Accessible Travel

Belgium’s progressive tourism management bodies have produced a wealth of information to help those with disabilities plan and enjoy a stay. Naturally, all those cobblestones are a literal pain in the derriere for wheelchair users, but the country is well endowed with kerb cuts, tactile paving, audible signals at pedestrian crossings and wheelchair-accessible taxis. Most major museums are accessible, particularly in Flanders, but the caves and castle ruins of rural Wallonia are never likely to be.

Useful Resources

Brussels https://handy.brussels/en is a valuable online 'guidebook' for Brussels' disabled visitors, with icon coding to show help for those with hearing, sight, mobility and mental challenges.

Flanders Visit www.visitflanders.com/en/accessibility for downloadable brochures on day-trip planning for vision-impaired visitors, accessible holiday accommodation etc. For Ghent there's a specific app for Android or iPhone, On Wheels (www.onwheelsapp.com), with a searchable database of user-reviewed wheelchair-accessible venues including toilets, restaurants and cafes. A great feature lets you set your chair width and the step height you are able to negotiate. Visit Ghent has used this information to create a map for wheelchair users.

Wallonia Invaluable French-language site www.access-i.be has an extensive database of buildings, events and activities that have been professionally access-audited. Narrow your search according to impairment. Results are colour-coded by accessibility: green = independent, orange = with assistance, white = click for more detailed explanation.

General Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guides from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.

Accommodation for Reduced-Mobility Guests

In cities and many big towns, larger hotels can usually accommodate travellers in wheelchairs, as can many official HI hostels. Eupen's new Gite d'Etape hostel has been entirely designed with accessibility in mind. Relatively few rural places are specially designed for reduced mobility travellers, but one fine example is Hotel L'O de Vie, a mini-castle south of Sint-Truiden.

Transport for the Less Able

Progress is being made with making public transport accessible, but pre-booking assistance is a good idea. Call 02-528 28 28 at least 24 hours ahead to reserve a wheelchair space on a train. In Brussels, STIB carries guide dogs for free and has very deep discounts for blind passengers. Metro stations have lifts, and between 7am and 10pm, there should be staff available to help, but again, you should phone ahead (02-515 23 65) or potentially face waiting up to an hour. So far 15 of the capital's bus lines use Accessibus vehicles, but only the blue-signed stops necessarily allow autonomous wheelchair access. There's also the special Taxibus (taxibus.stib-mivb.be), but using that requires an official sign-up procedure.

Bargaining

Gentle haggling is common in markets, but in all other instances you’re expected to pay the stated price.

Dangers & Annoyances

  • Traffic jams, poorly maintained roads and bad driving combine to make motoring unusually taxing in Belgium.
  • According to a 2015 EU report, the country is statistically the most dangerous place in Western Europe in terms of road deaths per million citizens.

Discount Cards

Museums and sights typically offer small discounts to seniors (those over 65, sometimes over 60) and often give bigger discounts to those under 26. Accompanied children (typically under 12, sometimes under 18) generally pay even less or go free. Students with an ISIC (International Student Identity Card) might, but won’t always, qualify for the ‘concession rate’ (usually the same as seniors). Bigger Belgian cities offer discounted passes to a selection of municipally owned sights, and many have one day a month when key museums are free.

Emergency & Important Numbers

Emergency112
Country code32
International access code00
Police101

Entry & Exit Formalities

As part of the Schengen group of countries, there are no passport checks on any of Belgium's land borders. If you fly in or arrive by ferry from the UK, passports (and visas, if required) need to be shown, but there is rarely any great delay if all paperwork is in order.

Customs Regulations

For goods purchased outside the EU, the following duty-free allowances apply:

  • tobacco 200 cigarettes, 50 cigars or 250g of loose tobacco
  • alcohol 1L of spirits (more than 22% alcohol by volume) or 2L light liquor (less than 22% abv); 4L of wine; 16L of beer
  • perfume 50g of perfume and 0.25L of eau de toilette

Crossing an EU border, you can carry unlimited quantities as long as it's for personal use: expect questions if you are found to be carrying more than 800 cigarettes, 200 cigars or 1kg of loose tobacco; 10L of spirits, 20L of fortified wine or aperitif, 90L of wine or 110L of beer.

Visas

EU citizens can stay indefinitely; many other nationals can enter visa free for up to 90 days.

More Information

A valid passport or EU identity card is required to enter. Most Western nationals don’t need a tourist visa for stays of less than three months. South Africans, Indians and Chinese, however, are among those who need a Schengen visa. Australian and New Zealand citizens aged between 18 and 30 can apply for a 12-month working-holiday visa under a reciprocal agreement. For more information and details of Belgian embassies/consulates see http://diplomatie.belgium.be.

