After six years of organising Expat Club trips, I am quite happy when I look at our destinations map. We’ve been to well over 100 destinations, including cities, museums, regions, mountain tops, beaches, Christmas markets, waterfalls, panoramic viewpoints, castles and many more famous and less-known landmarks.
I believe all places we visit are worth seeing, but now I put my brains at work to really think about what are the absolute must-see destinations we have been already and will definitely return to. While compiling this list, I must admit that I feel doing injustice to many wonderful places we visited before but that didn’t make it to their list. In fact, all places we’ve been before deserve to be visited. There is a history to each and every one of them. There are stories to be told. Things to be seen and discovered. And beyond all that, if you do it with a group of like-minded smart and kind people, the day(s) is always a nice and memorable, wherever you go. But in the end, there are a few places that you really cannot miss while living in Brussels. Here is the Expat Club #15.
#15 – Hallerbos
Our closest must-see destination lies only a short drive from town. And even though it appears “last” on this list, it definitely belongs on it. Yet, I am totally amazed that every year some of our guests admit living in Brussels already for decades without having been there. I’m talking about the magical Hallerbos, whose forest floor turns into an amazing carpet of bluebells from mid to end April. It’s truly stupendous to see how such a lovely little flower can create this spectacular view over large areas of this enchanted forest. You’re too late for 2019, but we hope to welcome you in 2020 again.
#14 – Bavarian Castles
Tucked away in some hard-to-reach corners of the South German State of Bavaria lie some exceptionally beautiful royal residences and castles: the Würzburg Residence, Schloss Nymphenburg and the Residenz in Munich, the Versailles-like Herrenchiemsee on an island, the small but incredibly opulent Linderhof, Hohenschwangau where King Ludwig grew up, and the over-the-top amazing Neuschwanstein, the one of the biggest tourist must-see destinations of Germany.
#13 – Venice Carnival
A place so beautiful and so special that calling it the world’s most beautiful city would upset no one. Venice is in all ways an exceptional destination. With its countless canals and bridges, its incredible architectural marvels and the amazing art, it is a must-see destination even on the most miserable rainy day. But to visit during its unique and spectacular Carnival tops everything when thousands of costumes and masks can be seen throughout the city.
#12 – Iceland
Wow, what an amazing country! And what an amazing time we had on our first trip in November 2018. Iceland’s landscape is so incredibly spectacular, that you may think you arrived at another planet. Volcanos, lava fields, black beaches, waterfalls, geysers and steamy mud-pools, you can see it all there. Also, the country lies exactly in the Northern Lights oval, and witnessing this mesmerising natural phenomenon in the sky is reason enough to make this is a must-see destination.
#11 – Paris Air Show
The world’s largest and most prestigious air- and space event is held for over one hundred years in the French capital. Le Bourget Airport, one of the world’s busiest airports for private planes, is home to the Salon de Bourget. Since 2013 we visit this amazing event that draws tens of thousands of representatives in the industry. Over 2250 exhibitors present the latest technologies, products and services, and the best thing is that you can also visit this fair and discover it during this one day trip. But a visit to the Paris Air Show is primarily interesting because you can visit the 150+ aircraft in the Air & Space Museum inside (including the Concorde), another 150 aircraft from big to super-large outside on the tarmac (including the A380, drones, private jets, helicopters and fighter jets), and the amazing air show in the afternoon.
#10 – Monschau / Strasbourg Christmas Markets
Expat Club travels every year to many different Christmas markets in Germany, France and the United Kingdom. And surely they are all worth visiting. But for this list I just couldn’t decide which one belonged most on here to represent the Christmas spirit: Monschau or Strasbourg. The latter French city is host to the oldest and also one of the largest markets in the world. The entire UNESCO-protected city centre is amazingly decorated that this Alsatian city definitely deserves a top spot. But then there is this little lovely town Monschau just across the German border that seems like it is totally made for Christmas. Every season we go there at least twice to enjoy a magical atmosphere. FYI, both destinations are also much worth visiting during the summer months.
#9 – Versailles
If a palace becomes a blueprint for many other palaces and residences, then it must be something really special. Le Château de Versailles, home of the Sun Kings, is the palace of palaces and must be visited at least once. It has hundreds of rooms, hundreds of chimneys, dozens of staircases, many secret corridors, a huge meticulously designed garden, and a most splendid Hall of Mirrors. Visiting Versailles requires some time, especially if you also want to see the much smaller but interesting Grand and Petit Trianons palaces and the Queen’s Hamlet, a lovely Normandy style village that was made to the liking of Marie-Antoinette.
#8 – Switzerland
Locked between Austria, Italy, France, and Germany lies the Alpine country of Switzerland. It is known for milk chocolate, cows with bells, Heidi, banks, and foremost beautiful mountains. A city trip to Zürich or Geneva alone would not count as a visit to the country. For that you must discover the Alpine meadows of regions like Appenzell, lakes like the Vierwaldstättersee, mountain roads like the Sustenpass and Nufenenpass, and mountain tops such like the Jungfrau and the Klein Matterhorn, and ski resorts like Saas Fee and Sankt Moritz. It’s truly a breathtaking country that you can only explore by car, or as we prefer and did it 2018, by luxury 5* bus. Must-see for all it has to offer.
