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Known for its tasty dark chocolates and beer, Belgium, home to the European Parliament, is a country of historic cities and wonderful driving. Cities are cool, vibrant and easily explored on foot, while the countryside is flat and close at hand. Driving between the main centres can be done at a snap and the stunning Ardennes region begs to be explored.
Belgian roads are good and main cities are connected by toll-free motorways, though signage can be difficult to decipher, with inconsistent colours and layout, so it’s worth having GPS. Give way to traffic from the right and to trams and buses.
Driving licences: you can drive here with a valid UK driving licence. If your licence is the old paper type, an International Driving Permit is required.
Which side does Belgium drive on: the right.
Motorways: 74mph (120kph)
Rural areas: 56mph (90kph)
Built-up areas: 31mph (50kph) or 18mph (30kph) near schools
Alcohol limits: 0.05 per cent, with on-the-spot fines for offenders with blood alcohol levels of between 0.05 and 0.08 per cent and heavy penalties including imprisonment thereafter. The UK’s limit is 0.08 per cent.
Driving age: 18 years.
Seatbelts: all passengers must wear them. Ask the rental company about adapted car seats if travelling with children/infants under 5 stone, 9 pounds (36kgs) and/or 4 feet 5 inches (1.35m) tall.
Mobile phones and GPS: you can use a mobile phone with a hands-free kit while driving. It is also okay to use GPS, but there are heavy fines for those who programme these devices while on the move.
Cost of fuel in Belgium: both petrol and diesel are cheaper in here than in the UK.
Car hire and fuel payment:
foreign credit cards are accepted at manned petrol stations, but they may not work at automatic pumps. Let your credit card supplier know you are travelling as standard antifraud measures may see your card locked when used overseas.
Insurance: the main car hire companies provide insurance, but it is advised to take out excess insurance to cover in the event of an accident.
Traffic and parking: Brussels and Bruges is where traffic is heaviest. Street meters and Blue-Zone parking are common; the latter requires parkers to display a cardboard clock (available from newsagents and petrol stations) which shows the time of arrival. A red triangle signifies no parking at rush hours. Avoid parking on tram lines and yellow lines.
Travel by rail to Belgium is the preferred method of land-based travel, with direct international services from London aboard Eurostar (three hours), as well as from Paris. Useful services also come in from Netherlands and German cities. Brussels is the main rail hub. Rail travel around the country with NMBS is also good, with a comprehensive rail network covering all cities. Various cheap deals are available, including web deals for £4.00, and Seniors (65 and over) tickets at £4.30 for a return journey anywhere in the country. Services are fast, modern, comfy and cheap compared with the UK. The main cities have metro and tram networks.
All towns have taxi companies and taxi ranks. Cabs are metered and have an initial fixed fee and per-kilometre rates, for example in the capital kilometre rates are between £1.30 and £2.10 depending on the area of the city travelled to, plus an initial fixed fee of £1.90. The initial fixed fee rate goes up at night to £3.50 although rates are cheaper than in the UK in general. Taxis are typically chartered at stands which are located at busy spots, such as train stations, near squares and at big hotels. Taxis can’t be hailed in the street but you can pre-book and there’s no need to tip as a gratuity is included in the meter price.
Bus travel to Belgium is more flexible and cheaper than rail travel, and easily done from neighbouring countries, including the UK, with Eurolines (which is affiliated with National Express), with ticket prices to Brussels from £19.00. Hoverspeed Citysprint also serves the country and there are main stops in Brussels (north), in nearby Leuven and at Antwerp and Liege. Local buses run nationwide, though bus travel is a lot slower than train travel. The various domestic bus lines all offer ticket deals like one day unlimited travel in Wallonia for £6.00 and 24-hour return trip metropolitan tickets for £2.80. The Kusttram bus serves the Belgian coast, while cities are zoned.
Ferry travel has always been a popular way to get to Belgium from the UK, with regular car passenger ferries from England. They run from Ramsgate to Ostend with Oostende Lines (daytime) and from Hull to Zeebrugge with North Sea Ferries (overnight). Ticket prices vary with the season – summer sees the most expensive rates of close to £300.00 - very cheap deals are available in the off-season for as little as £46.00 for two passengers and a vehicle.
The principal airport for Belgium is Brussels International, located just outside the capital and well-linked to it by train and coach services. The national airline is based here but various other major airlines fly into Brussels, along with low-cost carriers like JetairFly, Vueling and Thomas Cook. Other budget services like Ryanair use Brussels South Charleroi Airport, located 50kms from the capital but linked to it by a coach service (typically tickets are £10.50 one-way). The third airport for Belgium is Antwerp Airport, with well-priced business service links to London City Airport via CityJet and others.
Brussels is the buzzing capital and main draw, with bags of character and big monuments, such as the UNESCO World Heritage listed Grand Place. Among the churches, palaces and guildhalls, one of the more quirky landmarks worth a visit is the 1958 World's Fair Atomium. The Battle of Waterloo site is just south of the city.
Bruges, noted for its medieval old town, dreamy spires and canals, is especially stunning, while Antwerp—another of Belgium’s main cities—is a city of Art Nouveau and neo-Renaissance houses.
Nearby Ghent appeals more to students and the young set owing to the many pubs and bars, while the Belfort and Sint-Baafskathedral gallery are must-sees.
The French-speaking city of Liege, farther east, and ancient Tongeren are alternatives and good launching points of exploration into the beautiful Ardennes. This region has the best driving in the country, with its rolling landscape, rich forests and tranquil villages. For insight into the Battle of the Bulge, visit the Bastogne Historical Centre at Bastogne.
The French-speaking Wallonia centre of Dinant, meanwhile, is also worth a side trip for a slice of France and the incredible Notre Dame church on the Meuse River.
Belgium’s weather is similar to that in the south of England, being mild with lots of rain. July to August daily summer highs are 22°C (71°F) and this is the best time to visit, although cities and roads tend to be busy with tourists. It rains most in autumn and winter, with drier weather in the spring shoulder season, when cheaper hotels and travel deals can often be had. Temperatures rarely drop to below freezing in winter.