Most people traveling to Belgium for the first time will ask themselves whether to choose Bruges or Brussels for their getaway. Bruges is a small medieval city in West Flanders, extremely photogenic thanks to its architecture and canals, packed with tourists all year round. On the other hand, Brussels, the capital of the country since it gained independence, is a multicultural city, home to more than two million inhabitants, and hosts the EU and NATO headquarters. So it’s traditional Bruges against cosmopolitan Brussels. Which one to choose? Well, since I couldn’t make up my mind and had four days in hand, I decided to split them and went for both. Was it enough time, thought, to get a full taste of the two?
Visiting Belgium in April, when the temperatures are cooler, nature comes back to life, and there are less tourists around, is not a bad option at all. You might encounter windy weather and some rain, but there’s no guarantee that this won’t happen in the summer. Just don’t expect the crowds to be completely gone, cause both cities are still pretty packed with travelers.
Before moving to the trip itself, let me tell you a bit about the modern Belgian state: it was established less than 200 years ago, in 1830, following the Belgian Revolution that saw the country declaring independence from the Netherlands. It has been a constitutional monarchy ever since, patterned after the UK model, divided into three regions, each with its own official language. In the north we have Flanders (Flemish-speaking), in the south Wallonia (French-speaking, with a small German-speaking community near the German border), and in the center Brussels (bilingual, French and Flemish).
As a result of its rich cultural blending, Belgium was at the origin of several European artistic movements, such as the Baroque painting, the Art Nouveau architecture, the Mosan art or the comic strip magazines. Now that I’ve probably bored most of you with these historical and geographical facts, how about I throw in a few interesting ones? Here you go:
it has the highest urbanized population in the world (~98%), if we exclude microstates;
it has more castles per square kilometer than any other country;
its highway network, which is almost fully lit, can be seen from outer space;
Napoleon’s final battle took place in 1815 at Waterloo, south of Brussels;
Antwerp, Belgium’s second largest city, is the diamond capital of the world, handling 85% of the rough diamonds and 50% of the cut ones.
How to travel between Brussels airports and the cities
Belgium has five international airports, the major ones being the two located near the capital: Brussels (BRU) and Brussels South Charleroi (CRL). I landed on the second, which is the most punctual in all of Europe – strange if you consider that it’s mainly used by low-cost carriers, and departed from the first.
Reaching Bruges from CRL can be done with the Flibco bus company, which also connects this airport with the capital. Be aware that if you purchase the tickets from the bus stop counter, the price will be higher compared to their website (€23 versus €18.2). As a side note, I saw that many people were complaining online about their services and cancellation policy, or about having to wait for hours, cause the buses were full and not many enough. I didn’t encounter any issues, must have been lucky.
From Bruges to Brussels, I used the train, which is faster and costs €14.7, for up to two people – so if you’re traveling with your loved one, it’s also very cheap. I recommend the train for the trip to BRU airport, too; it’s €3.7 for up to two people, but have in mind that you’ll have to purchase a supplement, which is €5.7 per person, to be able to pass through the airport station gates.
The local cuisine has two main influences: French and Flemish (Dutch and German). In general, dishes tend to be prepared using French methods, but the ingredients are more Flemish oriented: potatoes, stews, game meats. There’s a saying about the Belgian food: “it is served in the quantity of German cuisine, with the quality of French food”. Now, this quote is not that exaggerated, but I’d like to think that French cuisine is more subtle and refined.
Belgium is mostly famous for its chocolate (producing around 11% of the world’s chocolate), beer (with more than 300 active breweries, from international brands to Trappist monasteries), waffles and French fries. Did you know that Belgians actually invented these, in spite of the naming? Dishes vary from one region to another, with some of the most popular ones being stoofvlees (Flemish stew), moules-frites (mussels and fries), chicons au gratin (endives wrapped in ham with cheese), boulet à la liégeoise (pork and beef meatballs in sweet-sour sauce) and stoemp (mashed potatoes and other root vegetables).
