We will be staying in Brussels. I am willing to rent a car, if it's needed to see the sites. Interested in beer, wine, quaint towns, where the locals go. A few WW2 sites would also be good. Any help would be greatly appreciated.
You'll almost certainly need to rent a car if you want to seriously explore wartime sites, but otherwise you can travel by rail and bus. In terms of "quaint towns", the best-known are Brugge and Gent, which both deserve their fame. Brugge is more purely touristy, so if you want a more local atmosphere go to Gent.
There's no wine made in Belgium - too far north. I'm not a beer drinker so don't have any recommendations.
Brugge, Gent, Brussels and Antwerpen are places I know and love in Belgium. I visited Oostende last time and it was a nice break, not touristed but not quaint, either. Haven't been to Leuven yet, but it's a university town, so probably lots to do.
Chocolate, waffles, beer (I especially love the cherry beer), fries with mayo.
Brussels, Gent, Brugge and Leuven also have some significant museums.
Are you staying in Brussels the whole time?....so all tourism will be via day trips? Not ideal. Of course, on this forum, asking how to split up a vacation across the various towns of Belgium always incites a civil war from each location's devotees! WWII sites are easily researched. I stayed in Bruge and it's a must, including the DeHalve brewery tour. Lots of daytrip bus companies offer trips to see the WWII sites/sights. On my own, I took the train and saw the Atlantik Wall up on the coast and highly recommend a day to visit it and take the tram to explore seaside towns. Enjoy!
I'm not sure what's meant by »quaint«, but nearby Mechelen (French: Malines) is surprisingly interesting and has a good market square to have your beers. Mons (Flemish: Bergen) is also not bad at all. Brugge, Gent and Antwerpen are of course classics, not to be missed.
You might want to look at the thread I posted in the trip report section on January 5th. I visited Atlantikwall in Ostende, which is a World War II (and WWI) site not usually visited. The military history museum in Brussels is also worth visiting.
Jackie: You must try Tripel Karmeliet beer. This was one of the best beers I have ever had.
They do make alcoholic drinks from fruit, like hard cider. I think that's what cherry beer is. They are usually carbonated, sweeter than wine, without the bitterness of beer.
I love Ghent, quieter and less touristy than nearby Bruges, and beautiful after dark when the Gothic buildings and bridges are illuminated.
No, cherry beer is not made from cherries. It's beer flavoured with cherries. Make sure you get proper "kriek lambic", which is flavoured by fermenting cherries along with the beer, and not sweet stuff flavoured with cherry syrup.
I'd rather have a pint of Magner's/Bulmer's :-)
In 12 days, you can certainly visit the "big four" cities of Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent, and Brussels. As said above, opinions of these are all over the place, so you should definitely go to all of them to see them for yourself.
I saw a bit of Leuven's begijnhof, which is quite large and attractive. And Tournai was a nice city that doesn't get nearly as many tourists as the big four cities do; however, I found that English was in short supply, so you may not have a good time without survival French.
In Brussels, if your visit coincides with an Art Nouveau tour by ARAU, take it. It was, by far, the highlight of my time in that city: http://www.arau.org/en
One particular day trip from Brussels that might be of interest is the little town of Waterloo and it's nearby battlefield site. Can either drive or take the train to get there... about 20 mi. South of Brussels.
It was a pretty good hike from the Waterloo train station out to the battle site, and the route was not pedestrian friendly as I recall, so driving might be your best bet.
For other day trip ideas suggest checking the Trip Advisor "things to do" feature - always a good place to see what's in the neighborhood.
To get to the Waterloo battlefield, take the "W" bus from the southern railway station in Brussels. One stop will be right across the street from the Wellington Headquarters museum. Another will be right by the battlefield. It's not a long walk at all.
Be careful when you start back. We came back just when all the children were coming home from school. I've never seen a bus so packed! It was fun, in a way, but if we had known we would have spent another hour at the battlefield to let the congestion pass through.
By the way, Belgian fruit beers are regular beer, fermented with grain. They add fruit juice for flavoring. They aren't fermented from fruit like cider.
Actually, you catch either the W or the 365 bus from Brussels Midi railway station out to Waterloo. Here's the link:
It is a much better option than the train, and the "Carte d'un Jour" is a great deal.
