My last blog was on the ancient treasure nation, Jordan, right in the heart of the Middle East. We now fly back into Europe, and cover a nation which headquarters two important global organisations- the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO- 29 members) and the European Union (EU- 28 members). Its capital city, Brussels, as a result, hosts some of the top global diplomats and policy academician. But much more importantly, Belgium is known for its history, culture, beer, chocolates, Belgian waffles and several more, which, if I list down here would take the space of several pages. Belgian cities are smart, well connected and echo their charm through picturesque monuments.
Through this blog, I would love to uncover some of the must see spots in Belgium, if you are visiting this country on a 2 day weekend trip.
I have been to Belgium four times since 1995. However my most recent visit in March this year was the most impactful memories of all. My wife and I decided to cover Brussels and Bruges over two days as part of our long bank holiday weekend. And like we always do, here's the movie trivia - In Bruges (Hollywood) and PK (Bollywood).
So, some basics before we kick into the details of our trip:
Currency: Euros (most parts of Belgium accept card payments but its always safe to keep some cash at hand)
How to get there: Belgium is globally connected through its international airport in Brussels. For those travelling from Europe/UK, there are direct trains that run from most major cities around Europe and UK including Eurostar services from London St Pancras.
Language: Belgium has three official languages- Dutch, French and German. However, most people speak fluent English.
Recommended months of travel: April to November
Visa requirements: Belgium is part of the Schengen visa programme.
We caught the 8am Eurostar train from London St Pancras, which got us into Brussels Midi at around 10:30am CET. We took a metro to our hotel location (EasyHotel near De Brouckere station).
Honestly, I liked EasyHotel. It was in the heart of the city centre, clean and with all modern amenities and really good value for money. Of course, the room and en-suite are quite basic and don’t expect exotic toiletries or large flat screen TVs. Ultimately, it is a budget hotel and as long as the basics work, that’s all that mattered to us.
Since we reached quite early, our room was not ready and we had to drop off our luggage into their lockers (usually costs around €3 for a couple of hours). Since it was my wife’s first trip to Brussels and given we had limited time at hand, we decided to book ourselves on the Hop and Hop off tour. There are many options on which tour to pick, we went with our usual trusted favourites- City Sightseeing. Usually, you would receive a discount by buying it online, so ensure you check their website before booking elsewhere. Only issue though is, they require a printout copy of the booking (a bit of a frustration every time L ). I would recommend the Blue line route, since it covers Atomium and Mini Europe.
Before we got on the Hop on Hop off tour, we decided to give some justice to our empty belly. On our way to the bus stop, we took a walk through Brussels Neuve street (hotspot for shopaholics) and decided to stop at a French vegan chain- ExKi for a quick meal. Delicious take away items ranging from soups, sandwiches, baguettes etc.
So here is what we covered during the Hop on Hop off route:
Atomium: Built as a part of the first post-war world exhibition i.e. the 1958 Expo by engineer André Waterkeyn and architects André & Jean Polak, the Atomium stands 335ft tall with nine interconnected steel clad spheres (each with 60ft diameters). The spheres represent an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times, and symbolise the faith in the power of science and nuclear power. Overall, it is a magnificent structure and highly worth a visit.
The Atomium centre is open 365 days of the year usually from 10am to 6pm. If you plan to only visit the Atomium, an adult ticket would cost €15. However, if you plan to visit Mini Europe (€15.50 if bought separately) as well then a combi ticket would cost you €27.50, saving you €3.
Now, a bit about the interior. It’s panoramic view is the best you can get in Brussels, where you have a full 360 degree overview of the city. Also, kids usually love going inside the different atomic spheres to look at all the light and sound effects. Overall, it is a unique experience and definitely worth checking out.
Mini Europe: Mini Europe is barely at a 5 minute walk from the Atomium. A single adult ticket would usually cost €15.50 but like I mentioned earlier, if you buy it with the Atomium it will come at a discount of €3.
