24 hours of free time in Brussels: Stay or Go?
May 20, 2014 9:09 AM   Subscribe

In June, I'll be in Brussels for a conference. Sessions run from ~08:00 - 17:30 Monday - Thursday. However, I'll be getting into Brussels on Saturday around 16:30. Should I take the train to Ghent or Bruges, or should I spend Saturday evening / Sunday day in Brussels? If staying in Brussels, what should I do that I can't do in the evenings during the week?

I've never been to Belgium before and probably won't return (no fault of Belgium, just have countries higher on the list to see).

Special snowflake caveats:
* I don't drink alcohol
* I don't eat pork or shellfish
* I like chocolate somewhat, but couldn't spend the whole day doing a tasting crawl.
* I was considering hitting up both Comptoir Florian and Chalet Robinson sometime during the week.

posted by msladygrey to Travel & Transportation around Belgium (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Certainly you can get plenty of interest walking around Brussels old town for a day and poking around shops and museums. I don't know if I'd spend an entire week there but for a day, absolutely.

If you're anti-Brussels anyways, Bruges is great if you like adorable medieval towns, relaxing if you get away from the main streets. Personally I'd go to Antwerp (about an hour train), goggle at the train station, and hit up the amazing Museum Plantin-Moretus, but then I'm keen on old books. Do you have any specific interests?
posted by Erasmouse at 9:48 AM on May 20, 2014

I've spent a fair amount of time in Brussels for work, with plenty of time for leisure on weekends.

If it were me, I'd relax over a nice meal in a cafe in the Grand Place in Brussels Saturday evening - it's truly a sight to behold and I would not skip it (it's actually a Unesco World Heritage site). There are plenty of small shops in that area to poke around in as well (chocolate and otherwise), along with the famous Manneken Pis. Truth be told, you could easily spend all your time in Brussels - there are tons of other things to see and do, but for me the Grand Place is the highlight.

I'd head for Bruges on Sunday morning; it's less than 1 hour by train and you can buy your ticket right at the station (either Gare Centrale or Gare du Midi), no need to book in advance. Bruges is a truly charming place to stroll around, with gorgeous waterways and delightful architecture. Sunday is a market day if those kinds of things interest you. More Bruges ideas here.

If you tire of things to see in Bruges, catch Ghent on your way back to Brussels and marvel at the architecture. Here's a post comparing Ghent and Bruges; some people find Bruges too touristy/Disney-like so if that's a concern I'd spend more time in Brussels or switch your day trip to Ghent.

Finally, mandatory: you can find frites in any of these places, but do not leave Belgium without tasting them. With mayonnaise. Believe the hype!

Enjoy your time in Belgium!
posted by xiaolongbao at 10:03 AM on May 20, 2014

If I were you I'd take the opportunity to see another city on that Sunday, since you'll have time to see Brussels while you're there.

Bruges is a pretty intense tourist attraction - it felt a little bit like medieval disneyland. I liked Ghent better. It had tons of medieval charm plus felt like a modern city - there are tons of students, restaurants, shops - all sorts of things geared more about being a lively city than being an attraction.

If nothing else, it's absolutely lovely to sit in one of Ghent's many squares eating a pastry and drinking some coffee. And then you can stroll to the Graslei, get a cone of frites, and just sit by the canal, looking at a thousand year old castle in the middle of a city.
posted by entropone at 10:05 AM on May 20, 2014

Go see some art at WIELS.
posted by hydrophonic at 10:09 AM on May 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think you should try to see Bruges and Ghent on Sunday. The train from Brussels goes through Ghent on its way to Bruges. The round trip price to Bruges is like 28.20 and the one-way price is 14.10, so there is no discount for buying the round-trip fare. However, a ticket from Bruges to Brussels with a stop in Ghent is a little more (14.90 total, I think). So, you can go to Bruges in the morning and if you get your fill, you can buy a ticket to Ghent for the afternoon. On the other hand, if you love it and want to stay, you just buy a ticket all the way back to Brussels at the end of the day and skip Ghent. (prices in Euros)

Notes about Belgian trains: You don't buy a ticket for a specific train or seat. You buy a destination in 1st or 2nd class and just board any train going there. NMBS/SNCB has an iTunes app that is very helpful for finding the next train and letting you know which platform to use, so I assume their Android app would be good as well. I didn't find the on-train announcements to be very consistent and some trains make lots of intermediate stops. I was craning my neck to be sure I could read the signs at the smaller stops. Know what time you should arrive and get ready to disembark a few minutes before.

Sunday is likely to be a busy time at the stations and in Bruges, especially in July.

If you decide to stay in Brussels, I enjoyed Mini-Europe and the adjacent Atomium (which had a long line). Not super-authentic old-world Europe sights, but enjoyable nonetheless.
posted by soelo at 10:19 AM on May 20, 2014

I would recommend visiting Antwerp or Ghent.

Bruges is nice but a bit small. If you would go to Bruges for the history you might as well go to Ghent instead. It's much bigger and more interesting. Ghent in famous for being the "city of three towers". If you like old buildings a visit to the central square is absolutely worth it. From the "Sint Michielshelling" you can see all 3 towers although currently one of them is being renovated.

Antwerp is a bit more modern with lots of museums: a modern art museum, a classic art museum, a photography museum, a science museum etc. There are always a ton of events on the weekends. There is also a popular spot nowadays called Park Spoor Noord that surely has an event on a sunday.
posted by wolfr at 10:33 AM on May 20, 2014

I have relatives in Brussels so I've spent a lot of time there over the years, and am very fond of the city.

The thing about your conference times is that, while you can go and stroll around the Grand Place in the evening, most of the museums will be closed, so if any of the following match your interests, I'd advise you to stay in Brussels on the Sunday.

Art Nouveau architecture:
Brussels has an amazing collection of Art Nouveau buildings (listed as a World Heritage Site). There are a number of areas with concentrations of these that you could certainly see on a summer evening stroll, but the Horta Museum is only open from 14.00 to 17.30 Tuesday to Sunday. It doesn't take very long to see it, but the interior is an absolute gem.

Another classic Art Nouveau building contains the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée which has a lot of exhibits about Belgian and other European comic strip artists, of course including Tintin.

The Mim Musical Instruments Museum is in yet another restored Art Nouveau building. The display is set up to play a sample of each instrument when you come close up, and there are a lot of strange and unusual instruments. (It's a while since I've eaten at either, but both the Mim and the Bande Dessinee museums have what I remember as very good cafe/restaurants).

Magritte paintings:
The Magritte Museum is a very interesting look at the life and times of Rene Magritte as well as the development of his work. (It was converted from a section of the main art gallery a few years ago, so you can pop in next door to the old masters museum have a look at the collection of Bruegel paintings including the famous Fall of Icarus.)

I'd be inclined to go to the Magritte Museum and the main art gallery in the morning, then to Mim (a couple of minutes' walk away), then after lunch take the tram out to the Horta Museum.
posted by Azara at 12:36 PM on May 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

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