In general terms at least, Belgian society is sympathetic to its children and the tourist industry follows suit. Extra beds in hotel rooms are usually easy to arrange; many restaurants (but not the smartest) have children’s menus; concessions for children are the rule, from public transport to museums; and baby-changing stations are commonplace. Pharmacists carry all the kiddie stuff you would expect – nappies, baby food and so forth. Certain hotels, particularly the better ones on the coast, offer a babysitting service, and a few resorts operate a municipal service of registered babysitters.
Travelling by bicycle, eating picnics bought from supermarkets and cooking your own food at campsites, it’s possible to keep costs down to €25 a day per person. Moving up a notch, if you picnic at lunch, stick to less expensive bars and restaurants, and stay in cheap hotels or hostels, you could get by on around €50–60 a day. Staying in two-star hotels, eating out in medium-range restaurants and going to bars, you should reckon on about €120 a day, the main variable being the cost of your room. On €150 a day and upwards, you’ll be limited only by time, though if you’re planning to stay in a five-star hotel and have a big night out, this still won’t be enough. For further information on accommodation costs.
Crime and personal safety
By comparison with other parts of Europe, Belgium is relatively free of crime, so there’s little reason why you should ever come into contact with either country’s police force. However, there is more street crime in Belgium than there used to be, especially in Brussels and Antwerp, and it’s advisable to be on your guard against petty theft. If you are robbed, you’ll need to go to a police station to report it, not least because your insurance company will require a police report; remember to make a note of the report number – or, better still, ask for a copy of the statement itself. Don’t expect a great deal of concern if your loss is relatively small – and don’t be surprised if the process of completing forms and formalities takes ages.
As for personal safety, it’s generally possible to walk around without fear of harassment or assault, but certain parts of all the big cities – especially Brussels, around the Gare du Midi – are decidedly dodgy, and wherever you go at night it’s always better to err on the side of caution. Using public transport, even late at night, isn’t usually a problem, but if in doubt take a taxi.
The electric current is 220 volts AC, with standard European-style two-pin plugs. British equipment needs only a plug adaptor; American apparatus requires a transformer and an adaptor.
Citizens of EU and EEA countries only need a valid passport or national identity card to enter Belgium, where – with some limitations – they also have the right to work, live and study. US, Australian, Canadian, South African and New Zealand citizens need only a valid passport for visits of up to ninety days, but are not allowed to work. Passports must be valid for at least three months beyond the period of intended stay.
Non-EU citizens who wish to visit Belgium for longer than ninety days must get a special visa from a Belgian/Luxembourg consulate or embassy before departure. Visa requirements do change and it is always advisable to check the current situation before leaving home.
Gay and lesbian travellers
Gay and lesbian life in Belgium does not have a high international profile, especially in comparison with the Netherlands next door. Nonetheless, there’s still a vibrant gay scene in Brussels and Antwerp and at least a couple of gay bars and clubs in every major town. In both countries the gay/lesbian scene is left largely unmolested by the rest of society, a pragmatic tolerance – or intolerance soaked in indifference – that has provided opportunities for legislative change. In 1998 Belgium passed a law granting certain rights to cohabiting couples irrespective of their sex, and civil unions for same-sex couples were legalized, after much huffing and puffing by the political right, in 2003. The legal age of consent for men and women is 16 in Belgium.
Under reciprocal health care arrangements, all citizens of the EU (European Union) and EEA (European Economic Area) are entitled to free, or at least subsidized, medical treatment within the public health care system of both Belgium and Luxembourg. With the exception of Australians, whose government has a reciprocal health agreement with Belgium, non-EU/EEA nationals are not entitled to any free treatment and should, therefore, take out their own medical insurance. However, EU/EEA citizens may also want to consider private health insurance, both to cover the cost of items not within the EU/EEA scheme, such as dental treatment and repatriation on medical grounds, and to enable them to seek treatment within the private sector. Note also that the more worthwhile insurance policies promise to sort matters out before you pay (rather than after) in the case of major expense; if you do have to pay upfront, get and keep the receipts. No inoculations are currently required.
