What does Belgium have to offer? You mean aside from amazing chocolate, waffles, french fries, and over 1000 Belgian beers? Sounds like the perfect destination to gain twenty pounds-am I right? If you’re like me, you end up walking at least 8 miles a day on vacation. So unless you’re eating at every chocolate shop and tasting all 1000+ beers, you’ll be just fine. PS – the answer is – there is so much more to be discovered!
Belgium’s capital city and the location of the headquarters of the European Union is predominately French speaking, but most everyone knows English. Brussels contains Europe’s finest town square – La Grand Place. La Grand Place is worth seeing both in the day time and at night– which is when it really shines. Brussels (and Belgium in general) is a chocolate lovers absolute paradise. In Belgium, the individual little chocolates that come in all flavors and shapes are called Pralines. Walking around the square and nearby, practically every other store is a chocolatier. Usually, they are giving out free samples, and everywhere that I had a sample from was yummy. I wouldn’t recommend eating in actual meal in the square, as the food is geared towards tourists and there are much better places to eat. For a waffle near the square though, the Waffle Factory is the place to partake in this delicious affair. Also, mussels are sold everywhere, so if you like those, this is the place. It’s also not difficult to find a Museum dedicated to beer here (there is one on La Grand Place).
For being a capital city and holding super important EU meetings, Brussels is really laid-back. How serious can you be when one of the top tourist attractions is the Mannequin Pis, or statue of a boy peeing? It is one of the most photographed statues to date. City workers dress this statue in different outfits for different occasions, so if you are lucky like us, you will walk past him and see him in costume. He is not very large, and easy to miss aside from the group of people on a side corner flocked around taking selfies. Join in the fun and even take some Mannequin Pis chocolate statues home as a souvenir.
Whenever a city hosts a World’s Fair, they tend to build an elaborate structure and show it off to the world. This is exactly how Paris got its beloved Eiffel Tower. Brussels held the World’s Fair in 1958 and thus the Atomium was born. Depicted to symbolize the Atomic Age (at that time), this giant stainless steel structure is indicative of an iron crystal super magnified..and it is huge.
Wandering throughout the city there are all kinds of interesting murals on the sides of buildings, including many of the comic of “The Adventures of Tintin.”
Despite most of the city speaking French as their first language, everyone that we encountered also spoke English and were extremely friendly people.
An easy 30 minute train ride from Brussels, Ghent is completely worth the trip. Just take the train from the Brussels Midi train station and arrive in Ghent at the Ghent Sint Peters train station. Note that once you get off of the train in Ghent, you must catch a short ride on tram #1 outside of the train station to get to the main town area. Before you board, use one of the kiosks to buy a ticket for the tram. The kiosks are outside of the train station (right where it picks you up). The screen, even though I put it in the English language, was still confusing on what kind of ticket to buy. Be careful that you buy the correct ticket. Ask someone if you aren’t sure. Also, once on board, you must validate your ticket. We found this very difficult to figure out how to do the validation. I tried to insert the ticket, but absolutely none of it made sense to me. We continued on without validation, which I don’t recommend, but if anyone understands how to use this validation machine, please let me know in the comments.
This tram makes a few stops along the way. You want the one named Korenmarket, which will start you right in the center of town.
Alternatively, if you are feeling fit, you can choose to skip the tram and walk about 1.5 miles from the Ghent Sint Peters station to the town center.
Regardless of what means you arrive in town, you must also continue to eat chocolate because you are still surrounded by a million opportunities to indulge.
Ghent is the really cool hipster brother of the three cities (Brussels, Ghent, and Bruges) that you go to see when you want something different and you want it sprinkled with art. You can basically do a loop around the city in a day by walking for a very good overall visit. The town is filled with so many interesting places; boutiques with unique items, antique stores, the Catholic church of St. Bavo that holds pop music concerts from the nearby music school, and a belfry that from the top makes for some great city views. The city is so bad @$$, it even has its own walled alley way dedicated solely to graffiti.
Art and history lovers won’t want to miss the Jan Van Eyck Alterpiece (or Ghent Alterpiece) on display inside of St. Bavo’s church. There is an extra fee to see the rather large and complex oil painting on wood panels – which is argued to be the single most important painting in history. When stepping inside the room to get a glimpse of this masterpiece, you can pick up a a handheld device that will describe each of the panels. During the World Wars, various panels have been stolen and hidden in places all over – such as the Alps in Bavaria, Germany. It’s amazing that they have the entire thing on display today, and completely in tact minus one panel (The Just Judges panel which was stolen in 1934 has never been recovered). This is another piece of art where you will not be allowed to take pictures.
End your visit to Ghent with a box of candy cuberdons or the “Ghent Nose” from the street stand cart on Groentenmarkt. The traditional flavor is raspberry, but they are now created in many flavors and sold in candy shops all around Belgium. The exterior is hard and chewy and the interior is gooey and I think quite delicious.
We thoroughly enjoyed Ghent and agree that it is our favorite stop in Belgium.
Finally, it was time to visit the talked-up, Medieval, romantic, town of canals in Belgium – Bruges. Prior to visiting Bruges, I’ve had more than one person tell me that Bruges was their absolute favorite place – “the most beautiful place” that exists.
Were our hopes hung up high on the hook of expectations? Absolutely. Did it meet our overall hopes and dreams? Not quite. Was it still beautiful? Yes.
Despite being here in March, the crowds were massive. Since this is a small Medieval town with narrow streets and close quarters, we were feeling the effects of this combination. Not to mention, cars can drive inside this city, so that made navigating the sidewalks of people a little more tricky. Nevertheless, we pushed through to make the best of our time here.
Some of the things that we saw:
Our Lady Cathedral – Entry to the Cathedral is free, but if you want to see Michelangelo’s sculpture of Mary & Child, you must purchase a separate ticket from the office across the street. This Michelangelo sculpture is one of the very few of his works that is outside of Italy. This was originally meant for the Siena Cathedral, but brought here to Bruges instead. Michelangelo carved this in between his breaks on the Statue of David (located in Florence).
Chocolate Row is a street of nothing but gourmet Belgian Chocolatiers. We saw chocolate in every shape, size, and…body part that you can imagine.
Off of the main square, Chez Albert is known for their waffles topped with various fruits, syrups, and you guessed it – chocolates. I thoroughly enjoyed one of these suckers topped with dark Belgian chocolate.
In Bruges, they speak Flemish, but have their own dialect. In fact, most of Belgium speaks German or Flemish, and contrary to popular belief, a small portion speak French. But fear not – everyone knows English quite well.
Being a canal city, there is no better way to see a different perspective of the city than by taking a canal cruise. Being so different from Venice, which allows boats of all types – private, public, taxi boats, etc., Bruges only allows city regulated tourist boats in their canals. There are no private boats allowed. We found first hand that they really cram a lot of people on these boats. But despite the tight quarters, we enjoyed our hour loop around the beautiful buildings and structures that we passed by here.
.. Personal Opinion – anyone looking for a romantic Medieval city needs to put Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Germany on their list.
After the canal cruise (and more chocolate), we relaxed at a cafe with a Kasteel beer in the sunshine surrounded by Medieval views. Speaking of sunshine, we were incredibly lucky weather-wise in March for our entire visit to Belgium. We hold this beautiful country high on our list.