What should we do in Brussels (and the rest of Belgium) for five days in March?
February 2, 2012 5:40 PM   Subscribe

What should we do in Brussels (and the rest of Belgium) for five days in March?

I just impulsively bought my fiancee and I cheap tickets to Brussels in March (they were seriously cheap at $250 round trip per person). We'll be there for five days, and my fiancee and I are looking for things to do.

Things we love:
-pretty, old things
-the movie In Bruges

Are there any great resources that detail the best way to see a bunch of abbeys/breweries? If you can't tell, I'd like not to spend a fortune while there. Any good tips on what to do that won't break the bank?

I actually know nothing about Belgium (except that they don't have a central government, Bruges really annoys Colin Farrell, and that Trappiste beers really are all that they're cracked up to be) but would love to know more!
posted by ghostpony to Travel & Transportation around Brussels, Belgium (19 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I also don't know how I forgot to mention that we also love Belgian chocolate.
posted by ghostpony at 5:46 PM on February 2, 2012

Don't miss the Museum of Fine Arts if you like "pretty, old things." And there's also the Horta museum--if you like Art Nouveau--and the Rene Magritte museum, if you like surrealism.

You'll practically be stumbling over delicious belgian chocolates at every street corner, so not much need to offer guidance there.
posted by yoink at 5:52 PM on February 2, 2012

They're serious about their fries.
posted by TheGoodBlood at 5:52 PM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I spent about a week there (starting and ending in Brussels) a few years ago. I highly, highly recommend taking the train to Antwerp and/or Ghent for at least a day and budgeting a couple days for Bruges. Brussels was okay, but I preferred those three cities (but I am an art history nerd, so YMMV) over Brussels.

Bruges seems to cater more to tourists (they apparently get many visitors from England), so it feels a little bit more like a cute travel destination and not a real "lived in" city. It was quite easy to get around everywhere (without cell phone/GPS guiding us), and those cities were quite walkable (Brussels might have been less so, because of its size).

If you like pretty old buildings, you'll be in heaven. There's a ton of amazing cathedrals in each of those cities.
posted by pourtant at 5:53 PM on February 2, 2012

Stroll Avenue Louise - the Rodeo Drive of Brussels. You can end up at Place Flagey - drop into cafe Belga: www.cafebelga.be. Order a Vedette. Or several.
posted by xiaolongbao at 5:55 PM on February 2, 2012

I'm getting really excited after realizing just how much there is to do in the area.

I also forgot to ask for recommendations for hostels/affordable hotels in Bruges/Antwerp/Ghent/Brussels to see what's available in case we want to get out of town! I'm going to check out AirBnB, but it never hurts to have a handful of options.
posted by ghostpony at 5:56 PM on February 2, 2012

Also: seconding Ghent. Magnificent, don't miss St. Nicholas! Amsterdam is a short train ride away as well (take the Thalys), so if you haven't been there I would highly recommend a day trip there. Overnight in citizenM Schipol, it's an amazingly different and refreshing experience and very handy for catching your train. There's also one downtown. Enjoy your trip!!
posted by xiaolongbao at 5:59 PM on February 2, 2012

Our stay at Simon Says in Ghent was the best on our trip. Actually, my favorite of all places I've stayed anywhere, but when traveling, I'm a sucker for two things: a) sparse, modern rooms that I can crash in and be left completely alone and b) great breakfasts. Great price for what you get, and the owners are young, British, and super-nice. It's two rooms (breakfast included) above an awesome cafe.

Ghent was just great in general. I'm glad I took MeFi's recommendations to spend more time there over Brugge or Brussels. We ended in Brussels on a Sunday and thus didn't get to tour Cantillon, so maybe I'd have a different opinion on it if we'd gotten a cool historic brewery thing in. Brugge was touristy, for sure. More picturesque, but after Ghent I just wasn't as excited about equally-old structures with lines to get in.

