in the modern day, however. The city of Charleroi was voted “ugliest city in the world” by the Dutch, thanks in part to abandoned factories and piles of unused coal (which you can climb, by the way). Luckily, the locals have a sense of humor. They invite you to take an “urban safari”, where you can explore sites such as “the most depressing street”.
There’s plenty of beauty to be found in Wallonia too, however. You can ramble through the dazzling woodlands of the Ardennes, or see fairytale castles such as Château de Bouillon. The capital of Wallonia is Namur, but the most populous city is Liège.
The city of Liège is one of Wallonia’s pearls. It might be a medieval city, but like a fine wine it just gets better with age. You won’t find Liège on many must-visit lists, which is a shame because it’s got plenty to offer. Don’t be fooled by its quaint cobblestones and red bricks, by night Liège is every bit the party city as its more famous contemporaries.
Start your visit to Liège by climbing the 374 steps of Montagne de Bueren. Along the way, there are plenty of hidden alleyways with independent boutiques and cafès. At the top, you’ll get panoramic views of the city and see for yourself how the river Meuse gently winds itself through the urban landscape. On the first Saturday of October, the steps are lit by candlelight, casting golden shadows as fall approaches.
It’s also worth mentioning that while Belgium is famous for its waffles, the city of Liège is where you’ll find truly spectacular ones. Like something out of a story book for kids, the center of the waffles are filled with exploding sugar crystals. The dough used is similar to that of brioche, and they’re so soft you’ll wish your pillows were made of them.
15. Battle of Waterloo
As you already know, Belgium is famous for seeing its fair share of European bloodshed on its soil. The Battle of Waterloo surely has its place as one of the most iconic battles in history, since it led to the capture and downfall of Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign as supreme general of Europe.
The battle of Waterloo took place on 18 June, 1815 in Waterloo, Wallonia. It’s roughly ten miles south of Brussels, and every year some 1000 participants gather to reenact the battle.
A few days before the battle took place, The Duke of Wellington (the general of the Allied Army) made a 17th century Waterloo inn his headquarters. Today, it goes by the name of Wellington Museum. See old maps and letters from both the Allies and Napoleon’s army, as well as weapons and cannons from the battle. You can also visit the battlefield itself.
Belgium is famous for being the ultimate country of pub crawls. If that sounds sus to you, don’t worry, there’s evidence to back it up. There are no official closing times for bars in Belgium, and if you want to sample all the Belgian beers, you’ll need to extend your stay a considerable amount.
Variety is the spice of life, so they say, and Belgium is keen to oblige when it comes to beer. There are so many Belgian beer brands and varieties that you could drink a different Belgian beer every day for three whole years without repeating even once – and that’s a fun fact.
Belgians, on average, drink 150 liters of beer a year per person and they take the stuff pretty seriously. The first beer academy in the world was established in 1999 in Herk-de-Stad. There are even laws about serving beer in particular glasses matching the brand of beer in Belgium, so you’ll know your drink is authentic.
17. Belgian food: Fries, waffles & more
Something that causes many Belgians annoyance is how many of their culinary achievements are wrongly assigned to other countries (I’m looking at you French fries!). Belgium is famous for having some truly delicious dishes, both savory and sweet – waffles, anyone?
Brussels is maybe the true home of Belgian food. While it might seem odd to us that the French fry and Brussels sprouts could possibly come from the same city, the truth of the matter is they do! Love them or hate them, Brussels sprouts end up on dining tables all over the world. Presumably so parents can get petty revenge on their kids.
There’s no point in ordering French fries in Belgium, because the humble fry as we know it is presumed a Belgian invention. Typically served with ketchup and mayo (yes, together!) Belgian fries are deliciously skinny and crunchy. Belgium is also famous for its waffles which come in regional varieties. If the three year pub crawl doesn’t grab you, a waffle crawl sounds like a great idea to me!
If you’ve spent any time at all in continental Europe, you’ll have noticed how convenient it is to have the same currency when you cross borders. What you might not have realized, is that Belgium is actually famous for being the home country of the coin designer, Luc Luycx.
If you’ve ever studied your euros closely, you might have noticed differences on the back – Italy has different designs for each coin of different value, for instance. But the front side, depicting a globe or map of Europe was actually Luc Luycx’s idea.
If you have any euros to hand, take a closer look at the coins and see if you can spot a tiny “LL” printed somewhere on the coin – they’re the designer’s initials. Neat, huh?
19. Bright lights
Okay, so we neglect Belgium on our lists of awesome places to go. But did you know that Belgium is famous for being one of the places where man-made structures can be seen from the moon?
Here on Earth, we’re guilty of underestimating plenty of people and places. But aliens (if they hang out near the moon) might have been admiring Belgium’s highway for some years now. It’s so brightly lit that even from as far away as the moon, it can be seen shining from Europe.
According to The New York Times, it takes 2.2 million bulbs to light up Belgium’s highway. The International Space Station frequently takes pictures of Europe where Belgium acts as a lighthouse. It kind of looks like a giant spider web on fire, so maybe that’s why the aliens haven’t paid Belgium a visit. Or they’re just like us, and keep getting distracted by other places. Who knows.
