What Were Our goals?
We spent a total of four days in Brussels, but only two of those were in the city itself. The others consisted of trips to Bruges, Ghent, Luxembourg and the World War 1 Flanders Battlefields. Apart from the magnificent old buildings, Brussels is famous for its chocolate, beer and comic books. To see and experience all these, a guided tour was booked to take us around the city centre to see all three.
How Did We Get There?
As we were previously in Paris, the easiest way, and probably cheapest, was a train from Gare du Nord. We pre-booked tickets through Thalys for 43 Euros each. The seats were allocated which was great, and there was plenty of luggage room.
Finding the train at Gare du Nord in Paris was interesting. The departure time showed on the screens, but no allocated platform. This wasn’t shown until ten minutes before departure, and then only on the platform it was leaving from. We saw the crowd heading that way and followed them.
Arriving in Brussels Midi, we needed to get to Brussels Central. There were screens showing which platform to go to. As a bonus, the ticket from Paris gave us passage on the local train.
Where Did We Stay?
Our hotel was the Novotel Brussels Off Grand Place. It was very central, close to all the inner-city attractions and the Central Railway Station.
The staff were all very friendly and the room very comfortable. There were celebrations being held in Grand Place while we were there, but we did not hear anything and had very good nights’ sleep.
Breakfast was served in the ground floor restaurant. It had a huge selection of food and was delicious. There is a great bar, with friendly bar staff. You can order at the bar a drink outside at the hotel’s tables and watch the scenery.
The location of the hotel meant that we could walk to all the places we wanted to see in the inner-city. We felt safe everywhere we went, but took the usual precautions. Backpacks were locked with catches and we had nothing in our pockets. Due to recent events, armed soldiers are present in many parts of the city. Most people seem to take them for granted and ignore their presence.
We caught trains twice to travel to destinations outside of Brussels. Both times we went to the ticket counter and spoke to the attendant. He was extremely helpful, advising which tickets to buy and which platform we had to go to.
All very easy and comfortable.
Organised Trips in Brussels
Chocolate and Beer Tour
This was an excellent way to find the best in Belgian chocolate and beer. Our guide met us at our hotel and then took us on a walk around central Brussels to find the best Chocolate and tell the difference between good Belgian chocolate and the excellent variety. We visited numerous outlets, sampling as we went (and purchasing too). On our way we passed many of the sites we wanted to see, particularly some of the comic street art that Brussels is famous for.
After the chocolate it was time to sample beers. Mostly the excellent Trappist beers. We were taken to several different pubs, many in out-of-the-way back streets. So, not only did we get to taste some of the best beers in the world, we had the fantastic atmosphere that only a small pub can give.
After four hours (or maybe longer), we were dropped off back at our hotel feeling very happy, having had a great experience.
Major Attractions Visited
A walking trip around Brussels to see the sights we wanted took about an hour’s walk. Not too bad. Of course, it was a lot longer with stops to see everything and refuel on coffee and snacks. Total distance was around five kilometres. Also, not too bad.
Next door to our hotel was the Museum of Original Miniatures (MOOF Museum). A great place to re-live your childhood comic reading with Tin Tin, Asterix, the Smurfs and many more. The displays are well laid out and we spent some time wandering around. And you can take photos. Apart from Smurfs (there is a dedicated store on the ground floor), the merchandise offered in the gift shop is a bit sparse.
From the MOOF, we walked through Monts des Arts and to the Royal Palace. We admired it from the outside and took a few photos before moving on to the European Parliament. This was something that we could have skipped past. Unless you really want to see it, there isn’t much here.
We walked from the European Parliament to the St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral. It looks amazing from the outside and inside is even better. The stained-glass windows are superb and the icons of the saints are worth the visit in themselves.
Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert was the first covered shopping arcade in Europe. It is filled with restaurants and luxury shops. We wandered through, doing window shopping. The chocolate shop in here was one of our stops on the beer and chocolate tour we took later. The roof is amazing. Even if you don’t want to buy anything or just browse, go inside to look at the glass ceiling.
Final stop for the day was Grand Place. An event was being prepared, so the centre of the square was barricaded off. This made it seem more crowded than normal as everyone was pressed into a smaller space. The guild houses that line the square are fabulous. Each one is unique and you can spend hours looking at the detail in each one. We were told that each guild continually tried to outdo its rivals, which why they are so extravagant.
Part of the Chocolate and Beer Tour took us pas the Mannekin Pis. This is a small bronze statue of a small boy urinating. One of the must-see attractions in Brussels, but not that interesting. Only worth seeing to tick it off your list. Nearby is some great street art and murals. These are all over Brussels. Much of it is comic book derived and a whole day could be spent chasing them all down.
Organised Trips From Brussels
World War 1 Battlefields
This was a full day trip from Brussels. Leaving at 9AM and returning around 10PM. Our first stop was the German Military Cemetery of Vladslo, a peaceful area that features the famous sculpture by Käthe Kollwitz, Grieving Parents.
