For as small as it is geographically (by square mileage, it’s roughly 20% of the size of my home state of Georgia), Belgium packs a heavy punch in the beer industry. Due to its brewing traditions and stature, it’s widely considered one of the most influential brewing hubs on the planet.
But don’t let its reputation and history overwhelm you. As a belt-notching boozehound, you can—and should—go there and spend several days drinking beer. When my wife and I planned our trip, we decided to spread our wings and hit a handful of cities, spending roughly two days in each. We walked everywhere within each city with the exception of two tram rides in Ghent and two Ubers in Brussels. Between cities, we took the train.
Speaking of trains, they’re fantastic, cheap, and reliable in Belgium. We bought and shared a 10-journey Rail Pass for € 76 ($84), and that covered all of our train travel on the trip. Plus, if you’re younger than 26, you can get the Go Pass 10 for € 51 ($56). (You young people get all the goddamn breaks. Now, if you would, please get off my lawn.)
You will be tempted by the Westvleteren Abbey, the Poperinge hops museum, Orval, Brouwers Verzet, and the St. Bernardus bed and breakfast. But trust me: On your first go-around, stick to the basics below and you’ll be rewarded with plenty of hidden drinking holes, cavernous tunnels, and some top-notch bar pets. To help you out, here’s a beginner’s guide to drinking beer in Belgium.
“Comic City” is the capital and largest city in Belgium, home to NATO, the European Union, and those eponymous sprouts, allegedly. A few friends and acquaintances of mine tried to speak ill of Brussels to me before my visiting there. If anyone tries to do the same to you, un-friend them on Facebook immediately.
Address and phone: Rue Gheude 56, 1070 Anderlecht (+32 2 521 49 28)
Inarguably one of the world’s most legendary beer-makers, Cantillon is one of the few Belgian breweries with ample, regular hours for visiting. Give the staffers €7 ($8), and they’ll give you a short speech and pamphlet, and send you on your self-guided way. Wander past stacks of Zwanze bottles, gaze upon the barrels, and take a peek at where the magic happens: the coolship. When you’re through, they’ll give you a couple free pours of beer, and then you have your choice of all kinds of bottles to drink on premise or take home with you. I can honestly say that Cantillon’s one of the most magical places I’ve ever been to in my life.
Address and phone: Rue du Lombard 25, 1000 Bruxelles (+32 2 513 78 84)
The name of this hip, intimate “Brussels brasserie for greedy gluttons and fine beer lovers” translates roughly to “never not enough.” If the weather’s nice, secure a spot at one of the outside tables. The food and drafts are solid, but the bottle list is where Nuetnigenough really shines. We had a Cantillon Fou’ Foune, a De Struise Black Albert, and a handful of Alvinnes, including one made exclusively for the restaurant. On our second trip here, our server wore a Jester King shirt and raved when we asked him about the Austin, TX brewery.
Photo: Facebook/Brasserie Cantillon
La Porte Noire
Address and phone: Cellebroersstraat 67, 1000 Brussel (+32 2 511 78 37)
This delightful downstairs bar is equal parts rock ’n’ roll dive and bizarro dungeon. Our goofy, hyperactive bartender enjoyed ranting about beer and singing along to The Sonics. When we weren’t chatting with him or a gregarious American software engineer who had been working his way through the beer list during the last month, we were enjoying the bar’s draft list and wandering through its cavernous tunnels.
Travel tips: Take an Uber or the train to Beersel, where you can visit 3 Fonteinen; drink Westvleteren 12 at the old, weird Centrum Hotel; and wander around a bonkers castle. Back in Brussels, eat brunch at Peck 47. Buy as many bottles as you can carry at a handful of fantastic bottle shops. Oh, and if you try the semen sandwich, let me know. I’m honestly curious.
Airbnb recommendation: We stayed in Bruno’s “vintage eco flat,” which was cozy, cheap, and gorgeous. We would’ve paid extra for the long balcony that overlooks the bustling heart of Brussels. Bruno welcomed us by flipping through an expansive guidebook he made for guests and instructing us where to get frites.
We might have skipped right over Ghent if not for the recommendations of a couple folks back home in Atlanta, including Joran Van Ginderachter. The Three Taverns head brewer is one of only a few Belgian brewers currently working in the States, and he earned his biochemistry degree at Hogeschool Gent. The Flemish city’s riverside views alone make it worth a visit.
Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant
Address and phone: Groentenmarkt 9, 9000 Gent (+32 9 225 06 80)
Address and phone: Oudburg 20, 9000 Gent (+32 9 234 07 29)
This was another great place that looked relatively unassuming from the street, but was packed with a great beer list and food. We made ourselves comfy in the terrace out back; ordered gueuze from Cantillon and 3 Fonteinen just to have them on the table at the same time; enjoyed veggie moussaka and meatballs for lunch; and waved at boat tours as they glided by on the river next to us.
