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Belgium (and Amsterdam?) in May/June
January 29, 2014 7:42 AM   Subscribe

Mr. Arkham and I are considering a trip of 5 to 7 days this coming late May/early June. I'm thinking we'll make Brussels our home base, then take one or two day-trips. Questions inside!

Specific questions:

- Any specific hotel recommendations for Brussels? We like smaller boutique places. I'd like to keep it around $150 a night and usually prefer staying in the more "college/hipster" areas vs. the more "high end tourist" areas.

- We're comfortable with public transit in general, but don't have any experience with European rail systems. Mr. Arkham would really like to do Amsterdam as one of the day trips, probably using the high-speed rail. Any advice on when to buy tickets or navigating the system?

- If we wind up coming back late, is the area around the station in Amsterdam safe?

- And what are some good things to do in Amsterdam if we're only there for a day? We like art museums, unusual shops, and used book stores. We're not interested in coffee shops.

- Second day trip: Antwerp? Ghent? I'm especially interested in photographing old architecture and cemeteries.

- Specific recommendations for Brussels? We mostly want to walk around, visit museums, take photos, eat and drink beer. Maybe a bar or club with live local music?

I handled booking our own trip to Istanbul a few years ago, but we just stayed put once we got there. I'm a little intimidated by going city-to-city and country-to-country in a place where I don't speak the language. Any advice appreciated!
posted by JoanArkham to Travel & Transportation around Brussels, Belgium (39 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
No expert on Belgium or Amsterdam, but having passed through both places a couple of times - you needn't worry too much about the language. Most Dutch people you'll meet in Amsterdam speak excellent English, and I would expect the same in Brussels - it's a very international city and being home of the EU, I'd expect English to be very widely spoken.
posted by Ted Maul at 7:53 AM on January 29


Amsterdam - Van Gogh museum is one of the best museums I've been to. And yes check out the red light district (they even give educational tours if your search online), not to buy anything but it is just an interesting experience. Finally check out the antique area, it is really good!

The area around the train station seemed safe to me, some construction when I was there last year but that's it.

In May or June I wouldn't say you have to book the trains in advance.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:58 AM on January 29


I planned a similar trip a year and a half ago and was told to pick Amsterdam over Belgium, even though I was initially more interested in Brussels because I love Belgian Beer. Friends familiar with the areas told me Brussels was more business-oriented and Amsterdam was more hipstery.

One of the highlights was Hotel Lloyd, the place we stayed. It has a range of 1-5 star rooms. We stayed in the lower priced rooms, which aren't fancy, but you get to enjoy the same amenities from the hotel itself as the 5 star guests.. It has tons of interesting and weird art, plus the restaurant is really great. I've never enjoyed a hotel breakfast more.

Just something to consider if you are on the fence in any way about what base to use.
posted by melissam at 7:59 AM on January 29


Second day trip: Antwerp is fantastic and underrated outside Belgium. Don't forget Bruges, either, if you want somewhere historic and attractive.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:01 AM on January 29


Don't stay in Belgium - stay in Bruges! A much more touristy city; as mentioned above, Belgium is very business and government oriented and lacks the charm of someplace like Bruges. Have also heard Ghent is a less touristy place than Bruges but with a similar character; haven't been though so I can't speak to it.
posted by olinerd at 8:08 AM on January 29


Seconding that Brussels is more business-oriented. Use Antwerp as your base if you want to stay in Belgium and then do day trips to Ghent, Brussels, and various other cute Belgian towns. Take a trip to Amsterdam for a couple of days; it's very easy to get to from Antwerp (just change trains in Rotterdam) and you can go to other points in the Netherlands too. I'd recommend this especially if you are on any kind of travel budget. Accommodation in Amsterdam tends to be very, very expensive if you want something that is not totally bottom of the barrel (often mostly geared towards backpackers).
posted by ashworth at 8:12 AM on January 29


To get from Brussels to Amsterdam, you can order tickets on nshispeed.nl. They'll send you PDFs that you can print out. You can book up to three months in advance. Don't wait too late; the trains fill up and the tickets get more expensive. I wouldn't bother with first class tickets; second class is comfortable.

