Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Brussels Travel and Tourism Guide | Attractions, Food and Day Trips

Brussels has been on my bucket list for years but it was placed near the bottom in a category referred to as “time permitting.” There were many other cities I wanted to explore first but some of those trips require long flights, lots of preparation, visas and vaccinations.

Every time my husband and I get a few days off work, we take the opportunity to go on another adventure and Belgium suddenly seemed like the perfect destination for a quick 6 day getaway.

Before I knew it I had over-packed (again), booked 2 first class tickets with Air Canada and we were touching down in the land of waffles, chocolate and beer.

Belgium is nestled between Germany, France, Amsterdam and Luxembourg so the official languages are Dutch and French. Quite recently there has been an influx of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East so many people are multilingual. Most of the locals speak fluent English and I noticed a diverse range of ethnic cuisine and pop-up street markets selling everything from clothing and household items to produce and beauty supplies.

Brussels is a great destination for short trips because the city is relatively small and very walkable. There are captivating landmarks, beautiful art galleries, fabulous dining, endless shopping and lush green space.

My first impression was tainted by the abundance of garbage and grime on the outskirts of town but as you venture uphill towards Mont des Arts, the neighborhood is clean and modern.

For some reason I expected Brussels to be luxurious and maybe even a little posh but the heavily armed police patrol was definitely noticeable. Despite aesthetic and political issues, I was able to appreciate the city’s beauty and see why so many travelers are drawn to the stunning renaissance architecture, trendy cafes and bustling streets.

Brussels is bursting with small town charm and you can probably visit most of the main attractions in just 2-3 days.

Travelers tip: Remember to bring comfortable shoes because the stonework is old, cracked and hard on the feet.

The weather in early June was a bit wet and unseasonably cool but the rain rarely lasted more than 20 minutes and the sun always made an appearance. The average temperature during our trip was about 18˚C with a comfortable breeze that made it easy to do a lot of walking.

If you eat too much frites and start feeling sluggish, take the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus. I like this tour because I could sit back, relax and enjoy the historical commentary while scoping out all the places I wanted to visit. We covered a lot of ground by using the bus but the company has no signs in the city center and the starting point can be difficult to locate.

The easiest way to find the first stop is by making your way to the Central Train Station and veering to the right. The buses are usually parked along the road in front of a townhouse complex. Tickets cost 25.00 per person for 24 hours and 32.00 for 48 hours but make sure to check the schedule because the tour ends quite early.

Public transit is another affordable option. We stayed near Midi Tram Station at an apartment style hotel called Flat Midi 33 (2 stops from the center) and it cost just 2.10 one-way. You can also purchase a day pass for 7.50.

Grande Place in the heart of Brussels is usually the first stop on everyone’s list. It is considered one of the most beautiful squares in Europe with architecture from the Baroque and Gothic eras. Historically, this area was where locals traded their goods so most of the surrounding streets are named after food.

Make sure to visit the square at night when the buildings are lit up. It is a beautiful place for a romantic stroll.

The Grand Palace is a magnificent structure that reminds me of the royal residences in Budapest and Vienna. It is not open to the public until late July.

No trip to Belgium is complete without visiting the Atomium - a unique architectural masterpiece known as the symbol of Brussels. The shiny spheres represent an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times and similar to the Eiffel Tower, photos don’t do it justice.

Entrance to the panoramic viewing deck is 15 per person and Mini Europe theme park featuring historic landmarks from around the continent is also in the vicinity.

For a spectacular view of the city, head to Mont des Arts Garden (Hill of Arts). During the day this is a wonderful place to unwind while munching on a waffle and at sunset the landscape looks magical.

There are many stunning churches in Brussels but one my favorites is Our Blessed Lady of Sablon.

If you visit, make sure to check out the lovely park across the street - Jardin du Petit Sablon. This little oasis is a great place to escape the crowds and enjoy nature.

Other popular churches include Eglise Notre Dame de Laeken, St. Michaels (seen below) and the National Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

The Royal Gallery of St. Hubert is a gorgeous glass roof shopping arcade featuring luxury brands and elegant cafes. Even if you aren’t in the market for high-end trinkets, the building is definitely Instagram-worthy.

I’m not sure why Manneken Piss is so popular (the sculpture is small and overrated) but people seem to love this little guy. Replicas of him holding his junk and relieving himself can be seen all over town. It was actually quite challenging to find souvenirs without him on it (trust me, I looked).

Great Places to Start Your Tour
My husband and I toured most of the city in just two and a half days on the 48 hour bus tour and by simply walking. A couple good starting points are Grand Place and Place de la Bourse adjacent to the Brussels Stock Exchange. From these two points there are avenues in every direction that lead to attractions, shops and restaurants. Start in the middle of these squares and explore each street until you’ve exhausted all possibilities.

Day Trip to Bruges
If you are planning to stay for more than 3 days, it is a good idea to take a day trip. Another popular destination is Brugge/Bruges in Northern Belgium. This picturesque little town is well known for its charming cobble stone streets and winding canals that flow between ancient buildings.

From Midi Train Station it takes about an hour to reach Bruges and cost 15.20 round-trip. Once you exit the train terminal there are buses that go directly to the city center for 3 per ride or you can simply walk the short distance. If the mood strikes, horse and carriage tours are also available for about 50.00.

