Brussels and Bruges, Belgium

TL;DR

  • Stay
    • Aloft Brussels Schuman, Place Jean Rey, Brussels, 1040, Belgium
      • If you’re looking for comfortable and affordable lodging, the Aloft is in a quiet area called the European Quarter and is just over a mile to the city center. The Aloft also has a decent gym and very friendly staff
    • Hotel Jan Brito, Freren Fonteinstraat 1, B-8000 Brugge, Belgium
      • Escape the touristy parts of the city by staying at this Bruges gem, which is just a few minutes’ walk from the Markt (the Market Square) and Burg Square. The old charm of the rooms here is great for couples and families, although we did have one issue with getting hot water for the shower
  • Eat (Brussels)
    • L’Esprit de Sel Brasserie, Place Jourdan 52-54, 1040 Brussels – Belgium
      • A short walk from the Aloft, this casual restaurant features traditional Belgian fare and a nice beer/wine list
    • Nuetnigenough, 25 Rue du Lombard, (corner of Rue du Midi), 1000 Brussels, Belgium
      • This little gem usually has a line outside, but lunchtime is a good time to sidestep the wait. Deceptively large portion sizes of Belgian comfort food and a heck of a beer menu make this place a great find
    • Any waffle spot on Rue de l’Etuve (enter Rue de l’Etuve 51 on your Google map to hone in on the block in question)
      • This one block is right near the Manneken Pis and all of the waffle vendors will sell you a waffle for €1
  • Eat (Bruges)
    • Da Vinci, Geldmuntstraat 34, 8000 Brugge, Belgium
      • A cute ice cream shop – try the stracciatella
    • Shanghai Brugge, Katelijnestraat 70, 8000 Brugge, Belgium
      • Only listing here just so you do NOT go here
    • St. Paulus Bakkerij, Vlamingstraat 25, 8000 Brugge, Belgium
      • Grab a sandwich or a pastry here and you will not regret your decision!
  • See (Brussels)
    • Belgian Brewers Museum, 1000, Grand Place 10, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
      • Don’t expect too much of this place. It’s a bar attached to one room with some large brewing machinery with a video screen detailing the history of beer on Belgium. Your €5 is basically the price of a beer and you get a history lesson for free. That said, go. See below for the story about the surly bartender
    • Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, Rue du Marché aux Herbes 90, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
      • A shopping promenade with as many chocolate shops as you can imagine in a Willy Wonka-like dream
    • Grand Place
      • The stunning center of Brussels is this square adorned with cobblestone, chocolate shops, and a gothic tower protruding from the square. Absolute must-see for any visitor
    • Manneken Pis
      • The famed statue of a boy peeing apparently has over 900 different suits that he wears and draws crowds from across the world
  • See (Bruges)
    • Choco Story, the Chocolate Museum, Wijnzakstraat 2, 8000 Brugge, Belgium
      • Start with a sample, end with a freshly made sample. Dark chocolate, milk chocolate, and everything in between. Combine with Friet Museum for a glutton’s tour of Bruges or add the Diamond Museum if you’re fancy shmancy
    • Friet Museum, Vlamingstraat 33, 8000 Bruges, Belgium
      • This is a museum dedicated to Belgian fries. It’s paradise. Your admission also includes a discount on fries which you can purchase at the end
    • Salvador Dali Museum, Markt 7, 8000 Brugge, Belgium
      • Like Surrealism? You’ve found the right town. Start with Dali and get the combo pass with the Picasso museum (see link below). You can also purchase authentic Dali pieces if you’re so inclined (aka loaded)
    • De Halve Maan Brewery, Walplein 26, 8000 Brugge, Belgium
      • Do the tour – and the XL version if you’re able (three drinks instead of one). Learn about and taste some of the best beer in Europe and see the town from the rooftop for a gorgeous visual experience
    • Picasso Museum, Mariastraat 38, 8000 Brugge, Belgium
      • This charming museum paints (pun intended) a wonderful portrait of the famed Spanish painter. Get here early and take your time browsing the exhibit
    • Käthe Wohlfahrt, Walplein 12, 8000 Brugge, Belgium
      • Lovely German Christmas figurine retailer with a small shop just off the main square

Trip Background

“When a $392 ticket pops up from San Francisco to Amsterdam, you generally need to take it.”

