Discovering a City—Beyond Just a Hub in Belgium
It wasn’t love-at-first-sight when we first arrived in Belgium, and particularly not with Brussels. But ultimately our affection for the city grew, as did our appreciation for the country.
The city unveiled itself to us gradually. Our perspective of this place, whose allure we didn’t initially recognize, changed. The lens opened. This broadening of perspective is the power of travel.
Brussels offered us more than simply a central location with train routes to other places in Belgium, although it served that purpose too. Our impression of this capital city-region of Belgium—and de facto capital of the European Union—evolved during our stay.
Like a kept secret, the beauty of Brussels is understated, masked by its grit. It seems to not want to give itself away too quickly. Nor does it flaunt its wares.
Gradually we were drawn in as the city revealed more of itself to us. It showed us richness and depth—in architecture, art, food and culture. We discovered its quirky sense of humor. We realized its high standard for quality. Eventually, we understood its appeal.
Brussels, Belgium was the fourth stopover on our family’s adventures throughout Northwestern Europe—after London, England; then Amsterdam and Den Haag, Netherlands. Centrally-located in Belgium between its Dutch-speaking northern region of Flanders and its French-speaking southern region of Wallonia, Brussels—a separate capital-region within itself—is officially bilingual in both languages.
The multi-faceted country of Belgium is complex, complete with a complex capital city. Rising out of its turbulent past and a divided culture, Brussels has come to symbolize peace between nations, respect for history, and hope for the future.
We took a few days to get a taste of all three regions of Belgium. It still has so much more to offer, but we are grateful to have had a glimpse.
DAY 1 — DEN HAAG, NETHERLANDS TO BRUSSELS
DAY 2 — DAY IN BRUGES AND GHENT, FLANDERS
DAY 3 — MORNING IN DINANT, WALLONIA; AFTERNOON IN BRUSSELS
DAY 4 — DEPART FOR FRANCE
RESOURCES — TRAVEL MAP + INFORMATION
Leaving Den Haag, we first stopped to take a look in Breda, Netherlands, before continuing on to Brussels. As it happened, on the way, we got off in Antwerp to relieve ourselves of an overstuffed train. I’m so glad we did. Antwerpen-Centraal (referred to by locals as “de Middenstatie”) is a beautiful eclectic blend of architectural styles—historical blend of neo-Gothic meets neoclassical French and Moorish—with multilevel platforms.
We were then off to Brussels, hub city for a few days, from which we would explore Belgium.
DAY 1 — DEN HAAG, NETHERLANDS TO BRUSSELS
- Travel Day
- Rail pass Day 4 of 10 — Den Haag Centraal + Breda + Antwerp to Bruxelles-Central
- Condo-hotel Citadines Ste-Catherine check-in
- National Belgium Day
- Flavors of Brussels at Ballekes: Belgian meatballs, Belgian endive, Brussels sprouts and Belgian ale
DEN HAAG, NETHERLANDS — FINAL MORNING OF WEEK
MORE ABOUT OUR WEEK IN DEN HAAG, NETHERLANDS
BREDA, NETHERLANDS — A WALK IN THE PARK
ANTWERP — CHANGE TRAINS AT CENTRAAL STATION
TRAIN THROUGH MECHELEN INTO BRUSSELS
BRUSSELS — CITADINES SAINTE CATHERINE
PHOTOS SOURCE: © BOOKING.COM
BRUSSELS — STE. CATHERINE WALK + BELGIAN DINNER AT BALLEKES ON NATIONAL BELGIUM DAY
Our first impression of Brussels (and the little we had seen of Belgium) was that it appeared a bit gritty. In comparison to the Netherlands, in which we had just spent 9 days, the train in Belgium was good, but not as clean or as orderly as those of the Dutch (though Belgian train attendants were more scrupulous); and our initial experience was certainly more chaotic. At first glance, structures in the city showed their wear with peeling paint, soot or graffiti. The benefit was that scaffolding required for renovations was not there to obscure the structures.
Beneath the grit, however, was beauty… also realness. Struggle. Quality. Pride.
DAY 2 — DAY TRIP IN FLANDERS: BRUGES + GHENT
- Rail pass Day 5 of 10 — Bruxelles-Central to Bruges + Ghent
- Bruges for waffles and walk through the Medeival town
- Transport from station to historic center of Ghent by tram
BRUGES (BRUGGE) — WAFFLES + WALK THROUGH TOWN
(MORE TO COME)
YGHENT — MUSIC FESTIVAL IN HISTORIC CENTER
(MORE TO COME)
Sunday was the perfect day to explore Flanders, chosen since some sights are closed Mondays. Bruges on Sunday oozed charm with an embraced, relaxing affect. We were transported back to Medeival times, not only by the architecture, but by the boats traversing their way along canals and under footbridges; the rhythmic clop of hooves over cobblestones streets by horse-drawn carriages; musicians playing traditional instruments in the square; and art market with vendors selling their wares.
From there we jumped on the train to Ghent where modern times are juxtaposed against centuries of history. We arrived to a vibrant, bustling historic center by tram during a lively music festival amid the grandeur of this larger Medeival city. A street market lined the river bank. A puppeteer entertained with his marionette in the square. Music, the bustle of activity, and aromas from food vendors filled the air. It was time to eat again.
