On January 18, my friend and I booked flights to Brussels.
Less than a week later, we were there.
Budget flight. Crappy hostel. Strange metro system. One backpack. Up there with the happiest weekends of my life! Seriously. So good that I bought a souvenir sweatshirt.
Here’s a breakdown of my 45 hours in Belgium:
Friday, January 24
I was up at 2:30 a.m. for our 6:30 a.m. flight. Brutal. But dressed in my yellow outfit, with my McDonald’s coffee in hand, I was so jacked up on adrenaline that it didn’t even matter!
We bought a bus ticket to the city center from the airport, and from there, we had to Uber to our hostel. The traveling definitely wore me out, but I was so excited to be in a new country that I didn’t even really notice my exhaustion until later that night.
Driving in, Brussels honestly didn’t look like anything special. It was rainy, cold, and gloomy, and the areas surrounding the city seemed sort of run down. Our hostel (14 euros a night, approximately) wasn’t exactly the Ritz, either. But we laughed at the showers that only stayed on for thirty seconds at a time, locked up our stuff, and headed out to see whatever there is to see.
I had virtually no idea what there would be to see, but I have never been more pleasantly surprised in my life!
Our hostel was about a 20 minute metro from Grand Place, which is the center of the city. Before making our way to the middle, we explored the outskirts a little bit. We stopped for lunch at a precious restaurant called Peck 47. Covered in plants and quirky decor, with a menu chock-full of organic power juices, unusual lattes, and vegan options, I knew I was definitely in the right place. I ordered a pesto grilled cheese and a cup of fennel soup, and, of course, a beer.
We meandered around the streets for a while longer, coming upon open squares between narrow cobblestone streets full of waffle stands and Instagrammable brunch cafes. There were street musicians everywhere, which I loved.
We then stumbled upon the Royal Gallery of Saint Hubert, a long, covered shopping strip with tons of chocolate shops! We stopped in far too many for free samples (my favorite was a cinnamon covered truffle!), and I purchased a few pieces from Chocolaterie Mary. I was drawn to this particular store because it was opened by the first female chocolatier in the early 1900s, and everything is still handmade in shop to this day!
After traveling Spain for a few weeks now, we’ve grown accustomed to paying to enter cathedrals. This is where Brussels surprised (and spoiled) us! We found the city’s cathedral, which bears striking resemblance to Notre Dame, and were able to go inside for free. The neat thing about this church is that it still serves its original function. There are no tours. There is no gift shop or museum. It’s just heavy silence, lit candles, and people praying in the different chapels. It was lovely and a great place to wander and reflect, away from the cold.
I had found a free tour of the city that started at 4, so we started to head to the Grand Place to meet our guide. I only wish that my pictures did this square justice. It was adorned in gold, dripping with character, clearly ancient but so well-preserved and buzzing with activity that it felt like stepping backwards in time. The details on the buildings were breathtaking.
Our tour guide for the next two and a half hours was hilarious, and, having grown up in the city himself, he had so many stories to tell and so much knowledge to share. I never knew what a rich history Belgium had. Up until a few days ago, I couldn’t tell you the first thing about it. But shortly after seeing the house where Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables and the square he crossed every day to meet his muse, the tavern where he and Karl Marx regularly hung out, and the very streets where Rimbaud wandered, I began to realize how fortunate I was to be in this place, learning these things, and seeing them with my own eyes.
Our guide explained that Brussels was a place where people often came to find themselves and to be themselves. It was, as he put it, a city of “weirdos”. It’s location in the middle of so many major powers meant that everyone spoke different languages and had different cultures. No one here batted an eye at “different”, because there was really no solid concept of similarity. Today, Brussels is one of the most progressive places for LGBT rights in the world. It’s the place with the second most nationalities represented in the world (one nationality behind Dubai). 55% of its residents weren’t born there. It’s become a melting pot, with hundreds of influences clearly scattered across its ancient streets, keeping it young and upbeat and astoundingly different.
“If you ever feel like you don’t belong,” said our guide, “no one really belongs here, so we all do! So you’ll always have a place in Brussels.”
I thought that was just the best 🙂
We moved on to see Mannekin Pis, the third most famous statue in the world. He was underwhelming, but the Belgian fascination with him is actually quite hilarious. This city is quite literally obsessed with him. There’s a whole museum full of his outfits (he’s dressed up for different occasions, and someone is actually appointed by the government to be his official designer). Every chocolate shop has modeled him out of chocolate. He’s on souvenir t-shirts and magnets. And no one can really tell you why he’s so famous. He’s just very odd. As is all of Brussels. And that is probably exactly why, at this point, I was head over heels in love with this city.
We retreated to a few stops that we had already accidentally seen, like the Royal Galleries and the cathedral, but our guide gave us some great recommendations on eateries and on what to drink!
