Belgium's Bicycle Culture
Belgium has an impressive bicycle culture, as would be expected from the Netherlands’ closest neighbor Bicycling in Belgium is easy and comfortable and most cities and towns in Belgium all very bikeable. For bicycling outside the towns and cities, the tranquility of the Flemish countryside with national parks, woods, rolling hills, canals and rivers are just a short bicycle trip away, and provide a wonderful bicycling experience once you reach them.
Belgium has extensive cycling routes, both in cities and between cities and regions. About 48 percent of the Belgian population use bicycles regularly for commuting to work and just running errands. In most cities and towns, the cycle paths are clearly marked and well-maintained. Like in the Netherlands and Denmark, cyclists have dedicated traffic lights, and an abundance of convenient parking. To see the bike lanes for each city, you can simply look at google maps and turning on the bicycling routes.
Belgium does have a national bike-share program, Blue-bike, that you can subscribe to. If you think you will be traveling to the cities where Blue-bike is offered, it may be a good option for you. Blue-bike is designed for regular commuters and tourists. For 12€/year, you can rent a decent city bike for €3,15 max per 24 hours at bike points located in or near more than 44 Belgian stations. If you plan to use a bicycle for more than a day, this is worth it.
In some cases, it is easy to ride to neighboring villages on a bicycle, rather than go by bus or train. If you are looking to base in one city and take day trips (which we recommend), bicycling to your day trip city is often an easy and pleasant way to get there, since cities are pretty close together – an advantage of being such a geographically small country.
For short trips, it is often easy to do an out and back on a bicycle. For cities that are a bit farther apart, you can easily load your bicycle on the train, and travel to your intended destination. You should have plenty of time to explore the city, then bicycle through the countryside on your way back to the town where you are lodging. One of the many nice perks of this way of travel is that you can stop at a cafe or a beautiful spot along the ride back to your room for a quick snack and rest.
There are a lot of bicycling options for longer distance cycling, or if you want bicycling to be the focus of your travels. You can partake in leisurely bike tours where you bike from town to town, staying in lodging overnight. This form of travel, of course, will require you to pack more lightly, as you are bicycling to a lodge every night. I have not experienced these trips personally, but I have many friends who have done so, and they report thoroughly enjoying such travel. You can do these tours on your own, or work with a tour company to plan and accommodate your trip.
If you are unsure about carrying your bags with you each day on longer bike trip, I recommend a bike and barge trip. Think of the barge as a traveling hotel. The barge provides you with three wonderful meals a day, and you have a private room (for sleeping and storing your luggage) and bathroom on the barge. The barges can accommodate 22-100 guests, and travel through canals and rivers throughout Belgium. Each day after breakfast, you bicycle on well-marked and comfortable paths to the next destination. When you arrive at the destination town, your barge is waiting for you, as it traveled down a canal or river while you were out bicycling. When you get back on the barge, you have a delightful dinner waiting for you. What could be better than that?
There are numerous tours to choose from – you can choose Belgium-only tours, Belgium and France, or Belgium and the Netherlands. Tourradar.com offers multiple options for different types of bike tours for all fitness levels and budgets.
Taking Bicycles on Trains
You can take your bicycle on the train in Belgium during the off-peak travel times. The cost will generally run €4 per trip – no matter the distance. When your train arrives at the platform, you must find the conductor and he/she will tell you where to load your bike. You will find some train cars specially designed to carry bicycles (these usually have bicycle racks). Other trains have cars that hold not just bicycles, but also things like wheelchairs or strollers. Some train stations do not accommodate bicycles well, such as Brussels-Centraal, Brussels-Congres and Brussels-Kapellekerk so if you are looking to train to a neighboring town, you will need to find a different station to travel from.
You can find out more about taking your bike on the train at SNCB, Belgium’s national train service.
Bicycling in the Cities
Antwerp is a bustling city but it does not feel as hectic as Brussels. The bicycling is easy in the town center and there are plenty of shared road and cycle paths to follow when venturing with your bicycle outside the city. Bicycling is ideal for seeing key sights if you have limited time in Antwerp. If you have time, be sure to ride east and explore the Provincial Domain Rivierenhof, the large city park just outside the city center. You can also explore the two UNESCO World Heritage sites within Antwerp, or ride out to Mechelen. You can also take in a quiet, slower speed bicycle ride while you ride through the beautiful parklands and stop in at the Kasteel Sterckshof.Antwerp has a bike-share (Velo city bikes) but these bicycles are only designed for short trips, so if you plan to use a bike for more than 1-2 hours, you should find a bike rental nearby. You can rent bikes right at the main train station. If you decide to subscribe, you can also pick up a Blue-bike in Antwerp.
If you are staying a few days in Antwerp, we suggest taking day trips by bike:
- Short ride: Antwerp to Lier (16-20 kilometers each way depending on route). You can do this as an out and back or take the train in one direction.
- Medium Ride: Antwerp to Mechelen (23-28k each way). We recommend taking the train either out or back.
- Medium Ride: Antwerp to Sint-Amends (29-34 kilometers each way) we recommend taking the train either out or back.
- Medium Ride: Anwerp to Sint-Niklaas (20-23k each way). We recommend taking the train either out or back.
- Long Ride: Antwerp to Lier and Willebroek (40-43 kilometers each way). We would recommend taking the train either out or back.
- Long Ride: Antwerp to Sint-Amonds and Dendermonde (40-45 kilometers each way). We recommend taking the train either out or back.