It is one of my favourite spots in Europe, and ironically I have visited Mini Europe in four different stages of my life- childhood (1995), teenage (2003), adulthood (2009) and that of a married man (2018). And in each of my visits, I felt a different type of admiration for the place. To me, it defines the architectural best all set in a single location. It emphasizes on European values and how despite each state being so succinctly different, they are yet so united.
Once you enter Mini Europe, you will note that, each European country has a dedicated space filled with their best known miniature monuments. More importantly, all the miniature items are animated in some form or the other, essentially giving you a glimpse of how people live in that respective country. The miniature park covers around 80 cities and 350 different European buildings. Insane!! Since the time it was opened in 1989, it was and still is considered a truly novel concept.
Park du Cinquantenaire/Jubilee Park: Based in the Eastern most part of the city, the Cinquantenaire was built in 1880 to celebrate the 50thanniversary of Belgian independence. It comprises a vast set of gardens dotted with monuments and museums. The signature attraction here is of the triumphal arch split in three arches. Truly majestic in every way.
The last stop of the bus was at the Central Station, where it stops right in front of St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral. And to my sheer surprise, the best part of my Brussels experience was about to start. I am referring to our walk from the Cathedral to the MannekenPis (1km in total).
Our starting point was the St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral. Crossing the picturesque Rue de la Montagne (Mountain Street), we arrived at Fontaine Charles Buls (A fountain in the memory of a Belgian politician). Definitely worth clicking a few snaps once you get here. If you then walk few more yards, you will see the Saint Hubert Royal Galleries. For a couple of seconds, you feel as if you are at the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, but then reality strikes and hey! guess what, there is an almost identical looking gallery in Brussels! With exactly the same look and feel, it is awe-inspiring.
If you then cross Rue de la Colline, you will reach the Grand Place. Be ready to be dazzled, because you are likely to be mesmerized with the whole magnificence of the buildings surrounding the Grand Place square. The Grand Place is considered to be the landmark spot of Brussels and as one of the most beautiful squares in Europe.
The Town Hall is the central edifice on the Grand Place, with a staggering height of 315ft. Opposite the Town Hall lays the Museum of the City of Brussels, which in the earlier days was known as the King’s House. On the remaining two sides, the Grand Place is occupied by a number of guild houses.
My personal recommendation would be that you enjoy the view by grabbing a coffee and some Belgian chocolates as there are plenty of chocolatiers surrounding the Grand Place. We are Godiva fans, so we decided to indulge with some of their best chocolate delicacies. Don’t miss it!
The final leg of my recommended walk is from Grand Place to MannekenPis, which is about a further 400m. The MannekinPis is a statue of a little boy urinating into a fountain’s basin. To be brutally honest, I never found the MannekenPis as extraordinary as it claims to be. That’s my take though! And with that we came to an end with my favourite walk!
At this point, we were awfully exhausted and decided to grab some dinner and hit the bed. My wife has a rule on our city trips- at least one meal has to be Indian!! ;-) So we decided to check out the New Annapurna restaurant. We ordered some Tandoori roti, tadka dal and alu gobhi. Quantities were massive and the food was fairly decent. And that was it, we crashed straight after and called it a night.
After a fantastic coverage of Brussels the day before, we now opted to explore another Belgian town, Bruges. My last visit to Bruges had been with my family, so the experience of covering it with a partner was totally different. Bruges is pretty and romantic, also referred to as Venice of the North. The town offers a fairy-tale feel to it and is undoubtedly one of Europe’s best preserved cities.
Although Bruges’ roots go back to the Bronze and Iron Age settlements, the city rose to real prominence after it received it’s City Charter status in 1128, which is when new walls and canals were built. It was a major trade hub during the medieval ages attributing to its strategic location, since it was at the crossroads of the Northern Hanseatic League trade and southern trade routes.
We decided to do a day trip to Bruges from Brussels rather than spend the night there. The usual standard day return ticket from Brussels Central or Midi to Bruges is about €30 per person for an adult and if you are under 26, a return fare would be only €13.
