Belgians regard their national trait as eccentricity, and with museums dedicated to washing machines and beer lorries, plus Tintin – a boy with a quiff and a little white dog – as a national icon, who’s to argue? Zaniness as a lifestyle option makes Belgium a natural for tinies, while teens should relate to the history, the art and/or the street-savvy fashion, and everyone – parents included – will relish the chance to parler français without risking a Gallic snub. If you need a final incentive, how about the world’s best hot chocolate?
Quick, easy and cheap to reach from the UK, Belgium is prime short-break or family holiday territory. But convenience isn’t the only draw – for its size, it's hugely varied. The Dutch-speaking Flemish north (Flanders) boasts Bruges and Antwerp, two of Europe’s most historic cities, while the French-speaking south offers outdoor adventures in the Ardennes. Just about holding things together in the middle, Brussels straddles the linguistic divide – in Britain the city may be synonymous with EU bureaucracy, but as far as locals are concerned, the Eurocrats might as well be on planet Vulcan.
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Spend a few days exploring Brussels, then head 100km north-west to Bruges, which thrived in the Middle Ages but was left frozen in time by the silting of its sea access. Today its urban core is a miniature gem of cobbled squares and Gothic buildings. The looming Belfort tower provides the best views, while the Brugge and Hospitaal museums hold heavyweight collections of Flemish art. What really sets Bruges apart, though, is its network of quiet canals; with kids on board, a canal cruise is definitely the way to go. See our feature on a family break in Bruges.
While Bruges is pretty and compact, Antwerp 40km north of Brussels has all the energy. Like Bruges, Belgium’s second city prospered on medieval commerce, but unlike it, Antwerp has grown into a vibrant modern port. Antwerp’s finest architecture is in the centre around the picture-postcard Grote Markt square and soaring Gothic cathedral. It was home to Rubens, and the city’s churches and galleries are peppered with the artist’s masterpieces (start at the Rubenshuis). More than half the world’s diamonds are cut in Antwerp, and older children may enjoy visiting the Diamond Museum to watch frock-coated diamond-cutters at work and ogle caches of the glittering shinies; younger siblings can be appeased with Antwerp Zoo next door. Aspiring fashionistas should head to the streets south of Groenplaats, which burst with boutiques and guerrilla stores way hipper than anything in Brussels – since the 1980s Antwerp designers have taken the world of fashion by storm. Or adjourn to the waterfront for a cruise round the miles of container docks and wharves.
Belgium’s best countryside is in the far south, amongst the forests of the Ardennes. While the high ground can be bleak, numerous rivers have cut deep valleys. Isolated by steep slopes or hedged by cave-pocked cliffs, the watercourses meander wildly through sylvan landscapes that feel truly remote. Bouillon is spectacularly sited around a ruined castle, but the region’s main draw is untrammelled nature and the great outdoors. Walking, cycling and climbing are all popular activities well-suited to family holidays, but on warm summer weekends half the country goes canoeing – it’s madcap, chaotic and hugely congested, but also enormous fun.
Belgium is a foodie paradise where French finesse meets German portions in a marriage made in heaven. And it’s not just at Michelin-starred establishments (though there are a lot of these) – flair and a passion for quality trickle down to the humblest roadside friterie (frituur in Flanders) where you eat lip-smacking chips from cones of paper.
Moules frites (mussels and chips) is the national staple, but waffles, cream and chocolate all feature prominently too. Flanders leans toward seafood; the Ardennes to game and charcuterie. Nationwide there are more than 700 varieties of beer, including cherry and raspberry.
Restaurants welcome children, but they are expected to behave. Le Pain Quotidien, a nationwide chain of relaxed bakery-cafés serving child-friendly, healthy food in congenial surroundings, is a handy standby during family holidays.By John Oldale
The climate in Belgium is similar to that of southern England, and family holidays are an option year-round. Belgian cities are prettiest on a crisp winter’s day and most pleasant in late spring, while the countryside and coast are predictably at their best in summer, though autumn colours in the Ardennes can be spectacular.
Brussels hosts one of Europe’s most popular Christmas markets, while February brings Carnival, a magical time for kids. It’s celebrated across the country, but with especial vigour and massed fancy dress in Binche and Stavelot in Wallonia in the south.
Brussels is just under 2hrs by the child-friendly Eurostar from London, while a 2hr onward journey from the Belgian capital brings will see you to pretty much anywhere in the country. Note that a Eurostar ticket to Brussels allows free onward travel on most trains to any station in Belgium within 24hrs of arrival in Brussels.
Brussels also has two airports, with regular flights from main and regional airports.
Belgium can also reached by ferry from the UK.
Relatively low cost to reach and well endowed with self-catering options, Belgium can be perfect for a family holiday on a budget, although the opportunities to splurge are plentiful.
Holiday parks are a very popular option for family holidays in Belgium, especially Center Parcs’ two villages. Self-catering is another great family option, whether in city apartments or country cottages. See also our partners Booking.com for good accommodation deals.
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