Hi all! Here comes the recap of my trip to Belgium with ISIC Portugal, Hostelworld and Brussels Airlines. As you might know, I was one of the winners of the “Shipping you off to Belgium” contest ran by these three partners and I had a blast! I spent only two full days in Belgium and I really want to come back since I feel this small beautiful country has so much to offer. If you follow me on Instagram, you have caught some pictures in the last few days of my adventures and much more to come still!
Flying in and night in Brussels
I flew from Lisbon to Brussels Zaventem with Brussels Airlines and we had Economy tickets. This means we could take a carry-on bag with typical dimensions and a checked bag of under 23 Kgs. There was absolutely no need for a carry-on bag for such a short period. The flight went by very smoothly and in 2h35min we landed in Brussels. Just don’t forget to fill in your water container after you pass security and to bring food since food and drinks are paid aboard the plane! Brussels Zaventem is a quite functional airport and it was very easy to find the bus station from where we would head off to Brussels. Still we passed through some animation references.
Our hostel, Sleep Well Youth Hostel, was located close to the Rogier metro station, so the most cost effective option was catching the De Lijn bus no. 272 stopping at this station. The ticket cost 3€ and this is a suburban bus, not an express one, so it has plenty of stops and the ride takes about 50 minutes from the airport. After that, it was time to check in at the hostel and I can safely say this is one of the best hostels I stayed at! The room was cozy with a private bathroom, heating and a TV, the breakfast area is large with plenty of options, and there is a common room with a pool table, table footbal and lots of books and guides about Belgium. Wifi worked well most of the time too with a few problems here and there. And the decoration and walls, cheeky as Brussels street art is!
After checking in, there was no time to rest since we wanted to hit the Brussels Christmas Market. While at it, we met with my fellow Web Summit volunteers, Lesly and Sebastian, who gave us great local tips on how to best enjoy the city. It was great catching up with them! The market is spread out through some of the most important squares of the city, like Place de la Monnaie, Place de la Bourse and Place de Saint Catherine and the surrounding streets. The main square of Brussels, Grand Place, does not have stands, only a Christmas tree and a large scale Nativity Scene. I was a bit disappointed for not seeing stands and animation at the Grand Place since I saw in pictures from previous years that there used to be. Anyway, we saw the ice skating rink at La Monnaie, the ferris wheel, carousel and ice monster at Saint Catherine and the videomapping display at the church of Saint Catherine too. The stands had very different regional products and we even saw a stand with pastéis de Nata, Portugal’s everywhere (Belgium has a quite large Portuguese immigration community). We had awesome threats: waffles at Le Funambule, frites at Friterie Tabora and mulled wine to warm up at the market.
The Market closes quite early, at 10 PM (for Portuguese standards of course!). Since we were at typical Belgian things, we had beer at the most famous bar in Brussels, Delerium. This bar holds the Guiness Record for the highest number of different beers sold in one evening. This is clearly now a spot directed at tourists and very crowded, but I love the decoration and the beers are great! Be prepared to wait at least 10 minutes on the queue. I had the Delerium Tremens beer, a slightly bitter blonde beer which is quite good!
A morning in Bruges
We had a few hours of sleep and got up really early to catch the awesome breakfast of the hostel. The plan for this day was to visit both Bruges and Ghent, with the canals, Flemish architecture and the tall belfry (Belfort) towers. We caught the train from Brussels to Bruges (no discount for students! Only <26 y.o.) at around 8AM and it takes 1h to arrive to Bruges. For those who have watched the movie “In Bruges”, you’ll remember this is a f****** fairytale town with swans. It is indeed! This city is so so lovely that you’ll want to photograph everything. When you have houses and views like this everywhere, how can your camera battery last too long?
The main square of Bruges, Markt, has a small Christmas market with a ice skating rink. Since we went there in the morning, most stands were closed. I had not imagine this market this small, but still it’s a cozy one with also some other stands at Simon Stevinplein square.
We wanted to go up the Belfort but there is no student discount and the regular price is 10€ just to go up the tower and a few more informations. That’s too expensive in my book so we passed it. We continued wandering around and found a nice surprising antiquary turned into bar, Brocante Café. Everything is so kitsch and lovely! The owner is really nice and we ordered a Brugse Zot, the local beer. After this quick refreshment, we headed over to the east canal of the city, where some typical windmills are. This was one of the highlights of the stay, preparing me for a future trip to the Netherlands!