With all that politics and important world affairs going on, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Belgium is famous for having a bit of a lackluster party scene. Allow me to assure you that what the Belgians might lack in globally recognized singers and musicians, they more than make up for with Tomorrowland festival.
If electronic dance is your thing, I probably don’t need to explain what Tomorrowland is. For those that don’t know, Tomorrowland is the world’s largest electronic dance music festival. Held in the aptly named Boom, Antwerp, Tomorrowland lasts two weekends and is an extravaganza of mayhem.
Headliners have included (but aren’t limited to) Armin Van Buuren, Swedish House Mafia, Afrojack and David Guetta. It used to be that attendees had to cram all their excitement into one weekend, but with its growing popularity, it had to increase to two. Up to 400,000 people attend Tomorrowland, so it’s not as niche as some of Belgium’s other tourist destinations.
21. Romantic getaways in Bruges
If you’re looking for beautiful places in Belgium that exude a romantic vibe, then Bruges might just be the place for you. Romance is alive and well in this medieval Flanders city, complete with dainty quays and even The Lake of Love.
Belgium is known for its 13 UNESCO World Heritage sites, but to see one of the world’s best preserved medieval towns first hand you need to visit Bruges. The entire city center has UNESCO World Heritage status, and its charming Gothic architecture and winding canals give ample opportunity for strolling hand-in-hand with your loved one. Bruges’ gingerbread-style buildings bring fairytales to real life and its aesthetic is so pleasing to the eye.
The romantic pinnacle of Bruges has got to be Minnewater lake. Shrouded in local folklore, the story behind the name is highly reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. Star-crossed lovers Minna and Stromberg were kept apart by their rival families, and upon discovering Minna’s untimely death, Stromberg named the lake after her and built a bridge over it to commemorate his lost love. Legend also has it that if you kiss your lover on the bridge, the pair of you will have eternal love. Aww.
Believe it or not, Belgium is famous for having the most castles per square meter in the world – yeah, even more than France! This little known fact is all the more to your advantage as a traveler, since the country’s so small you can fit in even more sightseeing.
On top of that, you’ll be glad to know each region has its fair share of magnificent buildings. Flanders has 457 castles, Wallonia 479 and the Brussels Region 26. There are around 3000 buildings in Belgium altogether that qualify either as stately homes, châteaus, or manors. Many of them are open to the public, and some of them even offer a place to sleep if you’re feeling super fancy.
Head to Gravensteen castle near Ghent to see a medieval castle as you would imagine it to be, complete with a moat and towers. If you have a strong enough stomach, there’s a medieval torture museum located within its walls too! Other notable castles include Crupet castle, Château de Beloeil, and Château de Waroux.
23. Belgian cheeses
Astonishingly, Belgium makes around 300 types of cheese, enough to rival its gargantuan European neighbors. The Belgians take a more exclusive approach to their cheese however, preferring to keep it for themselves than export it. It could also be that Belgian cheese isn’t exported worldwide because it tends to be… on the smellier side.
Herve is one of the most popular cheeses in Belgium, and its soft texture contrasts heavily with its smell. Limburger on the hand is popular abroad, particularly in the U.S. It originally came from Belgium. Other cheeses to try in Belgium include the ready to spread Brussele Kaas, and the loaf of bread shaped Passendale.
24. Famous Belgians
An unfair accusation made of Belgium is that there are no famous Belgian people. With neighbors like France and The Netherlands, it’s easy to get swept up in the big names from across the borders. But it’s simply not true to say that Belgians don’t have any claims to fame.
The man responsible for inventing the saxophone is none other than Adolphe Sax. He born in Dinant, in the year 1814. His statue, above, is an iconic landmark in his home city.
The list could go on indefinitely, but the most recent famous figures to emerge from Belgium are the comic strip writers and illustrators. Many people don’t know that the famous actress Audrey Hepburn was born in Ixelles, Belgium.
Similarly, it’s a common myth bandied about by pot-stirring neighbors that Belgium is known for having no “real” arts scene. Hopefully I already dispelled that myth earlier, but Belgium’s art legacy goes beyond what you might expect.
René Magritte is one of the most famous artists to hail from Belgium. A Wallonian born in 1898 in Lessines, he was prized for his surrealist art, most notably “ceci c’est pas un pipe” (This is not a pipe). He used wit and intellect to get viewers of his art to ponder deeper meanings – as in the case of the picture of a pipe that is not, in fact, a pipe. Visit the Magritte Museum in Brussels to channel your inner philosopher!
Peter Paul Rubens was one of the most influential painters of the Baroque era (early 17th century until the 1740s). Born in Antwerp, he gained fame by painting oil portraits with stunning likeness to their real-life subjects. You can also visit Rubens’ house which is now a gallery and museum, located in the center of Antwerp.
Help fellow explorers out: where have you been in Belgium we should know about? Let us know in the comments below!