Over 25,000 German soldiers are buried here. It started drizzling while we were there, adding to the sombre atmosphere.
Our second stop was at Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery where 35,000 Commonwealth soldiers are buried. The Cemetery also contains a Memorial to the Missing, naming over 33,000 officers and men whose remains were never found. The whole area is very peaceful and everyone there acted with the respect it deserved. It was great to see many school parties there, learning about the events over 100 years ago and their consequences.
We next went to Essex Farm Field Hospital to view the remains of the bunkers there and the graves of those who died in the area. Then we went to the Memorial to the Australian Fifth Division for the. This was especially significant as this is the one hundredth anniversary of the battle.
The final stop before going to Ypres, was the Hill 60 area. It was here that Australian miners constructed tunnels under the German positions and then filled them with explosives, causing great devastation. Several of the craters are still visible today in the area, giving an idea of what force was unleashed.
The highlight of the tour was Ypres and the Last Post. We started with a tour around the Flanders’ Fields Museum. The museum shows the war from the human perspective as well as showing the historical military detail. A very interesting place and worth the visit.
We had a short time to ourselves to have dinner at one of the many restaurants in the city-centre and then we went to the for the Last Post. This was a very sombre moment. The ceremony is simple and quite short and it was great to see how well it was attended. Many school children were also there, some laying wreaths, and on this occasion a choir sang.
Although a very long day, the experience was memorable. The tour guide provided a huge amount of in-depth knowledge throughout the day. Being able to see the innumerable graves in the cemeteries gave us an insight into the huge sacrifices made.
Day Trips From Brussels – Self Guided
The train runs from Brussels Central to Brugge, via Ghent. We purchased tickets on the morning of travel, checking with the staff at the ticket counter that we could on/off at Ghent. We could and it didn’t matter if it was on the outward or return journey.
We walked into Brugge from the train station. This was an easy 20 minutes. Along the way, you get to see why the town is famous. You pass though streets filled with beautiful old buildings.
First place of interest was the Church of Our Lady, Brugge. It has the sculpture Madona & Child by Michelangelo. There is a nominal admittance fee to get in. When you do visit, remember it is a functioning place of worship, so be quiet and act with respect.
Nearby is the Holy Saviour Cathedral (Sint-Salvatorskathedraal). The tower is one of the highest buildings in Brugge and is easily identifiable. Go inside for a quick look at the stain glass windows.
The canals are a must see when you visit. We took a cruise that took around 30 minutes. We had a running commentary from the driver and got the best views. The town looks totally different from the water and many of the buildings look even better.
The belfry is the highest point in Brugge. For a small cost (2 Euros) you can climb to the top for magnificent views over the town and surrounding countryside. When we visited, the bells were playing hits from the 1960s and 70s. Absolutely fantastic.
Just around from the belfry is the Market Square. The market wasn’t on the day we visited, but the square is surrounded by magnificent old buildings and there are many places there to eat and drink.
The Basilica of the Holy Blood was our last stop. This little church, is highly decorated inside and out. It has a vial of blood, reputed to have been brought back from the crusades and claimed to be that of Jesus Christ.
Unlike Brugge, Ghent has developed a great deal since it was established. The old town centre remains, but is surrounded by modern development, most of which is not very pretty. We took a bus from the railway station into the city. The journey was around 20 minutes and passed through suburbs that could be from any modern western city.
The centre of town has also been affected by modernisation as well. Overhead electric power for the trams are everywhere and greatly diminish the beauty of the old buildings. It is possible to get a few good views without them in the way, but they seem to be everywhere. Many of the buildings also had mobile coffee and snack vans outside. Great if you want a quick drink, but it does nothing for the view.
Our first stop was the magnificent St. Bavo’s Cathedral (Sint-Baafskathedraal). The vaulted ceilings and columns really must be seen. Don’t forget the altar setting, of the Adoration of the Lamb. There is a replica on display, but the original is kept in a separate room, where you pay to see it.
Another great religious building is Saint Nicholas Church. This is a beautiful building, inside and out. Make sure to walk around the outside to see the view from the rear. You can also get some powerline free shots from here.
As in Brugge, one of the great attractions of Ghent, is the city centre’s old buildings. There are many of them and as you walk around you get to experience and appreciate them.
Right in the centre of town is Gravensteen Castle. Great views from the top and some good displays of weapons, armour and torture devices (if you’re into that).
What Did We Think?
We loved Brussels, especially the beer and chocolates. We also had a great time in Brugge. If you must choose between Brugge and Ghent, we would recommend Brugge, as it is less developed and has a much more relaxed atmosphere. The trip to the World War 1 Flanders Battlefields was a memorable experience that we are pleased we did.
So, overall a fantastic city, with plenty to do locally and within an easy day’s travel to other destinations.