Besides drinking the alcohol, what should I do in France, Belgium, and Germany?
January 5, 2012 11:13 AM   Subscribe

I'm considering going to France, Belgium, and Germany in late April for 3 weeks, what should I do and see while I'm there?

I'm a 33 year old guy and will be traveling solo for a 3-week vacation to Europe beginning April 20th and ending May 12th (I'll be leaving from San Francisco). Currently considering going to France, Belgium, and Germany.

My main interests are outdoor adventures (hiking, waterfalls, hot springs), meeting people and making new friends, and experiencing local culture (especially food and drink). Basically I like to go places, meet people, and hang out with them to do whatever it is they love about where they live. I plan on mainly couchsurfing, perhaps a hostel or two, and taking the train or hitchhiking wherever I need to go.

I do not care about typical tourist stuff like museums, tourist attractions, monuments, hotels, shopping, and fancy restaurants.

So what's my question?

I'm wondering if anyone out there has any good tips on:

- particularly good cities to visit (and why)

- interesting places to go or things to do

- specific types of food or drink I should seek out (e.g. "While in Paris, you must eat a _____" or "Be sure to try the ______ beer in Belgium")

- any festivals or cultural events that happen in late April to early May

In general, please tell me about the most awesome things you've seen or done in France, Belgium, or Germany and what I shouldn't miss while I'm there.

posted by buckaroo_benzai to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Belgian chocolate was rather yummy.
posted by backwards guitar at 11:32 AM on January 5, 2012

In Brussels, the Delirium Café (to drink Delirium Tremens, of course).
posted by neushoorn at 11:33 AM on January 5, 2012

The tulip festival in Holland (which is very close to the countries you cited) is in early May.
posted by Flood at 11:39 AM on January 5, 2012

I spent a semester in Heidelberg, Germany in 2009, and I've been to Germany several other times as well. Heidelberg is a really fun little city, but there are plenty of other places I'd go to first. My two favorite cities are definitely Berlin and Munich. There is a whole lot to do in both cities.

Specifically in Munich, don't miss the Seehaus Biergarten in the English Gardens. You'll be able to sit by the water and enjoy a delicious beer. Does it get any better?

However, more generally, these are some of my essential German experiences:

- Drink beer! This one's pretty obvious, but essential. Beer in Germany actually isn't too complicated—just walk into a bar, say "ein Bier, bitte!", and you'll get something delicious (probably a Pils). Beyond Pils, there are lots of styles to try. If you like wheat beer, there's nothing better than a Hefeweizen (sometimes referred to as a Hefeweißbier), and if you want to try something really interesting, try a Rauchbier.

- Picnic. Germans love to have picnics! In Heidelberg, there was a really nice grass area by the river which would be completely crowded with people of all ages grilling and relaxing. Pick up a few beers, something to eat, and just hang out. Most cities have some sort of park like this. There is no open container law in Germany, so you're free to enjoy a beer while people watching.

- Eat. While some people don't really like the German cuisine, I happen to love it. Bratwurst, Schnitzel, etc. are delicious, and you'll also have to make sure to have a Döner, a Turkish kebab sandwich you can find just about everywhere.

- Take a train. The German train system (and Europe's in general) is excellent. It's the most efficient way to get around most of the time, and depending on what trains you take, it can be pretty cheap (but it can also be expensive if you take the fastest trains).

- Go to a German Fest. The Germans absolutely love their fests, and they'll have one for just about anything. If you hear of one occurring, don't miss it. Generally, they consist of some picnic tables, a beer stand, a sausage stand, and live music, and if it's a nice day, it is a lot of fun.
posted by deansfurniture5 at 11:40 AM on January 5, 2012

I recommend a trip to The Kulminator bar in Antwerp considered one of the best in the world. It's not quite what I expected, it's a little frumpy, but with a phone book size beer menu.

There is a short, but beautiful hike from the town of Moselkern to Burg Eltz on the Mosel in Germany.

I have found both Cologne and Antwerp to be friendly cities.

A bike ride from Bruges to Oostende is lovely.
posted by Duffington at 12:00 PM on January 5, 2012

I echo all of Duffington's comments re Germany. For France, I would add Normandy. Even if you're not a military history buff, its a beautiful and moving experience. Also, Mont Ste-Michel is amazing.
posted by Alexdan4 at 12:23 PM on January 5, 2012

When you get to Belgium, I'd suggest skipping Brussels. Go to Liege instead. More young people, hipper vibe, fewer tourists. Brugge is a super neat city to explore, but quite touristy. VISIT MONTPELLIER when you go to France.
posted by HotPatatta at 1:03 PM on January 5, 2012

I LOVE BELGIUM. But yeah, skip Brussels. Brugge is super-touristy but with good reason: it is beautiful, the architecture is great, the river is gorgeous, and there are trees everywhere. But in almost every small town, at least in Flanders, you will find a bar or two that is open, the people are usually friendly, most of them usually speak some English and often very well. I have had wonderful, wonderful times in small towns in Belgium. The next place I want to visit is Oostduinkerke, where they used to (and to some extent still do) go clamming on horseback along the coast.

My favorite waffles are at the black-and-white-striped-awning place at Noordzandstraat & Korte ZilverStraat, across the street from the Delihaize. Get a plain waffle to appreciate the caramelized sugar crystals. If you have to get a waffle with topping get one with speculoos paste, because that too is Belgian.

