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First trip to Belgium

Hello, this website was suggested to me as my family is planning a trip to Belgium early August for two weeks. My wife and I have a preteen son and a teen.daughter. We would appreciate any advice if possible from all you seasoned travellers- should Ghent be our base and we move around to Bruges and Brussels. We welcome any guidelines or suggestions as it will be our first trip to Europe.
I will also check out the forum, when time permits. Thank you for any help or suggestion.

Posted by
7482 posts

If you don't have our "host" Rick Steves book that includes Belgium, I urge you to go to the library and read an old one. You could also use the search box (top center of Desktop version of this very site) to read the many past discussions of the four or five most popular cities in Belgium. It would be useful to say what airport your family is flying in and out of, and whether they have visited Europe before. Two weeks for Belgium alone is a little unusual, so we'd also like to know what your are interested in.

For example, there are outdoor national parks, but most discussions here are about the art and history in the Flemish section of Belgium.

You have not included your home city and country in your display profile, so we don't know how long it will take you to get to Belgium, or whether it's easy for you to visit Europe often.

Posted by
3551 posts

I would also add another base in Netherlands. Perhaps Haarlem as a base, a short train trip to Delft, Amsterdam or Edam to mention some gd and varied options.
Haarlem has at least a day worth of top sights and a relaxed town square.

Posted by
3941 posts

We just had our first trip to Belgium but only stayed 3 nights. We based in Ghent and it was nice and central to other places we wanted to see. About 30 min to Bruges, I think an hour to Antwerp, 40 min to Brussels. Are you spending the whole two weeks in Belgium? What are your interests? Driving or public transport?

We stopped in Antwerp on our way from NL to Ghent, stayed for the afternoon. Did a day trip to Bruges and a day trip to Ieper/Ypres to see the Flanders Fields Museum and Last Post. If you are interested in WW1/2 history, maybe you could spend some nights in the Ypres area, then move on to stay in Antwerp. Staying in Antwerp would give you better connections if you wanted to day trip into NL.

We loved it, BTW - probably because we had no preconceived notions about Belgium - no high expectations...so we were really impressed!

Posted by
4684 posts

Brussels is a very large city whose attractions are very spread out, so it's better to stay in than do day trips. There is very divided opinion on it here - I like it. Bruges is very, very touristy, but staying there has the advantage that you get to see it early and late without the crowds. Ghent is almost as pretty as Bruges, but has less of a tourist-dominated atmosphere and also has university student life.

Note that Bruges and Ghent are in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium and almost anyone who you meet will be able and willing to speak English. Brussels is more of a Francophone city and outside tourist venues people may not be so willing.

Posted by
7482 posts

Because I've spent a lot of time in Antwerp, with the opportunity to daytrip to the nearby cities, I want to add that I didn't mean to suggest that two weeks in Belgium is a waste of time. I am always disappointed when I read here about travelers treating Belgium as a stopover on the way to the Netherlands. Some posters even seem to suspect that they are parts of the same country. (The food is much better in Belgium.) You could just as well use Belgium as a way to (cheap advance purchase) spend a few days in Cologne, which is a great city and easy to get to from Brussels.

I personally would base in Antwerp, but Gent is probably cheaper. The difference is that Antwerp has more to do. Unreserved train daytrips are so convenient that the proximity of the hotel/rail station is important. Beware of heat and unscreened hotel windows in August. I'd pay for air conditioning in a city.

I happen to like art museums. The most important museum in Antwerp, with dozens of Rubens paintings, among other artists, is closed for years of renovation. But Antwerp has many, many other museums. And Brussels has a bigger classical art museum, and is noted for modern collections, like the Magritte museum. But Antwerp also has one of the most important commercial ports in today's Europe, a cunning pedestrian river tunnel, great churches and an important cathedral, hot fashion designers, classical music festivals, a great "survey" museum with a free rooftop view platform (the "MAS"), and wonderful medieval streets. Antwerp also has contemporary art, like homeboy Luc Tuymans.

A neat thing about the trip to Cologne is that the train stops in Liege, which isn't important to visit. But the Calatrava rail station, which you can see from the steps of the train during your stop, gives a hint of what was passed up in the "value-engineering" away of the best of the New York City "Oculus" shopping mall he designed. The train also stops in Aachen, a destination in itself for history buffs. I haven't been to Dusseldorf yet, but many people like it, and it's almost right next to Cologne.

It is very important that you read the introductory section of ANY Rick Steves travel book before your first trip to Europe. If you buy "Belgium ... and the Netherlands", so much the better. (I have no connection with his business!)

Posted by
3 posts

Thank you for your reply Tim. We are from Ontario, Canada. The flight is roughly around 8hrs. Since this is our first visit to Europe, we are open to any experience like a little history of the places we will visit, museums, parks, local cuisines, etc. We are looking forward to the Europe experience.
We are excited to check out the canal tours, visit the chocolate museum, enjoy the beer and fries besides the walking around.
Sadly neither does our library or the surrounding areas carry the Rick Steve Amsterdam and the Netherlands book. It is on order with no timeline.

We will check out the options suggested by JS, thank you.
Would it be advisable to use Air B n B versus a hotel?

Nicole, since this is our first trip to Europe, we are still checking out options. We are open to driving or public transport. It would be fun for us to use public transport, to allow us to enjoy the experience, but if it is advisable to drive, please let us know.
We have no expectations, are open to any suggestions / itineraries, really looking forward to enjoying our holiday and making wonderful memories with our kids.

