The Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg) countries offer a very different perspective of Europe as compared to the rest. The landscape is largely flat with hardly any mountains which means a completely different flora and fauna when compared with Central Europe. Also, the Netherlands and Belgium are recognized as liberal countries – testimony is the tolerance of moderate use of a few drugs. In fact in the Netherlands, sale of some drugs in coffee shops is also tolerated. Both these countries have significant proportion of its geographical area under sea level. And to counter this phenomenon, many centuries ago they built canals to regulate the flow of water into the country. It is these canals precisely which give this area a distinctive identity.
Amsterdam –the capital of Netherlands is arguably one of the three finest cities in Europe. With canals flowing throughout the city, taking a walk in the evening when the city illuminates can transport one into a different world. The Netherlands is also the cycling capital of the world. One only needs to see to believe the numerous people who complete their daily tasks including going to office on bicycles. Cycling lanes stretch right across the countryside. Red light districts are usually frowned upon but in Amsterdam it is a major tourist magnet. A visit by train to the countryside and one can see the large number of windmills lined up. As one travels more, he is able to grasp and appreciate these contradictions. The Netherlands is a relatively small country which means it is possible to base oneself at some place and do day trips to all other places of interest. The Dutch train system is super efficient but not cheap. However it remains the best way to travel across the country.
Belgium akin to Switzerland does not have its own language. Broadly the northern part of the country – Flanders, speaks Dutch and the southern part of the country – Wallonia speaks French. But unlike the Netherlands where the charm is not only in Amsterdam but also the countryside, in Belgium the charm lay completely in the cities. And the presence of canals is In fact most of the areas of interest are located in the Flanders – Bruges and Ghent. It is easy to condition the mind as “Okay, since both are canal towns, I’ll pick one of them”. But both Bruges and Ghent offer completely different experiences and you will walk away from both with different feelings and thoughts. Untouched by the bombing in the wars, Bruges is great for delivering that classic European feel and horse drawn carriages traversing canals. But it is in Ghent you will understand daily life a little better while still enjoying historic sites and classic buildings. Belgium is famous for two things - the Belgian chocolate and Tintin - a character invented in the 1920s. One can even have Tintin tours in Brussels and trust us - whoever loves Tintin will love these tours. And across Belgium is a chocolate lovers’ paradise.
The Benelux countries are more expensive than an average European country. Stay, food as well as travel are all expensive. Amsterdam is more expensive than average. Even hostel rooms are generally upward of Euro 50 per person per night. However, a few simple tips may help. Accommodation outside Amsterdam or on its outskirts is significantly cheaper. One may even consider staying in Den Haag (The Hague) which is about 60 kms away but travel to Amsterdam is not very cheap (~Euro 10 one way) so eventually if you are 2-3 in a room, it may turn out to be the same thing. However, assuming you stay in Amsterdam, shell out a few Euros extra but do stay in House Boat or Canal House. These are expensive – about Euro 150 per night for two as a minimum and they generally do not offer for less than three days. But the experience is something you may cherish throughout your life.
The Benelux countries are generally safe. A lot of people either speak or are conversant with English. So a tourist has little to worry.
What to expect:
Everything is different from Central Europe. These countries have built a culture of their own. Experience the joy of cycling, the numerous number of windmills and a walk along well preserved medieval towns located along the canals.
Travel infrastructure: 4.5/5
Tourist friendliness: 4/5
English spoken: 4/5
Money's worth: 4/5
Minimum 2-3 days: Amsterdam, Den Haag and Surroundings
Off the Beaten Path:
4-5 days: Haarlem, Volendam, Delft, Leiden, Zaandaam - Experience the canals of Delft with windmills of the the countryside, typical Dutch villages and colourful towns
7-9 days: Add Bruges and Ghent - the canal towns with a life of their own. Bruges is picture perfect while Ghent has historical significance
10-11 days: Add Ypres and Brussels - best for Belgian chocolate and Tintin tours
13-14 days: Add Rotterdam, Maastricht - for city life and university town experience