Belgium is known for its delicious waffles, and so we made it a rule, eat waffles where you see them! And thus, before we set off for Bruges, we decided to grab some coffee and a waffle topped with chocolate sauce and strawberries from a stall/takeaway called Belgaufra (Rue des Fripiers 59, 1000 Bruxelles). As blatant as I can get, the waffle was probably the best I had eaten so far and this was just the beginning. Lost in our waffles’ love, we suddenly realised, we had a train to catch from Brussels Midi and rushed straight towards our metro station (De Brouckere).
The train journey to Bruges lasted for about 70 minutes. Upon reaching Bruges, there were quite a lot public bus options which would take you to the City Centre, but we decided to walk. The walk was about 15-20 mins long and a distance of around 1.7km. My personal recommendation would be to walk it if you can, because the beauty of Bruges lies in its picturesque cobbled lanes.
As we walked past the Steenstraat (the shopping street), the city’s opulence starts to whittle, and by the time we arrived at the Markt square, we were totally mesmerized by the splendour of the architecture that surrounds the Square.
Sint-Salvatorskathedraal: In English, referred to as Saint Saviour’s Cathedral, it is Bruges’ oldest parish church. The church hosts a wealth of Flemish paintings designed between 14th and 18th century. It is a magnificent building and worth a few photo clicks for sure.
Markt Square: The Markt Square sits at the heart of Bruges, filled with bustling cafes and restaurants. The main monument here is the Belfort, the country’s most known belfry and also the key look out point in case of war, fire or any other calamity. To get to the top of it, one would have to climb 366 steps, tough work right?
Not the most economical decisions of our trip so far, we decided to grab lunch in Markt Sq at a restaurant called “Centraal”, allured by their Italian menu. In hindsight, I wouldn’t recommend it at all, the pasta was overly spicy and awfully over-priced. To make things worse, the staff were rude.
Markt Square is also the starting point of many walking tours around Bruges. Unfortunately, our timings didn’t sync well with the tour timings and so we decided to go on our walking exploration.
Burg: About a few hundred metres to the east of Markt is Burg, the administrative headquarters of medieval Bruges and rest of Count of Flanders region. This is where the City Hall, Court of Justice and Basilica of Holy Brood are centred. The architecture here is a rare example of the Renaissance era especially the Court of Justice.
As we walked down from Markt towards Burg, it was time for waffles treat number 2! ;-) And jokes apart, this waffle beat the one we had in the morning. Do not miss out on Chez Albert – Gauffres – Waffles, by far the best waffle ever!
Rozenhoedkaai: A further 300m walk from Burg, you will arrive at the Rozenhoedkaai. This is perhaps the most photographed spot of Bruges and the most scenic points in the city.
More importantly, this is also the starting point for many boat tours. In my view, Bruges is incomplete if you haven’t taken a canal tour. It is a must do. Boats usually depart every twenty minutes, and the duration of the tour ranges from half hour to an hour, costing around €10 per person.
Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk: A further 400m from Rozenhoedkaai, a.k.a. the Museum of the Church of our Lady, is a 115m high brick tower famous for the craftsmanship of Bruges’ artisans. The site is partially under renovation but worth a visit if you are a fan of art collection.
Begijnhof: Our next stop was the Beguinage. Founded in 1245, it is known for its white-coloured house fronts and convent garden. This was once the home of the beguines, emancipated lay-women who nevertheless laid a pious and celibate life. Today, the house is inhabited by nuns and women who have decided to remain unmarried. The Begijnhof is about 55m from Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk.
This brought us to the end of our own customised walking tour of Bruges and with that we made our way back to the station to catch our 5pm return train to Brussels. In total we walked around 15 km that day, but the city beauty enchants you to the extent that no matter how much you walk it shall always fall short. Bruges was, is and will always hold a special place in my heart.
That was also the end of our Belgium leg of the vacation, as we were planning to depart for Amsterdam next morning. As I have always felt leaving Belgium in the past, this time too I was rest assured I will be back soon. This is why Belgium is so special, you never want to say a goodbye.
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