I highly suggest a guided tour of "Flanders Fields" or more specifically the Ypres salient. Quasimodo tours out of Bruges does a great full day exploration of the battlefield(s). Very moving especially if you can make "last post" at the Menin Gate in Ypres. Also timely with the centennial and all. As for beers, try a gueze from the Cantillon brewery in Brussels. Unlike any beer you have ever had.
If you do end up in Leuven, there is actually a very small war commission cemetery there. Mostly Brits and Aussies, Poles, and one American airman are buried there. It's in a lovely spot at the end of the woods, on the far side of Heverlee.
I happened to be there on a Remembrance day and a car of Brits rolled up. They were there to put flags on graves. The gentleman of the group had been stationed at the hospital (in a convent) in Heverlee (or Leuven not sure exactly) at the end of the war. Air fighters were brought there. He and another guy were assigned to lay out the cemetery, plant the trees and so forth. He told me the nuns at the hospital would invite them for dinner and were very kind. He was so, well, wistful, talking about the nuns and his friend and the quiet work of making a cemetery. He tried to come back every year. And seemed to enjoy seeing how big the trees had gotten. There are bigger, more 'important' cemeteries in Belgium I guess, but really, all of them matter very much.
Otherwise, Leuven is a very charming university town, most famous for it's over the top city hall. There is a city museum, a lovely castle grounds (now houses the architecture school), good markets, the begijnhof (Leuven really has two--one less famous and now all private apartments), excellent city walks following the Dijle thru the city. There are tour groups who visit Leuven, but they are mostly day trippers. The big Stella brewery is there and there are other breweries. Probably plenty of beer tour options.
Jackie there is so much to see in Bastogne that it may be worth while to spend a night or two there. I'll do that myself the first part of May. I was referred to a local tour guide by the name of Marcellin Destordeur, email@example.com. If you are not interested in doing a tour of the battlefields there are plenty of museums in the area. Easy train and bus ride, about 3.5 hours from Brussels Midi. Enjoy!
There are more smaller places besides those already mentioned worth a visit or just a stop during a ride like (listed from west to east):
Veurne - lovely historic centre
De Haan - Belle Epoque architecture, Einstein stayed there for a half year prepairing moving finally to Princeton.
Oudenaarde - Gothic townhall and Tour of Flanders museum
Ooidonk Castle near Ghent
Castles of Gaasbeek and Beersel near Brussels
La Louviere – old boat lifts and one fairly new
Lier - lovely historic centre
Bokrijk – open air musuem
Sint Truiden - nice main square
Tongeren - Gallo Roman museum
Durbuy – lovely Wallonien village
Castle of Alden - Biesen
Some places have limited or specific opening hours so get informed before planning a visit. The Belgian countryside is dotted with little cafées and restaurants. During the week likely a bit too silent, but in the weekend packed with locals meaning the food and drinks and above all the atmosphere (ambience) is okay. If you stay in a B&B you can ask for those places. You can buy a Michelin Green Guide Belgium & Luxembourg with loads of info for visiting the lesser known places.
The inclined plain is really cool.
Might consider visiting the Orval Abby as well. Very beautiful ruins in a gorgeous valley.
Dinant is interesting as well.
To avoid a misunderstanding: The old boat lifts are those on the UNESCO World Heritage List and are near La Louvière, with the newer lift I mean the one of Strépy Thieu. If interested you can indeed visit a lift of another type of Ronquières and is described as a sloping lock (or inclined plane), just google to see the difference.
Since you mentioned beer as you first interest, take the train to Lueven and visit The Capital, http://www.thecapital.be/. Great pub with an even greater beer selection. The menu is a small book with over 2000 beers available. And the town is nice too.
Or for something completely different - head for the coast and catch the “Kusttram” or Coast tram – it’s a lightweight tram line that runs nearly the full length of the Belgium coast from near the French border to close to the Dutch border, There are 70 stops along the 68Km (42miles) track.
Get the train from Brussells to Oostende, then jump on the tram and head either north or south. It’s a great day out with plenty of small beach towns along the way plus some very upmarket towns as well.
This newspaper article tells you all about it.
Here’s the web site too. in Dutch but there's an english version in the drop down box.
You won’t be disappointed
Get out of the larger cities and go see the rural areas...for example...the Abbey at Orval, the little towns of Durbuy, Roche de Ardennes, and Watou, or any number of smaller villages.