Etiquette

  • Say hello, wave goodbye When entering a shop or arriving at a cash desk, it's polite to offer a cheery greeting to staff. When you leave, say thank you and good day/good evening.
  • Giving gifts When visiting someone's home, it's appropriate to bring wine, flowers or chocolates – choose the brand carefully!
  • The wrong language In Flanders don't think it's clever to speak French. English will generally be better understood and better appreciated.
  • Liberal or conservative? Local ideas about political correctness might not match your own. Don't jump too quickly to conclusions. A lighter-hearted approach to serious issues is common, and underneath, many attitudes are very liberal.
  • Kissing Traditionally Belgians welcome good friends with three kisses on alternating cheeks. But knowing when that's appropriate confuses even the locals.

Insurance

Paying for your airline ticket with a credit card often provides limited travel accident insurance, and you may be able to reclaim the payment if the operator doesn’t deliver. However, a fuller travel insurance policy is recommended to cover theft, personal liability, loss and medical problems. Many policies also cover cancellation or delays in travel arrangements; for example, if you fall seriously ill two days before departure. Buy such insurance as early as possible: if you buy it the week before you are due to fly, you might find that you’re not covered for delays caused, for example, by strikes that had been planned before you took out the insurance.

Browse extensively online to find the best rates ensuring that all sports and activities are covered and comparing excesses as well as just the premiums. Be sure to check the small print. Multi-trip policies are often good value if you're making more than one annual trip.

Although EU nationals qualify for reciprocal health care in Belgium, doctors and hospitals generally expect payment up front, so medical cover remains important. Make sure you get a policy that covers you for the worst possible scenario, and check whether your insurance plan will make payments directly to providers or reimburse you later for overseas health expenditures.

Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re already on the road.

Checking insurance quotes…

Internet Access

Wi-fi access is very widespread; nearly all hotels, as well as many restaurants, cafes and bars offer free customer access.

If you've got an unlocked smartphone, you can pick up a local SIM card for a few euros and charge it with a month's worth of data at a decent speed for under €20.

Internet cafes – often doubling as call-shops – do still exist but are increasingly rare; ask at the local tourist office.

LGBT Travellers

Attitudes to homosexuality are pretty laid-back. Same-sex couples have been able to wed legally in Belgium since 2003, and since 2006 have had the same rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples, including inheritance and adoption.

Media

Keep up to date with the Bulletin (www.thebulletin.be), Belgium’s invaluable English-language news weekly.

Money

Credit cards are widely accepted. ATMs are very prevalent.

More Information

The euro (€) is in use. Notes come in €5, €10, €20, €50, €100, €200 and €500 denominations, though trying to spend the latter is likely to cause some suspicion. There are coins of €2 and €1, plus 50¢, 20¢, 10¢, 5¢ and 2¢. Unlike neighbouring Netherlands, the latter two are still given as change but might be phased out eventually.

Credit cards are widely accepted, but some places do stipulate cash only, and occasionally only one or two international cards are accepted (typically MasterCard and/or Visa). ATMs are common, while currency-exchange offices are rare.

Exchange Rates

AustraliaA$1€0.64
CanadaC$1€0.64
Japan¥100€0.77
New ZealandNZ$1€0.58
UKUK£1€1.13
USUS$1€0.86

For current exchange rates, see www.xe.com.

Saving Money

  • For last-minute accommodation in smaller hotels and B&Bs, try phoning direct rather than using online booking services.
  • Some cities have one day a month with free entrance to municipal museums.
  • Many towns have passes that can save you money if you visit a lot of sights.
  • Lunches are almost always cheaper than dinners in restaurants, especially if you choose the weekday lunchtime specials.

Tipping

  • Taxis, restaurants, hairdressers and bars Tipping is not required in any of these places. Personnel receive living wages and all service charges are included within stated prices. If service was quite exceptional, you could show appreciation, but even then 10% would seem generous.
  • Tourist-oriented locations In these places unaware foreigners regularly leave disproportionate tips, leading to a certain expectation from staff.
  • Airport taxis Drivers may hint (or even state outright) that a tip is appropriate. But that's a gentle scam. Don't be bullied.

Opening Hours

Many sights close on Monday. Restaurants normally close one or two full days per week. Opening hours for shops, bars and cafes vary widely.

Banks 8.30am–3.30pm or later Monday to Friday, some also Saturday morning

Bars 10am–1am, but hours very flexible

Restaurants noon–2pm and 7pm–9.30pm

Shops 10am–6.30pm Monday to Saturday, sometimes closed for an hour at lunchtime

More Information

Restaurants generally open for lunch from noon until 2pm, while dinner is typically served from 6.30pm/7pm to 9pm/10pm. Gastronomic restaurants with multicourse menus might have only one sitting, while brasseries have more fluid hours, usually serving until 11pm and possibly staying open until midnight or 1am with at least a limited menu.

Bars and cafés in some cases close only when the last barfly drops.

