Belgium Part I: Brussels
To be honest, I didn’t have high expectations for Brussels. Many travelers had told me that the city is nothing special, industrial, boring… I found absolutely NONE of this to be true. Our experience in Brussels was brief yet completely unique, lively, and fun. In my opinion Brussels has proved to be a strong contender for capital European cities, providing a mix of art, architecture, cultures, languages and history… Are you intrigued yet?
While yes, Brussels is a modern city with posh bookstores, glamorous concept stores and minimalist museums, I also got a sense that the locals are dedicated to proudly showcasing their Belgian/French/Flemish history and customs. Like every city, it may have its slummy, sterile and less “charming” areas, but I did not find those moments to detract from our overall experience. So I would say 100% YES, spend some time in Brussels if you get the chance.
Brussels is a great travel destination because it is cheap and easy to fly in to from other European cities, and it leaves you in a good position to travel to not only other places in Belgium, but also in Germany or the Netherlands. You can get a one way flight to cities like Hamburg, Copenhagen, Stockholm for under 20€! Belgium is also a great choice because the four main cities: Brussels, Ghent, Bruges and Antwerp are all relatively close in the northern part of the country. We took advantage of this and started our Belgium weekend in Brussels, took the train to Ghent and from there to Bruges and back.
Thursday night around 1 AM Nicole and I stumbled through Brussels in the cold and dark until we finally found our hostel, Brxxl City Centre. Little did we know that the hostel was in the Turkish neighborhood of Brussels, a bit outside of the center, but thankfully still within walking distance.
We woke up early Friday morning, ready to tackle the day and make the most of our afternoon in Brussels because that night we were already heading to Ghent. (Yeah I know, we’re greedy lil’ overachievers, trying to fit in three cities in four days – scoff!) So we scurried off to have a quick coffee and pastry at Cafe Capitale. It was nice being able to practice the very minimal French that I know. We also picked up some marzipan at one of the most famous, fancy sweet shops in Brussels, Maison Dandoy.
It was a chilly, gray day, but we wandered around for a while enjoying the buildings and city street art. We awed at the huge main plaza, Grand Place, and the gorgeous buildings surrounding us with large wooden doors and golden painted accents.
As if the beautiful architecture wasn’t enough, Brussels is also known for the painted cartoon scenes that are scattered randomly throughout the city. Everyone especially loves the ones with Tintin! I think wall art is such a great addition to any city, it gives it a lot of character.
We went on a free guided walking tour of the city. Our guide was a young Flemish girl with fiery-red hair and an even more fiery passion for her city. She taught us all about the history and politics of Brussels, as well as the current status of the city, as a Federal State and the bilingual (French and Flemish) political and administrative capital of the European Union.
We stopped to grab 1€ waffles (the “Belgian” way, according to our guide). Supposedly, only tourists eat them with cream and strawberries and nutella -the real Brusselians (or maybe I can call them the “sprouts”) eat them plain with their hands.
Then we continued to see the “REMARKABLE” main tourist attraction, the Manneken Pis, which is sincerely… a joke. Manneken Pis (a Dutch name that translates to “Little Man Pee”) is a tiny bronze sculpture of a naked boy peeing into a fountain. It was designed in the beginning of the 17th century. The lasting tradition is for the Brussels residents to make him clothes, and dress him accordingly for seasons and holidays. When we were there, poor little Manneken Pis was stark naked.
The tour guide showed us where to get the “best” Belgian fries and the best bars, and then led us up the hill to the more wealthy, residential area of Brussels where the palace and museums are. From the hill you get a really good view of the city.
Nicole and I picked up some friends during the tour, Amit from Tel Aviv and Sarah from Saudi Arabia/California, who joined us for the afternoon. Its so fun making international friends! We went to the Musée Magritte which was quite fascinating. Rene Magritte was a Belgian surrealist artist. He was friends with Dali. We spent an hour or two browsing through his art (what an existential guy!) and practicing French.