I knew I didn’t want to leave Bruges without trying hot chocolate. Some reviews and friends told me to go to the Old Chocolate House and we did! You get to prepare your own hot chocolate, with the chocolate chips in a small chocolate cup and a mug with hot milk. You blend them and voilá, here’s your hot chocolate! I had the dark chocolate and while it was very good, I could not get that mousse-like texture I love in hot chocolate. Anyway it was an interesting experience. Right next to us there was another Portuguese couple with whom we chatted for a few minutes. If you ever come to read this blogpost, it was nice to meet you and I wish you the best of luck for your newly formed startup, hope we can hear a lot about it in the future 🙂
Sunset in Ghent
We arrived in Ghent after a 30 minute train ride from Bruges at around 3:30PM. It was not too long before sunset, which came at around 5PM. The worst thing about Ghent is that the train station is super far away from the center, about 2.5Kms away! Anyway, despite the time “lost” walking, I was amazed by the variety of cafeterias and cute shops in the way to the city center. We even found a Portuguese cafeteria, Beluso, and chatted a bit with the owner. I was almost off battery by then so I couldn’t photograph as many cute places as I wished to!
After arriving to the city center, this city amazed me as well! Before checking out the monuments and the Christmas Market, what to say of these lovely canals and Flemish architecture here too? Rivaling Bruges in beauty, no?
The first stop had to be the Gravensteen, the castle of the city. This is so different from any other castle I saw! Built in the 12th century, it was used as a torture place for opponents of the Count of Flanders. We couldn’t enter since it was already closed. The general admission price is 10€ and the entrance is free for under 19 y.o. and at a reduced price for under 26 y.o. and also for teachers. So here the ISIC might not be very useful, but the related ITIC as a teacher valid card would be invaluable!
Rumor has it that Ghent has the best frites in Belgium. We had to confirm or deny this theory! The place we chose to have our daily serving of frites was Frituur de Kraanlei. The decoration is very interesting, in an American diner style. Regarding the fries, the crispiness was spot on, but it lacked a bit in flavor…I was expecting more! I am a weirdo since I am not really fond of mayonnaise and I ate the frites without sauce, so the flavor of the frites themselves is key.
After this huge dose of carbohydrates and fat, time to stroll again on sunset and evening. We checked out the other main sights in Ghent: the Belfort, the Cathedral and Saint Nicholas Church. It was a pity that, being 5-6PM, the market stands were still closed, but I’m sure this market is also very nice. Like in the Brussels market, there is a ferris wheel and an ice skating rink.
In our quest to try local beers, we stopped at a random bar, again with an antique decoration, to try the Pils 13 beer from Ghent. This is the most bitter I tried the whole trip. We also had the Jupiler beer, which is quite similar to the Brugse Zot, despite being original from close to Liège. The bar was Het Zwarte Gat and we watched a bit of the Ghent’s football club match in Europe League, which they won.
Walk, walk, walk in Brussels
As you might guess, we did not go out the previous night. A bit of pity about that, but we were totally destroyed after such a day in Bruges and Ghent and we needed energy for the long day ahead in Brussels. The day started by going to one of the quintessential attractions of Brussels, the Atomium. Located in the Northwest of the city, close of Heysel metro station, this impressive structure that represents an iron crystal was built for the 1958 Worldwide Exhibition and you can go inside the spheres and have views over the city. The admission price is 10€ but students get a reduced price of 8€, so it’s a good idea to use your ISIC here! We did not go in since we had a long day and had planned to go to a museum later on. We were also curious about the nearby Mini Europe theme park. We were later told that it takes a long time to see it, but a combined ticket with Atomium is a good use of your ISIC card, since the price is reduced by 3€ from the regular combined ticket.
We were told that the Laeken Park, right next to the Atomium, was very beautiful and this is where the Chinese Pavillion and Japanese Tower are at. We took a walk and this was one of the highlights! Such a peaceful park, we even got to photograph lots of dogs playing around (thanks a lot to the owners of the lovely Border Collies with whom we chatted with if you ever come across this post!). We saw as well the neo-gothic monument to Leopold I, the first king of Belgium. The Chinese Pavillion and Japanese Tower are closed for renovations now but they are nonetheless amazing and detailed buildings!
