There’s a lot you can pack into a long weekend getaway to Belgium. I had two and a half days, based in Brussels, and was set on seeing as much as I could possibly manage in this short time, being my first time in the country. I took a day trip to Antwerp, another longer day trip to Ghent and Bruges, and spent the last half day in Brussels city centre. If you prefer to travel at a leisurely pace, you might want to stick to just one place (as to which, good luck! but hopefully the below might help you decide). Check out what I managed to see (and eat) in my quick but very enjoyable break.
Antwerp is a great option for a day trip from Brussels, with plenty to do to while the time away. It’s equally perfect for those who are interested in history or art as it is for those who want to get some (or a lot) of shopping done; its a city which balances the old with the modern and hip.
Being quite constrained on time we had to be very selective with what to spend our time on. Unfortunately we did not manage to make it to Plantin-Moretus Museum, a popular museum focusing on the work of the 16th century printers which give it its name and the only museum in the world recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site, by closing time – it will be at the top of my list if I return. Another activity worth checking out is taking an interactive tour and tasting of De Koninck Antwerp City Brewery.
Stepping off of your train lands you in immediate beauty; the Central Station is an architectural gem.
The medieval heart with its pretty cobbled lanes filled with quirky shops and charming cafes is a stroller’s paradise. The main landmark of the historic centre, however, is the pedestrian Grote Markt or Great Market Square, lined with the impressive Renaissance-style city hall and a number of elaborate guildhalls, with the baroque Brabo Fountain in the centre.
Another major must-see landmark is the Cathedral of Our Lady, considered one of the finest gothic buildings in Europe. The northern tower stands at an impressive 123 m, the tallest building in the city – it is actually dizzying looking up at it from right underneath it. The entrance price might seem steep for a church; that is, until you step in and see that it doubles as an art museum. The cathedral houses an impressive collection of major art works, the most notable of which are a series of paintings by Rubens, considered the most influential artist of the Flemish Baroque tradition.
My restaurant of choice for lunch was one of Bolivar or De Pottekijker, but we were too late for one and the other opened only for dinner. So we settled on Bourla Cafe Restaurant which was packed with locals even on a week day. It serves up simple, hearty Belgian fare in a lovely traditional building at a reasonable price (except for the very costly water), and we were quite impressed with the power banks they gave us to charge our phones when we asked if any plugs were available. I had lovely escargots in garlic butter followed by a dark beer Belgian stew and fries (of course!); a very enjoyable, cosy meal on a cold day.
Very close to the restaurant was the other item on our sightseeing list; Rubenshuis – the former home and studio of Peter Paul Rubens, now a museum displaying some of his and his contemporaries’ work. This beautiful, well-preserved home is a great stop for Rubens fans and art lovers alike. Most of the walls are covered in gorgeous gold-painted leather and there are some impressive furniture pieces to enjoy apart from a number of paintings. Unfortunately, we missed the famous Rubens self-portrait which is currently being restored in Brussels.
We spotted the American fast-food chain Five Guys in the main shopping road and couldn’t resist one of their delicious shakes; we chose chocolate and salted caramel.
I loved vibrant, bustling Ghent, with its picturesque squares, streets and canals (the Graslei and Korenlei canals are considered the prettiest). You can spend endless hours wandering and strolling about. We spent the larger part of the day there as a day trip from Brussels before moving on to Bruges in the afternoon – you can definitely spend a night or more there without being bored, but if you only have a few hours, like us, you can get a decent feel.
At the top of my to-visit list was Bakkerij Himschoot, Ghent’s oldest bakery. This hole in the wall packed to the rafters with fresh bakes has so much character that I would probably love it even if I weren’t in love with baking. I was so incredibly impressed by the apple strudel I bought; exquisite pastry stuffed with so much apple and raisins that it’s practically a meal – delicious!
One of Ghent’s landmarks is the Belfort; a 91 metre-high belfry which is one of three medieval towers that overlook the old city centre (the other two belonging to Saint Bavo Cathedral and Saint Nicholas’ Church, other notable visits). A climb to the top offers views over the old town and beyond; and there’s an elevator to the top for the faint hearted.
After a short wait for a vacant table at the packed Ellis Gourmet Burger, we feasted on burgers, fries and onion rings. The burger menu is interesting and varied and the meal was pleasant, but I’ve had much better burgers elsewhere, although my friend really enjoyed her blue cheese burger choice.
A colourful photo spot is Werregarenstraat – also known as Graffiti Street – an officially sanctioned street art alleyway.
We moved on to Bruges from Ghent late in the afternoon to have a look around and have dinner there before catching a train back to Brussels. While the time constraints were not ideal we felt it made sense considering the proximity of Ghent and Bruges and we really wanted to see this famed little, gorgeous paradise. Ideally you can dedicate two separate days to the two locations, but if not, I definitely recommend trying to fit both in. I also recommend the order we took; first Ghent and then Bruges – there was something so magical about the small winding roads and canals of Bruges at night.
We had an amazing dinner at Breydel de Coninc, a very cosy restaurant just off the main square. I had oysters to start and moules frites (mussels and fries) as a main; everything was very fresh and it was actually good value for money considering the large amount of mussels we got.
For dessert, we grabbed a waffle on a stick from Go.fre right next to Breydel de Coninc; you can buy pre-packaged ones or get a freshly made one dipped in your choice of chocolate and toppings – the texture was extremely light.
There’s plenty to do in Brussels, although most would agree that it ranks pretty low on their list of must-sees in Belgium. We just dedicated our last day, a few hours before our flight, to have a look around the centre. Since we were pressed for time we chose to just walk around leisurely and eat and drink, but there’s plenty of museums to check out.
I was actually incredibly impressed with the opulent Grand Place, surrounded by guildhalls, the town hall and the King’s House/Breadhouse. Quite easily the most beautiful square I’ve seen.
A number of bars around the main square offer beer tasting, great to share with friends. The perfect way to while away half an hour watching people go by while sampling different varieties of Belgian beers and trying to decide which one is your favourite – we all chose differently!
Manneken Pis is a landmark small bronze sculpture/fountain of a naked little boy urinating into the basin of the fountain. It’s always surrounded by people, although I’m pretty sure no one is quite sure what all the fuss is about. Manneken was dressed in one of his many costumes when we were there (you can see his whole wardrobe at the nearby museum). You can also check out the lesser-known Jeanekke Pis, his younger sister.
On our list of eats were chocolate-dipped strawberries from Godiva, a cone of fries from one of the many fritures around covered in andalouse sauce (I sadly couldn’t find any vendors offering the famous fries covered in stew sauce), and waffles from Vitalgaufre (a great option for those who want a simple, high-quality waffle where the waffle itself is allowed to shine).
I thoroughly enjoyed my short break in Belgium; I only got to scratch the surface but was very pleased with the memories I made in my two and a half days. I look forward to my next visit to the land of chocolate, beer, fries, beautiful art and architecture, and current reigning champion of my passionate love-hate relationship with cobbled streets.
Until the next adventure!