Belgium (A work in progress!)
Some people probably think the main reason I like Belgium is because of the beer (see below), and while that’s at least partly true, I also feel at home somehow in the somewhat gritty cities and often cool and grey weather (maybe because I come from Buffalo NY?). Like anywhere these generalisations are just that … Belgium’s cities are full of hidden beauty and in summer a warm sun shines late into the evening. Again, a little like Buffalo. Anyway, here are some of my impressions and recommendations for Belgium.
Note on Names: Belgium has two national languages (French and Flemish), therefore many things are written in both languages, but that’s not always the case. If you can’t find, e.g., a street address it’s probably because you are looking for an address written in Flemish on a map made in French, or vice-versa. As you can see from the two photos of the same view, even I do it!
Brussels reminds me very much of Washington DC. It’s the administrative headquarters of the European Union and chock full of lobbyists and non-governmental organisations. Unfortunately that often means high prices for travellers (unless you go on weekends and in the summer when hotels have great deals).
One of the best things about Brussels (also true of Washington) are its neighbourhoods. Neighbourhood shopping streets are often filled with cafes and restaurants as well as markets serving the local population. So get out of the centre and explore Brussels’ neighbourhoods.
Brussels is filled with Art Nouveau (Jugendstil) architecture, so be sure to look for it as you walk around. Victor Horta was one of the most famous architects building in the Art Nouveau style in Brussels. His home is in the St Giles neighbourhood is now the Victor Horta Museum and it is well worth a trip. The museum also has a small brochure offering a self-guided tour of his buildings in the area.
Some of my recommendations for Brussels are below.
OK, you need to see it and walk around the area. I am sure there are some great places to eat and visit, but the majority are average or less … plan carefully.
One place near the Grand Place that I really love is the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert and the square at one end. The Galeries is a marble paved shopping arcade topped with an ornate glass and metal roof. It has some classic looking restaurants, expensive shops and cool businesses.
St Boniface Neighbourhood
The St Boniface neighbourhood is one of my favourite places in Brussels. It’s full of life, small shops, restaurants, bars, etc. It’s located in Ixelles, just on the outside of the Porte de Namur metro station. In summer it’s full of people just hanging out on the street and on sidewalk cafes. The St Boniface church sits on a small restaurant filled square and gives the neighbourhood its name. Take a walk around and along Rue Dublin to the Place d’Londres. You’ll find many interesting places in this lively neighbourhood including:
- L’ultime Atome on the square St Boniface is pretty much the neighbourhood epicentre and is a good bet for a simple meal (also a good beer list).
- L’athnee Pub is a neighbourhood hang-out with a great selection of beer and some small snacks, behind the St Boniface church. It has outdoor tables on a very pleasant the square across the street in the summer. Down the street on Rue Boure and Rue de Longue Vie there are several other nice neighbourhood places with good beer and outdoor seating in summer.
- Beer Mania – a shop with hundreds of artisanal beers and souvenirs (glasses etc.). A very knowledgeable proprietor helps you. There’s a small bar serving beer and snacks (cheese, sausage). I liked it better before they started brewing their own beer and sort of pushing you to drink that (although it’s good) rather then exploring the unbelievable selection in the store.
- Titulus Wine Bar – across the street from Beer Mania is the Titulus Wine Bar. You can buy bottles of wine and imported groceries here. They also serve wine, cheese, sausage and wonderful bread along with some more substantial food. Very nice after work.
Brasserie Cantillon is a must for beer lovers and foodies. It’s an operating brewery that still brews beer the traditional way, with spontaneous yeast from the air rather than adding a specific type of yeast to the wort.
Brasserie Cantillon is open for tours during the day and, as a veteran of many brewery tours, I can say that they give one of the best explanations of how to brew beer that I have ever heard or read (in about 5-minutes!). It’s a self-guided tour through the historic brewery (be careful) and ends with a tasting of three beers (very small).
You’ll probably be surprised when you taste the beer because spontaneous fermentation leads to a sour-ish tasting beer called lambic. All beer used to taste this way, now Belgium (and Cantillon in particular) is one of the few places you can still taste it (although many microbreweries are now trying their hand at spontaneous fermented beers).
Lambic from various years is blended into a beer called “gueuze/geuze” (French/Flemish) and is also used to make fruity beers called kriek, by re-fermenting the lambic in the presence of fruit (cherries or raspberries etc.).