This was my response to people who asked me, “why are you going to Amsterdam?” The reality was that I had thought about going to Amsterdam for a long time, if only to confirm or dispel all of the ridiculous stereotypes that I had held about the Dutch city. And when my friend Anna discovered the round-trip ticket on American Airlines, it seemed like a great opportunity to do see the city for ourselves and we jumped on the deal. We knew there were a lot of options in and around the Netherlands, but in order to make the most of our time, we settled on Belgium and the Netherlands with a day in Brussels, two days in Bruges, and four days in and around Amsterdam.

If you’d like a handy guide that contains more detail and references, consider buying a copy of Rick Steves’ Amsterdam, Bruges and Brussels.

This article focuses on our time in Belgium. For our days in Amsterdam, a forthcoming link will be inserted here as soon as I complete that post!

Day 0 (May 11, 2017): Travel hiccups

Most of the trips I take usually start off without a hitch.

This was not one of those trips.

Our original routing was supposed to take us from San Francisco to Dallas and then direct to Amsterdam on American Airlines’ new DFW-AMS route. But the flight from SFO to DFW was delayed by over two hours because the crew was unable to secure a food cart in the rear galley. It was only resolved when the pilot made a decision to leave the cart behind and fly on. The most irksome thing was that it was not discovered until we had already taxied to the runway. We returned to the gate and as we waited, I frantically called the AA service desk to see if we could re-route but we decided to stick with the first leg because Dallas would give us better options if we stayed on American planes.

As a result, we missed our connecting flight to Amsterdam and had to instead fly through London and then onto Brussels. When we got to DFW, we thankfully ran into a fantastic customer service rep (I’d like to recognize Raymond at DFW who helped us make the arrangements) and our alternative routing got us to the European mainland as we had planned – albeit several hours late (with a connection on British Airways) and stiff from sitting in a middle coach seat (not main cabin extra as we had booked) from Dallas to London.

Day 1 (May 12, 2017): Palaces, Shops, and Beer

We arrived in Brussels around 2:30 in the afternoon and then proceeded to wait for nearly an hour while we went through Belgian customs. We ordered an Uber and the driver arrived within a few minutes. If you have a driver pick you up, have them meet you in the parking structure across from departures to make it easier on you.

We checked into the Aloft Brussels Schuman in the European Quarter and decided to ease into our trip with a nap and a workout. After we had rested, we set out for a traditional Belgian meal and found L’Esprit de Sel on Place Jourdan. Unfortunately our goal of eating the famed Belgian mussels was dashed when we found out they were out of season (take note: mussels season is usually July-April). Thankfully Belgian cuisine provides a pretty robust set of alternatives. Carbonnade à la Flamande with pommes frites is a common Belgian meal consisting of a beef stew made with beer and french fries. It is a heavy dish so don’t expect to power through it unless you’re famished. We also opted for some sauteed vegetables (not a good use of our stomach space), cheese croquettes, and, naturally, some Belgian beer. The waiter recommended and brought me a Westmalle Tripel – it was excellent!

With plenty of light still out at 7:30 PM, Anna and I walked west through the European Quarter and past the European Parliament. Eventually you reach Brussels Park and the Royal Palace of Brussels – these grand buildings make for some great photos at sunset.

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The Royal Palace, Brussels

If you head south on Rue Royale through the Royal Square (Place Royale) and then turn northwest onto Coudenberg, you will pass the Magritte Museum and the Musical Instruments museum until you come to a set of steps.

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This reminded me of the Janss Steps at UCLA, but add a fountain as you descend and end with a grand view. The Garden of the Museum of Arts is stunning and you’ll likely find a lot of students and young couples sitting here together admiring the view – and one another. Off to the right on Mont des Arts, you’ll also see a massive clock and if you’re around when it goes off, you’ll hear an ornate ringing bell sequence.

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The clock

From here, you can go anywhere and see something interesting. You’re a couple blocks from Brussels Central station (where we eventually picked up our train to Bruges), but also a few blocks from the Grand Place – the heart of Brussels. We decided to first head to Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert – a long shopping promenade with a gorgeous roof and more chocolatiers and cute boutiques than you knew could exist on a single street. Be forewarned – if you like chocolate, cookies, nougat, meringue, or art, you will not escape this place empty-handed.

Eventually we worked our way over to the Grand Place and much like the Forbidden City or Big Ben, it is both gasp-inducing and breath-taking. The spire of the Town Hall will grab your attention first and likely hold it as its height dwarfs everything around it. The cobblestones give the square a charm that somehow persists in the face of a few hundred to thousand tourists with selfie sticks.

