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Belgians are famous for their unique, self-deprecating sense of humor. On my first visit to Belgium, their tongue-in-cheek attitude was certainly in practice. It was the month of October and Manneken Pis — Brussel’s iconic statue of a boy urinating — happened to be dressed like a vampire in honor of Halloween.
Next, I visited the university town of Leuven, which has a famous statue of its own: one of a young student reading a book while pouring a beer straight into his head. Without question, a proclivity to silliness can be found in many of the country’s tourist attractions, and Belgium’s eccentric and bizarrely fun museums are no exception to the rule.
“There are so many quirky museums in Belgium because the Belgian people love to celebrate what makes them unique, their humor and their innate kitsch,” said Francoise Haffreingue, executive manager of the Belgian Tourist Office, Brussels and Wallonia. “Brussels and the Wallonia region offer terrific family-friendly attractions where you can mix culture, art and history with entertainment for all.”
However, Haffreingue says she would recommend a visit to some the country’s strangest museums, whether traveling with or without children.
“Not only are our quirky museums interesting but they definitely make a great anecdote,” she said. “Where else but in Wallonia can you say that you went to a museum dedicated entirely to carrots?”
Carrot MuseumThe Carrot Museum in the tiny village of Berlotte might not be that extensive, but it sure is strange. For starters, there are no staff members around to answer questions, and visitors are not allowed to actually enter the building. Instead, the exhibition is viewable through a window, and guests can switch displays by rotating a wheel. Located in a historic electricity tower, the museum is maintained by a local carrot club that only admits men (sorry ladies).This unusual attraction made Time Out magazine’s list of 15 of the World’s Weirdest Museums, and no other place lays claim to such a detailed collection of carrot-themed memorabilia.
Chocolate MuseumPut down that ordinary Hershey’s bar in favor of something even more remarkable. Belgium is one of the world’s leading purveyors of chocolate, and the quaint town of Bruges has dedicated an entire museum to the sweet treat. Located within a gorgeous 15th-century wine tavern, Choco-Story: The Chocolate Museum details the origin and evolution of chocolate through a unique collection of nearly 1,000 objects. In the demonstration room, visitors can watch as Belgian pralines are painstakingly crafted, see what chocolate looks like in various stages of production and, of course, sample the coveted confections created by on-site chocolatiers.
International Carnival and Mask MuseumHave you ever noticed that donning a festive costume can influence your behavior? At International Carnival and Mask Museum, visitors will learn about the diversity of masks and the symbolic transformation that their wearers often undergo.
Through June 28, the museum is offering a temporary exhibition, “An Upside-Down World. Carnivals and Masquerades of Europe and the Mediterranean,” in cooperation with Marseille, France’s Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations. Mons, Belgium, is this year’s European Capital of Culture, and “An Upside-Down World” is part of the official programming. Expect more than 200 colorful masks, costumes and objects that depict rural masquerades as well as today’s urban parades of Europe and the Mediterranean.
Laundry MuseumIf your millennial daughter complains about having to fold her own laundry, take her to the Laundry Museum in Spa to see just how easy she’s got it. The exhibition recounts the painful situation of women in the centuries before the washing machine was invented. In fact, the evolution of linen laundering techniques helped to fuel a change in attitudes, enabling women to free themselves from housework over time.
Watching a demonstration of how your Belgian grandma might have done the washing in 1940s can really put things into perspective. Before your eyes, docents boil laundry over a wood-fire, scrub linen with a washboard, beat the clothes in a wooden barrel, hang the linens up to dry and, lastly, press them with antique irons. Any more grumbles from the kids? We didn’t think so.
Strawberry MuseumThanks to a favorable microclimate and a surplus of sunny days, the town of Wepion has been cultivating super-sweet strawberries for more than 150 years. Wepion is known as the Belgian Strawberry Capital for its history of producing the berry, and even today the strawberry is considered to be inseparable from the Wepionnaise way of life.
“The arrival of the strawberry on grocery shelves is an event that is eagerly anticipated in Wepion,” Haffreingue said. “Thus to show their love for the berry, the citizens of Wepion established the small and delightfully kitschy Strawberry Museum, one of my favorite quirky museums in Belgium.”
Guests will discover the origins of the fruit, its place in local culture and its significance on the region. An on-site boutique sells authentic souvenirs that friends and family back home will appreciate — everything from strawberry liqueur and handmade syrup to strawberry-scented perfume. Want to spoil your loved ones? A gift of Wepion’s strawberry preserves coupled with a box of Belgian chocolate is sure to score some serious brownie points.