Last December, on a whim, I booked a flight to Brussels.
I’d never been very interested in Belgium because whenever I thought of the country my mind immediately shifts towards the capital, Brussels, which I associate with the European Union. Now don’t get me wrong, I have no misgivings about the EU; but I always looked at Brussels as a sort of work-travel destination because of it. I have friends who’ve worked there, and I’ve always associated the place with offices, committees, delegations, and politics… A place where people go to work wearing suits, carrying an overpriced latte in a paper cup, in nice, heeled shoes and carrying leather briefcases… My WORST NIGHTMARE! The word ‘boring’ always came to mind. Silly, I know!
Anyway, I found a great deal on flights to Charleroi airport (about an hour outside Brussels) in December 2018 and said: “What the heck, let’s give Brussels a chance!!” I’m happy to admit, my perceptions were completely wrong! Belgium is a beautiful and clean country; full of fascinating Unesco sites, historical gems,delicious chocolate and fries, beer and mussels!!! Yes, Brussels does host the official seats of the European Commission, Council of the European Union, and European Council, as well as a seat of the European Parliament. But it’s so much more than that! The capital is a vibrant, living city with tons of quirky cafes, french fry shops around every corner, gorgeous street art, the most delectable chocolate and waffles in Europe, and beautiful architecture. It also has a fantastic public transport system and is very walkable due to its small size.
I only had a weekend in the country, arriving in Brussels late Friday evening, and leaving Monday afternoon, so I was extremely limited in time. I decided to spend Saturday leisurely exploring the capital, just taking in the generally Christmassy scenery, enjoying loads of gluhwein and french fries/chocolate and just exploring the streets of the city. Sunday would be spent in Bruges, a gorgeous medieval city and UNESCO World Heritage Site. I did consider trying to shove in more places into the itinerary, but I decided to take it easy on this one, and just go with the flow.
Accommodation: Motel One, Brussels – lovely affordable, comfy and clean rooms, chic decor and a very decent location! Only 800m away from the Grand Place, and a five minute walk from the central station! If you’re looking for a booking.com discount please feel free to press on the link —> €15.00 OFF!!!
Grand Place: Also known as the Grote Markt, this central square is the main life-source of the city, and its most memorable landmark. Surrounded by opulent guildhalls and two larger edifices, the city’s Town Hall, and the King’s House or Breadhouse, the plaza is one of the most beautiful squares in Europe has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998. Take your time to really take in the beautiful baroque architecture of this square. It is LUSH! There are loads of eateries, bars and cafes in the Grand Place, so just sit back with a beer and people watch for an hour or so!
Mannekin Pis (and his little sister and pet dog too!!!): Lovingly known as the Little Pisser (I love this little sassy guy!). Most people are disappointed by this statue when they visit, although I can’t understand why. I mean, it’s a statue of a little boy, pissing into a basin. Did you expect the scene to be life changing?? It’s quirky and cute, has a sweet backstory to it, and is hilarious to us less ‘dignified’ members of society! Yes, it’s small, 61cm tall to be precise. It was designed by Hiëronymus Duquesnoy the Elder and put in place in 1618 or 1619. The current statue is not the original but a replica dating from 1965. There are many legends surrounding the origin of the Mannekin Pis, but the one which is most widely told is the one about Duke Godfrey III of Leuven. In 1142, the troops of this two-year-old lord were battling against the troops of the Berthouts, the lords of Grimbergen, in Ransbeke. The troops put the infant lord in a basket and hung the basket in a tree to encourage them. From there, the boy urinated on the troops of the Berthouts, who eventually lost the battle! The Little Pisser (haha!) is dressed in costumes, several times each week, according to a published schedule, which is posted on the railings around the fountain by a non-profit organisation, Friends of Manneken-Pis.
Now if you want to experience the FULL Mannekin Pis experience, make sure to look out for his naughty little sister, the Jeanneke Pis! Erected in 1987, this cute statuette was created as a counterpoint to the Little Pisser. The half-metre-high bronze statue depicts a little girl in pigtails, squatting and urinating on a blue-grey limestone base! Adding to the fun Zinneke Pis, an adorable pissing pooch, was erected in 1998! Find all three to complete your pisser’s set! 😉
Saint-Hubert Royal Galleries: Built in 1847, this ensemble of glazed shopping arcades is just an ode to luxury and wealth. A short walk through just emphasised my current financial situation; dirt poor! Very pretty though!
Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula: Only 200 meters away from my accomodation, this stunning cathedral was a lovely landmark to walk by on my trips to and from the city. Built in the 16th century, the gothic/baroque cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula is definitely worth a short visit. Fun fact for the animal lovers: At the end of the 1990s two peregrine falcons were found residing in the towers of the cathedral. In light of this, ornithologists of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, in association with the Fonds d’Intervention pour les Rapaces installed a laying-nest on the edifice in an attempt to encourage nest-building. This was unfortunately never used by the falcons, but in the spring of 2004, a pair of falcons nested on a balcony on top of the cathedral’s northern tower. At the beginning of March of the same year, the female laid three eggs and the project “Falcons for everyone” was born. Falcons have been returning to this sanctuary ever since and a series of cameras were installed in the tower, streaming live video for all to enjoy on the foundation’s website: http://www.falconsforeveryone.be
Atomium: Although I did not get to visit this quirky structure, I would highly suggest making some time for it! The Atomium is a landmark building of Brussels, originally constructed for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. It is located on the Heysel Plateau, where the exhibition took place and is now a museum. It stands 102 meters tall and depicts nine iron atoms in the shape of the body-centred cubic unit cell of an iron crystal, magnified 165 billion times. Complicated, I know. Makes for some great panoramic views of the city in any case!
