18 April 2023

A Week In Belgium - Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges and Brussels

I didn't realise it at the beginning of 2022 that this would end up being a year of travel. I suppose I just took any opportunity to go and Belgium had been on my list for a while. Chips, chocolate and beer heaven - what's not to like? Ok, it wasn't all about the food; the magical market squares, cool fashion and not to mention the amazing art were enough of a draw alone. But the food definitely lured me there. 

My plan for a one week trip: take the Eurostar to Brussels, then head straight to Antwerp for four nights, with day trips to Bruges and Ghent, then finish with a couple of nights in Brussels before taking the Eurostar back to London.

I love the Eurostar because it's so easy, and at just under two hours to from St Pancras to Brussels it makes much more sense than flying (be sure to get Eurostar tickets for £39 single in the sales). At the moment they recommend checking in at least an hour before the train leaves just so you're not stressed (things are getting back to normal but it's still worth being early). Getting the train in Brussels is really easy and the trains are very reliable and makes such a nice change from the situation in England. Be sure to travel on weekends as it's almost half price compared to during the week (valid from 9pm Friday until Sunday). 

Antwerp Station, Yust reception, Belgian beer and the food in Yust

You leave the Eurostar at Brussels Midi Station - I wondered why it's called Midi and it's because trains in the 19th century departing from Brussels arrived in the region of Midi (Southern France) as their final destination. I decided in advance that I would check out Brussels at the end of the trip so I was close to the Eurostar terminal for ease. I realised from looking at a map of Belgium that instead of staying in four different places, I could just do day trips from Antwerp to popular tourist destinations Bruges and Ghent. I was excited about going to Antwerp, known for being a fashion mecca and the coolest city in Belgium.  Even the train station is a highlight, also known as Railway Cathedral. It is mind-blowingly beautiful and has been voted the most spectacular train station in the world. When I arrived I must have been in there for a good fifteen minutes taking photos. Like a lot of European cities it's very easy to get around on the bus and the tram, or make like pretty much everyone in Belgium and hire a bike (bike paths make it super safe). 

I stayed in Yust, which you can't really call a hostel because of its similarity to a boutique hotel. Just fifteen minutes by tram from the station and right next door to the famous De Koninck brewery (very handy). The reception area is very welcoming with gorgeous dried flowers and books - you can also work here as there are plenty of places to plug in your laptop. Just next door is the impressive restaurant, where mini tasting menus are all the rage (there's a great vegetarian and vegan menu). The rooms are some of the best quality I've seen in a hostel, done out in tasteful wood with a stylish shared bathroom, easy to use lockers and high quality furniture. You can book into a mixed dorm/ female dorm or a private room/deluxe room. Feeling flush? Splash out on a suite! Yust also offers flexible living - you can hire a furnished apartment from one month to one year. There's also a rooftop bar to enjoy in the spring and summer months. 

I didn't have too long in Antwerp because of the day trips but tried to do as much as I could. Obviously as the De Koninck brewery was next door I had to go and do a tasting. There's more to do here than just drink - book onto the hour long interactive tour (14 euros) which you can do at your own pace. Sample a Bolleke at the beginning of the tour - Antwerp's iconic beer since 1952 - then another during the tour. The experience also includes a mini tour in a vintage delivery van and an opportunity for you to test your pint pouring skills. If you're with a bigger group you can indulge in a private tasting which includes five beers and food pairings - choose from cheese, meat or chocolate. Otherwise sign up for a Sunday tasting(€30.50) but be aware, these are only in Dutch for some reason. 

I did my usual "let's get lost" approach and walked until my feet hurt. The architecture here is amazing due to the fact that it's an historic port and a merchant city which resulted in the building of stunning guild houses and churches. Buildings worth checking out include the City Hall, built in the 16th century with incredible baroque interiors and Het Steen - a medieval fortress in the Old Town, which is over 800 years old. Visitors will be blown away by the Port House, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects. It looks like a sparkling ship which is weirdly perched on top of an old fire house (a protected monument that couldn't be knocked down). High on my list of things to do was a visit to the MAS, aka the Museum of aan de Stroom, the largest museum in Antwerp but unfortunately it was closed. The iconic ten storey building, which looks a bit like a giant Jenga was built to resemble a typical 19th century stacked warehouse from the area. It's worth a visit just for the amazing 360 rooftop view. If you want to find out more about the city this is the place, it holds half a million objects linked to Antwerp and it's history as a major European port.  

Antwerp City Hall, Hadid's Port House, the MAS building and Het Steen Castle 

I met a fellow traveller in my dorm and we ate just down the road from Yust at Extra Fika, a vegetarian restaurant which serves seasonal and local products in imaginative dishes. There are two options for each courses which makes ordering much easier, and the food was totally delicious. The menu changes regularly so check it out before you go. Obviously you can't visit Belgium without sampling mussels - there are plenty of restaurants serving seafood in the Antwerp but I highly recommend Fish A'Gogo near the Cathedral. Mussels in white wine and garlic are just 12 euros, wash them down with a Tripel d'Anvers beer. 

