I think before starting this post, it would be very untruthful not to acknowledge that I was a bit weary about taking this trip. I had booked this holiday as a surprise ‘well-done’ trip in December for my younger sister who has just finished her first round of GCSEs. And so, as you can imagine, when I had heard of the attacks in March, I was a little apprehensive about travelling with my younger sister now. That said, it seems that every day life has carried on, perhaps just with the present of more armed police and soldiers, but even this feels more reassuring. As soon as we arrived I felt a pervading sense of calm and friendly reservation flowing from both the people and the remedial open spaces.
The day started not too early, with our flight scheduled to leave Heathrow airport at 11.05am. We had booked our tickets via kayak.com with brussels airlines for around £167 return for 4 days, for the both of us. Although the flight price was decent, our plane was delayed for 50+ minutes however we still managed to arrive just 8 minutes delayed, which makes me wonder why our flight was booked so early in the first place.
Our first stop of our trip was Square Ambiorix, to kill a little time before checking into our accommodation. Already from being above ground, I got the feeling that Brussels is very much a different type of city to London. There are so many green spaces and the urban sprawl doesn’t seem to devour its scenic nature and greenery. During our stay we found so many lovely open spaces which seemed to encourage individuals to take time to relax, sit back and enjoy the natural environment.
The transport system is also very foreign compared to London transport. You are generally expected to have close to the actual fare price, if not the exact change itself, and whilst there is a sort of ‘oyster card’ system in place, paper tickets (which can be bought either at a ticket machine next to the bus stop/in a metro station or on the bus itself for a slightly higher fare (40c more) are also available for tourist. All types of tickets have to be activated with the swipable ticket machine and once they are, will last you 60 minutes on any form of public transport.
Travelling into the centre of Brussels from the airport is very easy. The No. 12 goes into the centre and stops off at various major points. It’s also much much cheaper too, costing only €4.50 per person from the ticket machine (this price is just for airport transfers, a single ticket is normally €2.10) , compared to €45-50 by taxi (average price to the city centre) and taking virtually the same amount of time.
As we arrived later in the afternoon, we headed straight for our Air bnb and then to the shops to pick up some ingredients for dinner. Our Air bnb was situated about a 30 minutes bus ride from the centre in a more residential quartier with a Carrefour market just 10-15 minutes walk away.
We started the day early, taking the bus No. 71 from Louise/ Louiza quartier to the city centre. Pretty much as soon as we got off the bus we were lost. I had taken screen shots of google maps directions on my phone, but the sight of so many intricate winding roads and imposing structures quickly drew my attention away from what we had planned out for the day. As the saying goes however, the best laid plans of mice and men always go awry, and I do not think for one second that I would have preferred to explore Brussels in any other way.
Unknowingly, we made our first stop to Mont des art, where a lovely cultivated garden unfolds in the middle of the complex, and a stunning view of the city at the top of the stairways is postcard perfect. The area is very much kindred towards tourists and you can enjoy the view either sitting at one of the cafes’ balconies or along the wall. Right next door to the viewing point is the one of the most important libraries in Belgium: Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, although not opened to the general public as it is a ‘reference only’ library.
Following the paths down the meandering roads, we found ourselves trying our very first Belgium waffle at Le Funambule, just around the corner from the Grand place. Now I’m no waffle expert, but in my humble experience of waffle eating, it was SO good and cheap(er)! We had passed a couple of places that were selling them, and this little waffle station was by far the cheapest, with the starting price of €1 for just a plain waffle.
Of course the toppings are what build up the bill and so we paid €5 each for a waffle with fresh strawberries, nutella (interchangeable for plain/white chocolate if you have nut allergies) whipped cream and a caramel glaze. If you’re eating these bad boys, you will definitely be making a little mess- don’t expect to finish these off with your hands free from stickness or without feeling very full. The waffles were SO filling- we ended being unable to eat it and it had been a good several hours since breakfast, plus we both have big appetites (no exaggeration). I would therefore recommending sharing a waffle (or at least your first one) to cut the cost and not give your belly too much TLC too soon.
Finally, we emerged into the Grand place, where at once we were surrounded by the decadent gold trimmed buildings. If any of you have been to see Il duomo di Milano, emerging either out of the train station or from around the corner, you will definitely be familiar with this sense of being surrounded by grand, inordinate buildings.
