When visiting a foreign country, it’s always a good idea to do a little research before the trip. Understandably, most people look for travel and safety alerts as well as crime rates and the best places to stay. What they often forget, though, is to read up on the culture and common practices. Locals generally understand that tourists will often do or say something out of place. Yet at the same time, they always appreciate when someone tries to understand their way of life.
So if you’re planning to visit Belgium, here are some tips to do just that.
Skip the Gratuity
Unlike Americans, service workers in Belgium don’t expect to be tipped. Also unlike in the States, their employers usually pay them decent wages and they don’t really need gratuity. Whether it’s your waitress, tour guide, taxi driver, hotel staff, or hairdresser, the rule of thumb is to not worry about giving a tip. Most of the time, gratuity or service charges are included on the bill. Of course, if the service was exceptional, it’s always appreciated when customers throw in a few extra Euros.
Greeting Your Neighbors
In some European countries, the locals are overly friendly. By contrast, folks in Belgium prefer to keep to their own personal space. When it comes to meeting new people, they keep it formal. A brief handshake is common between folks who don’t know each other, while three kisses on the cheek may be used after a relationship is developed. Men always greet each other with a handshake regardless of how well they know each other.
As you get to know the locals, you may find yourself being invited into someone’s home. Should that happen, there are a few gift-giving etiquette points to remember. Flowers or chocolates are acceptable gifts for any occasion, but save the wine for close friends. If you choose to go with flowers, make sure there’s an odd number in the bundle (but not 13). Even numbers are reserved for sad occasions like funerals and grieving periods. Likewise, avoid white chrysanthemums, as they’re a symbol of death in Belgium.
Just like the Belgians like to keep their greetings formal, they also feel it’s important to keep up appearances. Most are concerned about what kind of impression they leave on other people, so they like to dress well and can be wary of those who don’t follow the same practices. Similarly, they keep their residences as neat and tidy as possible. Cleanliness is a matter of national pride, and it’s not uncommon to see some locals sweeping the streets or washing the steps and pavement in front of their houses. So remember to clean up after yourself, don’t track mud through a house, and dress nicely.
Sample the Chocolate
Belgian chocolate is famous for a reason. Their confections are quite pure compared to most other countries, and there are literally thousands of shops throughout the country that sell nothing else. Chances are, no matter where you go, you’ll find chocolate. Additionally, Belgium ranks second in the world for their consumption of the sweet treat. So the easiest way to live like the locals is to eat some chocolate!
Check Out the Nightlife
Belgium has an active nightlife, and the locals tend to start the night early. Some head out on the town as soon as they finish work and keep going until they go home to bed—or until sunrise, whichever comes first. In the summertime, Belgians like to socialize while sipping ale and hanging out at the tables sitting outside the shops, a tradition called terrasken. Seef is a local favorite, which won Best Specialty Beer at the annual World Beer Awards in 2014. It’s worth noting that Belgians like their beers strong, so pace yourself and feel free to hang around as long as you like.
Hop on a Bike
If you’re going to be spending your day traveling around the city, consider skipping the taxi and biking through the streets instead. It’s pretty easy to find bike rentals, and it’s a great way to explore the area. You can either wander the area on your own, or you can book a bike tour and have a local guide show you around. Whichever route you decide to go, you’re sure to find some hidden gems along the way.
When you’re in a new place, it’s easy to get caught up in the idea of just sightseeing and visiting old buildings rather than exploring what the local culture has to offer. In Belgium, that can be remedied by checking out its thriving art scene. One of the region’s best-kept secrets is a large number of venues that cater to creative individuals. Whether you’re into crafts, photography, film, literature, theater, pottery, or any other artsy hobby, you’ll find something to spark your interest. Ask around to find creative workshops hosted by the locals, and you’ll have fun learning something new while getting to know the townsfolk.
A Tip From the Locals: Don’t Try to Speak the Language
In most countries, people will be flattered if you take the time to learn their language in order to better communicate with them. As such, they understand if you flub a phrase here and there. That’s not quite the case in Belgium.
The country has three official languages: French, German, and Dutch. That said, the languages aren’t exactly regional. Locals choose for themselves what they speak in their households, and this can lead to serious confusion for foreign visitors. You might speak Dutch to a shop owner, assuming he can understand that language since most of the population does. But instead he speaks German or one of the local dialects that’s impossible to translate.
For this reason, locals generally prefer that visitors stick to English. More than half the population can speak it fluently, so it’s a safe fallback for communication.
The generally formal atmosphere in Belgium can seem intimidating at first, but don’t let it discourage you. The Belgians are a friendly bunch and more than willing to show you the ropes. When in doubt, just ask!