We then caught the metro to head towards the European Quarter. We first walked around the nice Parc du Cinquantenaire, commissioned by King Leopold II to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Belgium in 1880. The arch is impressive and we also took a sneak peek at Autoworld, a huge collection of cars from different eras. This is also a place where your ISIC card will come in handy, since you have 3€ off the regular price, paying 7€ instead of 10€ to visit it.
On the other end of the park we found ourselves in front of the European Commission buildings. We saw as well the new Europa building that would be opened the next day. Anyway, the largest building, the Berlaymont, is impressive! After being in the capital of Europe, it was time for the daily dose of frites and we went to Maison Antoine, a stand in Place Jourdan which had been recommended by my local friends. The frites are the best here, I can confirm! After the frites, we walked to the nearby Parc Leopold, right next to the huge buildings of the European Parliament.
I will skip the Royal Palace and Parliament, located in the Royal Park which unfortunately needs to be better taken care of. We also passed by the Cathedral but now it’s time to talk about the oldest shopping mall in continental Europe, Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, and the amazing Mokafé waffles. Everything about that waffle was perfection!
Our day is approaching its end and what better way to end than hanging around Grand Place? This is truly a lovely square with the Hotel de Ville and Maison du Roi ornated buildings. Right in the corner of Grand Place you can find the Hard Rock Café. Under a protocol with ISIC, in every Hard Rock Café all over the world, you get 20% off your bill (except alcoholic drinks). Could be a nice catch!
One of my main interests when coming to Brussels was to check out street art inspired by comic strips. We went to the tourism office and for 1€ we bought the street art map and made a small tour around Grand Place. Murals with several characters were spotted, including Tintin! The tour also allowed us to pass again through the cheeky Manneken Pis, one of the symbols of the city. We had planned to end our tour at the Comic Strip Center and visit it, but the discounts are not for students as initially thought, only for under 26 y.o. You can tell I’m older, being a 27-y.o. PhD student is sometimes not the best for traveling. Time was running out so we prefered to pass the museum this time, but I’ll definitely finish the comic strip walking tour and visit the museum next time I come! Another option with comic strip characters and a student discount would be the Museum of Original Figurines, a private collection where students have a 3€ discount. We would have gotten in if the museum was not closing in like 10 minutes after we arrived.
A bit of Portugal in Nivelles and Waterloo
Since the contest offered two free nights at the hostel and we prolonged the stay one more day, we went to visit a friend in Nivelles and stayed there the last night. Nivelles is 25 Kms south of Brussels and Ivo and his family were awesome with us! We had Port wine (the family is from the Douro Valley region), pork schnitzels and he drove us to see the Nivelles church, a huge and beautiful one, and the Lion’s mound in Waterloo, a comemorative monument of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 where Napoleon was defeated by the English and Dutch troops. After this battle, the territory that is now Belgium was conceded from the French to the Dutch, which lasted for 15 years until the independence of Belgium. Thank you all so much for your care and hospitality and also for driving us to the airport next morning!
As a recap, I LOVED Belgium! Such a country with lots of history, that certainly suffered a lot during the World Wars, but that managed to rebuild itself and I can’t wait to see more of it. Bruges and Ghent are as lovely as everybody says and, even though some people find Brussels uninteresting in comparison, I find it so thriving and absolutely not less interesting than many European capitals. Brussels reminds me of London in the sense that it has attractions for every taste: historical buildings, contemporary architecture, gardens, street art and food and drinks. The two things I foung the most daunting though were the huge number of homeless people in Brussels, and also the huge number of armed military in the streets. It is justifiable due to the recent terrorist attacks, but it creates an aura of both security and fear. Anyway, I felt safe in the places I visited in Brussels and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! A huge thank you again to all the people who voted for my video and to the sponsors of the contest. I’ll ship myself to Belgium sometime again!
Disclaimer: I was in Belgium as a winner of the ISIC Portugal contest “Shipping you off to Belgium” and the trip was also sponsored by Brussels Airlines and Hostelworld. Despite this, all the views in this post are my own.
What are your favorite places in Belgium? What else do you recommend me for my next trip to Belgium? Let me know in the comments below!