We stopped for a drink break at a bar called Scott’s, where I tried “kriek”, which is signature Belgian cherry beer. It tastes nothing like beer. It is very delicious and very dangerous and I already miss it very much.
We ended our tour with another history lesson (about how the Belgian king SEVERELY mistreated innocent people in the Congo; it was nice to actually hear something that wasn’t nice, and to be reminded that people suffered for all of the grandeur that this city has today), and let out at the top of a hill with stunning views. The city was lit up so beautifully! Starving once again, Caroline and I decided to go get fries.
Fun fact (I’m full of fun facts, guys!): fries are from BELGIUM, not France. And if you say “French fries” on the street Belgian people will hear you and loudly correct you!!! So, back to Belgian fries…
…we went with the recommendation of our tour guide and headed to a place called Georgette’s. The typical thing to do with Belgian fries is to get them at a streetside stand, smother them in one of many different sauces, and eat them outside. But it was cold. And our feet hurt. So we splurged big time and went into the fancy, attached restaurant to eat inside.
I got a veggie burger and these fries that make all other fries I’ve had in myself look like soggy, bottom-of-the-bag mistakes. We got the signature Georgette sauce, which is made with melted blue cheese, and a truffle mayo. SO GOOD. Seriously. SO BEYOND GOOD!
We topped off the night at Delirium, which is (as you probably know) one of the most famous bars in the world. It’s the Guiness World Record holder for having the most kinds of beer on menu, with over 2000 to choose from! I got geuze, which is a sour beer specific to Belgium. I actually liked it a lot!
Walking back to the metro, we marveled at all of the lights above our heads. Belgium is decked out like it’s Christmas every day, and I started to gauge where I was in the city off of what the lights between the buildings looked like!
Saturday, January 25
I woke up in the best mood, despite being woken up by my new roommates coming in late and snoring all night. We were headed to a chocolate making class!
I have no words for how fun this was. It was 2.5 hours of tasting, pouring, and designing our own chocolates. We learned how to make pralines and medallions. They came out so beautiful and tasted so good– my favorites were the ones that I filled with homemade chocolate ganache and caramel!
My favorite part of the experience was the hot chocolate that we made as our chocolate molds set in the fridge. Our instructor took melted chocolate from the pots and mixed it with warm milk to create the most DELICIOUS thing that I have ever tasted. Heaven in a cup. 10/10. Will never be able to regress to Swiss Miss.
On our way to go find waffles for lunch, we stumbled across this little marching band playing outside of the Mannekin Pis. The statue was even dressed up like them! I have no clue what the occasion was, but it was fun!
Finally, waffles. Mine was topped with caramel and cooked strawberries. My verdict is that, yes, there’s a reason they’re called Belgian waffles.
We headed uptown to check out the political district. It was so beyond beautiful and every corner was picturesque! Here are some of the gardens, conservatories, mansions, and other ~cool stuff~ that we found on our way to the Royal Palace:
The palace was closed to the public, but it was a sight to behold anyway:
On our walk back to the city center, we saw lots of antique shops, which was interesting!
We had to get fries again, because we had to, and this time we went to Friteland, a stand outside. It was cold but so worth it!
We had planned to do a cheap beer tour that night, but due to some miscommunications with the tour guide, it was already full when we got there. So we made our own beer tour! We tried this sampler of four different Belgian beers, and I learned that I like light beer best!
We went across the street to an upscale little joint called “Cafe Mort Subite”, which was still decked out in its decor from the 1920s. I had my last cherry beer of the trip (sad), and then cut myself off, because Belgian beer is significantly stronger than beer in other places in the world!
We finished the night at this restaurant called the Drug Opera. We walked by it about twenty times over the course of two days and kept thinking, “what the hell is the Drug Opera?!” so we decided to just go in and find out. Turns out, it’s a nice restaurant with heating, so we sat inside and ate while we mustered up the courage to go back into the cold and get home.
We had to leave bright and early on Sunday morning to make it to the airport for our flight.
Brussels absolutely blew all of my expectations out of the water. It was quirky and lively and historic and messy and proud: all of the things that a city should be. My first trip was SUCH a success, and I can’t wait for Paris this coming weekend!
Things Brussels Taught me That I Want to Carry Forever:
- Food should be art, not math.
- In a place where the sun never shines, there can still be warmth.
- Do spontaneous things. Do things before you know if they’re going to work out.
- “Breakfast” food is a myth. Eat breakfast for every meal.
- Sleep on shitty mattresses and drink cheap drinks.
- Travel does not have to be expensive to be exquisite.
- Walk everywhere you go like the streets are filled with music.
- Be proud of what makes you weird.
- It doesn’t have to make sense. Maybe it shouldn’t make sense. Maybe that’s okay.
- If you’re ever lost, there is somewhere you can go to start over.