Flanders (Dutch: Vlaanderen) is the Dutch-speaking, northern part of Belgium wedged between the North Sea and the Netherlands in the north and Wallonia and France in the south. This region has an immense historical and cultural wealth made visible through its buildings, works of art and festivals.
- Antwerp (Antwerpen) — Flanders' biggest city, with a large cathedral, the second-largest port of Europe, and plenty to see and do.
- Bruges (Brugge) — also known as the "Venice of the north", a very nice medieval town with lots of small canals
- Hasselt — capital city of Limburg, with a lot of greenery and shopping possibilities
- Courtray (Kortrijk) — an old city with famous medieval towers (Broeltowers) and a big pedestrian shopping district
- Ghent (Gent) — a more medieval city located approximatively in the centre of Flanders, half way between Antwerp and Bruges
- Leuven — an old town with a very old university and a beautiful town hall
- Mechelen — small town with a famous cathedral
- Sint-Niklaas — offering nice cycling opportunities and boasts Belgium's largest market square
- Ypres (Ieper) — made famous by its destruction during the First World War; many memorials and museums
Nowadays, Flanders is one of the three federal regions of Belgium (the other two being Wallonia and Brussels). This means that it has its own government, a parliament and separate laws. The capital, however, is Brussels, over which Flanders has only partial jurisdiction. But Flanders has travelled a long historic road before arriving at its present situation. Once being its own County of Flanders, the territory has been part of several larger countries or empires. Since Belgium's founding in 1830, tensions between the Flemish and French-speaking population have led to the federalisation of Belgium.
Flanders has several airports:
- Brussels Airport (BRU). Located in Zaventem, this is the main airport in Belgium and likely the most convenient point of entry
- Antwerp Airport (ANR). Located in the District of Deurne, it only has direct flights to London and Manchester catering for business customers
- Ostend - Bruges International Airport (OST). Located in Oostende, mostly served by charter and freight flights
There are several ports of entry at the coast and on the Schelde you can find several small ports too.
From English coastal ports such as Dover there are regular ferries to different Oostende and Zeebrugge
The E19 goes through Flanders, also the E40 crosses the region.
By bicycle or on foot. As we are in the European Union there are no borders and you can travel freely. Several places have nature parks and allow you to walk in and out (often following old-smugglers routes).
All roads are free of charge in Flanders except that some tunnels, such as the Liefkenshoektunnel in Antwerp, have tolls.
The roads and signalisation are pretty good. Older cities can appear to be a maze of one-way streets. Often it is better to park your car and continue on foot. In general, the towns are not large.
By public transport
The national train-company is called NMBS. Trains will get you to most cities.
In cities you will find buses, trams and metro from De Lijn(The Line). The same ticket is valid for 90 minutes for one zone. You can buy multiple-ride tickets (Lijnkaart), this is cheaper than buying a ticket per ride. Depending on the number of trips you make in a day, buying a day pass might be cheaper than using multiple single tickets or tickets for multiple zones. Buying tickets from a machine or ticket office (Lijnwinkel) is cheaper than buying from the driver. De Lijn ticket offices might be closed in the off-hours. De Lijn tickets are valid in every Flemish city.
Google Maps show bus and tram stop locations within Flanders. If you click on the tram or bus symbol, you will get a list of bus or tram routes that use that stop. On Google Maps and the De Lijn website you may often see the word perron; this means "platform" in Dutch.
In Hasselt public transport is free!
Flanders has a vast network of special roads for bicycles. Get a map in a tourists office, because sometimes they can be hard to find.
The official language of Flanders is Dutch. Belgian Dutch, the official standard variety, has some vocabulary not used in the Netherlands and a distinct, soft accent but it is still standard Dutch. Nearly all Flemings, with the partial exception of senior ones, are capable of speaking standard Dutch, and while a tourist is not expected to speak the local language, knowing a few words or phrases in the standard language will be highly appreciated.
Most people know English at least moderately. French is learnt in schools by everyone, but not everybody is fluent in French, and addressing the locals in French could offend some of them (for political reasons), so English is a better bet.
There are many music festivals organised throughout the summer. The bigger ones happen in a small village, because there is lots of space and not many neighbours to complain about the noise.
Some of the famous ones are:
- Pukkelpop (Near Hasselt) is still an independent festival organised by youth movements. They figure big names but try to have alternative groups too.
- Rock Werchter (Near Leuven), owned by Clearchannel features all big commercial bands.
- Maanrock (in Mechelen) is one of the larger free festivals. It's inside the city.
- Marktrock (in Leuven) has many different stages with different kinds of music all over the city. Most music is popular music, though there are many small bands playing there. The main stage is the only stage not to be free. Every time you enter you pay a small fee (5 euro in 2003).
- Sfinks (Near Antwerp) is a world music festival. It has a really nice atmosphere. There is a lot of side animation, like a big market.
- Openluchttheater Rivierenhof (Near Antwerp) isn't really a festival, though it has big bands all through the summer. Usually they "pick up" artists that have a few days without a gig.
- Couleur Café
- Werchter Classic (Near Leuven) boasts classic rock bands, but has been featuring artists that had their break-through only recently. It's mostly a re-use of the Rock Werchter facilities.
- Graspop (Metal music), Rythm 'n Blues, Dranouter (Folk music), Cactus festival, Rock Ternat, Rock@Edegem ... (there are too many to sum up)
The festivals organised in towns are often free and very nice. They stay away from commercial music and have good bands playing combined with small local bands. Flanders has some nice music bands with some international fame(dEUS, Das Pop, Zita Swoon, Soulwax,...)
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- Beer. Beer is taken seriously in Belgium. There are hundreds of brands to choose from.
- Café. Every city or village has a café.
Flanders is very safe. You will find that people are usually very helpful. In towns, you should of course beware of usual things (pickpockets in tourist places) but outside Brussels, everything is safe.
- Flemings don't like to talk about their income or politics. You must also avoid asking people about their views on religion.
- The Flanders-Wallonia question or dispute and the high number of separatist and extreme-right votes in Flanders are controversial topics and you should avoid asking people about their views on these as well.
- Although many Flemings speak French, avoid speaking the language, it may be regarded by some as disrespectful. Preferably speak Dutch, English, German or something closely related to Dutch.
- Giving tips shows that you were content with the service given, but you are certainly not obliged to do so. It is sometimes done in bars and restaurants. Depending on the total, a tip of €0,50 to €2,50 is considered generous.
- If you visit Flanders it would be very logical to also visit Wallonia. Though there is a different mentality, you will find that they are Belgians just like the Flemish (lots of beer and good food).
- Paris is pretty close, so are London and Amsterdam. These destinations can be reached by train easily.