My 24-day journey begins in Belgium. If you did not read my summary post, my cousin (who lives on the opposite side of the globe from me) and I decided to travel around Europe together a few months prior. Once we shortlisted the destinations we wanted to hit, we decided on flying to Belgium.
We had 3 full days in Belgium, and were based in Brussels for that duration of time. Our plan was to use the first (the day we landed) to explore Brussels, and then make day trips out to Bruges and Antwerp during the following days. On the days we planned for day trips, we left as early as we could to maximize our time. We aimed to get back around dinner time to hit in last-minute spots in Brussels that we couldn’t cover on day one.
Our first day proved to be a packed one! We covered a lot more than we thought we would, and even made time for a short nap to battle off some jet lag. After hopping on the airport train to Brussels, we got off at Gare du Nord (Bruxelles-Nord/Brussels-Noord) We first checked into our hotel, and luckily our room was available for us to leave our suitcases in. After a bit of stretching, we headed back out to explore the area.
Ste-Catherine & Grand Place:
Brussels is quite a small city, and many of the main tourist destinations are within walking distance. If you aren’t afraid of walking for even up to 30 minutes, you can make it out to the European Quarter of the city which is probably the only thing (aside from the Atomium) which is outside of the main city center. Luckily for us, we were just a few minutes from the Sainte Catherine area.
Just a hop, skip, and jump away is the Grand Place (or Grote Markt) – the central square and hub of Brussels. It is here where you will find the iconic guildhalls, town hall, and Maison du Roi/Broodhuis. The square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of important historical and commercial significance to the city of Brussels. Grand Place was originally used as a meat, bread, and cloth market (which explains it’s Dutch name “great market”) with guildhalls/buildings owned by dukes and used by merchants/tradesmen. (Learn more here.) The square is stunning and resplendent in intricate architecture and gilded designs.
Galeries Royales St-Hubert & Belgian Chocolate
Not too far from Grand Place are the Royal Galleries of Saint Hubert (Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert). The Galerie du Roi (Konings Galerij) and Galerie de la Reine (Koninginne Galerij) both cover a stretch of road lined with cafes and boutiques. Much like the galeries of Paris, the Royal Galleries draw tourists and locals alike. With a glass covered path, this is a great place to escape to and window shop.
There are several fantastic chocolate shops here as well. Two of the top Belgian artisan chocolate shops that we tried out were Pierre Marcolini and Mary. Both places are expensive (as expected from any artisan chocolatier), but the quality is far superior to anything else you might try elsewhere. The premiums placed on the chocolates are worth it in my opinion. There are a vast selection of flavors to choose from in both stores – I highly recommend loosening the grips on your wallets here, you won’t regret it. And the chocolates make for great souvenirs to enjoy back home.
Cathédrale des Sts-Michel et Gudule
Next stop for us was the Cathedral of Saint Michael and Gudula. The cathedral was initially a chapel dedicated to Saint Michael around the 9th century. It was only later when artifacts related to Saint Gudula were brought to the chapel that the name changed to reflect the two saints. (Learn more here). My cousin and I spent time inside admiring the architecture and artwork – for free. (You can gain access to the archeological site, crypt, and/or treasury for a small fee. A combined ticket costs €6. You can also climb the towers, but an advance booking is required!)
Quartier Européen/Quartier Léopold
After all the exploring on foot, we decided to take the metro to the European Quarter of Brussels. The Quartier Européen is actually not an official name for this eastern part of Brussels. The nickname came to be due to the number of EU buildings (i.e. the EU Parliament) that happen to be in the area along with many business headquarters. The area is officially known as the Leopold Quarter (Quartier Léopold). There are several stations where you can get off at – we ended up getting off at the Schuman station (lines 1 and 5). Schuman is situated in between both Parc du Cinquantenaire and the European Union Parliament, though slightly closer to the park.
It just so happened that we were in Brussels the same time Donald Trump was supposed to be there (much to our discontent). Because of that, there was a lot of prep work going on in anticipation of security and road closures that would be needed in the area. To avoid getting lost and confused with the signs, we decided to head to Jubelpark first (aka Parc du Cinquantenaire – or in English, “the 50th Anniversary Park”).