Belgium is not a cheap country to visit, and this can be seen in the accommodation prices as well. Despite my initial expectations, I ended up paying more per night in Brussels (a bigger city with more options) than in Bruges. My budget for a double room with breakfast included was somewhere between €100 and €150 per night, which is higher than I usually tend to pay. The one night in Bruges was spent at Zakske 13 Boutique Hotel (Zakske 13), a pleasant bed and breakfast located in an authentic building, not far from the main square. The two nights in the capital were spent at Novotel Brussels City Centre (Rue de la Vierge Noire 32), which apart from the location and the nice view from the 6th floor room, was rather disappointing for a 4* hotel, specially in terms of furniture and comfort.
Guide to Bruges
Also known as “Venice of the North” due to its many canals, Bruges (or Brugge, in Flemish) is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Europe. Its historic center has most of its old architecture intact and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. And despite having a population of just over 100,000 inhabitants, it is visited each year by 8 to 9 million people (pre-pandemic stats). Two days may not seem like much, but it was enough for me to do some sightseeing and try the local food. Let’s start:
→ Grote Markt is a place full of history, the scene of many festivals, fairs, tournaments and executions during the Middle Ages. The most remarkable buildings in the square are the Belfry (the 83 meters high bell tower), the Provinciaal Hof (a former government meeting house, transformed into a ceremonial one) and the colorful row houses.
→ 100 meters to the east, you’ll reach another important square, De Burg. It’s a nice spot to soak in the atmosphere, while enjoying a drink and a waffle. The square is surrounded on two sides by iconic buildings, such as Stadhuis Brugge (the town hall), Brugse Vrije Museum and Basiliek van het Heilig Bloed, best known for housing a relic said to contain a cloth with the blood of Jesus Christ.
→ Steenstraat (Stone Street) is one of the most important cobblestone streets from the historic center, a road believed to have been used from the earliest times, even long before the Roman era (~50 BC). Nowadays, its filled with shops, cafes and restaurants, and connects the Grote Markt with Sint-Salvatorskathedraal. This Gothic church is the oldest in Bruges and impresses with its massive tower and the large collection of Flemish art that can be found inside.
→ Onze Lieve Vrouw Brugge (Church of Our Lady) is another fine example of the Gothic style, which took two centuries to be completed. It’s the highest structure of the city, with its spire reaching 122m, and is famous for the Modonna and Child, a marble sculpture made by the great Michelangelo in 1504. In the back of the cathedral you’ll find one of the tourists’ favorite spots, the Bonifacius Bridge, a pedestrian bridge which offers a scenic view of the canal and the old town houses.
→ Across the street from the Church of Our Lady is Sint-Janshospitaal, an 11th century hospital that’s now a medical museum and hosts works by the painter Hans Memling. Unfortunately, it was closed while I was in Bruges, due to the construction of a new exhibition; nonetheless, it was a nice area to explore, as the courtyard and some buildings were open to the public.
→ Ten Wijngaerde is a a quaint and peaceful place, the only preserved beguinage in Bruges. A beguinage is an architectural complex created to house beguines, which are lay religious women who lived in the community without taking vows or retiring from the world. There are several across Belgium, and I’ve seen a similar one in Amsterdam. Just that this one was bigger and more beautiful.
→ If you’ve had enough history and crowded streets, you can head towards Koningin Astridpark or Minnewaterpark, two of the biggest parks located in the historic center, for some peace and quiet.
→ I cannot end my Bruges story without talking about the culinary experience. A visit to De Halve Maan, a brewery with over 150 years of existence, is a must. Fun fact: they’d built in 2016 a 3km beer pipeline between the brewery and the bottling plant; part of the investment was crowdfunded, and those who contributed will receive one free beer every day for the rest of their lives. A few other places that I liked are: Oyya (ice cream and waffles), Sanseveria Bagelsalon (bagels), Cafuné Espresso Bar and Vero Caffè (specialty coffee), Chocolaterie Home Sweet Home and BbyB Chocolates (chocolate).
Guide to Brussels
Brussels (or Bruxelles, in French) might not be as attractive as Bruges, but offers an interesting mix of the French and Flemish cultures, and has its own charm and beauty. It is considered the de facto capital of the European Union, and it’s easy to understand why: it has the official seats of the European Commission, the EU Council and the European Council, as well as a seat of the European Parliament.
