Belgium – Our thoughts

Happy Monday! I thought I’d kick off the week by sharing with you all our thoughts on that trip Andy and I took a few weekends ago to Belgium. As I’m sure I mentioned in the previous post, we spent only one night in Brussels but spent two in Bruges. I’ll share details about both where appropriate.

Things to know before you go

Brussels is the unofficial capital of the European Union and the very official headquarters of NATO. The Belgian are very proud of those facts so I’d suggest knowing that before you plan a trip there.  Official languages are French, Dutch and German (yes, three!) and it is my understanding that the national anthem has a tri-lingual version that includes all three. As if the Belgian weren’t impressive enough, most people will also speak English.

Belgium is known for its beer, chocolate, waffles, and frites. They take pride in their fries and claim to make the best in the world. They have over 180 breweries in the country and countless numbers of delicious beer. And, to add to that, they also make really, really good chocolate.

Getting there

As usual, we took the Eurostar train. Eurostar trains currently only go to Brussels in Belgium but you can buy an “Any Belgium Station” train ticket which basically serves as a connecting ticket to any of the local Belgium trains (which you can catch from the main train station the Eurostar leaves you at).

Once you purchase your any station tickets, your Eurostar train will take you directly into Brussels. Then, you have exactly 24 hours from time of arrival into Brussels to board any train taking you anywhere in Belgium. To come home, it’s the same thing – you have 24 hours from the time your Brussels to London Eurostar train leaves to take any train anywhere in Belgium back to the main station in Brussels.

It’s a great system and usually works well – until something like this happens

But thankfully, that wasn’t us and our trip from London to Brussels only took about two hours and then another hour from Brussels to Bruges.

Accommodations

In Brussels, we stayed in a hotel by the Louise metro stop which is only three stops from the major train station. Easy to get to, it was about a 15 min walk from Grand Place, the central square of Brussels. There was a lot of good shopping in that area – everything from the fancy pants stores to the not so fancy stores. There were also plenty of restaurant options and several chocolate shops.

In Bruges, we stayed in a hotel facing one of the many canals of Bruges. It was an older, more-antique place. While the location was great – close to beer, chocolate and food – the hotel itself needed a revamping or, at the bare minimum, a fresh coat of paint.

Sightseeing

For the first time in Almonte traveling history, we did not take a double-decker bus tour!

In our one day in Brussels, we felt like we saw the major attractions and got a good feeling for what the main area was like. I’m sure that’s the equivalent of going to NYC for the day, seeing Times Square and feeling like you’ve seen the whole city. Or like coming to London for a day, seeing Big Ben and riding the London Eye and feeling like you’ve done it all. It’s probably not correct and not a fair statement to make therefore if I were to go again, I’d be curious to see what the rest of Brussels has to offer.

As for Bruges, I’m fairly confident I saw enough during our two-night stay there. There are several museums (beer museums and frites museums, diamond polishing museums, etc.), cathedrals, chocolate shops and places to drink beer. My guess is that your main attraction in Bruges depends on what you’re into. I’m into chocolate and I like beer – so that was it for me.

Food

Waffles, chocolate, beer, fries. What else is there to say??

Shopping/Fashion

We did a lot of shopping in Belgium. We didn’t buy any clothing (although there were plenty of options) but instead chose to bring back chocolates and beer – both for ourselves and as gifts for the upcoming holidays. I cannot imagine anyone visiting Belgium and not returning with several bottles of Belgian beer and chocolates, no matter what time of year it is – it’s a must!

Almost all of the streets in Bruges are cobblestone which means you’ll need comfortable footwear. The city is very tourist heavy so you can get away with dressing casual. We were there in the fall so I can’t say whether shorts are common in the spring/summer time but we walked around in jeans and sneakers/boots and didn’t feel out of place anywhere.

And although we were only there for 24 hours (I’m Federal Agent Jack Bauer…) I got the sense that being fashion forward is not a must there either.

Cost

Currency is the Euro so keep that in mind if you’re visiting from outside an EU country. I found most things to be reasonably priced (€ 3-4 a beer) and, aside from the Christmas gifts we bought, don’t think we spent much on our long weekend there. I’m sure you can spend lots of money though if you drink a lot (like, a lot a lot).

Transit 

We did not ride the metro in Bruges (not even sure if they have one), and we didn’t ride the bus in either city. However, we did ride the subway in Brussels to/from the main train station and noticed it was old…like, very old. Makes the London tubes look brand, spankin new in comparison…

Saving money

We noticed that both hotels we stayed at offered us their breakfast package – which cost €19 in both hotels. I probably don’t have to tell you this, but €19 per person is a lot of effin money for breakfast! Steer clear of the breakfast packages and sort out your breakfast yourself. You’ll probably get a better meal for a lot less money.

Also, if you’re on a budget, do some heavy research of the sites you want to see before actually going to see them. Andy and I got caught for suckers when visiting the “beer museum” located in the main square in Brussels. Basically, the owners posted some posters on the wall, play some random video of people enjoying beer and have a few pieces of equipment on display and call that a museum. Then and they charge you a €5 entrance fee. Unfortunately, we decided to go in on a whim instead of first reading the reviews on Foursquare – and boy, did we regret it. While we did get a free beer tasting with our entrance fee, I would have much rather just bought my own.

Overall impression

I think Andy and I would both agree that Belgium is a place we’d definitely recommend to friends and family. The food was great and the people were friendly. However, we both think that Bruges, in particular, is best visited when the weather is nice. We got stuck with lots of rain and chilly temperatures when we went which didn’t make for a fun sightseeing experience. However, Bruges must be amazing to see in warmer weather.

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