The area around Amsterdam Centraal is very safe. Just take the normal precautions that you would to avoid pickpockets.

You might want to pick up a 24-hour public transport pass (ov-chipkaart) in Amsterdam, so you can ride the trams. You can get it in the small white GVB building across from the station.

You can hit the Van Gogh Museum, the Stedelijk Museum, and the Rijksmuseum in one day, if you like. They're all on Museumplein. I'd pick two of the three, depending on your taste in art. If you choose the Van Gogh Museum, you might want to buy your tickets online in advance; the line is usually pretty long. If you like guided museum tours, the Rijksmuseum building tour is pretty cool.

For books, you can go to Het Spui, where there is the American Book Center and Waterstone's. For unique shops, I'd head to the Nine Streets. If you want to go to the Anne Frank Museum, that's in the same general area.

For beer, you should visit In de Wildeman in Amsterdam and the Delirium Cafe in Brussels.

No need to feel intimidated; the Netherlands is very English-friendly, especially Amsterdam. Most signage will be in Dutch, but many words are similar enough that you'll be fine (centraal=central, trein=train, toilet=toilet, etc.). Be sure you have coins handy because most public toilets cost around €0.50.
posted by neushoorn at 8:13 AM on January 29 [1 favorite]


Seat61.com is a great resource for trains in Europe. Here is the section on Brussels to Amsterdam.
posted by soelo at 8:13 AM on January 29 [2 favorites]


Thanks all! Was leaning toward Brussels as our home base, since it seemed more central for transportation (and after a quick look via Tripadvisor it seemed like the hotel prices are a bit lower) but we're still early in the planning stages so I'll take a look at some of the other cities mentioned as well.
posted by JoanArkham at 8:24 AM on January 29


I felt very safe around the Amsterdam station (Centraal). To be clear, though, the station is pretty close to many coffee shops and the red light district. Here is the typical Amsterdam map,with coffee shops noted on it. The station is at 2G. The red light district is at 4G. From the station to the red light district is only a few minutes away when walking.

But it's legal, so the crime you might think would be there is not really there. The whole area is full of tourists. The police protect the sex workers and the coffee shops, and the tourists who sometimes get out of their league with the pot. The trains and the station were clean and prompt, and there were always people coming and going all around the area. Right in front of the station is a big plaza-type area, very open, and some very big hotels facing the station. So, lots of foot traffic. Take a look at the Street View in Google Maps to see what I mean.

In Amsterdam, just bring a map. I found it difficult to find my way without one, given how the streets are not on a grid.
posted by Houstonian at 8:26 AM on January 29


I'd definitely recommend making Antwerp your home base rather than Brussels. Brussels is very business-y and while there are some beautiful buildings and stuff, it's just not all that interesting overall. Antwerp is great and has a good art museum and a fashion museum, some amazing restaurants, and a lot of great architecture. It's also easy to get around to other parts of Belgium and to Amsterdam.

I also wouldn't worry about the language. I go to Belgium every year and nearly everyone I've met there speaks fluent English. Most Dutch people will too. Some of the trains will only have announcements in Flemish and French, but just pay attention to the stops and you'll be fine.
posted by bedhead at 8:34 AM on January 29


Seconding the recommendation for Bruges, sounds right up your alley!
posted by signondiego at 8:46 AM on January 29


Definitely go to Ghent, especially if you like old architecture. The center city is built around 3 thousand-year-old cathedrals and a thousand-year-old castle. The area is full of good food, god coffee, and good beer, and hanging out on the Graslei is extremely pleasurable.
posted by entropone at 8:52 AM on January 29 [5 favorites]


On the language front, the best advice I can give is not to dilly-dally and try to figure things out on your own without talking to someone. That's totally a case-by-case personality issue, and maybe not relevant to you. But my inclination in a foreign city is to solve my own problems and have everything figured out by the time I have to speak to someone. (It's a little bit social anxiety. A little bit not wanting to be an Ugly American. A little bit ego-preservation because I hate the thought of seeming like an idiot to a perfect stranger. Whatever the reasons, I think it is a pretty common experience for travelers.)

