When you think about Belgium, you see images of beer and chocolate. If you’ve been following the news you might also think about governmental difficulties and crazy priests. But few would associate Belgium with some of the world’s best festivals and a two-week long party that attracts over a million visitors. Read on and find out why Belgium should be on your to-go list for this summer!
Squeezed in between four other countries and the North Sea, Belgium isn’t very big. In fact, it’s even smaller than Vancouver Island. And while the latter has about 750.000 inhabitants, this small European country has a population of about eleven million. The capital city Brussels also serves as capital of the European Union and is home of the NATO and the European Commission. As a result you can literally find a hundred different nationalities on the streets. With all these headquarters around, public demonstrations are quite frequent, but these are mostly friendly. Brussels is a convenient location to stay because it is very nicely situated in the middle of the country, so you can drive anywhere in the space of two hours. Go towards the coast and you are in Flanders, where Flemish (Dutch) is the native tongue. Go south and find yourself in the French-speaking part called Wallonia.
Fireworks and ferry wheels
Any travel guide will be able to tell you which museum you cannot miss, which chocolate shop has the best sweets in town, and that you really have to see the Atomium. While we definitely advise you to do all those and more, we really want to outline the summer-only events here! And in case you were wondering, the Atomium is that famous landmark constructed of nine giant spheres that form an elementary iron crystal enlarged 165 billion times.
If you’re travelling with kids, you could do worse than spending a summer afternoon at the Zuidfoor, a big open-air fair with a giant ferry wheel, ghost houses and wild rides that make your head spin. One particular wild ride moves you around at speeds up to 100 km/h. The fair, which had its first edition way back in 1880, has about 130 different attractions, so you’re guaranteed to find something of your liking! The fair occupies a long stretch of the Zuidlaan and is open daily between July 16th and August 21st.
Between the 12th and the 21st of August, Brussels hosts a summer music festival. Created by the city in 2002, this multicultural festival offers open-air concerts on different places in the city (Paleizenplein, Museumplein and the Warandepark). July 21st is also a good day to be in town, as this day marks the 180th anniversary of the inauguration of the first king of Belgium, Leopold I. It is a national holiday, but you will find plenty of activities to keep you busy. Make sure to watch the impressive fireworks display at night. Go to the Royal Palace and join the thousands of people gathering on the streets. As you can see, there are worse places to be than Brussels in the summer!
The best festival in the world
Had enough of the city? Change into a comfy pair of jeans and head towards Werchter. You will have to be quick if you want to pick up a ticket though, they sell out quickly! A busy day attracts up to 80,000 visitors to the festival grounds. Few concerts in the world can match the line-up that organizer Herman Schueremans brings out year after year. That is one of the reasons why the festival has already picked up multiple International Live Music Conference awards for best festival in the world.
This year the festival runs from June 30th to July 3rd, headliners include Coldplay, Underworld, Black Eyed Peas, Kings of Leon, Iron Maiden and Underworld. Don’t want to be abroad on Canada Day? Don’t panic, there are other options! Check out Pukkelpop, a similar festival which runs between the 18th and 20th of August in Kiewit. Over 100 different bands perform, headliners are the Foo Fighters, Eminem and local favourites dEUS.
If you’re really brave, pack a tent and food supplies for a few days and get a spot on one of the campgrounds. Spending four days at Werchter is almost a rite of passage for teenagers. Be aware though, festival grounds make for a very interesting experience. Tens of thousands of young people with plenty of alcohol and without supervision… If you value your shut-eye we would suggest you to to stay in a neighbouring town or camp further away and commute to the festival grounds daily.
A party for a million people
Whatever your plans are, between the 16th and the 25th of July, Ghent is the place to be. For ten days the Gentse Feesten (Ghent Festivities) transform the inner city into a celebration of food, music, performances and dance. First held in 1843, the festival now attracts 1.5 million visitors a year, which is quite a lot if you consider that the city itself only has 240,000 inhabitants. This makes it Europe’s biggest city festival besides the Oktoberfest in Munich. The Feesten are in fact a collection of several individual festivals, including the Ten Days Off (electronic dance), Gent Jazz and Pole Pole (South American world music). Streets are filled with food stalls, shops, attractions and exhibitions. You will see street theatre, puppetry and much more. Street performers pay a fee for their spot and make their money from the tips they receive from the public. Bigger names perform on constructed stages and are paid by the city.
The festival is (mostly) free, except for special events. Don’t miss the official festival opening on the afternoon of the first day. Admire the parade, which is a way for the organizers and participants to showcase their program to the public. Afterwards the festival is officially opened by the town crier. On the second Friday of the Feesten there is another parade, the parade of the stroppendragers ((“noose bearers”). Emperor Charles V (Karel de Grote) , who was born in Gent, humiliated his birth town in 1539 because the city refused to pay war taxes. The emperor forced city officials to walk around with a noose around the neck. To remember this occasion, the yearly procession of the stroppendragers is held. Today the noose is seen as a symbol of the city’s resistance.
Protected by a giant dragon
One of the best places to linger in the summer is the Graslei. This pleasant waterway in the middle of the city was renovated a few years ago, and when the weather is nice the river is lined with people sitting on the sides, sipping from a beer. You could wonder why there are no benches to sit on. Well, nearby restaurants and bars prefer people to sit on their terraces and patios instead of bringing along their own beer and wine. If it’s a really hot day, you might see young folks jumping from the concrete sidewalks into the river, most likely on a dare or a bet. It’s not really allowed so we wouldn’t recommend it.
Last but not least , and even though it is not typical of the summer, it would be a shame to miss out on the recently opened STAM museum, which showcases the history of the city. The first abbeys in Ghent were founded in the middle of the 7th century so there is quite a lot of information to go through! In the Saint Bavo Cathedral you can admire the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, a 15th century painting of which the lower left pane has been stolen in 1934. The panel has never been found, so locals tend to joke about having found the panel in their basement during spring cleaning. Next to the cathedral a giant dragon sits on top of the 91-meter-high belfry of Ghent, listed as UNESCO World Heritage. The dragon keeps an eye on the city and protects the treasures of the belfry. And really, who wouldn`t want to be protected by a giant dragon?