Before Christmas 2009 I did a weekend in Brussels. It was my first time to Belgium and I had no idea what to expect (and I certainly wasn’t ready for how cold it was going to be!). It also got pretty interesting by the end of the weekend, but I’ll get into that later.
Things to See and Do
Built for the World’s Fair in 1958, it’s an enormous steel structure built out in the suburb of Heysel and represents 9 steel spheres connected to form the shape of an iron cell magnified 165 billion times.
Lines may be long during peak periods to get in, but it is worthwhile checking out. The views from the top are amazing, especially on a clear day. You take an elevator right up the centre shaft to the top sphere, and then take escalators and staircases down each other connecting shaft to the other spheres. There’s lots of interesting info about the World’s Fair that took place on the surrounding site in 1958 and also about the construction of the Atomium itself. Take the metro to Heysel and then it’s a quick 5 minute walk around to the Atomium site.
The focal point of old town Brussels, the Grand Place (Grote Markt in Flemish). The architecture of the 300 odd year old buildings here is something else. Wander around taking it all in and perhaps stop into one of the bars surrounding the square for a quick beer. Make sure you check out the City Tower in the square in the evening. They put on an amazing sound and light show on the facade of the building that’s worth sticking around in the cold for. The building in the photo below is the Brussels Museum, which is worth a visit to learn about how the city came to be over hundreds of years.
European Parliament/European Commission District
Brussels is the capital of the European Union and as such there is an entire precinct made up of various diplomatic buildings housing EU staff and representatives. Take the metro to Schuman station and get out underneath the European Parliament.
If you go during the week you should get an opportunity to sit in on a meeting and watch some politicians go at it, making decisions that affect the entire EU. Walk further west up to the Arc d’Triumphe and the Car Museum to make a bit more of your trip out to Schuman.
One of the most famous landmarks of Brussels, Mannekin Pis (or Pissing Boy). It’s really just a statue on a street corner and it will always be chockers with tourists taking photos. They dress the statue up in various costumes throughout the year to celebrate holidays/events so you never know what the little blighter might be dressed up as.
Now, this one is for the beer barons out there that really want to get a sample of Belgian beer. It is a very touristy kind of place but they have over 2000 beers behind the bar for you to try out and they have a great atmosphere going on downstairs. It’s spread out over 3 levels with the busiest level being in the basement and the quietest on the top level, where table service is available. Definitely round up some new mates from the hostel and head down. Everyone knows where it is so if you can’t find it, ask a local and they’ll point you in the right direction.
Belgian Brewery Museum
If you’re quite intrigued by the whole story behind Belgian beer, then the Brewery Museum is worth a visit (plus you get a beer at the end). It tells the general brewing story but there is also a 10-20 minute video to watch that tells you about how Belgian beer is made and where, and how it has become so well known worldwide. It’s a good finale before you head back to London on the Sunday afternoon (that is if you’re not totally destroyed and hung-over from the night before).
Without a doubt the 3 things you must try in Brussels are frites (fries, make sure you get them with mayonnaise all over the top, so good), Belgian waffles (there’s an interesting guide to waffles in Brussels in the map that 2go4 give out) and of course, the fantastic beer. You can get all the best known Belgian beers (Leffe, Kwak, Chimay, etc) at any supermarket around town and it’s way cheaper than anywhere you’ve ever had these beers, so grab one and cruise around town smashing it down.
How to get there
You can get a Eurostar train direct from London St Pancras to Brussels Midi station which will cost you about £100 (depends on your age (you can get a youth fare if you’re under 25) and the time you depart/return). This is what I did, and the journey takes around 2 hours depending on weather conditions. Eurostar is a good option because it means you leave from the centre of London and arrive pretty much in the centre of Brussels, so there’s only very minor transfers on either side to and from the airport, saving you time and cash.
Neither easyJet or Ryanair fly from London to either Brussels Nationale Airport (about 15 km north east out of Brussels) or Charleroi Airport (which is much further south), so if you want to fly over, your only real (expensive) choice is British Airways, Brussels Airlines or a similar full service carrier.
Speaking of Eurostar, I was embroiled in the whole snow cancellations thing whilst I was there and was stranded in Brussels Sunday night and incurred €400 in hotels, flights and taxi costs so I could get back to London for work on the Monday morning. Just goes to show, not all weekends away go to plan.
Where to Stay
Brussels has a number of good hostels around town, but I stayed at the 2go4 hostel on Rue Emile Jacquemain in the north end of town. It’s easy to get there from Brussels Midi (use the tram, don’t pay €15 like I did on a taxi when I arrived). They have a pretty cool, modern setup going on, with a nice common area and kitchen, friendly and helpful staff (one guy gave me a few real good beers to sample at Delirium Bar that I’ll talk about further on). Each 6 bed dorm room has an ensuite and this hostel is especially good for the social factor. I met heaps of people from all over the place at this hostel and spent both nights drinking with some cool Korean and Italian guys as well as the token other Aussie travellers. This hostel also gives you a great map of the city put together by local volunteers that explains a lot about Brussels culture and some hidden away spots you won’t find referenced in travel guides.
Get around in Brussels
Getting around in Brussels is made pretty easy using the metro and tram system. It goes all over the city and to all the various places you’ll want to check out, with stations dotted everywhere. The trams here actually run underground, a level above the metro lines, rather than on top with the cars.
Taxis are pretty expensive, so only use them if you are completely lost upon arriving or you need to get out to the airport quick smart.
Depending on your drinking appetite, €100 for the weekend including hostel, food, entry to attractions and maybe a pair of gloves if you get in and it’s –15 Celsius and you come unprepared like I did. Train/flight will be about ~£100 return.
Brussels is an amazing city, despite what some people may say about it. It is packed with heritage and a vibe unlike any other European city I’ve visited. You could easily spend many more days here wandering around the streets and checking out the flea markets and other interesting areas of the city. It’s close proximity to London and connection via Eurostar make it a great way to spend a weekend, especially if you like chocolate, fries and beer!