Shops in both countries usually open from 10am to 6.30pm Monday to Saturday, some closing for lunch, especially in smaller towns. Tourist-oriented shops often open Sundays then close Mondays. Sunday trading is also common among chains of convenience stores, while night stores (nachtwinkel or magasin de nuit) work dusk till dawn.

Banks open from 8.30am or 9am and close between 3.30pm and 5pm Monday to Friday. Some close for an hour at lunch, and many also open Saturday mornings.

Post

Belgian Post Office (www.bpost.be) rates for standard-sized letters under 50g are €0.87/1.36/1.58 to domestic/EU/non-EU addresses, with small discounts if you buy stamps in multiples of five. Most post offices are counters within other shops.

Public Holidays

  • New Year’s Day 1 January
  • Easter Monday March/April
  • Labour Day 1 May
  • Iris Day 8 May (Brussels region only)
  • Ascension Day 39 days after Easter Sunday (always a Thursday)
  • Pentecost Monday 50 days after Easter Sunday
  • Flemish Community Day 11 July (Flanders only)
  • Belgium National Day 21 July
  • Assumption Day 15 August
  • Francophone Community Day 27 September (Wallonia only)
  • All Saints’ Day 1 November
  • Armistice Day 11 November
  • Christmas Day 25 December

Smoking

  • Smoking Officially smoking has been banned in Belgian pubs since 2011. But inspectors are few and far between, and a 2016 report suggested that in some 17% (mainly rougher, non-tourist places), customers blatantly flout the law. Tax on tobacco in Belgium is around 58%, considerably lower than in neighbouring countries, resulting in a noticeable cross-border trade.

Taxes & Refunds

With expensive purchases, non-EU-resident visitors can often claim back most of the 21% VAT at the airport when exiting Belgium (but not if flying to another EU country). This only works with purchases from shops signed up to the Tax-Free shopping scheme. You must show proof of non-EU residency when requesting the necessary purchase receipts, which you must present at the airport to organise the refund.

Telephone

When calling from abroad, drop the initial 0; from within Belgium, dial the full number, which is always quoted including the area code.

International country code+32
International dial-out access code00

Mobile Phones

Most EU mobile phone contracts allow customers roaming in Belgium as though they were in their home country. For non-EU visitors, the cheapest and most practical solution is usually to purchase a local SIM card for your GSM phone, though do make sure your phone isn’t blocked from doing this by your home network. There are several providers.

Time

Clocks run on Central European Time, moving forward one hour for daylight-saving time on the last Sunday in March, and reverting again on the last Sunday in October. That makes Brussels an hour ahead of London and (usually) six hours ahead of New York.

The 24-hour clock is used.

Toilets

Museums and restaurants are well provided for, but cafe toilets sometimes leave a lot to be desired, and standalone public toilets can be infuriatingly hard to find. At motorway service areas there's always a charge for the 'facilities'.

Tourist Information

Marked with an easily identifiable white-on-green ‘i’ symbol, almost every town and village has its own tourist office known as dienst voor toerisme, toeristische dienst or simply toerisme in Flanders, maison du tourisme, office du tourisme or syndicat d’initiative in Wallonia.

Most give away brochures and accommodation listings, sell detailed walking/cycling maps and local products and can often arrange guided tours on your behalf.

Useful contacts:

  • Visit Brussels (https://visit.brussels/en) The capital region.
  • Visit Flanders (www.visitflanders.com) Flanders.
  • Visit Wallonia (http://walloniabelgiumtourism.co.uk) Wallonia.

Travel with Children

From spooky rambles through candlelit castles to high-tech space simulators to splashing about on beaches and rivers, Belgium has plenty to thrill and inspire beyond the sheer magic of historic chocolate-box cityscapes. And most museums make a point of offering special activities aimed at a younger audience.

Best Regions for Kids

  • Rural Wallonia

The array of summer sports activities goes well beyond the archetypal kayaking weekend, offering something for kids of all ages, with Durbuy and Coo especially well set up.

  • Bruges

Adding to its sheer beauty, enchanting Bruges excites the less historically minded with museums of chips and chocolate.

  • The Coast

Even if it's too cold to swim, children can ride kwistax (pedal carts) along the prom and visit crazy sandcastles.

  • Ghent

Magical townscapes inspire, while plenty of interactive museums have kid-friendly activities.

  • Antwerp

The city is very much a grownups town, but the zoo will keep little ones engrossed; city museums cater well for tweens, and teens adore the shopping.

  • Brussels

After gazing at the unforgettable Atomium, particularly child-friendly attractions include Train World, puppet shows at Toone, dino-discovery at Musée des Sciences Naturelles, miniature architecture at Mini Europe and cartoon characters at Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée.

Belgium for Kids

Belgium is a great destination for kids, full of attractions and activities, and has all the amenities and services that will allow little'uns to have a great holiday.