After a couple of days in Antwerp I decided to do my first day trip to Ghent, a charming University town with its fair share of impressive architecture and plenty of cultural places to visit (it's about an hour by train from Antwerp). Head to Graslei Harbour for that postcard view of the medieval buildings reflected in the Leie river and take a break from sightseeing at riverside patio cafes. If you like a good castle then look no further than the many turreted Gravensteen. Built in 1180, it's also been a prison, court and a cotton mill but has luckily been restored into a museum and takes its rightful place as the major landmark (it's one of the best castles I've visited with an unexpectedly funny audio tour). The MSK Museum is the celebrating is 225th birthday and is one of the best places to see Belgian and Dutch art. With over 15,000 works, you can see masterpieces by Bosch, Ensor and Van Dyck. I didn't do it but a boat cruise is also a nice thing to do if you have a bit more time there. I recommend Cafe Labath for brunch and arty coffees. 

Beautiful Bruges - the Belfry, the Market (market square), Dali sculpture, the best waffle ever 

The next day's trip was to Bruges, forever immortalised in the excellent film with Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell. It made sense to watch In Bruges on the ninety minute train journey there (it never disappoints). I was excited to experience the quaintness and was genuinely charmed by its medieval buildings, cobbled streets and Venice-like canals. I made my way to the 13th century belfry in the centre, where I'd just watched Gleeson meet a squishy end. I lazily didn't climb to the top but I did discover a moving exhibition of Ukranian art/photography in the space underneath. I didn't expect to find a Salvador Dali museum directly underneath either, but I was pleasantly surprised! For just 10 euros, marvel at over 300 works by the surrealist genius across all mediums. I love his art, but it's also good to get the chance to see his sculptures and furniture. If you're looking for coffee table books, I highly recommend the Dali Taschen books which are stunning.

I headed back to Brussels feeling a little tired after exploring three cities in five days, but it was worth it. I was looking forward to checking out the Magritte Museum, the Atomium and eating more waffles, obviously. Here I booked into the La Troupe Grand Place hostel, just 500 metres from the world famous Grand Place, one of the most stunning squares in Europe. Your jaw will hit the floor in this place; the beauty of the Guildhalls and it's 1000 year history as a trading area. The hostel isn't as high end as others I've stayed in but it's location is the key benefit. Here I got a bit addicted to waffles at Chez Albert, purportedly the best place for waffles in Belgium. There was a pretty long queue but it was worth it, the melted Belgian chocolate was some of the best I'd ever tasted. I then realised that they have stalls in the train stations and it became a bit of a problem!  

The magnificent Atomium, views from the top level, the ever present waffle truck

The first thing on my list was to visit the Atomium, the national symbol of Brussels and Belgium visited by over 600,000 visitors per year. Built to commemorate the Brussels World Fair in 1958, the structure represents an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. It was easy to get there by tram from the hostel (about a forty minute journey) - when it first comes into view it's just bizarre, unlike anything I've ever seen and bigger than I expected. It's a good job that they didn't dismantle it as planned in 1958 as it's the most popular tourist attraction in Brussels. The ticket price of 16 euros (8.50 children) gives you entry to the five spheres of the Atomium, permanent and temporary exhibitions and the panorama view. You also get entry into the nearby Design Museum Brussels which is well worth a visit. I bought my ticket at the entrance but you can also buy online. The queue for the panoramic view was big but I decided to do that first, then walk down to look at the exhibitions. At 92m, if the weather is good you can even see Antwerp! Don't miss the chance to take lots of photos up here and in the sphere below (it can get really hot so don't wear so many layers). 

The permanent exhibition on levels one, two and seven retraces 60 years of history since the Expo (with photos, documents and videos) and charts its decline in the 90s and refurbishment in 2006. You can also see a model of the Expo site by Etienne Tollenaere, who visited the structure many times in 1958 when he was 12 years old. For a memorable experience you can book into the panoramic restaurant in the top sphere for a unique dining experience. Don't forget to pop across the road to the Design Museum to see the development of Belgian furniture/homeware design, in particular the plastic design collection. 

Belgian master Magritte, the Mannekin Pis, essential fries and delicacies near the Mannekin

The next place on my list is the Magritte Museum, in central Brussels on Place Royale (10 euros entry fee).  If you're into surrealist art you will know of Rene Magritte's work, and even if not you'll have seen the Son of Man ( an image of a suited man with his face obscured by an apple) or the Treachery of Images (an image of a pipe with the tagline - Ceci N'est Pas Une Pipe). Here you'll find over 200 other works by the artist, including the stunning Empire of Light. You can also see his lesser known photography, drawings, sculptures and short surrealist films. I love his use of familiar objects in unfamiliar places. Magritte influenced other artists like Andy Warhol and the Beatles were inspired to use the Apple logo for their company Apple Corps. It was just a joy to visit this space and be inspired by the sheer creativity of Magritte. 

Before I left I knew I had to get a quite look at one of the most famous landmarks in Brussels, the infamous Mannekin Pis. It seems a bit odd to be a part of a crowd of tourists staring at a fountain sculpture of a naked small boy peeing. The fact that the original sculpture dates from the early 17th century might have something to do with it (you can see it in the Brussels City Museum). Unfortunately the current mannekin is only fifty years old as it kept getting stolen. He was dressed in traditional costume when I saw him but apparently he has 1,000 different outfits (lucky him)! I managed to sneak in another waffle before going to get my bags and heading to the Eurostar terminal, a little bit heavier but thoroughly cultured out. 

To find out more about where to visit in Belgium please visit Belgium.Be, or Visit Belgium

To book museum, trips and experiences I use Get Your Guide - click here for the link

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