Tourists in Bruges

I just returned from a long weekend trip to Belgium. It’s a funny little country, isn’t it? Four days in two cities didn’t allow for much time to explore but I feel as if I saw the whole world in those few days. Maybe it’s because Belgium is home to the European Union headquarters, or maybe it’s because the country has an identity problem—but I found the country strange and weird. In a good way.

Belgium is interesting. The country may be small (estimated 11 million people) but it’s a diverse one. With three official languages I could never pinpoint exactly what anyone was saying to me—or even what language it was in! People-watching was a highlight—from watching the busloads of tourists wandering around Bruges like it was Disneyland to the busybodies who all seemed too important in Brussels. But then Belgium seemed to break the mold. Whereas you might expect locals to get annoyed by gazillions of tourists in a tourist-trap-of-a-city like Bruges, the Belgians I met there were nothing but welcoming.

And in Brussels where you expect big money & big business to affect people, the whole city seemed grounded in reality. There were skateboarding punks hanging out on a Monday afternoon, graffiti and hipster cafes scattered throughout the city, fast food and luxury dining. The city has it all—even weird monuments like the Atomium. Umm….WTF?

Weird Brussels - the Atomium

The dichotomy of rich and poor in Brussels was painfully obvious. Historic architecture was often overshadowed by more modern, almost Soviet-style skyscrapers along the skyline. And though the massive palaces and churches were overwhelmingly large and looming, they felt rather at odds with the city today.

Brussels skyline - old & new

Highlights of my few days in Belgium included:

  • The indie music Cactus Festival in Bruges
    Three days of international indie bands (many from the USA) playing on one stage. Though it rained, it was a good show!
  • French fries
    I used to joke that my favorite part of being at a festival was being able to eat French fries out of a paper cup. But it seems they do this every day of the week in Belgium. I also saw an entire museum dedicated to fries. Weird.
  • Wandering around Bruges
    Bruges is as beautiful as everyone says. Having just been in Venice recently, I’m now a sucker for exceptionally pretty cities.
  • The incredible designs in Brussels
    The only thing I knew about Brussels before arriving is that it’s kind of a gay capital. I should’ve suspected that being Belgium’s gay city, Brussels would also be trendy, but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. The city was full of street art but also
  • Quirky museums
    Whether it was the French fries museum I went to in Bruges or the comic strip museum in Brussels, Belgium seems to know how to make a museum out of anything. I didn’t have time for the Magritte museum, the Lamp Museum (yes, lamps!) or the Chocolate Museum and I’m sorry I missed them. Even that Lamp Museum—I mean, come on, how could you not be interested in what’s inside that museum?!

Flanders is a Festival

My visit to Belgium was in partnership with Flanders Tourism as part of the Flanders is a Festival blog trip.

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  1. Pingback: Ten Weird and Wonderful Things in Brussels. | cherylhoward.com

  2. Never saw my country as being weird, but maybe it is to foreigners. Glad you considered it a good weird though :) As for the museum of fries, that`s probably because they`re Belgian fries and not French fries. I`ve had this discussion with many others, even wrote an article about it ;) Next time, you should consider visiting Ghent and Leuven, two uni cities with a great atmosphere.

  3. Glad you enjoyed our little country:)
    Next time be sure to visit Antwerp, you’ll love it! It’s all kinds of fashion, architecture, history, musea, cultural venues…

  4. I’ve been reading posts about Belgium lately, never really considered it as a destination before. But a chocolate museum and the pretty cities can convince me to stop by there whenever I make it to Europe.

  5. I was lucky enough to spend a week in Belgium ayear or so ago. It is weird in so many ways when you first arrive, but it grows on you so quickly. It’s also home to my favorite beer in the world, Kriek sour cherry beer, the perfect libation on a hot Belgiansummer afternoon.

  6. Belgium is, I think, a country that needs to grow on you. I hated both Brussels and Bruges at first, but enjoyed them both after spending time exploring away from the tourist centers. I’m still gutted you didn’t get to visit Antwerp….it’s the only city I loved more or less on sight. Great shopping too. Would love to return to Belgium one day to spend some time visiting its smaller towns.

  7. What about the Underpants Museum in Brussels?

    More unusual, unexpected or unique things to do or discover in Belgium on my blog…

    Cheers

  8. Probably the only downside of Belgium is high taxes. I was offered job in Brussels, but I turned the offer down.

  9. Pingback: Time for dessert... | GeoPosted

  10. Kristof

    great to read!

    next time, definitely check out Antwerp (or Antwerpen as it’s callled over here) – it’s as hip and trendy as you describe Brussels, oozing with history and all in a very compact size!

  11. I’m glad you had a great time with Tourism Flanders. I look forward to my own trip in August. I love the Atomium, so weird but cool!

  12. alexis

    Most interesting thing from this article? I did NOT know Brussels was the gay capital. =)

    Great article! I wish I could’ve been there for a festival. My favorite things about Brussels was Leonidas chocolate. I do fancy the fact that they speak multiple languages. I have cousins that grow up over there and they speak English, Dutch, French, and Tagalog (our language). I wish I grew up like they did!

    I would have to agree that Brugge was very beautiful. I was fortunate to have seen the city in Autumn and the leaves were very photogenic!

  13. The Atomium does seem pretty wierd!! I have never been to Europe but Belgium does seem pretty too!!!

  14. I’ve always wanted to go to Belgium for the beer…I looove Belgium beer. Though I could probably be lured away from drinking by some of these quirky museums.

  15. Waegook Tom

    Belgium! The first country I ever went to – would love to go back and revisit, now that I’ve been of legal drinking age for almost 8 years. The Atomium looks pretty bad-ass by the way.

  16. Ryan at Travel and Graphs

    I was listening to Pavement while reading this, and started singing “Belguim is weird” instead of “Zurich is stained.”

    Anyways, cool post! That huge metal..thing looks pretty interesting.

  17. Giulia

    The Atomium looks kinda creepy to me! But cool :)

    • Adam

      Yeah, the Atomium is more than a little weird. But you’re right, Giulia – it’s still cool!

    • Adam

      Hahah – yeah, the museum was totally ridiculous! It was actually really interesting, though it was definitely set up for little kids.

  18. Oooh…I was just thinking of going this weekend for the Brugge CouchCrash…

    • Adam

      Sounds like a cool event! I really liked Bruges and though I spent most of my time in the Cactus Festival, it’d be cool to spend more time in the city. Everyone told me it was a pretty sleepy/quiet town, but I imagine it’s a lot of fun in the summer.

      Plus if you can drink outside, how can a city be boring?!

  19. The Atomium looks totally weird. Is that supposed to be some kind of nerdy La Tour Eiffel and Epcot center love child? And what’s with the flag on top? Maybe that’s the kind of stuff you mean with the identity issues.

    I’m also surprised to keep hearing that Bruges is so touristy. Someone told me That Film a few years back gave them a huge boost, but my tourbook writing pals tell me its been a beautiful place deserving and getting traffic long before that.

    • Adam

      Yo Justin! The Atomium was built for a World’s Fair ages ago – so yeah, kind of like the Eiffel Tower, ha!

      There’s a common saying that Belgians can’t agree anything. Apparently they were one of the countries to go the longest without a government after an election. Not sure of the whole story, but a few people mentioned it to me while I was there. It’s like they take pride in their weirdness!

      All power to ’em! And yes—Bruges was beautiful even with all the tourists. Still never saw that movie, but now it’s on the top of my list.

    • Patrick

      The Atomium represents an iron atom magnified 165 billion times.

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