“I know Brugges from the movie with Colin Farrell.”
“Can I have chocolate and strawberries on my waffle?”
“Do you serve Budweiser?”
While small, Belgium has a lot to offer to anyone traveling the European continent. Fine beer, excellent chocolate, a varied culture, three national languages, and some of the prettiest architecture in Europe – what’s not to love? Here are some tips on what to say and how to act while touring Belgique/Belgie/Belgium.
Learn the language. While most Belgians speak at least a little English, and many are fluent, they appreciate even the smallest effort in either French or Dutch, depending on which region of the country you’re in. Learn a few basic phrases in both languages to impress the locals you meet in bars, cafes, restaurants, and on the street.
Conversely, if you speak the wrong language in the wrong region, the locals will be quite displeased. The Flemish (those living in the north who speak Dutch) and the Walloons (those living in the south who speak French) have been at odds for years, and speaking French in Flanders or Dutch in Wallonia will ensure hostility.
Dress to impress. One of the easiest ways to spot a tourist is by the camera around the neck, the sneakers on the feet, and the backpack on the back. To blend in with Belgians, wear dark colors – they don’t favor anything bright – wear your normal shoes, not walking shoes, and keep your camera stashed away (unless it’s a massive DSLR) until you see something photo-worthy.
Eat the right waffle. There are two kinds of waffles in Belgium – the Brussels waffle and the Liege waffle. The Brussels waffle is the kind that we eat here in America. It’s rectangular and can be served with whipped cream, strawberries, drizzled chocolate, and all kinds of toppings. The Liege waffle is made of thick balls of dough containing chunks of sugar which crystallize upon being baked. They do not come with toppings and are simply served in paper. A Belgian would not be seen dead with a “tourist” waffle, as they call the waffles piled high with goodies. The Liege waffles, or “street” waffles, are what they really eat. And quite frankly, they taste a thousand times better.
Try the native food. Chocolate, waffles, and French fries – that’s what people think of when they think of Belgian food. While chocolate and fries are staples of an average Belgian’s diet, they eat a variety of other dishes that you can’t find in any other country. When you see these dishes on the menu, give them a try:
Mayonnaise and Andalouse
It’s true – Belgians love mayonnaise on their fries. Which grosses out a lot of us. The thing is, their mayonnaise is much different from ours, and in fact, it tastes better. It was born to go with fries. If mayonnaise still isn’t your thing, try sauce Andalouse on your fries instead of ketchup. Or try mixing your mayonnaise and ketchup together.
Mussels and fries are a beloved dish of Belgians, both Flemish and Walloon. When ordered, you simply receive a big dish of steamed mussels, a big dish of fries, and occasionally a bucket placed on the floor for you to dump your mussels’ shells. Don’t use your fork or your fingers for the fries – pick them up with a discarded mussel’s shell!
Anything made with beer
Beer is not only an obsession of Belgium’s – it’s a part of their culture. For example, a certain Saint Arnold in the sixth century once warned, “Don’t drink water, drink beer,” believing that water carried bacteria and diseases, whereas beer (being made from boiled water) was safer. Belgians don’t only drink beer, they eat it, too. In Ghent, you can try “stoverijsause mee mayonaise” – meat sauce made with beer and mixed with mayonnaise – on your fries. Like a lot of Belgian dishes, it may sound bizarre, but it tastes delicious.
Speaking of beer… drink the right beer at the right time, and try as many kinds as you can during your stay in Belgium. There are Trappist beers, Pils beers, white beers, and more. Trappist beers are for nights sitting in the bar enjoying the rich taste of one of the seven Trappist beers in the world (six of which are produced in Belgium) and talking with friends. Pils beers are for drinking – and I mean drinking – when you don’t care what’s in the bottle. White beers and Kriek (a cherry flavored beer often labeled as a “girl’s beer” but enjoyed by both genders) are for enjoying company. And nearly every town, large and small, has at least one brewery to itself. Try these local beers when you stop in small towns on your trip. Choose wisely, but know that you can never make a bad choice. They’re all the best beers you’ll ever taste.
While there are hundreds of little ways in which you can blend in with the native crowd in Belgium, these are some basic tips to help you experience Belgium the way locals do. Enjoy your trip!