Parc du Cinquantenaire is recognizable for the arch that sits close to the pointed end of the pentagonal shaped green space. (Learn more here). You can climb to the top of the arch for views of the city as well here. Once again, we decided not to and spent time instead admiring the greenery and sunshine that finally started to make way.
After soaking up some sun, we continued our way back towards the direction of the EU Parliament. In this part of Brussels, you definitely get more of that urban vibe. There is a hustle and bustle to this side of town, which makes for a nice contrast from the flocks of tourists in the historic center. Once you reach the Place du Luxembourg (where the majority of EU activities are held in Brussels – i.e. the EU Parliament), you can feel the official-ness of the area. The buildings are all built with a cohesive architectural design, and you’ll see a lot of people in suits and badges along with tourists, of course.
A great place to start off your EU visit is at the Parlementarium, and this is exactly where we went first (if you want, stop by Station Europe – it also acts as the city’s visitor’s center). The exhibition is free and gives you an insight and overview of the history of the EU’s creation, development, and current work. There are a ton of interactive elements, which make this place kid-friendly as well for those traveling with younger children who may have no understanding of what the EU is. I personally enjoyed walking through the exhibition as it served as a good refresher for me.
Because it was the late afternoon once we got to the Parc du Luxembourg, we weren’t able to see if we could catch a plenary session in the Hemicycle. However, for those that are keen on sitting in on some EU action, you’ll need to book in advance and will have to check for times when there is a session taking place. Otherwise, you are free to roam the Hemicycle’s interactive galleries for free during opening hours. (Learn more here).
Ending the day with Mannekin Pis & Dinner
After visiting the European Quarter, the jet lag had started to kick in really hard. My cousin and I decided we would take a break and relax a little bit in our hotel before heading back out for dinner. Though we tried our best not to fall asleep, we ended up doing just that for about an hour. I definitely felt a lot better after that quick snooze, and lucky for us there was still a lot of daylight for us to use.
The last major thing we wanted to check off our list was the Peeing Boy statue, or Mannekin Pis. I was super pumped to see it, and was something my friends and family had highly recommended despite it being a lot smaller than expected. I didn’t mind though, it gave me and my cousin a good chuckle. Be wary of big crowds and pick pocketing of tourists here, it is after all a tourist spot!
With skies starting to darken, we found our way back to Grand Place and decided to eat at one of the restaurants (La Brouette Taverne) facing the square. We had Belgium’s famous mussels and frites along with a tasty goat cheese salad. And like that, our first day of adventures drew to a close.
Other Stops Around Brussels
Here are some other highlights in Brussels that we checked out/stumbled across after our day trips that are worthy of mention. (Honorable mentions go to the Atomium and Mini-Europe, both a short train ride from the heart of Brussels. Unfortunately, due to our time constraints, we were not able to spend time here! But hey, that’s just another reason to come back to Brussels!)
Jeanneke Pis & Zinneke Pis
The sister statue to Mannekin Pis is the Peeing Girl, or Jeanneke Pis. On the street parallel to the Galeries Royales St-Hubert, if you are into lighthearted and amusing statues of peeing people, this is another one you can’t miss. Same goes for Zinneke Pis, or the Peeing Dog. All three peeing statues are in the surrounding area near Grand Place. (Learn more about the statues here and here).
Right next to Jeanneke Pis is Delirium Cafe, a super hip bar and restaurant. Those who love beer – rejoice, because there is a large selection at Delirium (they even won a Guinness World Record for having the most varieties of beers served). Because my cousin isn’t a drinker, we only lingered long enough to see what it looked like before moving on to Jeanneke Pis.
Keeping up with the humor of the peeing statues, every few blocks or so you’ll find some whimsical murals on the walls of buildings. Keep your eyes peeled as there are many! Here is one of my favorites:
Any comic book fan is probably aware of The Adventures of Tintin. I grew up reading some of the old comics my dad had, so of course when I got to Belgium I was excited to see Hergé’s beloved characters pop up around each street corner. If time permits, you should definitely delve into more of the Tintin destinations around town from the various museums dedicated to comic strips to Georges Remi’s home. (More on Tintin here).