Het Onverwacht Geluk
Address and phone: Burgstraat 59, 9000 Gent (+32 474 82 27 70)
One of the few bars we visited with no RateBeer or BeerAdvocate listings, Het Onverwacht Geluk is a divey spot that we stumbled upon by sheer luck. This place is a true revelation. Our bartender was hip, cycling through jazz CDs while bantering with weird old men like the Waits-Jarmusch motherfucker to our left, and the dude to our right who dropped his bottle into a soapy dish pit and then happily drank his ginger beer/soap water. I skipped the soap myself, and after a long day of Belgian beer enjoyed a couple Boulevard Tank 7s to remind me of home.
Travel tips: There’s a ridiculous castle right in the middle of the city. There’s also an impressive bottle shop called Drankencentrale de Hopduvel. One rainy morning, we came across a wonderful bed and breakfast/restaurant combo Le Jardin Bohémien, where I proceeded to stuff my face. You should do the same.
Airbnb recommendation: We stayed in Nina’s “spacious loft in the city center,” which was near a tram stop but also had a secluded patio/garden space in back. Nina welcomed us with tons of recommendations and a couple bottles of Gulden Draak.
My father-in-law made a bunch of jokes about that one Colin Farrell movie (I swear I watched this several times in college, but couldn’t recall a single plot point without Googling) in advance of our trip. We didn’t run into any hitmen or drug dealers or film sets, but we did have a great time drinking beer in this gorgeous, ancient city.
Staminee De Garre
Address and phone: De Garre 1, 8000 Brugge (+32 50 34 10 29)
It’s nearly impossible to find this cozy, tucked-away pub. (Pro-tip: If you’re standing on the street facing La Cure Gourmande, walk down that sliver of an alley just to the left.) The selection isn’t breathtaking, but they serve a damn good house Tripel you can’t get anywhere else, and every beer comes with sweaty, soft cubes of tasty cheese that you eat with tooth picks.
’t Brugs Beertje
Address and phone: Kemelstraat 5, 8000 Brugge (+32 50 33 96 16)
This place is rated a 99 on RateBeer, a 100 on BeerAdvocate, and beer-writing god Stan Hieronymus advised me before our trip that it “lives up to the hype.” Sadly, the owners were on holiday when we were in Bruges. Please visit in our stead.
Café Rose Red
Address and phone: Cordoeaniersstraat 16, 8000 Brugge (+32 50 33 90 51)
We spent a couple afternoon hours with a handful of elderly folks on this cafe’s quiet patio, but could’ve easily spent the rest of the day here. Highlights included a bottle of Cantillon Saint Lamvinus (pictured above), some aged Orval, Saison Dupont Cuvée Dry Hopping on draft, and a smiling, warm staff.
Travel tips: Visit the Flemish Nightmare Museum, which will drive you to drink more beer. For a fancy dinner, Refter was the best meal we had in all of Belgium. Sanseveria Bagelsalon was almost too precious for its own good, but with bagels like that, I can’t front. Touching a vial of Jesus’ blood was easily one of the most metal things I’ve ever done, and there’s a Struise bottle shop next door to the basilica. Oh, and you can enjoy some Belgian swill from a train station vending machine.
Airbnb recommendation: We stayed in Karl’s “top floor studio,” and I can say without exaggeration that Karl is the greatest Airbnb host I’ve ever met. He picked us up at the train station in his car, recommended amazing food we would’ve never found on our own, and could easily charge double for the space. Above and beyond.
There are 257,000 Google search results for “antwerp diamonds.” That’s because the city has a diamond district through which more than 80% of the world’s diamonds pass, four diamond bourses (stock exchanges, essentially, but for diamonds), and was the site of the world’s largest diamond heist back in 2003. In any case, Antwerp is still an essential beer stop.
Address and phone: Vleminckveld 32, 2000 Antwerpen (+32 3 232 45 38)
Equal parts dumpy living room and legendary beer bar, Kulminator is a one-of-a-kind establishment. A married couple named Dirk and Leen have run the operation for more than 40 years. There’s a huge, phone-book-esque cellar list (I drank a Chimay from 1988 during our visit) and a couple of cats running wild.
Afspanning ’t Waagstuk
Address and phone: Stadswaag 20, 2000 Antwerpen (+32 3 225 02 19)
This no-nonsense cafe had a great list and loads of tables on its off-the-beaten-path patio. Our server was initially gruff but warmed up quickly, cracking jokes alongside his strong opinions. (When we asked him where we should drink beer in Antwerp, he responded, “This bar,” then proceeded to talk shit about Kulminator.) Aside from the loads of characters inside, there was also a notable pair of beer nerds at the bar debating beer prices and distribution policies.
Billie’s Bier Kafétaria
Address and phone: Kammenstraat 12, 2000 Antwerpen (+32 3 226 31 83)
Real talk: when we came upon this place, we fell in love with its “owner”—an old and extremely chill French bulldog. It also helps that they had some gems on their beer list (Oude Geuze Boon Vat 77, oh my god!). It’s one of the few places we visited twice.
Travel tips: You could easily lose an entire day in Museum aan de Stroom. ZOO Antwerp is also worth a visit, especially if you like getting weirdly close to animals. Speaking of animals, keep an eye out for beer sloths.
Airbnb recommendation: We stayed in Matti and Lolo’s “Antwerp central bed and vintage,” which included a fridge full of beer.