Benelux is an economic union comprising three neighbouring monarchies, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. The name is formed from the beginning of each country's name. It was a precursor of the European Union.
A flat country that is consistently changed by the seas. Inventive minds in Dutch history developed a technique for claiming land back from the ocean.
Historically the battlefield for World War One, this picturesque country is often seen as the figurehead of the EU.
This small Duchy once laid claims upon the entire Benelux region around 600 years ago.
- Amsterdam — traveller magnet due to its impressive architecture, lovely canals (grachten), museums and liberal attitudes
- Antwerp — a giant cathedral, medieval streets, artistic heritage, and the second-largest port of Europe, coined the Diamond of the Sea
- Brussels — unofficial capital of the EU with a nice historic centre and several museums
- Bruges — one of Europe's wealthiest cities in the 14th century, its large and beautiful historic centre remains intact; a romantic city with pre-Renaissance walls
- Liège — largest city of Wallonia (the French part of Belgium), along a wide river, industrial cityscape with hiking and resorts in the nearby hills
- Luxembourg — its spectacular valleys and plateaus led it to be nicknamed the "Gibraltar of the North"
- Rotterdam — modern architecture, good nightlife and the largest port of Europe, Rotterdam is a hub of excitement
- The Hague — seat of government, royal family, judicial capital of the world and Madurodam
- Utrecht — historic centre, nice antique stores and the Rietveld-Schröder House are all in this magnificent Dutch city
- Ardennes — The most sparsely populated in Benelux, this is a hilly countryside region covered with forests.
- Binche — For three days in February, the town is transported back to the 16th century for one of the most fantastic carnival festivals.
- Hoge Veluwe National Park — Largest national park with heathlands, sand dunes and woodlands.
- Keukenhof — Millions of tourists visit the tulip fields each Spring.
- Kinderdijk — These windmills show the typical Dutch landscape in all its glory.
- Pajottenland — An area of green fields and small villages, some of which have been portrayed by artists such as Pieter Bruegel.
- Schokland — Old island evacuated in 1859, a well-preserved ghost village remains.
- Vianden — Quaint small town presided over by a rather splendid château.
- Waterloo Battlefield — The Waterloo Battlefield where Napoleon lost the final battle that changed Europe's face forever.
Luxembourg and the East of Belgium are a hilly area, but the rest of the Benelux is what is known as the Low Countries; this is the delta of the rivers Scheldt, Meuse, Rhine and Ems. Originally swamp land, enterprising fishermen discovered a flair for trade when trading routes started to emerge between the grain markets of the Baltic Sea and the renaissance-bitten luxury goods markets of northern Italy. Here is where stocks were invented. Trade in all kinds of goods as well as enslaved humans made a small elite incredibly rich and the Dutch East India Company (VOC for its dutch name) became one of the first multinational stock based companies and in its heyday controlled entire countries.
This attention to trade made Bruges one of the largest cities in Europe in its day, and the medieval old town is still well preserved. When the secession war with Spain progressed, French and Flemish alike fled to Amsterdam, which became the new world capital of trade, which is still witnessed in the many 'Houses of the Lords' lining the famous canals.
Dutch is the main language in the Netherlands and in the north of Belgium (Flanders) where it is also known as Flemish, and is also one of the two official languages of Brussels, spoken by about 15% of its inhabitants. French is the main language (85%) in Brussels, and in all of the South of Belgium (Wallonia) with the exception of the eastern side of Wallonia where you will find the Belgian German speaking community. In Belgium, while most Dutch speakers can speak reasonable French, few Belgian francophones speak Dutch, which has caused political tension in the country. Luxembourg has three official languages: Luxembourgish, French and German, but for all practical purposes French is the most important language for travelers.
Many people, especially in the Netherlands and Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, have a very high proficiency of English, and younger people often have near native fluency. This is because foreign television content is aired in its original language, with subtitles. On the other hand, in French speaking Wallonia TV is dubbed into French and people hence do not speak English so well. Frisian is a minority language spoken in Friesland (Netherlands).
As Dutch is very close to German, you will be understood by most Dutch speakers if you speak German, but not all of them will necessarily speak more than a handful of German phrases themselves.