March yourself right up to the ticket window and ask. If you don't speak the language, make your polite apologies and trust me: the conversation will move right along uninterrupted. Brussels itself is formally bi-lingual, but practically tri-lingual. French is spoken with some preference, but practically everyone in a public-facing position will also speak English.

Brussels actually has a really cool smartphone app (at least on the iPhone, not sure about Android etc.), which has a lot of really great information about things to see. I'd suggest checking that out because you'll find things you never imagined would be interesting to you. For example, Brussels has (just behind the palace) a musical instrument museum. Another fun thing to do in Brussels - if you'll be there over a weekend evening - would be to go hang out in the Grand Place/Grotemarkt. The architecture is totally worth seeing there, some fun cafes and quick street food vendors on nearby streets, and folks just tend to take up residence there in the square hanging out and drinking beer and enjoying the evening together late into the night.

As for hotels, if you're looking for a truly Poirot-esque experience (not sure if that's your thing, but it totally tickled my fancy), Hotel Metropole is probably available at a reasonable rate. We got a night there for within your budget using one of the online hotel sites. It's all 1920s marble and art nouveau ironworks and there is an antique glass elevator that is just super elegant. It made me want to wear a hat and carry a cane.
posted by jph at 8:56 AM on January 29 [2 favorites]


In re to the railway system: Thalys serves the area you're talking about. Sometimes they have discounts; sign up for their newsletter to get a feel for what options you have.

Bruges is fine for a day or two. Some places in the city are very picturesque and pleasant... But in my opinion the whole town felt extremely touristy and contrived. I would prefer Antwerp to Bruges. Another possibility that hasn't been suggested yet is Cologne. Cologne is not too far away from Brussels, if you do end up making that your base. If you do decide to go to Germany, their rail system is DB.

Amsterdam is very safe, and everyone speaks English, so no worries on that front.

Have a great time!
posted by gemutlichkeit at 9:10 AM on January 29 [1 favorite]


I'm not getting the Brussels hate here. It is an excellent central choice with good train and flight connections. There are plenty of great things in the city - There are fantastic beer bars from the big and touristy to the small corner places that somehow have 1200 beers on the menu. There is the art nouveau architecture like the Horta house along with medieval stuff. When I visited Belgium for a couple of days we never made it out Brussels because it had enough to keep us entertained (and slightly drunk).

The train system is not hard to figure out and language won't be much of an issue. One thing to be aware of when planing is the national holidays in the different countries which can gum up your plans.

If you do go to the art museums in amsterdamn be sure and notice the piss pot fetish. Also if you are unfamiliar with the dutch poop inspection shelf toilets the trick is to put some toilet paper on the shelf before hand so it all flushes away cleanly.
posted by srboisvert at 10:07 AM on January 29 [1 favorite]


For beer, visit the Delirium Tap House in Brussels. I think it holds the record for most beers on tap or something like that. It's quite large and there's always some sort of live music going on in some section of the place.

I would give Bonn a visit too if you're interested in going into Germany. In fact, you could probably do it with Cologne in one day. It's got lots of old architecture and it's very pretty. They also have a Beethoven museum in the house where Beethoven was born. It's pretty cool.

Also, like everyone mentioned, all the places you mention are very fluent in English. I was in the area, by myself, traveling around for a little bit and I never had any difficulties.
posted by cyml at 11:13 AM on January 29


We did a trip around Western Europe the year before last and the Maison AZ Bed and Breakfast in Brussels was the nicest place we stayed in. Would totally recommend. We were right at the top and had a really cool view over lots of chaotic rooftops crowded together, the room was really large and nice, the bathroom awesome, the host friendly and helpful, and the breakfast excellent.