Visiting the Brasserie Cantillon is a must if you come to Brussels!
Grand Place to Brasserie Cantillon walking tour (PDF)
The people from Brasserie Cantillon are really cool … so cool that they wrote up a walking tour to help you get to the brewery with lots of interesting information about the city that you won’t find elsewhere including a great restaurant recommendation:
Moeder Lambic is a great beer bar serving a large selection of traditional beers on draft, including lambic from Cantillon. They also serve simple food including quiche, cheese, sausage, sandwiches, etc. all perfectly suited to beer.
The staff is excellent and patient explaining the beer choices. There are two locations: 8 place Fontainas in the centre of Brussels and the original location at 68 rue de Savoie in St Gilles. There’s a map of both on the Moeder Lambic website. The central location is open from 11 am, and the St Gilles is open from 16:00. I love this place!
Historic city that’s well worth visiting even though it’s a real tourist magnet. Stay overnight because the town clears out after dark.
Ghent (Gent in French) is a surprisingly interesting city a little more than an hour from Brussels by train. If you go to Brugges it’s one of the stops on your trip so you might want to just get off your train, walk around a bit, and then get back on for the rest of the trip to Brugges.
Ghent is rebuilding its main train station and the project is a sight to see. The old station is relatively small and dark (although beautiful architecture in the main hall – look at the ceiling). The new part is concrete, metal and glass, and everything is big and efficient, which is also very nice. It’s a fantastic project well worth seeing if you are a train fan or city planner.
Ghent is a big bike city. It has great paths and (I think) a public bike rental scheme. You can ride to the centre fairly quickly and you’ll find some nice car free areas to explore. Some fun things in Ghent:
- Ghent Museum of Design – is a really nice and manageable museum for design. There’s a nice informal restaurant across the street;
- Waterhuis aan de Bierkant – is a histoiric pub serving great Belgium beer located on the canal near the Museum of Design, quite a nice place;
- Canals – the centre area has a couple canals with lots of fun places to eat, drink and hang out on the sides;
- Brasserie Pakhuis – is a very nice restaurant near the centre, I had a great dinner there.
The name for Antwerp in French is Anvers. It’s less than an hour from Brussels by train and is a very interesting city to visit. Antwerp has a nice historic centre and lots of neat things to do. Some of my favourites:
- Antwerp Central Train station – the train station has been rebuilt and is fantastic. The large and ornate old station has been totally renovated and several sets of tracks have been built underneath it. The Thalys trains from Paris to Brussels to Amsterdam stop on the lowest level. This is another must see railway station!
- MAS (Museum aan de Stroom) is a museum on Antwerp’s history and culture. It’s a tall modern building with very engaging exhibits. The roof provides great views of the city and river.
- Historic centre – beautiful square with cathedral, lots of places to eat, drink and shop;
- Bike and pedestrian tunnel under the Schelde river – this is a really cool tunnel, you go down via historic wooden escalators (or a large elevator for bikes) and then come to a very long tunnel that’s pretty horizontal … then walk (or bike) to the other side where you can take another set of wooden escalators up to the surface … great example of historic bike infrastructure!
- De Konnick City Brewery – this is the last brewery still operating in Antwerp. In 2015 they opened a museum (experience) where they show you how beer is made and describe the history of the De Konnick beer company. They are also partnering with an artisan cheese maker, butcher, chocolate shop, food bookshop, and other food related businesses to create a foodies wonderland. The tour cost 12 euros (January 2016) and you received three beers to try at the end. Across the street from the brewery is:
- Brasserie DePelgrim historic pub. My colleague from SoundBiteCity wrote about Antwerp Beer City and talked about how you used to be able to drink a glass of yeast here (they went across the street to the brewery to get it). It’s not always available but when I visited in early 2015 I was lucky. Cool tradition. Great food and beer (naturally). Neat bike store adjacent to the pub.Website is only in Flemish, but you can figure it out.
- de Groote Witte Arend is a restaurant in the centre serving great Belgium beer and food. I had the one of the best Carbonnades (beef stew cooked in beer, De Konnick here in Anwerp) I’ve ever eaten here. I love Carbonnades so order it often (you’ll note other favourite places to eat it on this page.) The building itself is a beautiful old structure with an inner hof (outside seating in the summer) that once served as a convent. There is still a chapel off the hof. Great food and beer! Website is only in Flemish, but you can figure it out.