As the daylight faded, we opted to head over to Nuetnigenough, a small Belgian restaurant recommended by a friend, for a couple beers. The line was huge but when we indicated all we wanted were some beers, they gave us two seats at the tiny counter in the back.

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A tasty stout

The exhaustion of travel and the effects of the strong beers started hitting us, so we opted to walk home for a night of sleep.

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Brussels post sunset

Day 2 (May 13, 2017): Gluttony Embodied

As we arose from our slumber, we knew we had a lot to see — and not a lot of time to see it all. So we packed our bags and then headed back to the downtown area. 

You’ll never run out of interesting artwork or shops to see in the neighborhoods of Brussels, and this construction site and a nearby shop provided evidence of this:

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Each panel at a construction site was dedicated to a different artists

The Belgians also seem to appreciate sassy signs – which I can totally get behind.

We returned to the Grand Place in search of two important things: waffles and Manneken Pis, the famed 400-year old statue of a boy peeing into a fountain.

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The Grand Place in daylight

However when we finally found the statue, it appeared that modesty had taken over.

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The statue, covered up

It turns out the little dude has a wardrobe of over 700 suits, making him quite the stylish little dude. But by the time we found him, we had spent 40 minutes looking for him. The map our hotel gave us was not clear down the street level so we got lost a few times. 😦 Our hanger (as in hunger + anger) started to set in, but thankfully the block next to the statue is an easy place to get waffles.

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Waffles!

All of the signs say €1 for a waffle, but this is for just the waffle. If you plan on having any toppings (nutella, strawberries, and whipped cream were popular choices), count on €1-1.5 per topping. The crusty exterior gives way to the soft gooey interior and anything covered in chocolate and whipped cream really shouldn’t last long. With some sugar coursing through our bodies now, we headed to the Belgian Brewers Museum. Prepare yourself for the reality of what it is – a video room attached to a beer bar with two or three options on tap. You basically get a story with your €5 beer, but I still recommend doing it, mostly because of the sassy manager behind the bar.

A woman arrived just before us and asked the manager, “How long does the tour take?” Anna and I looked at one another with bemusement, since touring any museum takes you as long as you want to spend there. She also did not realize the museum was two rooms.

The manager, in pure deadpan, replied, “About four hours.”

She looked totally perturbed and said, “Dear lord! I don’t have time for that!” and walked out in a huff. When she had cleared the room, the manager looked at us and said, “If you ask a stupid question, you’re gonna get a stupid answer.”

We smiled. I high-fived the guy, paid our entrance fee, and we walked into the video room.

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“Proud of our beers” is the motto of Belgian brewers and the museum

The tour comes with a handy beer guide which is well worth the entrance fee, so you can basically consider it a freebie since your beer should cost €5 in a bar anyway.

We went back to Nuetnigenough for lunch since we couldn’t handle dinner there the previous night, and we made a terrible mistake of ordering too much food. Do NOT underestimate how full Belgian food can make you, especially meat and potatoes. We should have known better too, since this place’s motto is “THE BRUSSELS BRASSERIE FOR GREEDY GLUTTONS AND FINE BEER LOVERS.” 👍👍👍👍👍

I started with their draft beer, a Saison Dupont, and then we ordered cheese croquettes, a tasty potato dish, a salad, their lamb meatballs, and a rabbit dish to share:

Wasting food is annoying, but feeling absolutely bloated with food and being unable to finish it really stinks. Especially since it came with a food coma the likes of which neither of us had seen in a long time.

Post-lunch blues

We waddled our way back to the square to buy some chocolates, fearing this might be our last chance to purchase from certain vendors. Be aware: companies like Neuhaus, La Belgique Gourmand, or Leonidas can be found in more than just Brussels. But that being said, if you see something you like, get it! We purchased some gifts for friends and colleagues, returned to our hotel to pack our bags, and headed to Brussels Central station to take the train to Bruges.

Central Station was super easy to navigate because near the ticket desk there was a man in an official uniform asking if we needed help. We asked what train to take to Bruges (since the train lines shown on the board don’t always show destinations or the most efficient route) and he pointed out which train we needed to take. An hour and a half later, we were in a Bruges taxi riding to the Hotel Jan Brito.

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Bruges

Because our train had arrived around 6 PM, most of the stores had already closed by the time we started to explore the town. But the time of year (mid-May) meant we had daylight until almost 9:30 PM.

