In October, I finally made it back to Europe! If you've been a blog reader pre-pandemic you might know that I love to travel and try to go on at least one international trip a year. Unfortunately that streak ended last year (we made it to Mexico in February 2020 so the streak was still alive then) but we're officially back!
This time, we wanted to keep the trip as simple as possible after hearing travel horror stories. We always travel with just carry-on items, but we also wanted to take a direct flight. For us in Raleigh, that led us to Paris, and from there we decided to take a train to Brussels and explore Belgium for a few days. Getting local trains after that was easy, and we stayed in Bruges and Antwerp, with day trips to Ghent, Brussels and Dinant. Here are some highlights from each city! Up next- our visit to Luxembourg.
Hotel: Grand Hotel Casslebergh. This hotel was awesome! The location was central, right beside Burg Square. Our room was in the historic part of the hotel and looked so grand with the incredibly high ceilings and chandelier. The breakfast was a buffet full of fresh fruit, baked goods, cold cuts and salmon. Fun fact- the maple syrup they had was from a farm that was right by the town where Dan grew up! We ate at the restaurant once when we visited his family, so it was fun to see it all the way in Belgium.
Best Meal: FritBar. We knew that Belgium was known for fries (and waffles and mussels and beer and chocolate...) so we tried a few options and this was my favorite! There were so many fun combinations you could try yourself, but my favorite was the Veggie Chili Cheese Fries. Hit the spot for sure!
Best Activity: My favorite activity we did was renting bikes and following a canal through Damme all the way to Sluis, Netherlands (a total of about 25 miles). We rented regular bikes from a shop at the train station (just follow signs for "bike rental"), and followed the ring road around to the other side of the city. From here, all we had to do was follow the straight road along the canal! Super simple and an easy, flat ride. The views were beautiful, and it was so fun to bike through rural towns. The town of Sluis was really cute, and I wish we had more time so we could have had dinner in town!
Best Meal: Not a meal, but we had a really interesting coffee experience! We were wandering around and trying to find something for a caffeine fix and saw a sign that said "the best iced coffee in Europe" and looked like a really interesting, modern shop. Definitely a tourist trap but we fell right into it and I don't even regret it! The shop was called Izy, and their iced coffee seriously was the best we had on our trip. They had so many insane flavors but I decided to try their Iced Coffee of the Week, which was crazy melon. Never thought to mix melon and iced coffee, but it worked! The texture was more like a milkshake but the flavor was so weird but wonderful and I really liked it!
Best Activity: As soon as we saw the beautiful castle above (Gravensteen, or the Castle of the Counts), I knew we had to visit it. We got there just as it was opening for the day and got our device to take on a self-guided tour. It was so interesting and the commentary was hilarious! I would highly recommend if you're in Ghent, but definitely get there as soon as possible. By the time we left there was a huge line, and it was during the week in the off-season.
Recommendations: The city isn't too big, so it's really easy to walk around and see everything! I liked some of the more off-beat suggestions like the Graffiti Street above, while the Dali digital immersive show at an old Gothic church kind of let me down. Also- we got a train into the city and took a tram from the train station to the downtown tourist area. You can either purchase a ticket at the tram stops (super easy!) or use the touch-and-pay credit card machine inside the tram.
Best Meal: We didn't have any meals in Brussels, so my recommendation is for another coffee shop. The day we went to the city was our only rainy day in Belgium, so our first stop was to find some shelter and warmth! We went to a coffee shop / urban jungle called GRUUN. It was such a beautiful, tranquil spot and I wanted to pull up a laptop and work from there! Not only did they have a great menu of drinks, but also lots of plants and pots for sale. I got a simple flat white and it was really good and came with a cookie which is always welcome in my book. Bonus- by the time we finished the rain had stopped.
Best Activity: To be honest, this was probably my least favorite stop on our trip. Maybe it was the weather, but I just wasn't a big fan of Brussels! We only spent a few hours there and just wandered around, but my favorite thing was probably going to Delirium Cafe. This is a multi-level, sprawling complex with all the Belgian beer you can wish for, including the namesake Delirium! We stopped here twice (once on our actual day we visited, and once while waiting for our return train to Paris) and enjoyed it more than the other breweries and bars we visited. You can also see one of the famous peeing statues (yes- the symbol for the city is a little peeing boy called Manneken Pis, and there are a little girl and dog version to go with it). By the way- if you look at the picture above and see a red barrel lid with yellow lettering on the wall- that's for Iron City Brewing back in Pittsburgh! Loved seeing that all the way in Belgium.
Recommendations: Even though this wasn't my favorite city, it's so central to everything else in Belgium and outside countries, so I think it would be a good place to stay. In Bruges it took us a while to get anywhere, and a lot of routes went through Brussels. Plus- you have easy access to international trains, and all of the shops you could want (including Leonidas, our favorite chocolate store we tried).
Hotel: Since we were only staying for one night and didn't really have plans to stay in our room at all, we didn't particularly care what hotel we were in. So- we used points to stay at the Hampton right at the train station! Surprisingly we didn't hear any trains at all, and the location was absolutely perfect. We were right outside of the station, and it was just a few minutes' walk to any major attraction. The breakfast was good, and we also got two free beers (hotel beers in Belgium mean Leffe and Duval..I'll take it!)
Best Activity: The main reason we went to Antwerp (and stayed overnight) was to go to the European Open! We didn't plan to go ahead of time but since the dates worked out and we love watching tennis, we decided to spend a day at the tournament. It's always interesting to see how unique each tournament is (I believe this is our fourth one), and this was my first time at an indoor match. They played at the Lotto Arena, with a second court in a tent under a bridge! It was very different but a lot of fun, and we got some pictures with the players which is always a nice bonus.
Recommendations: This city is amazing! It reminded me of a mix of Brussels with being a big, bustling city, with the beauty of Ghent and Bruges. Truly perfect! One regret we had was not checking out the Rubens House, which is a museum in the former artist's house. We walked by it but didn't have time to stop in and it looked incredible. We did see some really cool gardens and sculptures all around town, my two favorites being the Plantentuin and the Nello and Patrache statue (above!)
Best Meal: We were only in town for a short while as we drove from Brussels to Luxembourg, but that was enough time to grab a quick bite and have some beer! (#priorities...). When we got in, it was still pretty early and not many restaurants were open, but we found a little cafe that was half tea shop and half chocolate shop with a small breakfast/lunch menu. The views of the Meuse River were also amazing from here, so we couldn't have asked for a better spot to stumble upon! I had a tomato pesto grilled cheese which was great, and we grabbed some chocolates before heading out. Sad story- I kind of forgot about them and by the time we got to our hotel in Lux I pulled out the bag of treats and it was chocolate soup. Regrets, I have a few. But- on the bright side, we hiked over to the Leffe brewery after eating and had some amazing beers in their beer garden! Definite highlight of the trip, and if we had more time we would have taken the self-guided tour.
Best Activity: We decided on a whim to visit the Citadel that looms over the town- mostly because we wanted to take the cable car up and see the view from the top, and the only way to do that was buying a combo ticket. I'm so glad we did that, because it was fascinating! Not only was the view magnificent, but the actual fortress was interesting to explore. There was one station that made it seem like you were in the barracks that just got hit with a shell, with the floor completely tilted and throwing off your balance. There were also sound effects all around and no lights, so it was a really intense experience!
Recommendations: This was mostly a stop just to break up our drive, but I would definitely recommend taking a day trip here! It's only about an hour and a half away from Brussels, and there was so much to do and see. It's also the home of the saxophone, so it was interesting to see all of the sax statues and visit the free museum to learn more about the inventor of the saxophone.