The public health care system in Belgium is of a good standard. If you’re seeking treatment under EU/EEA reciprocal health arrangements, it may be necessary to double-check that the medic you see is working within (and seeing you as) a patient of the public system. That being the case, you’ll receive subsidized treatment just as the locals do. Technically you should have your passport and your European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) to hand to prove that you are eligible for EU/EEA health care, but often no one bothers to check. English-speaking medical staff are commonplace in Brussels and the Flemish-speaking parts of Belgium, but elsewhere, you’ll be struggling unless you have some rudimentary grasp of French. Your hotel will usually be able to arrange – or help to arrange – an appointment with a doctor, but note that he/she will almost certainly see you as a private patient.
Minor complaints can often be remedied at a pharmacy (French pharmacie, Flemish apotheek): pharmacists are highly trained, willing to give advice (often in English), and able to dispense many drugs which would only be available on prescription in many other countries. Pharmacies are ubiquitous.
Prior to travelling, you’d do well to take out an insurance policy to cover against theft, loss and illness or injury. Before paying for a new policy, however, it’s worth checking whether you already have some degree of cover: for instance, EU health care privileges apply in both Belgium and Luxembourg and some all-risks home insurance policies may cover your possessions when overseas.
After exhausting the possibilities above, you might want to contact a travel insurance company. A typical travel insurance policy usually provides cover for loss of baggage, tickets and – up to a certain limit – cash or cheques, as well as cancellation or curtailment of your journey and medical costs. Most of them exclude so-called dangerous sports – climbing, horseriding, rafting, skiing, windsurfing and so forth – unless an extra premium is paid. Many policies can be chopped and changed to exclude coverage you don’t need – for example, sickness and accident benefits can often be excluded or included at will. If you do take medical coverage, ascertain whether benefits will be paid as treatment proceeds or only after your return home, and whether there is a 24-hour medical emergency number. If you need to make a claim, keep receipts for medicines and medical treatment and, in the event of you have anything stolen, you should obtain a crime report statement or number from the police.
Belgium is well geared up for internet access and almost all hotels, B&Bs and hostels provide it for their guests either free or at minimal charge.
Belgium has an efficient postal system. Post offices are fairly plentiful and mostly open Monday to Friday 9am to 4pm or 5pm, though some big-city branches also open on Saturday from 9am to 3pm. Stamps are sold at a wide range of outlets including many shops and hotels. Mail to the US takes seven days or so, within Europe two to three days. Mail boxes are painted red in Belgium.
The maps provided in this guide should be sufficient for most purposes, but drivers will need to buy a good road map and prospective hikers will need specialist hiking maps. One very good-value national road map is the clear and easy-to-use Michelin (whttp://www.michelintravel.com) Belgium and Luxembourg (1:350,000) map, which comes complete with an index. Michelin also publishes an excellent Benelux road map in book form at 1:150,000; this comes with 74 city maps, though the free city maps issued by the tourist offices in all the major towns are even better and have more detail.
Belgium’s Institut Géographique National/Nationaal Geografisch Instituut (IGN/NGI; whttp://www.ngi.be) produces the most authoritative hiking maps (1:10,000, 1:20,000, 1:50,000) covering the whole of the country.
All the maps mentioned above should be easy enough to track down in Belgium but to be sure (and to check what’s currently on the market) you might consider ordering from a leading bookseller before departure – whttp://www.stanfords.co.uk is hard to beat.
British newspapers and magazines are easy to get hold of and neither is there much difficulty in finding American publications. British radio stations can also be picked up in much of Belgium: you’ll find BBC Radio 4 on 198kHz long wave; the World Service on 648kHz (463m) medium wave; and BBC Radio 5 Live on 909am and 693am. Short-wave frequencies and schedules for BBC World Service (whttp://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice), Radio Canada (whttp://www.rcinet.ca) and Voice of America (whttp://www.voa.gov) are listed on their respective websites.
As far as British TV is concerned, BBC1 and BBC2 television channels are on most hotel-room TVs in Belgium. Access to cable and satellite channels is commonplace in hotels and bars across both countries. Domestic TV is largely uninspiring, though the Flemish-language TV1 and Kanaal 2 usually run English-language films with subtitles, whereas the main Wallonian channels – RTBF 1 and ARTE – mostly dub and Luxembourg’s RTL channel does both.
