Belgium is often overlooked on European travel itineraries and, when tourists do visit, they tend to head straight for the big cities and popular tourist spots and then leave again. Brussels, Antwerp and Bruges might feature on a Belgian itinerary, but only for a few days before visitors skedaddle to elsewhere in Europe.
But there’s so much more to this small country than these major centres – and I’m not just talking about Belgian waffles or local beer!
Belgium is a wonderful destination for a holiday, a treasure trove of delightful destinations where old world charm blends with modern culture, where city breaks and adventure activities go hand in hand, and where you will find delicious food no matter where you look.
This European country has so much to offer but if you’re not entirely convinced then here are four reasons why you should add Belgium to your future travel planning and use this itinerary to help plan the best road trip to this fascinating country.
4 Reasons to visit Belgium
1. Belgium is easy to get to! If you’re travelling from the UK then you can reach Brussels from London on the Eurostar in less than two hours. Or, if you want to have your own car, then the ferry crossing from Dover to Calais is also less than two hours.
Looking for an even speedier car journey? The Eurotunnel travels from Folkestone to Calais in just 35 minutes.
The ferry or the Eurotunnel is the best way to travel to Belgium. We have travelled by both Eurotunnel and on Irish Ferries from Dover and they are both very easy journeys. In particular, travelling by Irish Ferries was very comfortable. If doing a road trip then I like to have my own car and travelling by ferry means that I have a bit of a break from driving, sit in a comfortable lounge and have something to eat before carrying on with the journey.
Belgium is also well connected with the rest of Europe, especially with cities like Paris and Amsterdam. And because it’s a small country, you can drive easily from Belgium into the neighbouring countries of the Netherlands, Germany, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and France.
2. Belgium is not crowded. Well, that’s not entirely true. Visit Belgium’s most popular spots during the high season (July-August) or during one of the country’s many festivals and places can get crowded. Leave the main attractions, however, and you’ll find that Belgium has plenty of Nature Parks, two National Parks, plenty of beaches and myriad towns where you won’t have to jostle for space.
Plus there are the Ardennes, a lush playground ideal for outdoor enthusiasts. If you visit during the shoulder season (April-June and September – October) then the crowds will disappear (and prices will fall!).
3. Belgium has amazing food. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that a diet of Belgian waffles, frites (chips or French fries) with mayonnaise and beer is not a balanced diet!
The good news, however, is that Belgian cuisine has much more to offer. Moules-frites (mussels with fries), is a classic Belgian dish and is one of the foods to try when in Belgium.
Waterzooi is a traditional Belgian seafood stew that includes vegetables and egg. Typically the dish is made with fish but it can also be made with chicken these days. Another traditional stew is Carbonnade, made with beef and dark beer.
4. Belgium is not boring! Belgium has often been saddled with a reputation for being boring. Much of this stereotype is linked with bureaucracy (or, more specifically, eurocracy) but it is unjustified. For such a small country, Belgium boasts a huge number of historic cities, beautiful towns, amazing Medieval architecture, verdant countryside, the hypnotic hills and valleys of the Ardennes, and deep-rooted traditions and festivals.
So the question is not should you visit Belgium but rather where should you go in Belgium.
This Belgium road trip itinerary starts in Brussels, one of the most famous and popular destinations, and then takes in the lesser known destinations of Dinant and Durbuy in Belgium’s Wallonia region. These two small cities are not very well known to outsiders but they should be; both are beautiful and arguably two of the best places to visit in Belgium with lots to see and do, and fascinating histories to boot.
I spent a large part of my childhood living in Belgium (and was even born here) so it’s a country that is close to my heart – and perhaps explains my penchant for chocolate. Well, that’s my excuse anyway…
Over the last few years I’ve returned a couple of times as a guest of the Belgian Tourist Office Wallonia in order to produce this guide and share the best of the region for families (all opinions are my own).
Here’s all you need to know about planning your Belgium road trip – just remember, as with any trip, it’s well worth purchasing travel insurance before you travel.
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Belgium Road Trip Itinerary
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To give you an overview, I have created a map using Google My Maps to show you the major stops along this Belgium road trip route.
Day 1: Brussels
Once you arrive in Calais it’s a 2 to 2.5 hour drive to the capital city of Brussels. Along the way you’ll pass alongside the port city of Ghent, famous for its large public squares, marketplaces, and medieval buildings in the city center. The most famous is the Friday Market (‘Vrijdag Markt’), one of the largest general markets with over 400 stalls. A market has been held on this square since 1199.
If you have time, stop for lunch. De Superette, a bakery and restaurant that serves wood-fired pizzas, comes recommended.
There is a lot to see in Brussels and it’s a great place to star your road trip but with only two days you’ll have to plan your days well.
Start with a tour of the Grand Place, an enormous public square in the city centre that dates back to the early 15th century and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is considered to be one of the most beautiful town squares in the world. Depending on when you visit, you will find different events, markets and even art installations on the square. Your an also visit the Town Hall and Brussels City Museum that stand alongside the square.
