The Best of Belgium

By Kate Riley July 8, 2018

I arrived in Brussels, Belgium from London via Eurostar train on a June evening. I had three full days to explore this country and I wasn’t going to waste a second. I did not have the luxury of a loose itinerary, I had four cities to see in three days and I was determined to see as much as possible.

By my departure from Belgium I concluded it is a country with the best that Europe has to offer a traveler: amazing architecture, water views, delicious food, great beer, the charm of meandering cobblestone streets, and the best chocolate I’ve ever had. If you’re looking to explore a small European country with a taste of everything, Belgium is the place.

 

 

There is always a debate that takes place in my mind when I travel somewhere new. Do I spend a few days in one spot getting to know all the streets and cafes at a slower pace? Or do I hit the ground running, seeing as much as I can? In this stage of life, I default to the latter. I don’t have the luxury of a slower pace when I’m balancing two lives: the dream life of digital nomad, and the reality of two kids back home who need me. Someday there will be time to take it slower, but not yet.

 

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Belgium is a small country compared to its EU neighbors, so it’s a little easier to get where you want to go not just because of its smaller size but also because of its efficient public transportation.

Belgians are multilingual, though the main spoken language is French, and it’s the one I understand most having studied it in school.

 

I have a great travel buddy, her name is Gro, we’ve been to Scandinavia together, and we also traveled to Bergen, Norway earlier this year. I adore her. She’s always up for adventure so when I suggested we go to Belgium, she was totally on board. Gro grew up in Norway, she has raised three sons, lives part time in both Norway and California, and she has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. We met in a fitness class, she’s simply the best, and I just love traveling with her!

Gro and I explored four cities in Belgium in three days, we’re long distance walkers and clocked ten miles a day, but for those that want to meander at a slower pace, I’d recommend stretching a visit to Belgium to four or even five days, dedicating one day per city to get a feel for each one. During our stay, we visited the bustling capital of Brussels, fashionable Antewerp, energetic Ghent, and the not-to-miss enchanting Bruges.

Our home base was Brussels, near the Midi train station. I rented an Airbnb apartment because I prefer them to hotels.

The best part about being near the Midi train station was it’s the main one for all train lines arriving in and departing from Brussels. I arrived via Eurostar from London and upon arrival walked 5 minutes to my Airbnb apartment conveniently located near the station. At Midi Station, you can catch trains to daytrip to Antewerp, Ghent, and Bruges, so it helps to stay near it or just a few stops away via metro since it’s the gateway station to all other cities in Belgium.

Train travel from Brussels to other cities is SO easy. Of all the train stations and metros I’ve traveled in Europe, I was most impressed with the Midi in Brussels, everything is color coded, numbered, and on time, making it a stress free experience.

 

Brussels

The first day we explored the capital city of Brussels, heading first to the famous Grand Place. The tourists were already beginning to arrive, I was thankful we got there around 9 a.m. before it got too crowded. The buildings are gilded with beautiful ornate detail, there’s a lot of history in this square so linger here for awhile, it’s one of the main attractions.

 

 

 

Mannekin Pis is the famous small bronze sculpture of the peeing boy down the street from Grand Place that everyone stops to look at and take a selfie with (strange). I was underwhelmed but thought okay, it’s on the list of things to see, so we did.

 

The streets of Brussels are lovely to stroll, most of the neighborhoods surrounding the Grand Place have shops and cafes and historical sights to see.

 

 

Keep walking around town and there’s something you can’t escape. Waffles! Those of you with a sweet tooth will have a hard time choosing which topping to put on a Belgian waffle. There are vendors on every street so you’ll have lots of opportunities to savor these local specialties!

 

 

At first as I walked around the city, Brussels reminded me of Paris. I felt it especially in the cafes and parks and when looking at the architecture.

 

 

 

 

As I explored more, Brussels unveiled that it had its own pulse and its own vibe, and I began to appreciate it for its beauty and uniqueness.

 

 

 

Brussels has really great food, the sausages we ate were amazing, and of course one must eat street fries. Eating fries is part of the culinary experience of Belgium, you’ll find window vendors on the streets in every city, they make a great late night snack so be sure to order them with sauce!