Children's Highlights

Theme- & Activity-Parks

Very helpfully, several of Belgium's best theme parks have been installed near enough to other major sites so that one parent might slope off to enjoy a different kind of attraction while the rest of the family is busily soaking up the fun rides.

  • Pairi Daiza An incredible array of wildlife set amid beautifully designed gardens, Chinese temples, African villages and other striking recreations.
  • Lacs de l'Eau d'Heure Activity-filled outdoor area featuring the impressive Natura Parc.
  • Plopsaland The biggest theme park on the coast is tucked back off the beach strip at De Panne. Related Plopsa Coo in the Ardennes is smaller but prettier with plenty nearby for adults.
  • Domaine Provincial de Chevetogne Imaginative playgrounds, a petting zoo, forested areas, mini-golf and lakeside fun.

Educational Activities

The difference between educational attractions and theme parks is increasingly blurred as the best install simulators and full-sense experiences. Many museums are designed in large part with children in mind, and include interactive activities and workshops. It's well worth looking at the websites of the various museums or sights before going as some activities might operate only on certain days of the week. Naturally a lot will be in local languages, but many are tactile and intuitive, so an adventurous child is likely to enjoy them, and most tour leaders speak excellent English. Even non-child-specific museums tend to have a toddlers' zone equipped with relevant play activities.

  • Technopolis Mechelen's cutting-edge science-experience museum constantly adds new educational delights.
  • Euro Space Center A major interactive experience, though beware that it's awkward to reach without a car.
  • Musée des Sciences Naturelles Meet a family of real dinosaurs.
  • Earth Explorer Lets rip in Ostend with earthquakes and storms, then tries to explain them. Very obliging English-speaking staff are on hand to guide the baffled.
  • Train World This cracking new Brussels diversion for children and adults offers hands-on exploration of historic locomotives.

Outdoor Excitement

  • Château de Bouillon This wonderfully evocative Crusader ruin is likely to inspire young minds, especially during the birds-of-prey show. The site is all the more special if you visit on a summer's night by the light of burning torches.
  • Han-sur-Lesse Younger kids might find the cave visit a little long, but there's the fun of starting out by train. With the 'safari' and various other minor attractions, it all adds up to a fine day out.
  • Durbuy Belgium's smallest 'town' is brilliantly set up with activities to keep the whole family active, while a few kilometres away in Barvaux there's also the summer fun of the great cornfield labyrinth.

Planning

Entrance Fees

For most attractions, there are discounted children's tickets for those under 12 years old (sometimes but more rarely under 18), with those under six usually free, though occasionally eligibility is judged by height. Those over 12 often pay full (or almost full) adult rates in Wallonia, but in much of Flanders there are special rates for those under 26, which is often as little as €1.

Accommodation

Hotels don’t usually charge for toddlers, while many will provide an extra bed for children for around €15 (variable). A great idea for bigger families is to rent a gîte (holiday home) for a week to use as a base for visiting one region.

Eating

Most local children are taught to behave suitably in brasseries and restaurants. If yours aren't, you might consider erring towards self-catering accommodation rather than cause embarrassment. All restaurants are free of smoking, and many, especially brasseries, have a small selection of simpler dishes (burger, pasta, meatballs, chicken-in-apple) or smaller portions for children, typically priced under €10. A fair proportion of eateries across all categories have high chairs for youngsters, but it's worth calling ahead to check availability.

Babies

Baby cots are available on request in many B&Bs, hotels and even some hostels, but it’s worth reserving ahead as most places stock only one or two. Nappy-changing facilities are patchily available: try the female toilets at branches of hamburger chain Quick if you’re stuck. Breastfeeding in public is acceptable, though not commonly seen.

Transport

When travelling by car, children under 1.35m must travel in a child’s safety seat. Most car-rental firms have such safety seats for hire if you book well ahead. Theoretically taxis should provide one if you book in advance.

Train travel in Belgium is free for under-12s when accompanied by an adult if the journey starts after 9am.

Further Information

For all-round information and advice, check out Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children.

Volunteering

Brussels has various projects aimed at helping migrants and the homeless. Ask for details at the Use-It office. Several hostels employ fellow travellers as co-hosts in return for bed and board.

Weights & Measures

  • Weights & Measures Use the metric system for weights and measures. Decimals are indicated with commas, while thousands are separated with dots (full stops). For example, 987,654.321 would be rendered 987.654,321 locally.

Work

Foreigners other than EU and Swiss nationals, generally require a permit to work in Belgium. These are issued by the regional authorities, www.werk.be for Flanders, http://emploi.wallonie.be for Wallonia or http://werk-economie-emploi.brussels for Brussels.

Self-employed individuals or employers sending staff on short-term contracts in Belgium need to register through www.limosa.be.