Belgium’s Secret Gems

By - March 3, 2006 (Updated: November 30, 2014)

“You’re moving where?”

It was a common refrain when Andrew and I first found out that we were Belgium-bound.

Most of our friends and family could find where Belgium was situated on a map of Europe, (although a couple of our more ‘geographically challenged’ friends were surprised by the result of their Google searches), but no one really knew much about the country — including us.

Most North Americans can conjure up mental images of cafes in Paris, ruins in Rome or mountains near Geneva. These images may be accurate or based solely on rumor, misconception or bad Hollywood movies, but they are images nonetheless. Brussels, however, baffled the imaginations of our non-European friends.

There was mention of waffles, chocolate and beer of course, but even Andrew and I were at a loss. It wasn’t that we had to dispel pre-conceived notions about Belgium — we just had no notions at all.

Our only impression of Belgium was as “that country we drove through at 100kmh” while touring the rest of Europe on a large bus. You never get a good impression of a place by judging its highway rest-stops.

It seems that wherever you go in the world you run into a Canadian willing to tell you how much better the Ontario side of Niagara Falls is, an American who extols the virtues of driving the California coastline with the top down or an Aussie who informs you that you haven’t lived until you’ve seen the sun set over Sydney harbour.

I’ve never met a Belgian who told me I couldn’t die before visiting his or her homeland. In fact, most of the Belgians I’ve met since I’ve moved here have asked why the heck we chose Belgium.

It seems that Belgians are hesitant to promote their country. I think there are two reasons for this.

First, Belgians are buying into the same propaganda that we North Americans get from their European neighbours. The evidence is clear if you look around Belgium in August — there’s not a Belgian to be found. You will, however, find them on the beaches of the south of France or in the cafes of Venice. In my experience, there seems to be a lot of Belgians who just haven’t explored their own country.

Second, and I think more importantly, Belgians know to keep a good thing secret. If they keep the tourists in Grand Place and Brugge, they have the rest of the country to themselves.

One of the best things about Belgium is its nature and scenery. There are hiking trails everywhere and beautiful views in the most unexpected places. But the true beauty of these places is that you rarely have to share. There are no tour buses in the parking lots and no guides marching through with coloured flags. You can still find places to be totally alone.

For me, there is no greater treat than driving along a new and unexplored stretch of road and coming upon a totally unexpected attraction.

While Andrew and I where driving this past weekend we discovered some wonderful new places that we had never even heard of before. We’ve vowed to return and visit them again. These places would be hyped with billboards and full colour brochures in other countries, but they go quietly unnoticed here in Belgium.

While I could fill a book with these Belgian gems, I prefer to keep them to myself and the few Belgians who know their secrets. I’ll let you find your own.

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Alison Cornford-Matheson
Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel photographer and the founder of She is the author of The Foodie Guide to Brussels: Local Tips for Restaurants, Shops, Hotels, and Activities. Alison landed in Belgium in 2005 and, over the years, has become passionate about slow and sustainable travel, in Europe and beyond. She loves to discover hidden gems - be they museums, shops, restaurants, castles, gardens or landscapes, and share them through her words and photos. She has visited 45 countries and is currently slow travelling through North America in an RV, with her husband, Andrew, and two well-travelled cats. You can also follow her work on Google+
Alison Cornford-Matheson
- 17 hours ago


  1. Comment by Sue

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    Sue March 4, 2006 at 00:38

    I remember once sending a Doers and Dreamers quide to a Belgium friend by phoning the NS Tourism line. When I gave the address, I said Brussels, Belgium. There was a pause and the clerk, said, that in Germany?

  2. Comment by expatraveler

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    expatraveler March 5, 2006 at 02:04

    Great article… I’ve only been to Antwerp Belgium. We explored the city as much as our day trip allowed. I think when you are an outsider you tend to walk and move about more. We ended up at a great cafe, and enjoying every bit of our travels throughout the entire city. IT was a lot of fun. Enough that I’m sure if I had time, I’d like to go venture back to Belgium.

  3. Comment by Miss Jay

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    Miss Jay March 5, 2006 at 10:13

    I’m still waiting to be declared one of Canada’s national gems – Belgium will have to wait 🙂

  4. Comment by Alison

    Alison Cornford-Matheson

    Alison March 5, 2006 at 11:11

    Sue – Oh God… you’d think the tourism people would be the ones answering the stupid questions…
    expat – Thanks, and you must come back and explore some of the smaller places… it’s definitely worth it!
    Jay – you’re already an international gem! 🙂

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