My mum and my little one got some great deals on Eurostar to Brussels direct from London St Pancreas. I am telling you: I prefer this a million times over the whole hassle of traveling by air. Firstly, you only need to be in advance minimum 45 min prior to departure and the best is that you leave from city centre to arrive in city centre. No need to drive to an airport or all that is required getting into a plane. My toddler loved being on the train as he was distracted by the many cars I brought for him to do a full traffic jam of little cars on top of the foldable table you have right in front of you and also his iPad where we had some screen time using the Wi-Fi that Eurostar provides which works beautifully. Best of all is that if you are travelling with a 2 year old they sit on your lap and you don’t pay for them! So many advantages to travel by train over traveling by air!!!
We set off early Saturday morning, left London at 8:55 am and arrived at 11:35 am in Brussels Midi Train station.
We quickly walked to the hotel where we stayed, very central and walking distance from the train and pretty much everywhere. I highly recommend booking a hotel that is in the center as this will save you time and money when you have 2 full days to discover as much as possible of the city. We stayed at The Dominican hotel, which has an amazing central location in Brussels.
After early checking in we went to Tonton Garby a tiny little cheese shop, after reading amazing reviews from Trip Advisor, and a must go place as they serve the best sandwiches in the whole world. Luckily enough we went during a time where there was no one, which we were very happy for as the owners had a conversation with us and made us feel amazing – their motto is “if you are happy we are happy” they speak many languages and make the effort to make you feel very special. They are lovely and have the best combinations you can imagine with their delicious cheeses and cold cuts– we had an amazing pear and chorizo sandwich inside a freshly baked baguette. A must go place and not to be missed even if you need to queue. You can thank me later J
We then headed to our first walking tour of the lower part of the city. We started in the Grand Place and set off on a 2.5-hour walking tour. Learned about the city’s history, the Belgian monarchy and the importance of the European Institutions as we strolled through the charming cobbled streets of the Old Town.
We explored the Galleries Royales, Saint Hubert, a famous arcaded shopping centre, where we heard about Neuhaus’ recipe and how this famous pharmacist was covering medicine with prailine so that children would take the medicine with no problem as it was covered by delicious chocolate. We walled to the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. Explored the capital’s major Roman Catholic Church, including the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. Next, headed to the Royal Square, home to the Royal Palace and walked past the charming Musical Instruments Museum, the Magritte Museum and the Palace of Fine Arts. Discovered the power of the nobility and the church during the past centuries, concentrating on the Habsburg dynasty and the House of Burgundy.
I especially love doing these types of tours for the following reasons: the locals provide you with valuable information that otherwise you will never be able to find on your own. Such as this one – in this majestic Grand Place there is a stunning building that when you arrive for the first time you are simply amazed of how beautiful it is but, this building in fact has many imperfections – please see the picture below and tell me if you are able to see them? There are 2 very notable ones:
The high tower is not positioned in the middle of the building. The windows on the second floor from the right wing are different to those from the left wing.
The reason why the building is asymmetrical is due to the fact that during the 15th century it was designed over a long period of time by a series of many different architects.
After touring we built up an appetite and went to eat. I love to eat where locals do when I am travelling as opposed to end up in the tourist traps restaurants. So, we asked people we thought looked like they were locals, and I have to say that most of the people we asked around in Brussels were very friendly and super helpful and always assisted us providing us with directions and tips.
We ended up eating at a local restaurant that was filled with locals and we had the chance to try a Belgium stew and my mum had rabbit in a beer sauce it was very tasty and I can recommend this restaurant which is close to the center. Fin de Siècle a reasonable not pricy restaurant – note: only take cash.
We now were ready to go back to the hotel to sleep, as my toddler was tired after a long day of sightseeing and being inside the push chair J
Sunday – Ghent and Bruges is waiting for us
Up at 8 am and ready to have a coffee on the go and croissant as we decided to take the local train and head to the first stop Ghent. We got off at the Gent Sint Pieters train station from there, jumped onto the tram that would take us to the centre of town. Ghent, is a port city in northwestern Belgium, at the confluence of the Leie and Scheldt rivers. During the Middle Ages it was a prominent city-state. Today it’s a university town and cultural hub. Its pedestrianised centre is known for its medieval architecture such as 12th-century Gravensteen castle and the Graslei, a row of guildhalls beside the Leie river harbour. We visited Gravensteen
A must thing to do is try Ghent’s signature candy, the cuberdon or “neuzeke,” we bought some at the Groentenmarkt where there is a cart – a charming wagon with a pile of cone-shaped, purple, yellow, green and red candies with a hard shell and a raspberry-flavoured filling. You can buy a bag with 10 different flavours “neuzeke” for €5.
