brussels, belgium

We began our Christmas trip around Europe on December 18th in Brussels, Belgium.  I'd like to give a really neat answer for why we chose Brussels to begin our trip, but the answer is really quite simple: cheap flights.  We, along with our checked suitcase, flew to Brussels for $42 on a Friday afternoon.  Prior to our selecting Brussels as one of destinations for our trip, neither of our knew much about the city, let alone Belgium.  And, as it turned out, we really loved it.  Take a look at some pictures of our first evening exploring the Christmas markets and the Grand Place, if you like.

When I think back about our trip so far, and I'm forced to pick a favorite (spoiler alert), Brussels gets my vote, and these pictures capture it for me: Brussels at night.  It was just so festive and the Grand Place was so stunning, and I think we were both still a little bit in awe of it all (Christmas markets, lights, etc.) still.

On our first evening, we ate falafel wraps at a place right by St. Catherine's Church recommended to us by our Airbnb host, and it was actually really good, if not all that Belgian.  We also had our first Belgian chocolate, which we got from Leonidas.  I had read that while many Belgian chocolate snobs like to criticize Leonidas, which has chains all over the place (even in the U.S.) it has a price-quality ratio that can't be beat.  Price + quality sounded like a combo that was right up our alley, so we gave them a try and didn't regret it.

Other highlights from night one included the two gorgeous carousels we saw while walking around.  I think they were out specially for the Christmas season, and they were the most unique, imaginative carousels ever.  Spaceships, hot air balloons, dinosaurs, ostriches, seahorses - there was a fleeting moment where I considered buying a ticket to ride, but I believe this was one of those times were I couldn't pass for under 12.

The Sound & Light Show at the Grand Place was pretty magnificent too.  All of the buildings in the square - which is said to be Europe's most ornate and theatrical - were lit up in different colors along with music fitting for the location (think classical and modern classical) combined to make a fantastic show that made you wonder where to look as lights danced all around.  It was beautiful.

On Saturday morning we started out at the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, which has hosted many royal weddings and important funerals in Belgium.  It was grand inside, but we especially enjoyed the nativity scenes from around the world lining the inside of the church.

After the church, we walked to the Galeries St-Hubert, which we had walked through the previous evening (it's where we got our Leonidas chocolate!). Magical at night with all of the Christmas lights, but perhaps even nicer during the day with sunlight streaming in, we had our first Belgian waffle at Mokafe.  Locals get their waffles at this old-fashioned cafe that's a bit worn inside (and even has a resident pet cat named Mocha who lives there!), but you get to watch passing shoppers from inside or even if you sit outside the cafe in the gallery.  Either way, it's a pretty, charming setting, perfect for a Belgian waffle.  We chose the classic for our first one and it was really good.

After our tasty snack, we went to see the Grand Place in the light, as well as the Manneken Pis statue.  We finished our morning with lunch at Thérèse et Dominique, a sandwich place that had come highly recommended a la Yelp (our review: the sandwiches were good, but probably not the best we've ever had, which is what we may have been expecting).

Our hearty lunch fortifying us, we discovered a charming park on our way to the Eglise Notre Dame Du Sablon, a 15th century Catholic church we took a quick peek inside.  We also wandered around the Place du Grand Sablon, which is a very old square (think 500ish years old) that on the day we visited (a Saturday) was hosting a large antique market.  Like a Christmas market, but for antiques.  Too bad we're packing light on this trip, and that we're not really buying anything for our place in Madrid either, because there was a globe and some art that wanted to go home with us.

Next we visited the Magritte Museum, which is full of the work of Belgian artist René Magritte.  Magritte was a surrealist, and while we're into trying new things, once in a while we do something that afterwards we think, "Meh.  We could have done without doing that."  This was one of those things for us.  Some people, no doubt, really love the work of Mr. Magritte, and from what we saw online, we thought we would too, but many of the works we thought we would get to see, weren't there.  We weren't too disappointed though because the entrance fee wasn't too steep (the cutoff for the student discount is typically 25 here, but the guy insisted we both go in as students even though we explained Danny is 26!) and we learned about a new style of art.