Seeing a bunch of abbeys/breweries is hard to do (Cantillon excluded). Check trip reports on BeerAdvocate in the Belgium section of their forums for (much) more info. We stayed a night in Poperinge to try to drink some Westerleven in their cafe, and struck out completely (along with several other people, including the German couple who drove us back the 10km we'd hiked out through the hopfields to the abbey). We drank some great beer on the trip, but most of it was in bars and restaurants. Generally speaking, stick to the bottles; the taps are (usually) nothing special, but the bottle selection... that's where you'll find things that don't make it to the States.
posted by deludingmyself at 7:14 PM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

VLAAMSE FRITES....LEKKER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
posted by wutangclan at 7:24 PM on February 2, 2012

We liked Theater Hotel in Brussels; it's in the red light district but not in a super-skeezy/dangerous way. For beer, Cantillon is a must see, as stated above, and they sent us off to more pleasant beers at Moeder Lambic Fontainas . Delirium is both intimidating and amazing - if the weather is decent I'd suggest heading over to Poechenellekelder for a pleasant place to enjoy some beers while people-watching. The waffle windows are ubiquitous around there, too.

In Bruges, De Garre is quite the experience, and worth a beer or two, and we also had a good time at De Kelk, though it was a bit of a walk.

We were on tour with bicycles, so I'm not sure how achievable most of the outlying breweries are without transportation - my hunch is "not very". Probably our favorite was Chimay; we stayed at the Auberge de Poteaupré, where the minifridge comes stocked with bottles for €2.50 and they even provide the proper glassware. Scourmont was also the only abbey we were really able to visit, though you still don't get a brewery tour. Poperinge was a neat town with an informative hop museum, and we were happy to load ourselves up with beers at Westveleteren Cafe, but from tales I've heard you can equally get unlucky and head out there just to strike out.

If you plan on wandering around much and have an unlocked GSM smartphone, I found the BASE.be "surf & mail" for (IIRC) €20 to be an amazing bargain. The magical sky lady was instrumental in helping us get oriented quickly in an unfamiliar, non-grid-based city. But perhaps that says more about my dependency on technology than anything else.
posted by lantius at 9:27 PM on February 2, 2012

Having lived in Brussels for a year, I have to put in a few good words for it. No offense to Bruges, but you can see everything there in a day or two and then it gets a bit boring.

A quick note: You may be confused by some of the names in Brussels. The Brussels region is divided into 19 "communes," sort of like how New York City is divided into 5 boroughs. So, "Brussels" can refer to the whole area (as it usually does) or the actual City of Brussels, where a lot (though not all!) of the older historical things are, and which has about 15% of "Brussels's" population.

I am going to second Delirium Café, as mentioned above. It's a bit touristy but if you want to try as many obscure Belgian beers as possible in a short amount of time, it can't be beat.

Regarding fries, Maison Antoine on Flagey square (Place Flagey) (commune of Ixelles) is considered one of the best in Brussels, and the bars on the place will let you take your fries in with you.

If you will be in Brussels on the night of March 3, I seriously recommend Museum Night Fever, which is amazing. I did it in 2011 -- a low price (it was 12€ last year) gets you entrance to a huge number of museums, many of which will have live performance art going on (I was in the Natural History museum and there were interpretive dancers!), between 7PM and 1 AM. There are also free buses that make the rounds every couple of minutes.

Also in Brussels:
Musical Instrument Museum (really cool museum, and the café on the top floor has an amazing panorama of Brussels looking down the Mont des Arts).
The Grand Place is amazing, and the Museum of the City of Brussels located right there is amazing too.
The Marolles district is interesting and quirky, an old "popular" quarter which is now becoming a bit gentrified.
The Erasmus House (commune of Anderlecht) is old and pretty.

In Ghent, I would recommend going to Saint Bavo's Cathedral (Sint-Baafs) and seeing The Lamb of God by the Van Eyck brothers. It costs extra, but you get an audioguide, and it's amazing.

Antwerp is great; the central train station itself a "cathedral of the rails" and there are lots of interesting neighborhoods (the Zurenborg and the Cogels-Osylei, near the Antwerp-Berchem train station, is an architectural feast!) The Plantin-Moretus museum is not to be missed if you decide to go. Antwerp is also great for fashion and diamonds (if you're into that kind of thing). You can also walk along the Scheldt river for a nice view.

Finally, I know that Brussels and the Flemish cities get most of the good press, but I have to put in a good word or two about Walloon cities.