When we arrived the streets were overflowing with tourists but it was definitely worth the trip. The first thing we did was buy tickets for the 30 minute canal tour (10 per person) because the line is usually long. The boat ride provides a unique perspective of Bruges and the captain was very informative.

In the past (way before people knew anything about sanitation), the river was a reservoir for sewage run-off and the polluted water was used to make wine. Thankfully those days are over but just like the canals in Venice, you wouldn’t want to go swimming.

Many people also choose to tour the brewery and visit popular landmarks. I spent most of the day shopping, eating and strolling around with no plan or schedule (it was quite liberating).

The colorful buildings in the town square are similar to houses found in Amsterdam. It is a great place to test your photography skills.

All that sightseeing will probably make you hungry so it’s time to talk about food - one of the best parts of traveling!

Here is my list of the top 5 foods/drinks to try in Brussels - drum roll please...

1. Chocolate
Belgian chocolate is known as the best in the world and with over 2,000 chocolatiers to choose from, you’ll have to make some difficult decisions and put your diet on hold.

Before I left Toronto I did some research and noted a few popular shops to visit. My plan seemed simple but there was chocolate on every corner and I went a bit crazy. Did my husband have to stage an intervention and drag me out...maybe, but there are hundreds of mouth-watering flavors – passion fruit, strawberry, matcha, cherry, banana and anything you can possibly imagine!

Most stores let you sample the chocolate and handpick your favorites to create a customized box. I prefer dark chocolate with strawberries and pistachios (not easy to find), chocolate covered cherries swimming in liquor and anything with hazelnuts. If you really want to immerse yourself, book a chocolate tasting tour and worry about the calories later.

2. Waffles
I like waffles but I was never a huge fan until I went to Belgium. In Brussels this scrumptious street food can be found everywhere and people eat them all day (not just for breakfast).

There are actually 2 types of waffles made in Brussels. The first is rectangular with light airy dough that is typically less sweet. The second and more popular of the two is a round waffle with dense batter infused with sugar crystals that melt in your mouth. These are sold all over the city including waffle trucks that often park near tourist areas.

Locals prefer to eat their waffles plain or dusted with powdered sugar which is how I like them too. The outside is warm and slightly crunchy while the inside is soft and sweet.

In Bruges I stopped at House of Waffles and ordered the Chocolate Madness topped with ice cream, whip cream, chocolate sauce and strawberries. It was delectable but a bit messy to eat on the street. If you stop here for lunch expect a long line.

The topping combinations are virtually endless so mix and match until you discover the dessert of your dreams.

3. Belgian Frites
One of the most popular street foods in Belgium is frites. In fact, you’ll notice many people walking around Brussels with huge cones overflowing with delicious fries.

The thick cut potatoes are first fried in beef mallow at a low temperature so the inside remains soft and then deep fried again at a higher temperature for maximum crispiness.

At Fritland for just 4 you get a heaping amount of thick golden fries topped with your choice of sauce. I chose spicy cheese for a hint of savoriness but mayonnaise, ketchup and garlic aioli are also very popular.

My husband and I shared because we don’t eat much fried food and found the frites a bit heavy. Many restaurants serve them with a large plate of fresh mussels if you like seafood (I don’t).

4. Beer
I enjoy a glass of wine or fruity cocktail every now and then but I am not a big drinker (I get drunk fast) and I don’t know much about beer. Stella Artois (which just happens to be Belgian) is my favorite but I decided to step outside of my comfort zone and try a different kind each day (they were all good).

I had no idea how to pronounce most of the beers so I made random selections or asked the waiter to bring me whatever was popular. I usually opted for light/blonde brews and tried fun flavors like apple and cherry.

Some pubs offer hundreds of options so you might have to do a little research to make an informed decision. You can also book a brewery tour to sample Belgium’s finest and learn about the entire production process. Don’t be surprised if you see locals guzzling beer with breakfast. Where there is a lot of alcohol there are a lot of intoxicated people...I saw things...

5. Nona Pizzeria
Pizza has been my favorite food since I was a kid so every time I visit a new city I try the local version (even if my husband is sick of it). I've been to Italy several times and the best pizza I ever had was in Florence at a small restaurant called Gutsa Pizza.

When you’re in Belgium, the place to go for authentic Neapolitan wood fire pizza is Nona’s. The organic ingredients are sourced from local farms and the flavors are incredible! I went 2 nights in a row and the lineup was down the block. The service is also fantastic and while you wait for a table, you can order beer and drink it on the sidewalk (in Toronto you’d be fined for that).

There are also many Thai restaurants in Brussels but none of the places I tried were as good as the ones in Bangkok, Patong (near Phuket) or even here in Toronto. My Pad Thai was a bit salty but I’ve had worse.

Day Trip to Luxembourg
On our last day we decided to take a day trip to Luxembourg – a small country surrounded by Belgium, France and Germany. The train from Midi Station cost 39.50 per person and took about 4 hours because there was construction on the rail (usually it takes about 3 hours each way). I only recommend this journey if you have time because it was slow and boring. Luxembourg is also quite rural with rocky gorges and dense forest. The terrain is picturesque but there isn’t much to do and it seemed like the entire city was under construction.

We kept it simple and went to the park, had lunch on a patio, did some shopping and took photos at the lookout point. The palace is not open until late July and the streets were very quiet.

The next time I’m in that part of Europe I’d like to visit Amsterdam but I'll definitely stop in Brussels again to stock-up on chocolate.

For more vacation inspiration check out my travel page HERE

Bon Voyage!

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