At first glance Belgium doesn’t seem to offer much to the traveler that ventures there. After touring cities like Paris, Seville, and Madrid, Brussels architecture seemed rather bland and haphazard. To be honest, it was difficult for me to find photographs that I wanted to share with you on this post! One soon finds out that architecture and epic landscapes is not what one goes to Belgium for. Its to to be gluttonous in the sinfully good treats that this little country has become a master at creating.
Of course I am talking about Belgium’s two world known specialties, chocolate and beer. Perhaps the world’s two greatest gifts ever created for consumption, Belgium has become a skillful master in creating the two. While we didn’t care for what we saw to much, our stomachs and taste buds would tell a different story. In this post, we will talk about the two main areas we traveled to in Belgium and also suggest some places for those who wish to stay in the country longer.
Brussels: A good introduction to Belgium, but not where you want to stay
It’s no secret to Belgium that it is good at making chocolate and beer and it is certainly not shy about it either. In the center of Brussels, every street is filled with the tantalizing smell of chocolate shops and windows lined with beers made throughout the country. Almost all travelers will start their trip in the nation’s centrally located capital, as it is the main transportation hub for Belgium. While it makes for an easy introduction to the country, as one can sample many of the beers and chocolates that can be found in Belgium, the city lacks character that can be found elsewhere in the country. Our recommendation? Take a day to explore the city and then get out to some of the more rewarding places to be found.
A Day in Brussels
While Brussels can easily be skipped on a trip to Europe, if you are passing through the city it is still worth a day to have a look around. The main sights in town can all be easily visited in a morning. Be sure to check out the central square along with one of the most famous fountains in Europe. The Manneken Pis fountain had just as many tourists pushing for a photo as the Mona Lisa did and both are as equally small. Seeing everyone fight for a picture of the now dressed up statue makes for an amusing excursion.
While walking around, be sure to check out the street art found on the walls of many buildings. Appreciated rather than looked down upon, graffiti is another form of art found throughout the Belgian capital.
Looking for beer? Save the Trappist beers for the abbey’s themselves and grab a couple of glasses at Brussels Beer Project. These guys have taken the traditions of Belgium brewing and turned it upside down. Rather than sticking to the beers of centuries past, Beer Project churns out creative beers for the twenty first century. Craft beer lovers will never want to leave this place. The staff is friendly, the beer is great, and you can have your drink as you watch the brewers making brews right in front of you. Be sure to try Night Drift, a double chocolate and salted imperial stout that allows you to have the best of Belgium all in one glass!
For a step into the past and a look into how all beer was made before the late 1800s, check out the lambic brewery and museum called Cantillon. Here brewers only use what nature gives them, mixing naturally fermented beers that have aged anywhere between one to three years. The result is a sour tasting beer with added notes of the different fruits that are found in different blends. If you want to see the brewery in action, plan to visit in the winter time as this is the only time of year they can make the beer. The brewing process requires cold weather in order to keep the amount of bacteria to a minimum.
As for where to stay, if you are a couple, your cheapest option will be airbnb. Staying just outside city center, we were able to find a private room for only 30 Euros and the place was well connected to city transport.
Bruges: As pretty as Belgium gets
An hour and a half train ride away from Belgium lies Belgium’s architectural gift to the world, Bruges. Parts of this historical city looks almost fairy tale, with its many canals and cute gingerbread looking houses. The only problem with the town is that everyone knows how pretty the place is. Hoards of tourists fill the streets of the town every weekend throughout most of the year. To be able to enjoy the city, try planning your trip here during the week and not in the summer months. While in town, be sure to stop by The Chocolate Line for some chocolate flavors you have never even dreamed of. For more information, keep an eye out for my post on Belgian Chocolate coming out in a few days.
We stayed at St. Christopher’s Inn Bruges. The hostel has many chains throughout Europe but this was our first time staying with them. While the atmosphere is great for young travelers with a lively bar and plenty of activities, there were two major problems we had with the hostel that made our stay less than enjoyable. Firstly, there was no kitchen to be found, an annoyance for long term travelers. Secondly the wifi was impossible to use. The server was overloaded 24/7 and would tease all that could pick up the signal. Sadly the hostel gets five stars in every other category, but it failed in two areas very important to us.
More Time in Belgium? Where to Go
Even closer to Brussels but unfairly less known is the city of Ghent. Like Bruges, the ancient city has preserved itself well and is also a lovely canal town. The best part? Tourists mostly avoid it! While the old town is not as widespread as Bruges, a day or two in the city is worth while.
History buffs will not want to miss the area around Ypres which is easily accessible by train. The town is a starting point for exploration of WWI battlefields and was the sight of much destruction itself. Practically leveled during the war, what you see of Ypres today has been reconstructed after the ‘War to End all Wars’. Outside of the city lie many memorials, graveyards, and museums that show what happened here almost 100 years ago. While here, you can even get down into some excavated WWI trenches. The only problem is that most of the sights are impossible to reach without your own transportation. However, there are a few museums and sights that are within walking distances of some buses that leave from Ypres. Do your research before you go in order to have an enjoyable trip.
While Belgium isn’t the most eye catching country in Europe there is enough to see, plenty of history, and sinfully good treats that make a visit to Belgium all worth while. Brussels, Ghent, and Bruges can be all easily done within 6 nights (with either Brugges of Ghent being optional). And don’t worry, all the beer and chocolate you will have along your journey here is more than enough reason to come!
Eric, Where is All this Beer and Chocolate You Talked About?
Chocolate and Beer in Belgium is so good that they will need their own posts. Be on the lookout for our guide to visiting the legendary Trappist Breweries of Belgium and an introduction into some of our favorite Chocolate shops we came across while in Belgium. (You can now find links to my beer post here and my chocolate post here!)