Just around the corner from the Grand Place is another one of Brussels’ star attractions, the Mannekin Pis. The small bronze sculpture of a boy weeing (yep, you read that right, weeing!) is though to date back to the 15th century, although the current statue is a replica dating back to the 1960s – the statues keep getting stolen!
At various times of the year, the Manneken Pis gets dressed up in all kinds of costumes – apparently he has more than 1,000 outfits, which are all key in the Brussels City Museum.
Another famous Brussels resident is Tintin, and you’ll spot murals dedicated to the boy detective across the city. One of the best ways to enjoy the many locations that inspired Hergé is to join a comic strip walk.
You should also stop by the Belgian Comic Strip Centre, a celebration of all things comic strips and books where you’ll find the Smurfs and many more characters alongside Tintin and Snowy.
Don’t miss the many excellent restaurants in Brussels and do order moules-frites. For desert you can’t go wrong with a Dame Blanche, a Belgian dessert prepared with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and hot melted chocolate sauce. And, of course, you need to try a Belgian waffle or two while here!
Where to stay in Brussels: Try the Brussels Welcome Hotel, which enjoys a fun theatrical decor and has a family room that can sleep four to six people. It’s also good value for money. Other hotels that come recommended are The Dominican, Hotel Made in Louise and the Train Hostel, railway carriages that sit on a rooftop.
Day 2: Brussels and drive to Durbuy
Spend your second morning in Brussels exploring the neighbourhood of Petit Sablon, located in the historic upper part of Brussels. This neighbourhood is filled with antiques, art and plenty of Belgian chocolate. Every weekend the Grand Sablon transforms into a market with antique dealers selling all kinds of things.
You can also catch a great view of Brussels from the Mon des Arts gardens, which are nearby.
The Royal Palace of Brussels sits just beyond the Old Town and European Quarter and is where the Belgian Royal Family reside. During the summertime the palace is open to visitors.
If you have time then it’s worth stopping at the Atomium, a popular attraction that was built in 1958 for the Brussels World Fair. The shiny sculpture made of nine stainless steel balls has become something of a city icon.
History buffs might want to make a detour south of the city to the site of the Battle of Waterloo on this trip through Belgium. Located just 18km south of Brussels, it’s a short drive to get to the historic battle site where, in 1815, the British and Dutch forces commanded by the Duke of Wellington, defeated Napoleon bringing and end to the Napoleonic wars.
From Brussels it’s about 1hr 30mins to drive to Durbuy.
Where to stay in Durbuy: We loved staying in Chez Tante Alice, a charming B&B located 14km from the centre of town. If you want to be closer – and are up for a bit of an adventure – then the Adventure Valley Camping offers glamping tents that come with beds and bathrooms. Take a look at more family-friendly hotel options on Booking.com.
Day 3: Durbuy
The small town of Durbuy is officially “la plus petit ville du mode” (the smallest city in the world). Granted, the Vatican City is officially the world’s smallest city on paper but in 1331, John I, Count of Luxembourg and King of Bohemia, bestowed the title of smallest city on Durbuy and they locals have been running with it ever since.
This is a really fun city (or rather, small village) to visit and despite its petit nature there is a surprising amount to do here.
Start your visit with a walking tour along the cobblestone streets of the old city centre. The Durbuy Tourist Office has a very good walking tour map that details the rich history of the town and some of the historical buildings and old stone houses of Durbuy old town.
Then jump on board the Petit Train Touristique that takes visitors up to the highest point of the city; it’s a great way to see just how tiny Durbuy really is. Back in town, it’s well worth visiting the Topiary Park – the largest topiary garden in Europe.
For lunch we bought bread, ham and cheese from Boucherie Bodson, located just behind the Durbuy Tourist Office, and had a picnic by the Roche de la Falize, a dome-shaped rock on the edge of the old town that is some 360 million years old.
In the afternoon, head to Adventure Valley Durbuy, an outdoor adventure and nature park on the outskirts of town. Home to a bike park, zip wires, tubing slides, a via ferrata course, escape rooms and much more, this is the perfect place to head with kids. You could easily spend a full day here there are so many activities on offer so take that into account when planning your trip.
There are some great restaurants in Durbuy. Try 7 by Juliette for fun, innovative tapas-style dishes or La Bru’sserie for something a little more high end.
Day 4: Grottes de Han
It’s a short trip of less than one hour to get to the Grottes de Han (Han Caves) from Durbuy so you could visit the caves as a day trip. However, we recommend spending a day here and then overnighting in Cocoon Village, the glamping site that sits next door to the caves.
The Caves of Han-sur-Lesse sit on the outskirts of the village Han-sur-Lesse and are a natural complex of caves that were formed by the river Lesse.