 

 

The beer scene is huge in Belgium, there were so many we tried while we visited, it was hard to keep track. We sampled everything from trappist beer made by monks to whatever the bartender recommended as a local favorite.

 

 

Brussels has really great night life, the cafes and bars are open and on a warm night it’s nice to walk the Grand Place that is all lit up and also the surrounding streets, they’re very safe and the people are all out and about.

We wandered for hours on a warm summer night, stopping into different bars recommended by locals before heading back to our apartment. Bars stay open into the early morning hours, but the metro shuts down at midnight so keep that in mind.

 

Day Two took us to two cities, Antewerp in the morning and early afternoon, and Ghent in the late afternoon and evening. Seeing two cities in one day was ambitious but we did it!

Antewerp

Originally we hadn’t planned on Antewerp, but our Airbnb host insisted that we squeeze it into our itinerary, and she was right. Antewerp was an unexpected delight, starting with our morning arrival at the stunning train station. Wow, check out this lobby!

 

 

Walk down the main street in the direction of Grote Market and you’ll find yourself on fashion row. It reminded of a mini Fifth Avenue in New York City with the combination of both low and high end fashion: H&M mixed with Armani.

 

 

Just about everyone here gets around via bicycle, so watch out for cyclists. One thing I loved about Antewerp, the clock tower bells ring on the hour (just like in Salzburg), it adds to the enchantment.

 

 

There are a few historical sites to see in old town near Grote Markt, the main cathedral and famous buildings are concentrated in a very small area so it’s easy to see it all in a couple of hours. Nestled among the landmarks are some really cute cafes, we stopped at one for lunch before heading back to the train station.

 

 

 

 

Ghent

Ghent (or Gent) is a university town worth visiting, there are a lot of young people in Ghent and it also has a reputation for great night life. We took a 40 minute train ride from Antewerp and on arrival learned we had to take a tram into town.

The tram system makes it easy to hop on the #1 and get to the heart of old town. Buy a tram ticket at travel center inside the train station and pick up a map too, then follow the instructions to hop on the #1 or the #4 tram from the main train station to the center of the old town. From there it’s easy to walk around and see the landmarks, shops, and canals.

 

 

 

We spent the least amount of time in Ghent simply because we were tired, but we got a nice feel for it in the four hours that we stayed in this city before heading back to Brussels.

Bruges

Last but not least, the enchanting city of Bruges where we spent our third and final day. This town is the most touristy, but for good reason. City center is a half mile walk from the train station, but once you arrive it slowly unveils itself to you and it’s divine. In Bruges you can hire a carriage to take you around town, you can stroll as we did, or get an alternative view of this charming city via canal tour.

 

 

We arrived around 10 a.m. by train, just as most of the day trip tourists do. If you stay in Bruges, you’ll have the town to yourself in the morning before the tourists arrive, and in the evening after they leave, so it’s worth considering staying in Bruges as your home base instead of Brussels if you’re exploring the country.

In some places, the canals of Bruges felt like a Disneyland ride, with people piling into boats while the captain on speaker explains the history and architecture around every bend.

 

 

 

Bruges is a true gem of Belgium so I was happy to have spent our last full day here. We were hungry after a few hours of walking so we stopped into Bourgognes des Flandres, a brewery on the water. We ordered meatballs and a cheese platter and to wash it down, their red house brew. This was the perfect place to relax and feel the Bruges vibe while watching the canal boats go by.

 

 

Strolling the streets of Bruges, you’ll find spectacular scenes around every bend. The squares and alleys are filled with cafes where you can sit and people watch. I particularly liked this smiling waiter and behind him, the exemplary view.

 

 

A main attraction is The Market Square (Markt), it’s the perfect place for a photo opp, this square is also filled with cafes where you can take in the view of the climbable Belfry on the opposite side, which I won’t share, you just need to go and see it for yourself :)

 

 

There were places we didn’t visit, like the Torture Museum or French Fries Museum, both real museums in Bruges. We did make stop at the Beer Experience, right next to Markt, this I will recommend. Head up the stairs where you can taste five beers for ten Euro while you peek out at Markt below. After days of walking many miles, this was an unexpected find and favorite place to rest our feet.