Despite the fact that the center of Brussels is quite compact and great for walking, discovering it in two days is a bit tough. Still, I believe that I was able to tick off most of the things I planned for – except for seeing Parc de Laeken and the Atomium. Here’s what I did:
→ Brussels’ main attraction is definitely the Grand Place; the large central square is surrounded on all sides by elegant and opulent buildings: Hôtel de Ville (the town hall), Musée de la Ville and 31 guild houses. It is simply magnificent, it’s for sure one of the most beautiful squares I’ve ever seen, and there’s no wonder why it’s listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Not far from the square, you can spot the Tintin Comic Mural (a tribute to the country’s long comic tradition) and the Manneken Pis (the bronze statue of the boy peeing in the fountain, that everyone knows).
→ Cathédrale des Saints Michel et Gudule is the national church, where royal weddings and funerals take place, and it’s dedicated to the patron saints of the city. The small park in front of the cathedral is perfect for relaxing during a sunny day.
→ We remain in the central area for the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, an ensemble of glazed shopping arcades, opened in 1847. Many of the well-known chocolate makers have shops in here, and use their store windows to display unique creations.
→ Time to start moving to the south, towards Mont des Arts, a hilly site that features a landscape garden, noteworthy architecture and several museums. I liked the Art Nouveau building of the Musical Instruments Museum, located in the Old England former department store. It really stands out! Across the street, you’ll find Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, a must if you’re into fine art.
→ Palais de Bruxelles is the official palace of the constitutional monarchy, but it is not used as a royal residence. It’s open to the public each summer, free of charge, starting from July till the end of August.
→ By following Rue de la Régence, a boulevard which reminded me of London, you’ll end up at the monumental Palais de Justice. Built in an eclectic style, with Greco-Roman influences, the edifice was the largest ever constructed in the 19th century, and still remains to this day one of the largest of its kind.
→ While walking on Rue de la Régence you’ll pas by Église Notre-Dame des Victoires au Sablon, a Gothic church built in the same style as Cathédrale des Saints Michel et Gudule. What was unusual about this place was that inside I stumbled across Rick Harrison, who was sightseeing alone. I used to watch Pawn Stars often in the past – and I still watch short clips, from time to time. When I recognized him, he greeted me with the “How’s it going?” salute from the TV series, and shook my hand. Nice!
→ Quartier du Châtelain is a trendy neighborhood, great for a Sunday stroll, with lots of shops, cafes and restaurants. It’s also a high-quality residential area, with several fine Art Nouveau examples, like Musée Horta and Hôtel Tassel.
→ In the east side, there’s Parc du Cinquantenaire, a set of gardens scattered with monuments and museums. It was built in 1880 for the 50th anniversary of the independence of Belgium and is dominated by an impressive triumphal arch.
→ Quartier Européen is another enjoyable neighborhood for afternoon walks, home to many EU institutions and to Parc Léopold, an English-style urban park with lots of trees and a lake in the middle.
→ I did not visit any museum, but I did enter The World of Banksy temporary gallery, for which I paid €14. I still ask myself if it was money well spent or not, because pretty much every artwork was a reproduction of the original mural; in the end, it was an interesting experience, and I do like the idea behind Banksy’s art.
→ Last but not least, I’d like to mention a few food and drink locations: Wolf (food court with different cuisines, from European to African and Asian), Nona Pizza (Italian), EXKi (healthy fast food chain), To Meli Delicatessen (Greek), MOK (specialy coffee) and Léopold Café Presse (coffee and tea).
So, I guess it’s time to draw the conclusion: two days per city are enough to enjoy some quality time in each of the two, but if you prefer going to museums or simply taking your time with each travel activity, you should definitely plan adding a few more days, specially for Brussels. While Bruges is a relaxing tourist town, perfect for discovering on foot during a short stay, Brussels is a city with many things to see and experience, including mixed cultures, diverse architecture, museums, art galleries and good food.