We went on our annual European city break for 2018 last month, hopping on the train from London to Brussels and then Bruges. Belgium’s not a particularly obvious choice for a holiday, but it sped to the top of my list following recommendations from friends who’d been to Brussels and/or Bruges and loved it.
The journey is amazingly quick from London – it’s just 2 hours to Brussels by Eurostar, the same length of time it took for us to travel by rail from Manchester to London. We did the whole journey from home in one day on the way out, but stopped off in London for a night to break it up on the way home.
Brussels was pretty much as I expected, although I was startled by the loveliness of the Grand Place, which is the main square and the home of some particularly striking old buildings. There are some nice little streets leading off the square, although these quickly turn into more modern shopping streets.
We did a bit of sightseeing while (of course) sampling the local chocolate and beer. We visited the excellent Musical Instruments Museum and took in some amazing views from the top floor restaurant.
We visited the European parliament to wave goodbye (sob) and ventured out of the city centre to marvel at the Atomium (it is absolutely massive!).
Food-wise, we did really well! Our lovely B&B was located around the corner from an Italian restaurant called Pasta Divina, where we were welcomed by the owner who was clearly very proud of his Italian wife’s culinary abilities in the kitchen – the restaurant serves up lots of different flavoured pastas and sauces to go with them, so you can mix and match as you please. It was excellent!
We decided on pizza for our second night in Brussels and headed to a small place called Mirante, which does very good (and very good value!) wood-fired pizzas. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any frites while we were in Belgium, as they’re traditionally fried in animal fat. I suspect it’s not quite the same to have them fried in vegetable oil!
Of course, you can’t go to Belgium and not try the beer. The first beers we had were Jupiler lagers, which had been recommended by a friend and are, helpfully, available absolutely everywhere in Belgium and cheap to boot. We also sampled beers in Little Delirium Cafe and The Sister, which specialises in organic beer.
Other culinary highlights were an amazing ‘build your own’ ice cream from posh chocolatier Neuhaus (I went with vanilla ice cream, milk chocolate and cacao nibs), a late-evening speculoos and banana waffle, some fancy biscuits from Maison Dandoy and a rather decadent box of hand-picked chocolates from Godiva, which we bought for the train journey to Bruges.
I also managed to buy a book from a great English language bookshop called Sterling Books, where a member of staff recommended a book by a Belgian writer, Dimitri Verhulst.
Oh, Bruges. How pretty you are! Everyone knows that Bruges is a picturesque place to visit, but you don’t realise just how beautiful it is until you’re actually wandering its streets with your mouth slightly agape at the lovely old houses, the rambling little streets and the quiet canals.
We did the usual touristy things, including going up all 366 steps of the Belfort, having a beer at the Duvelorium while looking over the Markt, gawping at the old buildings in the Burg, going on a boat tour down the canals, and having the best hot chocolate (with cake and chocolates, of course) at De Proeverie.
We also went on a long but lovely walk through the Minnewaterpark and around the outskirts of the centre along the canal, stopping to look at windmills and the old city gates.
Our evening meals in Bruges were slightly disappointing – we had an average and overpriced curry one night and I had a very average and overpriced stew at a Greek restaurant the next night, which I suppose is to be expected when you eat in the most touristy bit of Bruges. But we did come across a great lunch spot in the form of t’Brugs Pitahuis, which serves falafel and also some Indian dishes that we didn’t try.
I did really enjoy Bruges, though, and would absolutely recommend it if you’d like a short break in a pretty, historic town!
Also, can I just brag about how lovely the weather was for September?! It was cold and rainy when we left Manchester, then we arrived to find Belgium basking in 25C heat, which only conveniently broke to let in the rain on the day we left!
We only had one night in London on the way home, but we still managed to do a fair bit. I’ve been to London a few times, mainly when I was in my old job and had to visit our HQ, but I’ve never really been much of a tourist there before.
This time, I was determined to go to two places I’ve wanted to see for a while. We spent an afternoon in the National Portrait Gallery and covered quite a lot of it while we were there. There were some really interesting paintings and I learned some great facts about figures I knew of, and some that I didn’t. But I have to say it became slightly samey after a while – there are only so many portraits of dead white men that I can take before my eyes start to glaze over.
The most intriguing exhibits were definitely the paintings of interesting women and also black/Asian figures from British history who you don’t really hear about. I was quite thrilled to finally see *that* sketch of Jane Austen by her sister and a painting of Emily Brontë by Branwell with my own eyes! There was also a great little exhibition on the theme of friendship that I really enjoyed.
We also went to the British Library just before we got on the train back to Manchester, where we explored the excellent Treasures exhibition (and I got all star-struck over the Austen and Brontë exhibits… if you can get star-struck by a writing desk and some little books?!). I also went wild in the gift shop, but restrained myself in the bookshop. There were just too many books that I wanted.
Other highlights of London were visiting Daunt Books in Marylebone for the first time and finally getting some decent Indian food at Rasa W1, which we’ve been to before and is still brilliant for delicious south Indian dishes.
All in all, it was an excellent few days away! I did start searching for ideas for our next trip away pretty much the moment we got home, though. Sometimes looking forward to your next holiday is just as exciting as actually going away!