1. Brussels: Explore the neighbourhoods
Brussels is a city of neighbourhoods. In fact, these neighbourhoods are actually separate cities that have been banded together to form the “city” of Brussels. These neighbourhoods have their own character and their own commercial areas filled with cafes, restaurants and markets serving the local population. So get out of the centre and explore Brussels’ neighbourhoods. Some recommendations: St. Boniface (see below); Place Flagey (don’t miss le Fleur du Pain bakery; Le Pantin café for a beer)
2. 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. Some of my favorite places: L’ultime Atome (good bet for a simple meal), L’athnee is a great neighbourhood pub, Beer Mania has hundreds of artisanal beers and souvenirs, and Titulus Wine Bar serving wine, cheese, sausage and wonderful bread.
3. Central Brussels
The Grand Place is beautiful, but touristy. Nearby is the historic 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.
The people from Brasserie Cantillon (next item) have a fun walking tour from Grand Place to their brewery with lots of interesting information about the city that you won’t find elsewhere including a great restaurant recommendation. (Brasserie Cantillon walking tour – PDF).
4. Brasserie Cantillon
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. They have 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. 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.).
5. Moeder Lambic
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!
6. Art Nouveau – Jugendstil in Brussels
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.
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 Bruges 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 Bruges. Some recommendations in Ghent: Ghent Museum of Design is excellent, nearby Waterhuis aan de Bierkant is a historic beer pub located on the canal; the canals are fun to walk along with lots of places to eat, drink and hang out; Brasserie Pakhuis is a very nice restaurant.
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 recommendations: the Antwerp Central Train station was renovated and is fantastic; MAS (Museum aan de Stroom) is a museum on Antwerp’s history and culture, great views from the roof; historic centre – beautiful square with cathedral, lots of places to eat, drink and shop; historic bike and pedestrian tunnel under the Schelde river; De Konnick City Brewery has tours and quality food shops, across the street is the Brasserie DePelgrim pub; another restaurant recommendation is de Groote Witte Arend a beautiful old structure that once served as a convent.
10. Ypres / Ieper
Ypres was one of the main battlegrounds during World War I. Today many of the sites have been replaced by farms, making it hard to believe there could have been a war, but there are traces in the town and countryside. The town centre is dominated by the Medieval Cloth Hall which is now the excellent In Flanders Fields Museum on World War I history. The Ypres Salient themed bicycle route takes you to the main WWI battle sites around Ieper (map at museum bookshop). Some recommendations: Chez Marie bike rentals and picnic foods, in’T Klein Stadhuis restaurant (fantastic Carbonnade and local beers). Don’t miss the Last Post – every night at 20:00 a ceremony held at the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing. It’s a very moving experience.
An interesting mix of World War I history and the heart of Belgium’s hops growing district (= good beer!) only about a 15-minute train ride from Ieper. The Hops Museum is a very nice museum where you can learn everything you ever wanted to know about hops, in an old hops storehouse. They have a joint ticket with the Talbot House, a refuge for British soldiers during WWI. 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 museum is interesting and sort of rounds out your experience of World War I history.
12. Ride the 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. There is a train station in Brussels Airport with frequent service to Brussels and other Belgium cities. Buying your ticket online in advance is especially helpful here for avoiding the lines.