For eating and beer drinking our BnB host recommended we go to Restobieres and OMG, would totally go there again right now if I lived a bit closer. We wandered down late afternoon and made an booking for later that evening (booked the last table), walked around the city and looked at the view etc, then went back and had a really tasty meal with super good beer to match for really not much money. The chef/owner guy knows and loves his local beer and we're clearly foreigners so was he very happy to tell us what to drink. The range of beers available in Belgium is a bit overwhelming so having some guidance to start was quite nice. Oh, and best waffles ever also.

We did a day trip to Brugges on the local train service which was easy, no planning ahead. It's a lovely town and we enjoyed poking around for a day but I don't know if I would have wanted to stay longer. We also stopped in Lille for the day on the way to Brussels (from Paris travelling by TGV) and we liked it very much. Had a Welsh at the Cafe Flambard in town (famous local dish which is pretty much beer and cheese sauce over bread) along with obligatory pomme frite and local beer, took photos around the pretty town centre, walked around the star fort on the edge of town, and went to the free zoo. We also travelled to Amsterdam via Thaleys high speed train but it was a one way trip for us so I'm not sure how it would work as a day trip.

Definitely book your high speed tickets as early as possible for wherever you're going and try the different booking sites around because there can be quite big differences in price. I think they go on sale six weeks before hand -although you should check that- and you'll get the best deal booking the day they come available. The difference in price may be in the order of hundreds of euros so pre-planning is worth it. Whereas local trains you can just buy in the station on the day. We speak nothing but English and took the train everywhere and it was totally fine all the places you're likely to go.
posted by shelleycat at 11:46 AM on January 29


Amsterdam
Art: seconding Stedelijk Museum
Beer: Brouwerij 't IJ (it's in a windmill)
Music / cinema / social / nonprofit / protest / art / squat: Overtoom 301
Music: OCCII
City guide / listings: unlike
posted by Joeruckus at 1:26 PM on January 29 [1 favorite]


Poop shelf? Oh my, I thought that was just a German thing...

I see where this is happening during the dates I'm looking at. Not sure if that's a plus or a minus. I'd think that might make train travel to Bruges difficult at the very least.

Beer research will be a separate project, I think. My favorite beer right now is a Flanders red, so I'm hoping I can find lots of other examples of the same style.
posted by JoanArkham at 1:41 PM on January 29


If you stay in amsterdam for the night (as recommended by a few people and me as well) this is a different sort of hotel to stay at. Sandton Hotel de Filosoof

Gent is a nice and some place I've gone (from amsterdam) for the weekend. If you do stay in Brussels and like cars, the car museum (autoworld.be) is cool.
posted by Spumante at 2:04 PM on January 29


I forgot you mentioned books.
Amsterdam again:

A radical bookshop: Het Fort van Sjakoo on Waterlooplein.
An amazing comic book shrine: Lambiek! (worth knowing about even just for remotely internetting, since their site is encyclopaedic).
posted by Joeruckus at 2:47 PM on January 29


I did almost this same trip a few years ago. Stayed in Brussels & did day trips, though we stayed in and departed back to the states from Amsterdam rather than go back and forth. This was not especially expensive and might be worth considering for you.

Brussels is kind of business-y, but it was a good home base. There are charming parts of the city, for sure. If I were to do it again though, I'd plan on more day trips and/or fewer days in Brussels. That said, if you like Flanders Red (i.e. sour ales) you MUST go to Cantillon brewery and you MUST go to Moeder Lambic while in Brussels. (BTW I never went to the Delirium Tap House despite beer being a central focus of the trip; I'm not a fan of ridiculously huge beer lists. I'd rather the selection be more... curated I guess.)