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This basically describes how I felt in Bruges

As you wander the streets, you’ll find an impressive variety of shops selling cute kids’ products, apparel, souvenirs, and other curious, alongside an equally impressive variety of cuisines.

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That certainly is a unique way to market a kids’ clothing shop

As we passed through the Markt (the town square), we opted for more fries but this time with the curry ketchup and mayonnaise (andalouse) sauces.

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Belgian fries from the vendor near the Belfort

I think it was around here that our obsessions with Belgian-style twice fried potatoes led to our only true stomachache of the trip, which is probably why after walking a bit more, we settled on an Italian restaurant on the Markt for dinner.

With our stomachs drawing our blood flow away from our brains, we walked back to the hotel in a futile attempt to work off the glut of calories we just annihilated and then passed out happily with dreams of fries (or nightmares, depending on how you look at it) dancing in our heads.

Day 3 (May 14, 2017): Sugar, Artwork, and THE Brewery Tour

The sky was cloudy on Day 3…which somehow meant we needed waffles again. This time, with strawberries.

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Waffles a la Belgium (that’s not actually a thing…I just call it that since it has the flag)

We decided to begin our day by going to Choco Story, a museum dedicated to the history of chocolate. Because we stayed at the Jan Brito, we received a discount card promising 10% off some of the more popular attractions, and that included the Chocolate museum. There’s also some combination tickets so we decided to get the combination with the Friet Museum (the Belgian fry museum). Make sure you ask the reception desk about this if you stay in one of Bruges’ quaint hotels.

Your guide in Choco Story is Choclala, a cute character that bears an unfortunate resemblance to poo and follows you around the exhibits explaining key concepts in Dutch, French and English.

In addition to the informative history of chocolate and how Belgium became such a prominent player in the world chocolate market, you’ll also find Lego-like dioramas visualizing key events and a looped video series featuring a slightly creepy, portly chocolate master from the Belcolade company quietly highlighting the operations of a chocolate factory.

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Dioramas

The museum ends with a live demonstration and creation of chocolates which you then get to eat – score!

Afterward, we walked to the Friet Museum, a mere three blocks from the Chocolate Museum, which does for fries what the Choco Story did for chocolate. The exhibits range from the scientific (explanations of the evolution of various potato strains) to the humorous (video of the first Belgian fries to go to space) to the informative (what oil to fry in, and how it makes a difference).

Okay so by this point we knew we’d had too many fries. And I love fries. So we decided to skip lunch and head down to the Salvador Dali Museum, which is located next to the Belfort (the big tower in the Markt). You might be asking how this museum differs from the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, FL. To be clear, this collection here in Bruges is much smaller, but still a great place to visit if you’re a fan of the Spanish surrealist. Also don’t forget to show your discount card if you got one from your hotel as it applies here!

My favorite moment here had to be at the end of the exhibit, where they sell a number of Dali’s works. I was flipping through their catalog and came across this:

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Sketch of San Francisco by Dali

At first glance, I thought this was my hometown of San Francisco and, coincidentally, I was right! Apparently Dali did a series of pieces based on San Francisco and although my interest was piqued, I could not afford the roughly €3000 it would have cost me to bring this home. 😞

With my disappointment at not being a baller multimillionaire, Anna and I walked down to the only brewery in Bruges, the De Halve Maan Brewery, to drown my sorrows. I cannot overstate how fantastic this experience was and I recommend you take the tour to not only learn about their operation but also to see the view from the roof and from their private tasting room. We opted for the XL tour (which comes with three beer samples instead of one) simply because we like beer and it happened to be the next available tour (2:15 PM).

 

As you learn about De Halve Maan, you are informed that the company actually has a pipeline that runs three kilmeters under the city to deliver the beer brewed in the facility to a bottling plant they own in another part of the town.

!!

Yes, the pipeline was actually crowdfunded with local citizens who received beer for the rest of their lives in exchange for funding the effort. When I suggested that citizens be able to put a tap into their living rooms, the very informative tour guide told me that the pipeline beer is not the final product and I slowly sat back down, dejected and sad.

Following our delightful afternoon at De Halve Maan, we returned to our hotel to set down the eighteen (yes, eighteen) bottles of beer we purchased before heading back out for dinner.