#7 – Trier
With just over 100.000 inhabitants you would not expect it, but the city of Trier is not only Germany’s oldest city, it is also a city with one of the world’s highest number UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Not less than 9 sites have been awarded this prestigious title, including the Porta Nigra, the Saint Peters Cathedral, an Amphi Theatre, and Roman baths. With over 2000 years of history, we can only conclude one thing. This is a must see destination.
#6 – Champagne
It has become our signature trip. Since 2014 we have organised not less than 15 trips to the Champagne region. If you love wine and can appreciate artisanal production of the bubbly juice, then joining our famous trip at least once is a must-do. During our trips we always visit a Champagne cellar in Épernay, and also discover several smaller houses in the #1 historic and production Champagne village Hautvillers. We see the famous Avenue de la Champagne, the ancient Basilique in Reims, as well as the spectacular Gothic Cathedral in the heart of the same city, with the stunning stained glass windows of Marc Chagall. It’s a must-do and must-see destination at the same time.
#5 – Keukenhof
Our very first trip destination of course cannot miss on this top #15 list. And as a Dutchman I shamelessly admit to be 100% biased when telling you that you must-see the Keukenhof gardens, because it is simply spectacular. All the flowers, all the colours, all the fragrances. It’s the most happy place you can visit after a grey and cold winter. There will be 7 million tulips in the park welcoming you, and hundreds of millions more outside the park. In 2019 over 1,5 million people from all over the world are expected to come to the park to witness nature’s most beautiful creations. Surely you do not want to miss the Keukenhof in 2020!
#4 – Mont Saint Michel
Locked into the bay that separates Normandy from Brittany lies a small rocky island that has been a place for pilgrims ever since the archangel Michael appeared before the Bishop of Avranches in 708. Nowadays the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel attracts millions of visitors every year. It’s a mysterious place with many large halls, underground passage ways, hidden chapels and prison cells, but also one with spectacular views over the bay, lovely tourist shops and local restaurants. Add also the incredible high tides of up to 15 meters and a super fast tidal wave, and the result is a must-see 5* tourist destination.
The top 3 must-see destinations
For destinations #3, #2 and #1 you may think it is required to be a complete history buff, but that is not the reason why every of these 3 important destinations are put on the top spots of this list. No doubt all above destinations are totally worth visiting, but none of them made it to the top 3.
Many expats in Brussels work for the European institutions, NATO, the diplomatic services and a wide range of NGOs that are at one way or the other involved in guaranteeing our liberty, safety, well-being and welfare. Surely everyone working in these organisations knows about the historic significance of each of these three destinations, but visiting them is essential to not only understand what happened there from the intellectual perspective, but to also actually experience them and pay respect to those who fell for our freedom, and to mourn those that died under the Nazi regime.
#3 – D-Day beaches
June 6 of the year 1944 will always be remembered as one of the most important days in history when tens of thousands of allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy. Reenacted in movies like The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan, the battlefields along the five main beaches – Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah – were extremely heavy and took the lives of many brave soldiers. With Expat Club we have been there 2 times during the last day of a trip to Mont Saint-Michel. In 2019, right after the 75th Anniversary, we organise a dedicated 4-day D-Day trip to fully understand what happened there and to pay our respect to the liberators of Europe.
#2 – Ypres, West Flanders
The First World War has scarred Belgium like no other conflict. And Ypres was the epi-center of the terrible fighting that went on in West Flanders that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, as so poignantly articulated in John McCrae’s poem: In Flanders fields In Flanders fields the poppies blow, Between the crosses, row on row. Visiting the museum in Ypres and at least some of the more important historical battlefield sights, memorials and cemeteries, is a definite must-see for every expat who wants to understand what impact WWI had on Belgian history. The losses of the trench war that took place here are incredible. The total senselessness of all the pain, agony and losses. And just two decades later it started all over again. Btw, an equally important destination would be Verdun, which is sadly known as the “Capital of WWI.”
#1 – Auschwitz
Of all Expat Club destinations, I deeply believe everyone should at one point in life visit the concentration and extermination camps of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau. The horrific events that took place here must always be remembered and taught to future generations. I know that many people have Auschwitz somewhere on their must-see list, but an actual trip over there often competes with many other alternative (happier) short trips. And so it gets postponed and postponed. Understandably, because there is never a good time to visit such a sad destination. It requires some preparation, such as reading books and watching documentaries. Still, no amount of studying can prepare you for the emotional experience in this dark historical place, let alone replace it. I went there for the first time alone on 17 April 2018 to prepare for an upcoming group trip 2 months later. Despite everything that I learned about the holocaust, I walked through Auschwitz in utter disbelief. Standing alone in the gas chamber of Auschwitz for several minutes was a deeply moving experience that I will never forget. Neither can I forget parking my rental car somewhere along the endless fences of Auschwitz II – Birkenau, looking at those watch towers and lamp posts that I recognised so well from all the pictures, movies and documentaries. The only thing that went through my shocked mind was”How can this be possible? It really exists. How can it be possible?”. Auschwitz if the absolute #1 must-see destination.
As written on the official website: “One cannot understand the modern world without a thorough knowledge of the history of the Nazi German concentration camp, Auschwitz.”