I loved Ghent and wish I had spent a night there rather than just a day trip. It's such a charming city with little shops and pockets to explore even beyond the amazing castle. The difference between the French parts of Belgium (Brussels) and the Flemish parts (Ghent) was to me very immediate and striking.

I wished I had spent some time in Antwerp - missing that city is a big regret for me. Have fun!
posted by misskaz at 4:26 PM on January 29


I spent a bit of time in both Gent and Brugge, and I would recommend Gent in particular. Both are beautiful and historic; Brugge felt to me rather more touristy, museum-like, and expensive, and Gent felt to me more studenty and like a living city. When I was in Brugge, it was really overrun by tourists, whereas Gent, while touristed, had a much more local feel. There's a tram in Gent that takes you right from the train station to the center (probably a mile walk otherwise). Brugge has a hilarious museum devoted to potatoes that you should visit if you think you'd get a kick out of it (narrated by a french fry!). The trains in Belgium were awesome, and honestly, in my opinion it doesn't really matter which city you stay in, because they're all so close together by train (20 minutes from city to city, I think?). Belgium is probably the size of Maryland. If you MeMail me, I can give you a recommendation for a great place to stay on AirBnB in Gent (not quite a hotel, but the top floor of an old house in central Gent owned by a lovely couple, and you get a private living/dining room and a bedroom).
posted by ClaireBear at 7:10 PM on January 29 [1 favorite]


Skip Amsterdam and go to the Hoge Veluwe instead.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 8:05 PM on January 29


Let me cast another vote in favor of Brussels. I recently did a multi city trip through Europe and, due to advice similar to what you are getting above, only spent one night in Brussels. Big mistake.

The downtown area of Brussels is small, but the whole town runs on beer, chocolate, mussels, french fries, and waffles. People were almost exclusively friendly, helpful, and fluent English speakers. Also, food, beer, and lodging are relatively cheap.

As for beer, Moeder Lambic and A La Mort Subite are the spots. The Brewery Museum on the Grand Place was a waste of time. Delirium is open late and has bands, which was fun, but go earlier in the day if you want to geek out over the beer list. One or two of the cafes around the grand place have Westvleteren 12 (previously) for sale, but will either leave it off the menu or list it without a price. Ask around.

And go to Cantillon, because I didn't.
posted by outlaw of averages at 12:15 AM on January 30


If Confess, Fletch's suggestion of De Hoge Veluwe national park (and the wonderful Kröller-Müller Museum within) interests you, keep in mind that it's a four-hour trip from Brussels that involves three trains and two buses. However, you could spend the night before and/or after in Utrecht, which is a lovely city and much less tourist-y than Amsterdam. If you'd like help planning a journey to De Hoge Veluwe, send me a MeFiMail and I'll walk you through it.

Some other tips: the local Dutch railway site is NS.nl and the publication transportation site is 9292.nl. For Brussels, it's stib.be.
posted by neushoorn at 1:59 AM on January 30


Amsterdam is one of my favorite places. I have been there 6 times. If I had only one day there I would start at the Van Gogh museum, walk around the museum district a bit, and end by eating a rice table (rijsttafel) at an Indonesian restaurant.

Important note for using public transportation in Europe (and paying for things in almost any locale in Amsterdam at least): you must must MUST MUST get a credit card with a chip in it before you go over there. American Express cards with chips (like Amex blue) will not work. Debit cards without chips will also not work, if you think you can solve this problem via ATM. I cannot stress enough how shit out of luck you might find yourself without a chip-bearing credit card in the more modern cities of Europe.
posted by corn_bread at 2:05 AM on January 30


And by chip card, I mean chip and pin card, not chip and signature. Read more here.
posted by corn_bread at 2:11 AM on January 30


Yeah, I'll echo corn_bread.