Liège is pretty, on the Meuse (Maas) River. The new Grand Curtius Museum is truly spectacular, as it contains the collections of several old museums combined.
The Cathedral is imposing too.
The Maison du Peket (the website is sort of bad, but the place itself is good) specializes in hundreds of varieties (in many flavors) of peket (a local form of gin/jenever).
You can take a bus (or walk 374 steps!) to the Citadel of Liège for an interesting view.

Namur is also pretty, where the Sambre joins the Meuse (Maas) river. It's the "capital" of Wallonia but it's pretty sleepy.
For me, the Félicien Rops museum is the highlight of the town. How can you not love his work?
Namur, as a city on a river, also has a Citadel (which you can visit) with an attendant awesome view.
There's an African Museum there too (not to be confused with the Museum of Central Africa in the outskirts of Brussels).
posted by dhens at 10:30 PM on February 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

Ooh, if you go to Ghent, don't forget the Gravensteen (an old castle of the counts of Flanders).
posted by dhens at 10:38 PM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

In Brugge, you shouldn't miss touring De Halve Maan brewery. Walwyck is a decent, affordable hotel.
posted by neushoorn at 11:20 PM on February 2, 2012

I spent an hour in Brussels last month on the way to Amsterdam. I found it really frustrating (there aren't many street signs to help the tourist in a rush, and the Metro machines only take coins (no notes, no non-Belgian credit cards) but there are no change machines GRRRR. Oh, and it helps if you can speak some French or Dutch - Brussels didn't strike me as as Anglophone as Paris or Amsterdam.

However, I went to see Grand Place and even though I was distinctly not friends with Brussels at this point, I wished I could have stayed long enough to take it in properly. It's a big tourist attraction so I'm sure you've thought about it by now, but if you're someone who's likely to be put off by 'touristy' things, I'd still recommend going. I also picked up some chocolate and beer from the Delhaize supermarket nr Bourse station on the way, so if you're saving money that's an option - I'd recommend the New Tree chocolate and the Delirium Tremens beer (which you can't get in the US I think), and you could pick some up along with a sandwich and sit in the square for a while. Delirium Tremens, by the way, costs EIGHTY NINE CENTS. If I hadn't had to travel light I would have brought a few bottles back. I'd imagine it's cheaper than the Belgian Beers shops off the square.

I also wanted to go to Puce De Marolles on the Place Jeu de Balle, because I find flea markets interesting, but I didn't have time. I really want to go to Bruges at some point, but I'm English.

Also, remember you can claim back tax if you aren't an EU citizen.
posted by mippy at 1:47 AM on February 3, 2012

Definitely go to Antwerp. It has a wonderful vibe, but also the best stocked beer cafe in Europe. It's called the Kulminator, and it has an unrivalled cellar containing something in the region of 600 different beers, some of them 20 years old!

For example, if you go to the Kulminator and ask for a bottle of Westvleteren 12, you'll be given a small card which lists the various vintages available.

Unfortunately, the Antwerp Fine Art Museum is closed for renovation, but parts of the (excellent) collection can still be seen. Check the website for details.

The van Eyck altarpiece in St Bavo's in Gent is an absolute must-see. And Gent itself is just great.
posted by daveje at 2:57 AM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Go to Bruges. That is a beautiful city.

And drink Kriek - the famous belgian cherry-flavored beer - whenever you can.
posted by Flood at 4:48 AM on February 3, 2012

In Bruges, I stayed at Hotel 't Keizershof(affordable, nothing fancy) and drank at 't Brugs Beertje (quaint). Climb the belfry tower.
posted by knile at 5:01 AM on February 3, 2012

In Ghent, Faja Lobi bed & breakfast was very pleasant - I guess I was most impressed by the 8 million kinds of homemade jams and fruit preserves they had at breakfast! There are two branches - one that's right in the heart of the city and one that's in a quieter neighborhood about 15 minutes walk from anything interesting.

If you like sweet stuff, try the Gentse Neuzen -- noses of Ghent -- a weird yummy candy made nowhere else (by law!)
posted by moonmilk at 10:45 AM on February 3, 2012

You can sometimes get Gentse Neuzen (sometimes called "Gentse Neuzeken," using the local dialect's diminuative form for "nose") in other parts of Belgium. They are sometimes also called "cuberdons" (in French and in Dutch) or "chapeaux de curé" ("pastors' hats") in French.
posted by dhens at 12:15 AM on February 4, 2012

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