DAY 3 — MORNING IN WALLONIA: DINANT + BRUSSELS
- Rail pass Day 6 of 10 — Bruxelles-Central to Dinant
- Dinant village and river walk + lunch at Café Leffe
- Back to Brussels for walk in park and around Palace
- Stoemp, 17th-century Flemish stew, at Restaurant Het Kelderte
- Explore the Grand Place and neighborhood of Sainte-Catherine
DINANT — RIVER VILLAGE WALK + LUNCH
(MORE TO COME)
BRUSSELS — PARC DE BRUXELLES
BRUSSELS — PALAIS DE BRUXELLES
BRUSSELS — GRAND PLACE
BRUSSELS — BELGIAN DINNER AT ’T KELDERTE
BRUSSELS — MANNEKEN PIS
BRUSSELS — LA BOURSE (STOCK EXCHANGE)
BRUSSELS — SAINTE CATHERINE
BRUSSELS — FONTEIN VAN ANSPACH AT MARCHÉ AUX POISSONS
BRUSSELS — FINAL NEIGHBORHOOD WALK
Passing into Wallonia on the train to Dinant, the landscape began to change—first with rolling hills, then with carved-out gorges exposing the stone face of their cliffs—as we neared the picturesque village of Dinant. Nestled between the River Meuse and a chiseled cliff, upon which perches the citadel, we strolled through the town with eight centuries of history brewing Trappist abbey beer. We sensed the slower pace of the Walloon region. Its quiet remoteness was perfect for having lunch from Café Leffe, gazing over the river while sipping on an ale, before catching a train back to Brussels.
Returning to our host city, we further explored the streets and sights of Brussels. We were impressed by the grandeur and size of the Palace and of the Grand-Place. Less impressive was the quirky statue of a peeing boy whose presence seemed to attract the multitude of tourists in the streets. But mostly we became fond of our neighborhood of Sainte-Catherine—particularly its chocolate and gelato shop—and of the diversity and architectural splendor of Belgium and Brussels.
DAY 4 — DEPART FOR FRANCE
- Rail pass Day 7 of 10 — Bruxelles-Midi to Lille, France + Paris
- Breakfast at Paul (ubiquitous café)
After a quick breakfast at Paul, we took the Metro to Bruxelles-Midi to catch the high-speed Thalys train to Lille, the Flemish-influenced French city near the Belgian border, spending a few hours before leaving for Paris.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON BRUSSELS AND BELGIUM:
Brussels gradually revealed its beauty to us over the course of our days there. We discovered that, despite a lack of world-renowned monuments, this city is rich with amazing architecture, art, food and culture. Belgium is a land of contrasts—separated by two languages and contrasting terrain, established peace out of the devastation of war—while Brussels is its heart. The city showed us grit and beauty, a quirky sense of humor, along with a high standard for quality.
Brussels is definitely worth a return visit, not just a pass-through. We look forward to experiencing more of Belgium, and specifically, more of this capital city-region.
- Fly into Brussels Airport; OR
- Take the train (with reservations)—the EuroStar from London St. Pancras to Bruxelles-Midi (Brussel-Zuid); Thalys from Paris Nord or Amsterdam Centraal to Bruxelles-Midi; OR
- Take the train (without reservations)—Intercity travels from Antwerp or cities in the Netherlands, and throughout Belgium
Citadines Sainte-Catherine Brussels was in the perfectly situated in its namesake neighborhood, across from the Marché aux Poissons with access to the Ste-Catherine Metro stop, and with shopping, restaurants and the Grand Place nearby. The closest train station is a 16-minute walk to Bruxelles-Central.
- FOR LOCAL TRAVEL: we purchased MOBIB cards, loading it with “tickets” for local metros, trams and buses at the “Kiosk” or “Bootik” in the Metro stations during business hours: many attendants speak English, but not all—the lovely man that assisted us spoke very little, providing me an opportunity to practice my French.
- FOR REGIONAL TRAVEL: Eurail Pass for trains— purchased on RailEurope.com before trip: 2-country, 10-day flex (not continuous) pass for Benelux (Belgium-Netherlands-Luxembourg) and France. Check individual train ticket prices to compare with cost of a rail pass.
DAY TRIPS FROM BRUSSELS BY TRAIN:
- There are two main types of waffles in Belgium: Brussels waffles are light and fluffy (crisp on the outside, airy on the inside), made with leavened batter, identified by their defined, rectangular edge and deeper pockets; Liège waffles, from the east, are sweeter and more doughy (softer and more dense), and made with a brioche batter, identified by their rounded corners. These are usually eaten as a snack or dessert, rather than for breakfast. (Don’t confuse—or be tempted by—the overly sweet, sugary tourist-trap versions, as opposed to high-quality authentic waffles.)
- A galette is a third type of waffle in Belgium, which is a cookie that is cooked in a thin, flat waffle iron.
- Pommes-frites (French fries) are twice-fried, French-cut potatoes that actually originated in Belgian—“French” refers to the cut.
- Belgian beer is best in Belgium—and each beer has its own glass. Belgians are particular that each type of beer should be served in its designated glass.
- Belgium is the world’s largest producer of comics, creating “Adventures of Tintin” and “the Smurfs.”
- UNESCO World Heritage sites in Brussels: Grand-Place and 4 art-nouveau town houses by architect Victor Horta (Hôtel Tassel, Hôtel Solvay, Hôtel van Eetvelde, and Maison & Atelier Horta)
- English is commonly spoken between Dutch-speaking Flemish and French-speaking Walloon.
- Brussels is the seat of the European Union and NATO. Belgium has been instrumental in establishing and promoting peace through Europe.