Ypres / Ieper
A must visit if you are interested in the history of World War I. Ypres was the scene of fighting throughout the whole war and therefore is full of sights. Although when discussing World War I sites it’s important to remember that most of the sites are gone … the sites have been replaced by farms … so much so that it’s almost impossible to believe a war could have been fought here. But, there is still plenty to see.
The Flemish name is Ieper and that is what you will see on train schedules. Ypres is the French name and is generally used by the British and is the name the battles are known by.
The town centre is very nice. It’s dominated by the Medieval Cloth Hall which is now a World War I museum and visitor centre. The museum is excellent and alone is worth making the trip to Ieper. Here are some recommendations:
- In Flanders Fields Museum – the World War 1 museum in the Cloth Hall. Excellent!
- Ypres Salient themed bicycle ride – this is a bike ride circuit to the main WWI battle sites around Ieper. They sell a map with information in the museum gift shop. The map is a little small and some of the directions are hard to follow, but I was able to find everything (although sometimes you are only imagining what was here a hundred years ago, all you see today are fields). It took me about 4 hours but I did not linger. The sites include cemeteries, a dug-out, a roadside museum (must see!) with trenches, and lots of small hills with signs explaining what happened here. This was a great tour. (There are lots of guided tours available too.) Here’s a great English website (Great War Museums in Ypres) on historic sites around Ieper.
- Chez Marie – I rented my bike from Chez Marie, it’s a very nice store right across from the Cloth Hall selling local specialties and, of course, artisanal Belgian beer. Marie was kind enough to put a couple special bottles in the refrigerator for me to enjoy after I returned from my bike ride! Website in Flemish, Fietsen means bike in Flemish.
- in’T Klein Stadhuis restaurant right next to the Cloth House: I had a fantastic Carbonnade (beef stew cooked in beer, again!) here. One of the local beers Poperings Hommelbier is great (very hoppy, relatively high alcohol, see below).
- Last Post – every night at 20:00 a ceremony is held at the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing. It’s a very moving experience. The Menin Gate is a five minute walk from the Cloth Hall.
An interesting mix of World War I history and the heart of Belgium’s hops growing district (= good beer!). I had not planned to visit Poperinge but there was a huge EU summit in Ieper so I decided to explore the area. Poperinge is only about a 15 minute train ride from Ieper.
The main theme of Poperinge is hops … and I really love hops. Here are some recommendations:
- Hops Museum – everything you ever wanted to know about hops, in an old hops storehouse. Very nice museum, well worth a visit if you are at all interested in beer. They have a joint ticket with the …
- Talbot House – Poperinge was just beyond the range of the artillery on the front lines in Ypres so it was the place where the British troops went when they were given time to recover. The Talbot House was started by two Army chaplains Neville Talbot and Philip “Tubby” Clayton in 1915. Talbot House gave rest and recreation to all soldiers regardless of rank, which was a big thing in those days. The museum is interesting and sort of rounds out your experience of World War I museums after a visit to Ieper.
- Walking Train – Poperinge has a walking trail marked by metal plates displaying hops flowers on the sidewalk. There are maps available that describe some of the historic sites. It’s a relaxing hour or so. I also walked out from the centre of town to see a hops field.
- Poperinge Beers … in addition to the Poperings Hommelbier (Hommel is hops in Flemish) there are lots of great beers brewed around here including some of the most famous Trappist beers.
Traveling in Belgium
Train – train service in Belgium is very good and VERY heavily used (especially the main lines). The Belgium railway website is easy to use and I recommend you buy your tickets on-line especially if you are arriving at the Brussels Airport. This saves a lot of time. The new ticket machines accept foreign bankcards (at least European bankcards) and are also relatively easy to use.
Brussels Airport – is a modern and generally well designed airport. Be careful of the Friday night exodus where many European Community workers commute back to their home countries for the weekend.
Train service from Brussels Airport – There is a train station in the basement of Brussels Airport. The station provides service to many locations in Belgium and even Thalys service to Paris. Service to Brussels operates about 3 times per hour, but is not evenly spaced (i.e., not every 20 minutes). Trains on this line are frequently delayed because of congestion in the Brussels tunnel, so even if you think you have missed your connection, check the departure board. Brussels trains all stop at Brussels Nord, Central, and Midi stations. Tickets cost 17 euro round trip in December 2014.