The move to Brussels is a big step, but big steps are what expats are all about. We’re a pretty fearless bunch, always itching to get out there and experience. That sense of wanderlust is what took me off the beaten path and into Flemish Brabant.
Thankfully, as you may have guessed already, ‘there’s an app for that’: the ‘Become a Local’ Bucket List (www.bucketlistflemishbrabant.be)! There’s no, ‘Here’s a city, or a nice monument to stop by.’ No – there’s a bucket list, full of fun, sometimes quirky, things to do away from the hustle and bustle of Brussels. It’s your one-stop ticket to discovering Flemish Brabant’s hidden gems, those secrets only locals know.
So how does it work? The bucket list contains pastimes that locals enjoy on a regular basis. Click a bucket-list tile for additional info (Time for the next trip… What strikes your fancy?) or to tick them off your list (I’m one step closer to becoming a local!). It’s perfect for tracking your progress and testing your skill and expertise as a true (g)local.
Naturally this can’t be done in a single day. Over the course of a year, I’ll be putting my best foot forward to explore as much of Flemish Brabant’s highlights as I can, using the bucket list as my guide. After all, locals don’t become locals overnight… If you’d like to read about my previous experiences with bucket list challenges 1 through 5, you can check them out here.
Challenge 6: Create your own AfricaMuseum
Once a more traditional museum, dominated by ‘trophies’ of Belgium’s controversial colonial past, the new AfricaMuseum is a true celebration of (mainly) Central African history, culture, wildlife and nature, religion and art. In contrast with classic ‘look but don’t touch’ museums, the AfricaMuseum is chock-a-block with interactive treats that appeal to the curious child in all of us.
Why not bust a move on the platform by following two African dancers in the museum’s very own version of ‘Just Dance’? Or put on a headset and learn African words and sounds or try to identify the rhythm of the drums? Play a wooden thumb piano, look through a microscope at insects and bacteria common in Congo and look at the masks, brightly coloured textiles and illustrations of Central Africa’s print culture. (Did you know that comics are popular in Congo, just like they are in Belgium?) The life-size examples of wildlife and preserved plants and animals collected in bygone days are sure to both amaze and terrify.
Challenge 7: From cow to cone: start your 'Tour de Crème'
Belgium has a rich dairy farming heritage that’s impossible to miss once you’ve made it into the countryside just outside of Brussels. When walking and cycling through Flemish Brabant you’re sure to spot more than a few content cows grazing in the meadows. Obviously dairy farming means yummy milk, butter and cheese, but it also means… ICE CREAM! Which is exactly why Flemish Brabant came up with the ‘Tour de Crème'.
To test out this tasty journey I dropped by Hof Ter Vaeren after my trip to the AfricaMuseum. They have a small, but lovely selection of ice cream made right there on the farm. You can also buy fresh milk (bring your own bottles please!), cheese made from local beer, and fresh butter.
And not only did I get to see the cows that provide the ice cream’ milk, I got to meet a few calves too. If you happen to make the acquaintance of one on your visit, be sure to hold on tight to your handbag though. These calves seem to have excellent taste in fashion accessories…
Challenge 8: Visit the only natural UNESCO World Heritage site in Belgium
In 2017, (parts of) the Sonian Forest became Belgium’s first – and only – natural UNESCO world heritage site. After barely having made a dent in its vast 4,421-hectare spread, I can see why. Cities often make us feel small because they are crowded with tall buildings, rushing people and a bewildering landscape. When you walk into the Sonian Forest, in contrast, you feel dwarfed by age-old beeches that majestically stretch up to the heavens. If you get lucky with the weather, the canopy of their small, green leaves, dappled by the sunlight and a capricious play of shadows, is more awe-inspiring than any impressionist masterpiece.
While I didn’t see any animals, beyond the happily chirping crickets in the underbrush and ducks merrily swimming in the ponds, I did spot a few deer tracks on my path. And now that the forest has joined the ‘European Rewilding Network’, the wildlife there is sure to flourish.
Challenge 9: Cycle all the way around Brussels
You don’t have to be in Belgium long to know that the locals are all mad about cycling. But what is there to see, cycling all the way around Brussels? (That’s not a serious question, is it?) Apparently, tons! If you don’t happen to be up for too long a ride around Brussels, the ‘Kouters Cycling Route and Its Beer’ is perfect. For one, the verdant paradise known as the Meise Botanic Garden is on it. As an ardent admirer of gardens, I could easily spend a whole day here exploring the various trails (including an edible one in the summer!). If you’re a fan of beer, just hit the Palm Brewery and/or the Microbrewery Den Triest.
In addition to gardens and beer, part of your trip will include a mix of history, architecture, nature and hands-on activities in Grimbergen. You can pay a visit to the oldest Norbertine Abbey in use in Flanders where you can try the cheese, beer and bread made by the monks. For something a little more hands-on, then the Museum of Old Techniques is ideal. You can try your hand at washing clothes old school or join one of the adult workshops and learn to bake bread, create reliefs in copper or learn leather working.
If you’re sportier and up for the (legendary!) 100 km loop around Brussels, follow the Gordel Route. In addition to the many must-sees along the route, there’s the pure pleasure of exploring Belgium’s Green Belt, a lush tapestry of natural art.
Challenge 10: Find sanctuary in our parks & gardens
If you happen to visit the AfricaMuseum like I did, then it’s well worth strolling through the Tervuren Park. The park immediately outside of the museum is more traditionally landscaped, with manicured hedges, flowerbeds, tranquil ponds and wide grassy plains perfect for picnicking. While relaxing, this part of the park is a little too ‘sterile for me’, so I recommend trekking a little further out and deeper in and finding the summer path. The denser part of the park includes a lovely variety of trees where you can also – if you’re lucky – spot examples of local wildlife.
For the romantics among us, a trip to the Coloma Rose Garden (southwest of Brussels) is a must. There’s an endless palette of colours with 3,000 different varieties of roses displayed across four themed gardens. The perfume of the blossoms, soft texture of the petals, and lovely colours are the perfect escape from the city.
Flemish Brabant, a definite to-do on your own bucket list
If it’s not on your list, it should be. Flemish Brabant is full of treasures good for the soul. If you interested in hearing more bucket-list adventures, stay tuned to the Brussels Times.
However, if you just can’t wait, check out the ‘Become a Local’ bucket list (www.bucketlistflemishbrabant.be) and sign up for the newsletter. You can stay up-to-date on what’s happening in Flemish Brabant and get tips from genuine local ‘heroes and heroines’ of Flemish Brabant.