 

 

Before ending, I must share my Belgian chocolate experience. I sampled my share of truffles in each city I visited and every time I tasted a new one, I fell in love and declared it my favorite. At first I was convinced all the chocolate makers in Belgium had secret fairy dust they added to their chocolates because ohhh mahhh gawwwwd it was the best I’d ever tasted.

Then I learned that Belgian chocolatiers adhere to stricter standards with their chocolate making, requiring 100% cocoa butter, real sugar, nothing fake, etc. They’ve been making it this way for over a century.

 

I’ve sampled great chocolate from just about every country, but I officially give Belgium the award for THE BEST. The chocolates were so great, I brought several boxes home, they’re hidden in my house and I’m sloooowwwlly savoring them piece by piece. People, if there’s a reason to go to Belgium, go for the chocolate.

 

As a new fan of Belgium, I’m now rooting for them in the World Cup, they’re in the semi-finals against France on Tuesday.

Go Belgium!

 

19 comments

  1. OHHHHH I was there MANY years ago! and YES Brugge,,,, yes. OMG the chocolate… we were DYING with delight over our “saturday night date” ( our boyfriends were home in the US) with Leonidas chocolates………………………..no words !

  2. Thank for you for the terrific post! I enjoyed reading about all these cities and it has inspired me to plan a trip to Belgium. What month of the year do you think is the best to visit???

    • Wow, I’m not sure Heidi, we had great weather in early June, a little chilly on one evening, some clouds at times, but mostly sunny. Europe (and Belgium) is crowded in the summer especially July and August. Perhaps September? Or May? Those are my preferred months to travel. :)

  3. Definitely pinning this one!

    I love how you create such a balance with all that you do Kate. Blogging, traveling, designing, etc. You do so much (and all so well) yet one has the feeling you take care of yourself and your loved ones.

    When I grow up I want to be just like you.

    Oh wait, I’m 64. Never mind…

  4. It’s so fun to read about your experience. My family and I lived in Belgium one year during a sabbatical and absolutely loved it. It IS the best place to get to know the many faces of Europe. Travel around the continent is so easy from Brussels. I love the international community as well. We made such good friends in that one year. Belgium is this quiet little treasure that some make fun of, but it’s ok, they like it like that. We established a tradition with our friends of exchanging a Christmas box each year, and 15 years later we still keep it up. And that box from Belgium ALWAYS includes chocolates. The BEST. So glad you enjoyed Belgium! It’s been some years since I’ve visited, and I must go back soon.

    • I had this thought while I was there, that Brussels would be a fantastic place to live! Especially if you want to explore other countries in Europe since it’s so easy to get to them via train or plane (I flew to Prague from the Brussels airport and that was also so easy). I’m envious of your yearly box of Belgian chocolates!!!!

  5. I love your photos Kate. Thanks for sharing them. Would you say that Brussels is a safe place for a single senior female too visit solo?

  6. My middle son, who is 15, is dying to go to Belgium. We’ve traveled all over with our three sons and it’s his turn to pick. I asked him why he wanted to go to Belgium and he said, “Because of the waffles!” I showed him your post, and the pic of the waffles really got him excited. Teenage boys and food. ? Anyway, thanks for such a thorough and great post. It will make our planning easier!

  7. Thank you for posting this wonderful travelogue, Kate. Did you enjoy the Art Nouveau buildings? Were you able to get into the Horta Museum?

  8. I love reading your travel posts; thanks so much for sharing! I’m an avid traveler, and I always take my young children with me. I’ve been curious when reading all your posts about why your children don’t accompany you on part of these trips?

    • For a few reasons. Most often they’re in school when I travel. During this summer trip they were busy doing other things, my 14 year old was on the east coast visiting her cousin and my 12 year old boy was at camp. They’re not up to walking as much as I do nor are they interested in the historical sites or lounging in cafes so Europe doesn’t appeal to them. I think when they’re older they will appreciate it. We take other trips together around the US, but as for Europe, I can’t get them excited about it yet. Plus, I’ll admit, it’s really nice touring Europe with adult travel companions who have the same enthusiasm and share the same interests and *ahem* don’t complain. Frankly, I just enjoy that :)

  9. Would you say that it’s safe for a single senior female to visit there solo ?

    • I’ve been to Bruges with my mom and would say yes, it’s definitely a safe town to visit. The old town is walled in, and very pleasant and touristic. The train station is just outside the walls of the city :)

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