Bruges is an exceptionally picturesque storybook town in northeast Belgium that tourists flock to each year. You will find many bike/barge or bike/B&B trips (Tourradar.com) that start in Amsterdam and end in Bruges. Needless to say, Bruges is an easy town to bicycle in. Just outside you will find quaint towns and bits of the countryside along canals that are ideal for venturing beyond the city center if you are looking to explore. The city center is easy to navigate by bicycle, although I noticed the cobblestone streets to be a bit rougher on a bicycle than in cities in the Netherlands. Head out of town to see some of the neighborhoods and cycle some of the designated and separated bike lanes. We traveled through some lovely parks and along a canal to neighboring Damme one afternoon. Bruges has 3 landmarks that have UNESCO World Heritage designations, all in the city center.
Bruges has an abundance of bicycle rental shops and you can rent a bike at a shop adjacent to the train station. Unfortunately, BikesBooking, Blue-Bike and Donkey Republic do not service Bruges.
If you plan to stay in Bruges, I suggest taking day trips by bike:
- Short Trip: Bruges to Damme (6.2 kilometers each way). We recommend you do the out and back. This only requires 1/2 day.
- Medium Trip: Bruges to Aalterbrug (22-25 kilometers each way). You can do this as a one way or out and back.
- Medium Trip: Bruges to Blackenberge/Knokke-Heist: (28-40 kilometers each way). We recommend taking the train either out or back.
Brussels has been pushing to become more bicycle-friendly. We noticed that there were fewer bicycles in Brussels than in any of the other cities we visited in Belgium. Brussels is a big city with a lot of cars (once outside of he historic center) and some wide roads, but if you stay on the small streets, you will be fine. There are plenty of shared road and designated bike lanes throughout the city. From the Grand Place, we rode out to the canal and over to Parc du Cinquantenaire and the Palais de Justice, which was about 6-7 kilometers – very easy. You will encounter some incline so opt for an e-bike if you are uncomfortable riding uphill. The Watermael-Boitsfort parklands (UNESCO world heritage designation) are about 5 kilometers southeast of the city. For a peaceful afternoon, you ride through the park and view some historic buildings and lovely scenery. For something different, take a small trip along the Brussels Canal on the city’s Waterbus. The ticket to ride the water bus is 3€ but you can take your bike on for free (ticket required). It is about a 10-kilometer ride on the river to the northernmost stop at Villoorde. Ride along the canal back to Brussels for a wonderful afternoon of adventure. Don’t miss the 4 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Brussels and 2 additional sites within bicycling distance from the city center.
There aren’t many independent bicycle rental shops in Brussels but there are two bike-share options:
- Villo!, is designed for short trips but you can get a day-use pass. The day-use fees are reasonable and if you don’t mind locking and grabbing a new bike at each stop, it may work for you. We did use Villo! but found the bikes to be heavy and in only fair condition.
- Blue-bike is designed for regular commuters and tourists. For 12€/year, you can rent a decent city bike for €3,15 max per 24 hours at bike points located in or near more than 44 Belgian stations. If you plan to use the bike for more than a day, this is worth it.
If you plan to stay In Brussels, we suggest taking day trips by bike:
- Short Trip: Vilvoorde (12 kilometers each way). We recommend taking the Waterbus either out or back.
- Medium Trip: Brussels to Vilvoorde and Mechelen (25-28 kilometers each way) We recommend you take the train either out or back.
- Medium Trip: Brussels to Watermael-Boitsfort parklands (9-15 kilometers each way) We recommend you do this as an out and back.
- Medium Trip: Brussels to Leuven (30-35k each way). We recommend you take the train either out or back.
Ghent has a wide diversity of things to see and do that will appeal to every traveler seeking European pleasures. The Castle of the Counts in Ghent is overwhelming, and the canals that thread through the city create a great deal of charm and beauty. Much of the city’s medieval architecture remains intact and is remarkably well preserved and restored. The medieval Gothic and Baroque architecture is utterly delightful and highly photogenic. Ghent is home to one of the most beautiful UNESCO World Heritage designated Belfires.
In April 2017, Ghent closed its city center to car traffic, allowing only trams, pedestrians and bicycles. When we visited Ghent in May of 2017, we had no idea this had just occurred. In fact, it wasn’t until recently that we discovered the closures occurred just a couple weeks before our arrival! We, of course, rented bicycles while in Ghent but noticed that there were not many bicycles or cars on the roads and the city center seemed pretty quiet. Our bicycles took us everywhere in Ghent and we spent a full day just riding through different neighborhoods and out to Lokeren for a day. We found ourselves wandering along the canals with no real plan or destination and then enjoying an afternoon drink in the sunshine at a local pub downtown along the canal.
We didn’t see a lot of other bicycles in the historic center but the city had just closed it streets. We believe that today there are now many more people who travel around the interior of the city by bicycle and enjoy the car-free city center.
If you plan to stay in Ghent, I suggest taking day trips by bike:
- Short Trip: Ghent to Merelbeke (9 kilometers each way). We suggest doing this as an out and back.
- Medium Trip: Ghent to Aalterbrug (25 kilometers each way). We recommend taking the train either out or back.
- Medium Trip: Ghent to Lokeren (22 kilometers each way). We recommend taking the train either out or back.
- Long Trip: Ghent to Lokeren and Sint-Niklaas (42 kilometers each way). We recommend taking the train either out or back.
- Long trip: Ghent to Sint-Amands (42 kilometers each way). We recommend taking the train either out our back.