Visits to the caves, which sit nearly 110m underground, are guided and are usually in French or Flemish. Don’t worry if you don’t speak either, however, as you are not bombarded with facts and figures. Instead your guide will take you to some of the most spectacular caves.
One of the best things is the ‘Origin’, the sound and light show. I’m not often a fan of sound and light shows but this one is truly spectacular. There’s also a very good museum on site that showcases all the many things found in the caves over the years dating back centuries.
There is also a wildlife park on site home to the European Big 5; the European bison, the wolf, the brown bear, the wolverine, and the lynx. Tour the park on foot or on a safari bus.
Where to stay in Han-sur-Lesse: Cocoon Village offers glamping in bell tents on a pretty campground (open 1 April to 10 October). It’s a short walk from the Cocoon Village to the caves entrance. Tree Tents are another option, inviting visitors too spend a night up among the tres in the middle of the wildlife park (open 2 April to 5 November).
Day 5: Dinant
Sitting on the banks of the Meuse river, below a cliff face, is the picturesque town of Dinant. This beautiful city is located in the Wallonia region of Belgium, not far from the French border. It’s a great place to visit for a weekend trip or for longer. We spent three days here and had the best time exploring the city.
Start your time in Dinant with “The Ghost of Dinant” walking tour. This app has been developed by the local tourist office and can be accessed on your smartphone. It’s a fun way to explore the city streets and see some of the main sights include the Notre-Dame church and La Maison de Monsieur Sax – Dinant is the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone.
If you don’t want to try the walking tour app then pop into the tourist office and pick up the Sax in the City walking tour map, which takes you past the numerous saxophones dotted around the city. Have lunch along the waterfront and then take the cable car up to the Dinant Citadel for a birds eye view of the city and surrounding area.
Your next stop should be Dinant Nautique, where you can hire an electric boat to cruise along the Meuse river. The stop is right in front of the Notre-Dame church and next to the Charles de Gaulle bridge. You don’t need a licence to drive the boat, which means that even kids can take turns captaining the ship. It’s a fun way to see the city and offers great views of the Roche Bayard, the Bayard Rock.
Where to stay in Dinant: We stayed in Castel de Pont-à-Lesse, a hotel housed within a former chateaux. Located on the outskirts of town in 25 hectares of gardens, it’s a good spot to stay with families, not least because it has a swimming pool. For more ideas on where to stay in Dinant, take a look at these hotel options on Booking.com.
Day 6: Dinant
Your first stop after breakfast the next morning should be Dinant Evasion, on the outskirts of town. This adventure company offers an array of activities from a treetop adventure course and paintballing to caving, kayaking, a via ferrata trail, and mountain biking – and more.
It’s a popular place and you can easily spend an entire day here or, you can do like we did, and spend the morning climbing through the trees along various wobbly bridges. It’s a really good place and very well run.
Head into the centre of the city afterwards for lunch; we really enjoyed Le Cosma when we visited. After lunch head to Boulangerie Pâtisserie Jacob and buy a Couque de Dinant, one of the toughest biscuits in the world (according to us anyway!). Made from just flour and honey, these biscuits are so hard that you can’t bite them. Instead you’re supposed to break off a piece and let it slowly dissolve in your mouth.
If your visit coincides with the school holidays then make sure to book tickets to visit the Museum Pataphonie, a musical adventure quite unlike anything you might have experienced before. Tours must be booked in advance and are only available during school holidays Mon to Fri and on Sundays at 2pm and 4pm.
For dinner, head to the restaurant Les 7 Meuses located halfway between Dinant and Namur. Not only does it serve excellent food (and great Belgian beer!) it offers spectacular views of the area.
Day 7: Travel back to Calais and home
If you have time before your crossing back to the UK (or your next destination) then stop by the Jardins D’Eau D’Annevoie, the Annevoie Gardens. Created 250 years ago, the gardens are unique in the fact that the numerous water features (some 50 in total) function entirely without pumps or machinery. They are very pretty and you can walk around them in approximately an hour. There is a cafe on site too.
And that’s it. One week will go very quickly and have you thinking that you didn’t have enough time to see everything! But that’s all the more reason to come back another time.
Frequently Asked Questions
What’s it like driving in Belgium?
They drive on the right-hand side of the road in Belgium, which is something to be aware of if you’re coming from the UK! Traffic cab be very bad in the major cities, something to keep in mind if you’re driving into Brussels. Similarly, parking can be a challenge in the big cities. In the countryside, driving is much easier!
What language(s) do they speak in Belgium?
Belgium has three official languages: Dutch (Flemish), French and German, with the primary language being Dutch (it’s spoken by approximately 60% of the population). Don’t worry if you don’t speak any of these, however, a good percentage of the country also speak English.
What is the best time of year to visit Belgium?
The months between April and October are the best times of year to visit Belgium. the shoulder seasons of April – June and September – October see fewer crowds and generally mild weather. The summer months of July and August can get very busy and cities such as Brussels can get very hot.