Also about Belgian cities: check out the free maps available from Use-It. Their information is much better than what you get from the tourism offices. You can download and print, or pick up for free at some hostels.

FRANCE: Please make sure to see something besides Paris. I know it is quintessential Europe, but Paris is not France the way NYC is not the US. If Normandy doesn't fit your schedule (it is west of Paris) or weather plans (rain?), consider Lille, Strasbourg, or Fountainebleau and the areas along the way. When you are in Paris, consider the recently renovated Orsay if you have to do one museum. Don't miss the Jardins Luxembourg if you want a very French (tamed) park, or the Parc Buttes Chaumont if you prefer them a little more overgrown. The Parc Floral at Chateau de Vincennes may be flowery by then, and is a total fairy-tale of a park. The Hammam at the Mosque is enjoyable if you like hot relaxation; check the dates for men and bring your swimtrunks (obligatory); included in the price is tea at their plant-covered teahouse.

GERMANY: I liked Heidelberg. Apparently I am the only person in the world who didn't like Berlin...

If you want some AWESOME CS contacts in Belgium, including some small towns, feel free to contact me by MeMail.
posted by whatzit at 1:26 PM on January 5, 2012

So much for editing. The waffle favorite is in Brugge, at Noordzandstraat & Korte ZilverStraat. The city information got separated in the previous post.
posted by whatzit at 1:48 PM on January 5, 2012

Koninginnedag has to be seen to be believed.
posted by Pendragon at 1:52 PM on January 5, 2012

Do you like beer?

I grew up in Bamberg, Germany and that town has more breweries than anywhere. The beer gardens are an amazing place to have a meal, try lots of kinds of beer, and meet really fun people. It's got a beautiful old town and it's a much more relaxed than Munich. You can still get the Oktoberfest feel without the crowds of drunk tourists.
posted by TooFewShoes at 3:51 PM on January 5, 2012

Oh my God, Germany in April is WHITE ASPARAGUS SEASON!!!! Eat as much as you can swallow!

I was in Deutschland for most of October and cannot recommend the city of Dresden highly enough. Why? Well it was virtually destroyed in WWII and has been rebuilt brick by brick- and is just ridiculously beautiful. It also has one of the best restaurants I've ever eaten in anywhere- Lila Soße, "junge deutsche Küche." I wish to hell I'd gone twice.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 5:05 PM on January 5, 2012

If you're looking for a less touristy place with a more "real life" feel, try Ghent instead of Bruges. My husband and I were in Belgium in April and couldn't believe how many tourists had already descended on Bruges. I think it's worth visiting but not for an extended period of time. And if you do go to Ghent, go to the Vridagmarkt and try some of the waffles at one of the cafes. We ate there almost every day.

Brussels is also worth a day or two, I think. They have some of the best chocolate (try Mary's, which is the preferred Chocolatier of the royal family). They also have some fantastic mussels, especially those that are lathered in oil and cheese. You can also get white asparagus in Belgium.

I agree that if you can get up to the Netherlands for the tulip festival, or at least to visit the Keukenhof Gardens. I have never seen so many flowers, especially tulips, in one place. Wow! Also, biking in the Netherlands is a breeze.

And seriously, Belgian beer is AMAZING. I don't think I've enjoyed beer as much as when I was in Belgium. I preferred the "blond," lighter varieties, while my husband liked Dubbel or Tripel beers. Here's some information on the famous trappists. He loved Trappistes Rochefort.

In France, I suggest Mont Saint Michel, which is a beautiful abbey that is sometimes in the sea due to the tide. A bicycle ride through the Loire Valley would also be lovely. If you go to Paris, check out the Catacombs, which are off the beaten path.

Have fun!
posted by emilyv at 7:29 PM on January 5, 2012

If you end up going to Brussels, I recommend touring the Cantillon Brewery. Their gueuze is my favorite beer of all time.
posted by rebel_rebel at 10:19 PM on January 5, 2012

- nthing Bruge for the architecture and the beer in general.
- Seconding emilyv in that Ghent is more "real life" and feels like a real working city/town.
- I'm a huge fan of Antwerp and try to stop there every time I pass through the area.

The Netherlands
- As Pendragon said, this should definitely be on your list at this time of year thanks to Queen's Day (Koninginnedag) on April 30th. Definitely not to be missed, and worth a detour. Amsterdam, of course, is the best place to be for it and this will also provide you with good transport links to/from/between Belgium, Germany and France. This is also a great time of year to rent a boat with some hostel-buddies and take a self-guided tour around the canals with a boat full of beer and food (there are great selections of both throughout the country).


- Berlin is obviously a fantastic city and you could easily spend a couple of weeks here eating and drinking and generally having lots of fun. The problem: it's so far away from the country's borders with France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
- If you do decide to go to Berlin, then taking a southern detour and making a stop in Dresden would be a great idea.
- Nthing Cologne. Great city, close to Benelux.
- Munich is a young and vibrant city with lots to do. Again, this is miles away from everywhere else!

- Apart from the obvious cities, Dijon is a great place: young, surrounded by fantastic vinyards, plenty of mustard and lots of restaurants selling escargot and beef bourgogne.
posted by fakelvis at 11:16 PM on January 5, 2012

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