At this point, we needed a change of pace in dining. Our first attempt to diversify our culinary palate ended in a super rude staff member at Chang Thong Thai, who told us the restaurant was closed due to a private event but did so in a really irritated manner. I won’t even link to them since we had such an unpleasant experience, but I am proud to say it was our first (and only) negative experience on this trip. We set out in search of alternatives and found Da Vinci, a cute ice cream shop, for a quick snack, and then went to Shanghai Brugge, a rather lousy Chinese food restaurant. Now as a Chinese American, I never expect amazing service in a Chinese restaurant, but wow – this place was crap! The food was not terrible, but the best thing I could say is that it sufficed in providing warm nourishment. What drove us nuts was the fact that there were only three tables occupied (a British couple, a Belgian couple, and us) and it took 25 minutes before she even noticed we were asking for the check. I hesitated to link to this place on here, but my advice is to steer clear.

 

Day 4 (May 15, 2017): More Amazing Museums and a Comfortable Train Ride (sort of)

Day 4 began with visiting the Picasso Museum, which was also featuring an exhibit on the Spanish surrealist painter Joan Miró. Walking down the canal in the morning when the streets are empty is a fantastic way to begin a day in Bruges.

Because we arrived at the Picasso Museum right as it was opening, we were the first in the door and had unrestricted access to the galleries before the throngs of tourists arrived. The museum contains sketches, some ceramic pieces, and even some naughty visuals – and you’ll begin to see Picasso’s style in all of the items on display. Art can be deeply subjective but I found Miro’s imagery to be both captivating and whimsical (but then again I like the surrealists).

We decided to skip the formal restaurant experience for lunch and instead bought focaccia sandwiches at St. Paulus Bakkerij. We instead took our freshly pressed sandwiches and sat on benches in front of the Historium on the square while we slowly eat. The Historium is a super touristy experience but on the second level is the Duvelorium, a gorgeous bar that is free to access and provides a tremendous place to view the square from elevation with a beer (the beer sadly is not free).

Sitting out on the terrace allows you to people watch, enjoy a beer, and take a break from the scene down below. I highly recommend you take an hour to enjoy the sights and the tasty beers available on tap!

 

We bought some cute Christmas souvenirs from Käthe Wohlfahrt, a famous German Christmas retailer, and returned to our hotel to finish packing. The ride to the Bruges train station is an easy 10 minutes. When we arrived, we asked about the express train to Amsterdam and there was an earlier train – so we sprinted and luckily made it about two minutes before the train departed.

We had to connect in Antwerp with an hour to kill, which actually provided a lovely opportunity to see the gorgeous Antwerp Central train station. Walk up the escalators or stairs and when you reach the top of the platform, this is what you’ll be treated with:

If you’re taking a Thalys train (like we were from Antwerp to Amsterdam), wifi access was available onboard which made our journey that much easier. This train was much more comfortable than the other trains we rode in Belgium. Plush red seats, expandable tables for working, reading, or dining, and luggage racks both above the seats and at the ends of cars made it super easy to travel – and the fact that we settled into a separate compartment (two tables, 8 chairs) made it feel like we had a semi-private car.

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Anna, guarding our beer while riding in style/comfort

But this journey, as with every other flight or train ride on this trip, was not without some drama. As we pulled into Amsterdam, the train announcer revealed we’d have to get out at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport because of a block on the train tracks – which meant we wouldn’t be able to get to Amsterdam Centraal (Central Station) as expected.

Want to know what happened next? Click here for our four days in Amsterdam!

 

Final Thoughts

I’m reserving thoughts on Amsterdam for my other post, but my three days in Belgium were nothing short of lovely. I wish we had another day or two in Brussels. While some dismiss the Belgian capital as not worthy of your time, I found the city to be welcoming and full of unique sights.

Bruges was a beautiful experience and provides the kind of homey charm you’d expect in a rural community, but amidst a town full of visitors. It is captivating IN SPITE of the number of tourists and despite seeing visitors everywhere, the town never feels overrun or touristy like some other destinations (see the Las Vegas strip or New York’s Times Square).

The memories of Belgium are seared into our gastronomic fabric: Belgian fries, twice fried and served with andalouse sauce. Chocolate, in bar or square or truffle form. Beer, be it blond or brown, doubel or tripel (or quadrupel if you’re fortunate). And warmth from virtually every person, business, or worker there.

This, all without having spent any real time in Ghent, Antwerp, or even Brussels for that matter. I can promise you that Belgium will be on my return visit list – if only to appease my Wisconsinite wife whose love for fries, beers, and chocolate rivals my own.

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One response to “Brussels and Bruges, Belgium

  1. Pingback: Amsterdam, Netherlands | Go See The World·

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