Money and exchange
In Belgium, the currency is the euro (€). Each euro is made up of 100 cents. There are seven euro notes – in denominations of €500, €200, €100, €50, €20, €10 and €5, each a different colour and size – and eight different coins, specifically €2 and €1, then 50, 20, 10, 5, 2 and 1 cents. Euro notes and coins feature a common EU design on one face, but different country-specific designs on the other. All euro notes and coins can be used in any of the sixteen euro-zone states. At the time of writing the rate of exchange for €1 is £0.88; US$1.40; Can$1.43; Aus$1.41; NZ$1.86; ZAR9.6. For the most up-to-date rates, check the currency converter website whttp://www.oanda.com.
ATMs are liberally dotted around every major city and town, and they accept a host of debit cards, though note that every transaction attracts a small fee. Credit cards can be used in ATMs too, but in this case transactions are treated as loans, with interest accruing daily from the date of withdrawal. All major credit cards, including American Express, Visa and MasterCard, are widely accepted in both countries. Typically, ATMs give instructions in a variety of languages.
All well-known brands of travellers’ cheque in all major currencies are widely accepted in both countries, and you can change these, as well as foreign currency, into euros at most banks and savings banks, which are ubiquitous; banking hours are usually Monday to Friday from 9am to 3.30/4pm, with a few banks also open on Saturday mornings.
These pesky blighters thrive in the watery environment of northern Belgium and can be particularly irritating at campsites. If you are bitten, an antihistamine cream such as Phenergan is the best antidote, although these can be difficult to find in Belgium, so best advice is to take it with you if camping – and use insect repellants to keep the bugs at bay in the first place.
Opening hours and public holidays
Business hours (ie office hours) normally run from Monday to Friday 9.30/10am to 4.30/5pm. Normal shopping hours are Monday through Saturday 10am to 6pm, though many smaller shops open late on Monday morning and/or close a tad earlier on Saturdays. In addition, in some of the smaller towns and villages many places close at lunchtime (noon–2pm) and for the half-day on Wednesdays or Thursdays. At the other extreme, larger establishments – primarily supermarkets and department stores – are increasingly likely to have extended hours, often on Fridays when many remain open till 9pm. In the big cities, a smattering of convenience stores (magasins de nuit/avondwinkels) stay open either all night or until 1am or 2am daily; other than these, only die-hard money-makers – including some souvenir shops – are open late or on Sunday.
In Belgium, there are ten national public holidays per year and two regional holidays, one each for Wallonia and Flanders. For the most part, these holidays are keenly observed, with most businesses and many attractions closed and public transport reduced to a Sunday service.
All but the remotest parts of Belgium are on the mobile phone (cell phone) network at GSM900/1800, the band common to the rest of Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Mobile/cell phones bought in North America need to be of the triband variety to access this GSM band. If you intend to use your own phone in Belgium, note that despite recent legislation, roaming call charges can be excruciating – particularly irritating is the supplementary charge that you often have to pay on incoming calls – so check with your supplier before you depart. Similarly, text messages, sent overseas can cost more, too; check with your provider if in doubt. To cut costs, consider buying a local pre-paid SIM card.
In Belgium, domestic and international phonecards – télécards – for use in public phones can be bought at many outlets, including post offices, some supermarkets, railway stations and newsagents. They come in several specified denominations, beginning at €5. To make a reverse-charge or collect call, phone the international operator (they almost all speak English). Remember also that although virtually all hotel rooms have phones, there is almost always an exorbitant surcharge for their use.
There are no area codes in Belgium,, but Belgian numbers mostly begin with a zero, a relic of former area codes, which have now been incorporated into the numbers themselves. Telephone numbers beginning t0900 or t070 are premium-rated, t 0800 are toll-free. Within both countries, there’s no distinction between local and long-distance calls – in other words calling Ostend from Brussels costs the same as calling a number in Brussels.