Mont des Arts: Literally meaning “the hill/mount of arts” the Mont des Arts is an urban complex and historic site in the centre of Brussles. It includes the Royal Library of Belgium, the National Archives of Belgium, the Square – Brussels Meeting Centre, and a public garden. My favourite part of the area was, of course, the gorgeously presented garden, as well as Le Carillon du Mont des Arts. A Jacquemart Carillion clock with 24 bells found on an arch of the Mont des Arts. You can notice 12 figurines that represent important historic and folkloric figures of Brussels through the ages. Jacquemart type clocks can be recognized by the character on top which marks every hour by striking the bell with a hammer. It was built on the occasion of the 1958 World Fair that took place in the city.
Street Art: Brussels is surprisingly full of amazing street art! Taking your time to explore the city’s less ‘touristy’ streets could turn into a real treat if you enjoy these creative pieces!
So there you have it, just a handful of things to see on your day in Brussels! There are actually quite a number of sites to visit should you have more time, so don’t underestimate this pretty city! It packs quite a punch with loads of interesting little nooks and crannies you can find and explore!
A fairytale medieval city is, in my opinion, the best way to describe Bruges. Characterised by picturesque cobbled streets, colourful buildings, lofty towers and dreamy canals, this Venice of the North is known as one of Belgium’s most popular tourist destinations, and although some would consider it to be a tourist trap, I can definitely understand the hype surrounding this gorgeous place!
If you do have some time, I really would recommend spending at least one night in Bruges, just to experience the city by night. Unfortunately, I had to settle for a day trip from Brussels. It takes an hour to get to Bruges via train. Weekend train rides in Belgium are discounted by 50%, so if you’re planning on travelling around the country, get the most for your money by doing so on Saturdays and Sundays! Catch an early train from Brussels Central Station and get to exploring!
Markt Square: Once again the heart of the city, the old market square is lined with pavement cafes beneath step-gabled facades. An array of colourful, medieval looking buildings adds to the magical atmosphere, whilst the Belfort, Belgium’s most famous belfry, dominates the scene. You can climb all the way to the top of the tower if you want some panoramic views of the city and its lovely canals. It’s only a few 366 steps or so! 😉
Canal Tours: A must do if you ever visit Bruges. You can find numerous canal tour operators by the jetties south of the Burg, including Rozenhoedkaai and Dijver. All cost €8.00 for an approx. 30 minute ride. If you get the chance, sit at the head of the boat, next to the captain. It’s the best place to take photos and also convenient if you want to ask any additional questions to the captain!
Burg Square: Just east of the Markt Square is the less dramatic, but equally picturesque Burg Square. In this area you can find the Stadhuis, a gorgeous gothic building, used as a museum and city hall, housing the impressive Gotische Zaal (Gothic Hall). Of special note is this beautiful hall’s intricately carved wooden ceiling, which is just teeming with medieval carvings. Murals depicting the town’s history add to the room’s magnificence. If you are interested in exploring the building, be sure to accompany your explorations with an audioguide. Entry to the hall is included with the Stadhuis admission. You can also find the Brugse Vrije (Liberty of Bruges) within the Burg Square. The red brick building complex functioned as a court of justice between 1795 and 1984. Today the city archives are stored here. Last, but definitely not least, you must visit the Basilica of the Holy Blood (Basiliek van het Heilig Bloed), situated on the western part of the square. The basilica takes its name from a phial which supposedly contains a few drops of Christ’s blood, brought to the area after the 12th-century Crusades. The right-hand door leads upstairs to a beautiful, colourful chapel, where the relic is hidden behind a silver tabernacle and brought out for veneration on a daily basis, at 2:00PM!
Swans of Bruges: Bird lovers rejoice. One of Bruges most revered residents? SWANS! The legend of the Bruges swans came about in the period after Mary of Burgundy’s passing. A certain character, Pieter Lanchals, (name literally meaning ‘long neck’), one of the town administrators belonging to the court of Maximilian of Austria, was executed in the Bruges market square, after being tortured in front of Maximilian himself, who was being held captive in the city. Legend has it that after his release, Maximilian punished Bruges by obliging the population to keep ‘long necks’, or swans, on their lakes and canals for all eternity. To this day, proud swans guard the Bruges canals, making for the most romantic and picturesque scenes in the city.
Bruges is just a lovely place to visit, with loads of quaint cobbled streets and alleys to explore. Make sure to take your time and just enjoy strolling around the charming city.
That’s it! Two fulls days in Belgium. So many things to see, so little time! Spending around four/five days in the country would be ideal. A friend of mine suggested a detour to the historic Waterloo, so if you do have a few extra hours to spend exploring, I would recommend doing just that. It’s close to Brussels and quite compact. It also boasts an obviously fascinating history; it is after all the site of the infamous Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon Bonaparte and his army were defeated in 1815.
If you’re spending around 4 days in the country, make sure to visit the cities of Ghent and Antwerp. For more canal views and picturesque old city scenes, go to Ghent. If
you’re looking for fashion, shopping and a ‘younger’ vibe, Antwerp is your city! The list could go on and on: Dinant, Leuven, Ardennes and so many other beautiful cities! You’re spoilt for choice! I think this calls for a revisit for me, so fingers crossed I get to travel to the lovely country of Belgium again in the near future!