A trip to Ghent is simply not complete without a visit to the mysterious ‘Castle of the Counts’. This important landmark in Ghent is a castle with a very turbulent past, closely intertwined with the complex—often-stormy—political and social history of the city. It is the only remaining mediaeval castle with a moat and largely intact defence system in Flanders. Your visit to the Castle of the Counts will give you a complete picture of heraldic culture in the 12th century. The gatehouse, ramparts, keep, count’s residence and stables are open to visitors.
The Ghent Altarpiece, or ‘The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb’ by the Van Eyck brothers, completed in 1432, is recognised worldwide as a great work of art, and one of the most influential paintings ever made. It is an absolute must-see on your weekend break to Ghent. A total of 18 panels form a magical evocation of scenes from the Bible, as well as a portrait of the church warden, Joos Vijd, who commissioned the altarpiece, and his wife Elisabeth Borluut. It is inside the St Bavo’s Cathedral and it costs €4 to see it. Surprisingly enough “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is probably the most influential painting ever made, and it is also the most often stolen work of art in history!”
We then jumped back on the tram to head to the train station so we could end our afternoon in lovely Bruges.
In 25 min you end up in Bruges, again here we suggest you to take a bus that will drop you off in the middle of the centre – Grote Markt. Bruges, is the capital of West Flanders in northwest Belgium, it is distinguished by its canals, cobbled streets and medieval buildings.
As we had been here before during the day and in summer we decided to leave Bruge for later and do a night tour. The houses around the square are very well lit. We walked through the Groenerei along the canal of Bruges where you can take lovely pictures of historical buildings and lovely bridges.
We then decided to head to the restaurant that once again was recommended by locals a nice and lovely small restaurant served by the owners.
We then headed back to the train station and back to Brussels very tired but happy that we saw in one day 2 lovely towns which is completely doable in one day and alone without a tour operator.
Monday morning we were up and had a quick coffee and again a croissant on the go and headed to Grand Place where we had an early start 10:30 am tour of the lower part of the city in this tour we were able to see Quartier Marolles”, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Brussels, located between the south railway station and the Palais de Justice. The highlights of this tour include the Manneken Pis, which is the iconic and famous little guy peeing as well as the girl peeing and the statue of the dog that is also peeing. We also went through the thriving Anspach Boulevard, the Art Deco buildings on Vieux Marché aux Grains street, De Brouckère square and the beautiful Galeries Royales Saint Hubert. Once the tour was over we decided to jump into the metro and got to the EU Parliament. This was one of the best and interesting highlights of our trip. To visit the Parliament is completely free. They provide you with a headset and audio self walking tour that explains how the EU Parliament works it is indeed fascinating to be there and think that inside that hall many of the EU decisions take place and then put into practice. We also went to the Parlamentarium that offers a more interactive visit and where you can even watch movies that explain how it all works and it is a multimedia experience. I highly recommend visiting both.
From there we jumped back on the metro to go all the way to the Atonium The Atomium is a landmark building in Brussels, originally constructed for the 1958 Brussels World Expo. It is located on the Heysel Plateau, where the exhibition took place. It is now a museum. Designed by the engineer André Waterkeyn and architects André and Jean Polak, it stands 102 m tall. Unfortunately, we were not able to enter as the lift was not working and we would have never made it on time to catch the train back to London all the way up using the stairs with my little one! Anyhow, you should come even if you are not able to go up as seeing the Atomium from outside is already an unforgettable view.
We then headed back by metro to collect our suitcase and run to the train station to go back to London.
Clearly the best time of the year to visit Brussels, Ghent and Bruges is in summer but wintertime has also its charm.
Overall it is not very easy to push a pram through the cobbled streets of all these lovely cities but it is worth it!