When it comes to experiencing Belgium, Chef Bart Vandaele of Washington DC’s original Belgian restaurant knows a thing or two. He grew up in Belgium before moving to the U.S. twenty years ago. Known as a master of Belgian cuisine, he specializes in Belgian food and beer, having cooked for European dignitaries in Embassy row and even appeared on Bravo TV’s Top Chef.
Today, Chef Bar is at the helm of several DC restaurants, including Belga Café his flagship Belgian eatery in DC, alone the restaurant features a vast collection of over 100 beers on the menu which we wrote about here. In a recent interview and #Mezzetravel Twitter chat with Chef Bart, we asked him what were among his favorite things to see and do in Belgium and what travelers could take away about Belgian people and culture.
If you’re planning a trip to Belgium soon, here are six ways Chef Bart recommends travelers experience the country like a Belgian.
1. Pay attention to the details of local life.
For Chef Bart Vandaele, the best thing to do in Belgium for him is revisiting things he’s seen and was familiar with growing up in Belgium. Take, for example, the highest point in Belgium Signal de Botrange, which he’s seen countless times. “Sure, you’ve been there on a trip as a school kids, but it’s different each time—or, to just drive around through the town you grew up in or that your friend grew up in, and then think to yourself ‘Hey, that street wasn’t there, or this changed, or not,’ that’s how I like to experience Belgium,” he shared.
2. Don’t be in too much of a hurry.
When it comes to things to see and do, one of the things Chef Bart encourages travel enthusiasts to do is to simply sit. It’s one of his favorite pastimes in Belgium. “Visiting too much is never good. Taking the time to sit at the table and talk to people—sitting at a sidewalk café and just watching people or talking to the people who sit next to you and observing. Belgians are really focused on nothing and a lot at the same time,” he laughs.
3. Rent a bike.
“Belgium is small, it’s fun. It’s not like you have a long journey to go most anywhere, and you can literally go from café to café, and see people passing by with their bikes,” he shared.
4. It’s normal if you don’t have a favorite city.
What Belgian city is Chef Bart’s favorite? He can’t pick just one, but Antwerp, Ghent and Brugge are among his favorites for wonderful reasons. Located in the most northern Belgian region of Flanders, Antwerp is his favorite Belgian city for its shopping and museums, and Ghent for its food, and simply strolling around. Brugge is a favorite for its pleasant outdoor dining, and of course Belgium’s capital city Brussels is on his list for its rich history and delicious and famous waffles.
5. Extravagance can be a way of life.
For people who travel and like to take souvenirs, we asked Chef Bart what spirit about the Belgian people should travel enthusiasts take with them. His answer: happy people with a love for Belgian food and beer.
Essentially, taking back with you a bit of the Burgundian lifestyle. Burgundy is a region in France but the phrase has its meaning in Dutch (that requires a history lesson), but it simply translates to a flare for ‘enjoyment of life, good food, and extravagant spectacle.’ To us, this means Belgians like to have the best time life can give.
6. Maintain a fun-loving spirit.
In the capital city, Brussels, for example the people have a fun rebellious spirit, one personified in Brussels famous Manneken Pis. Take this small bronze statue near town hall of the “little pee man,” in Flemish, which has a varied story of origin. Not just famous with tourists, the people of Brussels simply adore it and celebrate the statue as part of annual festivities—even replacing the water stream with beer on occasion!
Chef Bart tells us that, locals from Brussels are also especially proud of its sprouts, and that a stop in the capital city isn’t complete without a visit to the Atomium, which boasts a restaurant at the top of its fifth sphere. Quite the extravagant building.
What’s certain, I think, is if you’re planning a trip to Belgium you’ll have a really good time. You’ll surely find the culture of Belgium to be rich and beautiful, a wonderful place to travel, easily experienced through its easy-going people, and you’ll easily carry a lot about Belgium back home with you.