Afterwards we walked by the Royal Palace (so gorgeous) on our way to the Parlamentarium.  Going to the Parlamentarium was kind of a last minute choice for us.  Many of the reviews I'd read online made it sound dull, out of the way, and not worth a visit, especially if your time in Brussels is limited.  Well, we didn't want boring or inconvenient, but did want something free and indoors, and it qualified on both fronts, so we decided to check it out.

Turns out all the online reviewers are crazy (in my opinion).  We wish we had devoted at least 2-3 (or more!) hours to the Parlamentarium.  It's the visitor's center for the European Union Parliament (which is located in Brussels), took six years to build, and is very well done.  It's engaging, it's high-tech, and it's full of helpful, knowledgable staff.  Really, we can't recommend it more, and we only got to go for a little over an hour before they closed.

We (sadly) left the Parlamentarium at closing time and headed back into the main part of town for dinner and to wrap up the evening.  It may not have been the most nutritious meal (or trip, really), but we had fries and waffles.  When in Brussels, I suppose.  Fries from Fritland, right near the Grand Place, and waffles on Waffle Row (as Danny affectionately called it) near the Manneken Pis.  Speaking of the little guy, we stopped by to see him (without his costume on this time) while we were in the area eating our waffles.  On our way home, we passed through the Christmas markets again, and stopped to watch some ice skating.

On Sunday, we took the train to Bruges, which I'll give its own post.  In the evening, we were back in Brussels, for one last waffle at Mokafe (sorry to the joints on Waffle Row, but your one euro waffles just don't really compare), a final purchase at Leonidas, and a stop by the Grand Place, of course.  

The next morning we got up quite early for our flight to Berlin to continue our journey.  I forgot my backpack at our Airbnb, and Danny kindly ran (truly) back to get it on our way to the train station.  Speaking of mishaps, now seems like as good a time as any to mention that we've had our fair share.  Perhaps sometimes the carefully curated pictures on this blog and on our Instagram feeds make it seem that we're just having a ball all day every day, but what you don't see is the time that I printed out two of the same bus ticket, meaning only one of us could get on, and we nearly had to purchase another 14 euro ticket to get from the airport to Brussels, but instead just paid 2 euros to use the internet at the airport so we could pull up the other bus ticket in my email.  Frustrating, since it was totally avoidable if I'd printed the correct tickets in the first place, but fixable.  You don't see the times we argue about money or what time we should go to bed.  And it's not so glamorous when we wake up at 3:45am to walk to the train station to catch a bus to take us to the airport so we can make our flight on time.

All that real talk aside, Brussels was really good.  It was a tad chillier than Madrid (50's, unseasonably warm, people told us), but it stayed that way even at night, whereas in Madrid it gets cold at night (think 30's).  The days were short (it's winter, so it's dark a lot of the time), but all the better for light shows and Christmas lights and all that jazz, right?  The food was really good.  I mean, waffles, fries, and chocolate?  The city was walkable and never felt overwhelming - we felt like we could see it in 2-3 days.  We took public transit on our first day when we had our suitcases, but other than that, we walked everywhere.  It was just very manageable.  If we never go back to Brussels (which would be a real shame, but let's just say we never did), I think we could safely say we saw everything we wanted to.  We were interested in a few other places, but the displays were in only French and Dutch, so we didn't visit.  Besides the few museums that seemed to be in other languages, everyone spoke English and public signs were mostly in English as well.  We had no trouble getting around without speaking either of the two languages of Belgium (French and Dutch).  Just writing about our time makes me want to go back and eat waffles and chocolate (not impressed by the fries, sorry to say) and watch the light show all evening.  Sigh.  Brussels - you are so grand!