After that we all went to go try the famous Belgian fries (or should I say “frites”) at the Friterie de Cafe Georgette. Our tour guide had told us the secret to why they are so delicious… they are fried in beef fat. Yes. BEEF FAT. At first, I was grossed out, but then I tried them and I was more than satisfied. They’re delicious! And there are also over 10 sauces to choose from! But I recommend the house sauce. You can tell that I was happy to get my hands on those fries…
We also explored inside the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert (The Royal Gallery), a luxurious 19th century shopping center with a rounded glass ceiling that has numerous cafes, chocolate shops and bookstores. We spent a while touring around a French bookstore called Tropismes. This place is the bookstore of my dreams. Even if you don’t speak French (like us) or if you don’t have money to buy classy books (also us…) it is still worth the visit! The walls are covered with books and giant mirrors reach up to the intricate, gold and wood ceiling. I could have stayed there forever.
One of my favorite things about Brussels was all of the Christmas displays at the chocolate shops. Super charming and festive. Brussels has a lot of great sweets, like this giant brioche bun with chocolate. You can find them at the fancy French bakeries, Aux Merveilleux de Fred. With the giant glass windows so you can watch them be baked fresh before your eyes!
So after grabbing a 1€ Belgian beer with our new friends, Nicole and I headed back to the hostel to grab our bags and catch our train to Ghent. The train was a comfortable, double- decker car. From Brussels Midi-Zur to Gent Saint Peters it was 11€ round trip and only took about a half hour to arrive.
~~~ If you’d prefer to follow my trip chronologically, go read the blogs for Ghent and Bruges and then come back to Brussels.~~~
If not, keep reading!
On Sunday night after exploring the other two smaller cities, we took the train back down south to Brussels and stayed in the same hostel (creatures of habit, you know). That night we walked around the city center at night, enjoying the lights in Grand Place and around the Christmas market.
We had dinner at a place called Le Cirio, one of the oldest restaurants in Brussels from 1909. The restaurant, while looking fancy with curved mirrors and wooden columns was actually super casual and inexpensive. We got sandwiches and chatted with our Portuguese waiter.
The next day our flight was around 5 PM, so in the early afternoon we had another solid chunk of time to explore the city. Yay! The first thing we did was breakfast at Mokafé, a popular brunch spot inside the Royal Gallery, where we got crepes and coffee. Then we walked towards the main cathedral, the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, to take a look inside. It was beautiful!
After we went to the Belgian Comic Strip Center. There is a museum on the second floor, a library and an awesome comic store! We spent almost an hour checking out the building and the comics.
Then we wandered around to the more local-shopping district of Brussels called Ixelles. We found one really cool bookstore called Taschen. Most of the books are about design, art history and architecture, so needless to say I wanted to buy them ALL. Only problem – they were in French.
Ixelles was a bit different than we had expected; from what I had read it sounded like an upcoming, hip neighborhood, but all we really found were a bunch H&M look alikes, and a couple of local grocery stores. The part closer to the downtown was a bit more interesting with some small cafes and cool architecture.
So we went back into the historic center to buy some Belgian chocolates and grab a quick lunch at the Christmas market.
And then headed back to the hostel to get our stuff and catch a train from Midi Station to the airport. Of course our trip back to Madrid couldn’t have gone completely smooth… On the way to the airport our train broke down. All of the passengers were evacuated off of the train and left to wait at the station for about 25 minutes until the next train arrived. It was sort of a bonding experience, we ended up talking to an older group of Spaniards, who were also visiting Belgium for the weekend. Anyway, we eventually got to the airport and caught our flight just in time.
As I’m reflecting back on it now, I’m extremely happy with our decision to go to Belgium. Sometimes my mind still wanders back to those 1€ waffles, those dreamy canals and brick houses covered in ivy, and (mustn’t forget, of course!) the gluhwein! I’m hope I can return some day!