Whilst the town hall building is opulently embellished with an almost a church like apex, the Brussels City museum sharply juxtaposes its on facing building, with slightly more gothic accents closer to the roofing, and simultaneously maintains enough similarity to jest at its rival. It is not only these structures which convey a strong sense of historical roots, but taking a look inside the museum is a must if you are interested in finding out more about the history of brussels and the influence of other cultures.
The ticket prices are very good for the range of collections and amount of artworks on display. Under 18s have free entry; students €4 (remember to bring your student card!) and adults €8 (seniors €6). The museum is very family/ child friendly, with a ‘game-route’ which encourages children to engage with the art work, whilst going around and answering the questions in their notepads. They even allow you to draw the contour of art works on the showcase glass (in designated rooms only).
Our next stop was St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral about a 10 minutes walk from the Grand place. I have to say, this Cathedral was probably one of the only ones I’ve been to in Europe, which is left completely open to the public in a non-commercial way. Yes, there are signs which tell you not to use flash, ask for donations, as well as private, designated parts of the church solely for worship BUT (and big but) it’s completely and absolutely free to go in; no entry fee, no security regulating the entering and exiting process (like in most major churches and cathedrals in Italy). For me, it was this sense of liberty which truly allowed me to appreciate the artwork undisturbed and untainted without the merchandising tags.
After this, we pretty much roamed the streets, paying a visit along the way to the European Quartier and the Royal Gardens (or ‘Brussels Park’). It was quite hot throughout the day (32 degrees celsius at the highest), however all you really needed was a (big) bottle of water to get you through the day and a break every once in a while in the many parks, designed just for that.
Here are a few more photographic moments for day 2:
After an action packed day of exploring yesterday, we had a very lazy start to the morning which eventually led to the unravelling of a more mellow day. We took the No. 60 bus to Parc du Cinquantenaire where the monumental Arc du Cinquantenaire is situated. I had seen pictures of the arc beforehand and have to admit, it did not live up to my expectations. I think the main reasons for this was that it resembled the Arco della pace in Milan quite a lot and so I felt that I was not seeing it in all its glory for the first time. In addition to this, I feel that the park itself does not offer much shade or the same depth of intricacy as some of Brussels’ other parks. Perhaps this is the intended design, so that the arc can be seen at all times.
That said, it is still worth a stop off if you’re in the European quartier, as there is also the museum of art and history located there and the Great Mosque of Brussels- the oldest mosque in Brussels and the hearth of the Islamic and Cultural Centre of Belgium.
After a little promenade around the park, we retreated back to Louise quartier where we did a bit of souvenir shopping (just some good old belgian chocolate) before taking a lunch break at the park just next door to our air bnb: Jardins de l’Abbaye de la Cambre. Our day continued with a walk down Avenue du Général de Gaulle, along two very beautiful and scenic lakes where people were sunbathing, feeding the ducks or fishing them out!
Our road eventually led us to Flagey; a little quartier we have passed every day travelling in and out of the city centre. Our host recommended this quartier as being congenial for an evening drink, with multiple bars and cafes open till late.
I absolutely loved the diversity in the architecture of houses which outlined the path by the lake. The use of small red bricks provided a flare on the traditional ‘victorian houses’, whilst the curvaceous balconies added depth and the classical pillars maintained the conservative look. These beautiful houses made my journey of walking around the city from point A to B more delightful and engaging.
Brussels is a lovely place to visit on a short trip. We managed to visit the main bulk of (free) tourist attractions within the first day alone, and all by public transport or foot, so a car is definitely not needed. It is very tourist-friendly with signposts looming around every corner and practically everyone speaks english (old and young)–even if it’s just a little–so don’t worry if like me, you need to brush up on your French.
I would definitely say 4 days was more than enough, but it is also very feasible to see the city and get a true taste of the culture in 3 days/ over a weekend period. If you are travelling through Belgium or neighbouring countries, absolutely make a pit stop here- it is such a worthwhile experience to see the verging of so many different cultures and the harmony with which they have all thrive together, whilst still maintaining their own distinctions.
My top 3 trip highlights:
St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral
Brussels City museum
Try a Belgian waffle!