On reading through, I now know two weeks will be too much in Belgium. We will definitely visit NL

Thank you for sharing your experience as it will help us with planning our trip.

Posted by
3941 posts

Conrad - there are soooo many chocolate shops in Brussels - it was hilarious! We went to the main square and wandered around the surrounding streets (we had a few hours to visit on our way from Ghent to Paris) and if there were 20 stores on a street, I swear 17 of them were choc shops - and every one offering a sample...oh my!

When we visited Bruges, we did a canal boat ride (fun)...we also did the Historium - just...don't. Skip it, unless you want to watch what basically was a short movie about a guy, a painter, a bird and a girl...can't believe we spent the money on that. After that debacle, we passed by somewhere offering a 'chocolate walk' and kicked ourselves for not doing that instead.

Airbnb or hotel would be up to you. I tend to airbnb now to save money, but my husband and I don't mind staying in a room only with the owner present (as opposed to whole apartment). If you thought you may want somewhere to be able to prepare your own meals, have breakfast items or snacks on hand, an apmt may be better - especially with kids - you may want to have separate rooms for privacy. You can look at VRBO as well as airbnb and some other apartment rental sites as well.

We like to use public transport more than having a car, but there are times when a car may be better. I think you'll have to look at where you want to visit and the ease of getting there by train/bus. We debated having a car in the NL when we left Amsterdam, but with only 3 nights, we figured what we wanted to see was doable using trains (of course, we were there over Easter weekend and they were doing rail work near Dordrecht. We had some delays and had to use buses to get to other towns so we could catch a train to where we wanted to go). If you want to explore smaller villages, or visit some of the war sites, a car may be the better option. We have only rented in France - once when we were exploring the south of France and wanted to see a lot of less accessible places. It can help and hinder finding cheaper places to stay - help because you can stay a little outside a city where it could be cheaper, but hinder because you need to be sure there is somewhere to park, preferably free and onsite. But being at the whim of train schedules can be a PITA...we stayed in Ypres for the Last Post. There was one train an hour back to Ghent, and of course, LP being over at about 8:20, we had to wait until 9:15 for the train back to Ghent - nothing was open, it was cold...we couldn't even wait in the station as it was locked up - there was a tiny little French fry place where we hung out for 40 min. And an hour back to Ghent, and by the time we got back to our room, it was after 11pm.

In the NL, we stayed in Dordrecht, which was nice. We visited Gouda and did a nice walking tour via a book we bought at the tourist info/cheese house. Also visited Kinderdijk to see the windmills, which was great. Also stayed in Amsterdam 5 nights and did some daytrips from there.

I could see 5-6 nights in Belgium giving you a good overview. I can see going back some year for another 4 nights or so when we finally decide to see more of Germany, and I'd love to go back to the NL for another week and really see more of it (most likely would get a car to see some off the beaten path places, but for a first time visit, public trans would be fine).

One thing you could look into - when we were in Ghent, we bought a 10 ride pass for the trams/local transport in the city. Those were also good in Bruges as the same company ran the trams or bus there (we just walked in Bruges tho). Now, not sure how widespread they are, but that may be something to research that you may get a pass that would be good in more than one place for the local transport.

Posted by
94 posts

We are about to take our second trip to Europe. We're spending about a week in Belgium (primarily in Brussels and Brugge as our base) and a week in Paris. You might check that out as an option for yourselves as well. Paris is only a few hours away by the Thalys train. And there's sure to be plenty of things to do there that your children would enjoy.

Posted by
679 posts

Several years back I took my 11, 13 and 20 year old sons and a 16 year old niece to Europe and we started in Belgium. While in Brussels all of us very much enjoyed the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History. We spent hours there looking at the displays. In Ghent the kids were fascinated to see the torture chambers at the Gravensteen Castle. Our favorite day for all of us was a day trip to Dinant. It was a short train ride from Brussels. DInant is a very small town, very walkable. The kids enjoyed the gondola ride up to the Citadelle de Dinant. The views from the top were very scenic and we visited the museum at the top. We walked alongside the river, ate lunch and since it was a beautiful sunny summer day we took a boat ride on the river. There were lots of people out kayaking and biking. It was a very enjoyable day. As an adult, I very much enjoyed the flea markets in Bruges. We used Brussels as our base and used public transportation. Since you have two weeks I would add a second major destination. Can you fly into Brussels and out of another city on a multicity ticket? Ask your kids where they would prefer going. We coupled Brussels with Rome that year and flew from Brussels on Ryanair cheaply to Rome. If you are locked into return flights into and out of Brussels then consider the Netherlands or France or even London via the Eurostar.

Posted by
1806 posts

Agree with Tim on Antwerp. I've been to Belgium multiple times and alternated staying in each of the larger popular cities. As pretty as Bruges might be, there just wasn't a whole lot to do. It's an easy commuter rail from Antwerp to get to all of the other cities in Belgium for day trips.

Posted by
3 posts

Thank you Tim, Nicole, cah2C, Pat & Ceidleh for your posts which will be very helpful in planning our trip, but not this summer. Unfortunately a family emergency has come up and it seems like the trip will not happen either in July or August. The weather will not be conducive during December even though kids have a two week vacation. It seems like our trip will have to be during the March break 2018.
This will be the second time we have to push back our vacation. We had been planning to go to Spain in March but due to a series of problems, had to put our plans on hold.
This time we are helping my wife’s family with a medical emergency. She also lost her mother suddenly last summer.
I do hope when we are ready to go, I can continue on the same forum if that is permitted, to request a few pointers/help if required.
Thank you once again for all your detailed suggestions and help. Enjoy your summer.