You can pull cash from ATMs, but you can't use your debit card to buy tickets from ticket machines. It can be a drag especially if you get off of a redeye hungover and tired and confused and without Euros and unsure of why your card isn't working in the machine.
posted by entropone at 7:22 AM on January 30


I just realized that while very very tired last night I wrote my answer saying "Belgium" instead of "Brussels". I swear I'm not actually that stupid. But still. Skip Brussels and stay in one of the smaller cities!
posted by olinerd at 7:29 AM on January 30


When I went to Amsterdam this past July, you could no longer pull cash from ATMs unless your debit card had chip technology.
posted by corn_bread at 8:37 AM on January 30


I know I can get a chip credit card from my credit union (been meaning to anyway) but I'll have to check if it's chip and PIN. Not sure if I can get a chip debit card, but I guess I can do cash advances on the credit card (which I never, ever do!)
posted by JoanArkham at 9:22 AM on January 30


Groan. Sorry about the threadsit, but I just checked and, while I can get a chip and PIN credit card through my bank they do not have a chip option for my debit card. So how do I get cash? Credit card cash advance charges interest per day.

We used ATMs with no problem in Istanbul a few years ago and London a few years before that, but it seems like things have modernized in many places since then? I can't find any specific info about non-chip debit card use in ATMs in Brussels or Belgium as a whole.
posted by JoanArkham at 2:00 PM on January 30


Definitely go to Ghent, and stay there. Please go to Cafe Zenon in the plaza across the street from Gravensteen. There's nothing particularly special about the cafe, it's a drinks-only place. But the proprietor is an exceptionally nice man. My wife and I randomly chose his cafe as the first place to stop. I ordered a beer(delerium tremens), and a little while after dropping off our beer, he came over to the table and offered us a pair of Delerium Tremens promotional suspenders. That sounds weird, but it was very sweet. We were only in Ghent for 2 nights, and I think we stopped at his cafe 3 or 4 times.

Heh....google knows all. The owner is Henk!
Cafe Zenon
posted by specialnobodie at 3:07 PM on January 30


Your ATM card(s) should work in European ATMs, likely with a small fee. Your American magnetic strip credit cards should work in most places where there is a human present to accept your signature (shops, restaurants). The exception to this is employees who haven't had to deal with a swipe and sign card (new employees, less touristy areas, etc).

The problem is anything kiosky, such as subway ticket vending machines. I had a good experience with buying a Travelex Cash Passport. You can preload it with cash and use it like a credit/debit card when you encounter the chip+pin only machines.

One thing to be aware of is that it's not a real credit card, so anything that would put a hold on your card (such as signing up for a city's bike share day pass) probably isn't feasible unless you preload a ton of money onto the card.

Long story short, get cash for walking around money, small purchases, drinks, etc. Use your American credit cards for bigger purchases from shops and restaurants. Use the Travelex card for buying transit passes.
posted by outlaw of averages at 1:09 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


I don't know about Belgium, but I know that I can use my non-chipped Bank of America debit card in ATMs in the Netherlands. That's my normal method of getting cash from that bank account; the ATM exchange rate isn't bad and the foreign transaction fees are usually flat-rate. For credit cards, the foreign transaction fee is usually a percentage of the purchase.

Most grocery stores and fast food places in the Netherlands don't accept credit cards. You can use an American MasterCard or Visa credit card in the train ticket machines in Schiphol and Amsterdam Centraal, but not anywhere else. The only debit cards they accept are Maestro. Some machines will accept coins, but generally it's just a lot easier to go to the service desk.
posted by neushoorn at 1:27 AM on January 31


As a backup, you could bring 50-100 US dollars to exchange if you find you cannot get Euros from an ATM. Only use it if ATMs don't work for you because the exchange rate will be better from an ATM.
posted by soelo at 9:02 AM on January 31


Credit card cash advance charges interest per day.

Put money into your account so it's in positive then keep it in positive (i.e. don't withdraw more than you put in). You'll still be charged the cash advance fee if you use the ATM as usual but no interest because you don't owe them anything. It I've done this on several international trips where credit was easier to use for whatever reason and never had a problem with it.
posted by shelleycat at 12:29 PM on January 31


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