Belgium has a flourishing retail sectors and all the large towns and cities are jammed with department stores and international chains. More distinctively, the big cities in general, and Brussels in particular, play host to scores of specialist shops selling everything from comics to secondhand clothes. There are certain obvious Belgian goods – chocolates and beer to name the big two – but it’s the Belgian flair for design that is the most striking feature, whether reflected in clothes, fine art or interior design.
Regular shopping hours are Monday through Saturday 10am to 6pm. However, many smaller shops open late on Monday morning and/or close a little earlier on Saturdays, most supermarkets and department stores are likely to have extended hours with late-night opening on Fridays (till 8 or 9pm) especially popular, and tourist-oriented shops everywhere generally open seven days a week until the early evening.
Sports and outdoor activities
Most visitors to Belgium confine their exercise to cycling and walking, both of which are ideally suited to the flatness of the terrain and, for that matter, the excellence of the public transport system. Both also offer all the sporting facilities you would expect of prosperous, European countries, from golf to gymnasia, swimming pools to horseriding. More distinctive offerings include Korfbal (whttp://www.korfbal.be), a home-grown sport popular in the Netherlands and Flemish-speaking Belgium, cobbled together from netball, basketball and volleyball, and played with mixed teams and a high basket; canal ice skating, again in the Flemish-speaking areas, though this is of course dependent on the weather being cold enough; and, in the Ardennes, canoeing, kayaking and mountaineering. Belgium also possesses some great sandy beaches on its western seaboard, although it has to be admitted that the weather is notoriously unreliable and the North Sea distinctly murky. There are a number of fully fledged seaside resorts – like Knokke-Heist – but there are nicer, quieter stretches of coast, most notably among the wild dunes and long beaches around the pretty little resort of De Haan.
The chief spectator sport is football and the 34 teams that make up the two leading divisions of the country’s national league attract a fiercely loyal following. Big-deal clubs include RSC Anderlecht of Brussels (whttp://www.rsca.be), Club Brugge (whttp://www.clubbrugge.be), and Standard Liège (whttp://www.standard.be). The football season runs from early August to May with a break over the Christmas period.
Belgium is on Central European Time (CET) – one hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, six hours ahead of US Eastern Standard Time, nine hours ahead of US Pacific Standard Time, nine hours behind Australian Eastern Standard Time and eleven hours behind New Zealand. There are, however, variations during the changeover periods involved in daylight saving. Belgium operates on daylight saving time, moving their clocks forward one hour in the spring and one hour back in the autumn.
There’s no need to tip when there’s a service charge – as there often is – but when there isn’t, restaurant waiters will anticipate a ten to fifteen percent tip. In taxis, tipping is neither necessary nor expected, but often people will simply round up the fare.
Public toilets remain comparatively rare, but a few big-city cafés and bars operate what amounts to an ablutionary sideline, charging a €0.20–0.50 fee for the use of their toilets whether you’re a customer or not; you’ll spot the plate for the money as you enter.
Belgium has two official tourist boards, one covering the French-speaking areas, the other the Flemish-speaking regions; they share responsibility for Brussels. These boards are respectively the Office de Promotion du Tourisme de Wallonie et Bruxelles (OPT), and Toerisme Vlaanderen (Visit Flanders). Both operate all-encompassing websites covering everything from hotels and campsites to forthcoming events. Both also publish a wide range of glossy, free booklets of both a general and specific nature, available at tourist offices throughout Belgium.
There are tourist offices in every large village, town and city and most are located on or near the main square.
Travellers with disabilities
In all the major cities, the most obvious difficulty facing people with mobility problems is in negotiating the cobbled streets and narrow, often broken pavements of the older districts, where the key sights are mostly located. Similarly, provision for people with disabilities on the public transport system is only average, although improving – many new buses, for instance, are now wheelchair accessible. And yet, while it can be difficult simply to get around, practically all public buildings, including museums, theatres, cinemas, concert halls and hotels, are obliged to provide access, and do. Hotels, hostels and campsites that have been certified wheelchair-accessible carry the International Symbol of Accessibility (ISA). Bear in mind, however, that a lot of the older, narrower hotels are not allowed to install lifts for reasons of conservation, so check first.