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Compact and multilingual, this tiny nation is rarely on anyone’s bucket list and often overlooked by Euro trippers in favour of its more popular neighbours – from its seductive and romantic French neighbor to powerhouse Germany and charming Netherlands. And if anyone had the opportunity to visit Belgium, most visitors would flock to its elegant capital Brussels or Dutch speaking Flanders region to the north where tourist hotspots of Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges are located.
Most visitors use this as a quick stopover and rarely spend beyond a few days in Belgium but as travellers untrammeled by convention, Justin and I spent close to a month here and discovered that beyond the chocolate, beer, mussels (and diamond too!) there is plenty to discover in the French speaking Wallonia region, where we volunteered with a local family in Charleroi. Away from the tourist trail, we loved that we had the opportunity to practice French, live locally, discover hidden gems and stay away from large group of tourists.
The country’s tiny size makes it easy to travel around – with cities close to each other and the efficient Belgian Rail, it is not impossible to visit several cities in one day! Go for a rail pass at EUR 77 for 10 journeys (to any destination in Belgium) in second class coach or EUR 118 in first class for more comfort (www.belgianrail.be/en/). Add to that a high speed rail train, Belgium is also well connected to other European cities so that makes it a convenient stop or a stand-alone destination.
In my humble opinion, Brussels is no world city the likes of London, New York or Paris and is largely bureaucratic and serious being the de facto administrative capital of the European Union. However, beyond the European Parliament, this underrated city in the heart of Europe boasts a quirky charm and worth a short visit as well as being a convenient base to explore Belgium or Europe. My favourite place is the La Grand-Place, which is a sight to behold. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is one of the most beautiful squares in the world and certainly well worth a half day excursion. Some of the best places to shop include Rue Neuve (Belgium’s busiest shopping street with major chain stores), Avenue Louise and Toison d’Or (high-end fashion and boutiques), Chaussee d’Ixelles (major chain stores) and Le Sablon et Marolles (vintage/designer boutiques).
A Unesco World Heritage site, Bruges is a postcard perfect stop of picturesque canals and bridges, lovely cobblestoned streets and a town boasting medieval architectural heritage. For chocolate lovers, the world’s capital of chocolate has plenty to offer from artisanal chocolatiers to Choco-Story, the chocolate museum where one can learn how to make pralines and truffles. Depending on how much time you have, it is possible to combine several destinations in a day trip – Ghent, Bruges and Ostend (seaside resort). If you are taking the train, there is luggage storage (that caters to three different sizes) at the train station.
Off the beaten path suggestions
As one of two European Capitals Culture 2015 (the other being Pislen in Czechia), Mons is a small but lovely town characterized by its famous landmark and the pride of Mons at 87m high – 17th century Baroque belfry (the only one in the whole of Belgium), recognized as a Unesco World Heritage site that offers sweeping city view. With paved cobblestone alleyways winding up a hill that leads to the Grand Place in the main square, Mons is a great introduction to Wallonia and makes for a perfect weekend break. The main square is lined with a plethora of restaurants and believe it or not, we had the best mussels at Le Royal, a cosy restaurant nestled in the middle of the town square – of all places in Belgium!
Unless there is a need to catch a cheap Ryanair flight out of Brussels South Charleroi Airport (Belgium’s second airport for low-cost flights) this city is often viewed unfavourably by locals and considered by many as the ugliest or most depressing city in Europe. Imagine our shock when our train pulled into Charleroi Sud, its main train station on a grim and no less depressing winter day – a week before Christmas for a volunteer gig we signed up with a local family. The biggest city in Wallonia (French speaking south) and the third largest city in the country, Charleroi was once an industrial stronghold before the industry collapsed in the 1970s. In recent years, Charleroi is rising from its ashes with a downtown revival including the opening of new hotel chains (Novotel and Ibis) and Rive Gauche, a vibrant spanking new, multi-level shopping mall where we spent one too many afternoons. Good news for photography buffs – the Museum of Photography, which is the most important photography museum in Europe is located in Charleroi.
Most people have not heard of Namur, much less been there so if you had to choose one city to visit in the Wallonia region, this off-the-beaten-path city will certainly not disappoint. Despite its modest size, Namur is the capital city of the Wallonia region, where the citadel or Castle of Namur is perched atop a cliff at the confluence of the Sambre and Meuse rivers. The only city worth visiting in Wallonia, Namur is a quaint and charming city which can be easily explored in a day. Walk around the citadel and take a stroll in the old town where the streets are lined with cafes, restaurants and shops.
Arlon is a good pit stop if you are driving to Luxembourg. Take a tour of the Archaeological Museum, one of the richest archaeological museums in Belgium. Arlon also serves as a cheaper alternative to living in Luxembourg City. Most people in this city commute daily to work in the Grand Duchy (where wages tend to be higher) however, rent is cheaper across the border in Belgium.
What are some underrated destinations you have visited? Share your thoughts below.