Most people get into the Benelux region by plane or train. Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam and Zaventem Airport in Brussels are the largest airports in the region; Schiphol is also important as a transfer airport for further destinations in Europe. Smaller regional airports are present in Antwerp, Eindhoven, Maastricht, Charleroi (Brussels South), Liège and Rotterdam, which are mostly used by no frills airlines.
High-speed rail networks connect the Benelux with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (through the Channel Tunnel). High-speed trains operated by Thalys connect Paris with Brussels, Antwerp, Rotterdam, and Amsterdam in a little more than three hours. High-speed (and slower intercity) ICE International trains operated by Deutsche Bahn (and Nederlandse Spoorwegen) connect Frankfurt (and Cologne) with Amsterdam and Brussels, and Basel with Amsterdam. High-speed trains operated by Eurostar connect London with Brussels.
The major companies running Intercity buses in Germany all serve stations in the Benelux as well. France only recently (2015) liberalized its long distance bus market and thus the market is still very young, but connections to major cities in the Benelux have either been announced or are planned. Some buses even take you to London, either through the Channel Tunnel or by being loaded on a car ferry.
As this is a densely populated area in Europe you usually have the choice of several modes of transport and getting around should be a breeze, if sometimes a bit hard on the wallet.
All major towns (and many minor ones) are connected to the rail network. Belgium alone has four high speed rail lines, though they mostly serve trains coming from or going to other countries. Within the region trains are reasonably fast, cheap (in Belgium keeping rail travel affordable is officially stated public policy and their per passenger km subsidy is the highest in Europe) and have frequencies of once an hour or more often. All three rail companies (including the tiny CFL of Luxembourg) serve international routes. The Beligan railways website is available in several languages and local varieties, including for the US and most European countries.
All countries in the Benelux have a reasonably dense highway network. There is a default speed limit of 130 km/h in the Netherlands and Luxembourg and of 120 km/h in Belgium. As is prescribed by law those speed limits will be shown in a standardised form on every road entrance to the country in question.
The Netherlands - and to a lesser extent Belgium and Luxembourg - are positively bike crazy. There are more bikes than people and every city of any size has a decent or excellent network of bike routes that is patronized by locals of all ages shapes and socioeconomic classes. The only caveat when it comes to cycling is the fact that bikes may be stolen in bigger cities. Intercity cycling is less common but still possible, due to the flat nature of most of the terrain.
Much of the swamp land in the Low Countries has been reclaimed, resulting in some of the largest water works in the world, such as the Delta Works, and in other attractions such as the windmills of Kinderdijk in South Holland. Much has not been reclaimed, resulting in interesting biotopes, such as the Zwin on the North Sea Coast of Belgium and the area around the Wadden Sea in the North of the Netherlands.
- Look at some of the region's historic cities, including, but not limited to, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Bruges, Delft, Ghent, and Maastricht
- Brussels is the so-called capital of the European Union; take a wander through the European Quarter with its modern architecture
- The Netherlands has a bewildering amount of art museums—at least chip in the Museum Quarter in Amsterdam
- Cheese markets are a big thing in Holland—Alkmaar, Edam, and Gouda have them
- More Dutch stereotypes are to be found elsewhere; windmills in Zaanse Schans, tulips in the Keukenhof, and flat polders in the Green Heart
- Flanders has many beguinages and belfries—a total of 46 have been inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List
- The Delta Works, one of the most technologically advanced projects in the world, give an insight in the Dutch' centuries-long battle against the sea
- So, what to see in Luxembourg? Try its capital of the same name, with a splendid location high on a cliff, or Vianden, a tourist favourite with its stunning mediaeval Beaufort Castle.
- Rent a bike and explore Amsterdam.
- Visit the smallest town in the world, Durbuy, in the Ardennes.
- Try Moules et frites (Mosselen met frieten)- Belgium's answer to fish and chips.
- Try stroopwafels, the famous Dutch cookies from Gouda.
- Belgian chocolate is some of the best on the planet.
- Eat the Dutch almond fingers, rich with sugar and marzipan.
- Eat Liège waffle.
- Eat Brussels Waffle.
- Try the famous Belgian brewed beers!
Possible day-trips include the historic cities of Lille and Aachen, that are just over the border in respectively France and Germany. Many Europe-trippers take the train to Berlin with a possible de-tour of Quedlinburg on the way.