A weekend in Belgium: Brussels, Bruges & more

With the introduction of the new Omicron variant, it somewhat felt like this weekend was never going to be. The night we had booked our Eurotunnel crossing coincidentally coincided with France closing their borders for tourists, and it was busy! Luckily after queuing for two hours in Folkestone we arrived in Calais with time to spare. We arrived late in Friday night in Brussels and travelled to Bruges on Sunday morning before heading home on Sunday evening. We travelled to Belgium in our Tesla, so if you’d like to know more about my experience travelling abroad with an electric car, you can read more on an upcoming blog.

Brussels

We stayed in the Marriott Grand Place which is a short distance from the Bourse de Bruxelles – the Brussels Stock Exchange. Despite the impressive lobby, the room was modest with no thrills. Breakfast was not included in the standard rate, but they did have a secure underground car park that we were able to use at a rate of 30 Euros per night. The Stock Exchange is a grand old building, but at the moment it is covered in scaffolding – much like a few other attractions in Brussels at the moment! Instead, at the foot of the Stock Exchange was sitting the beginning of our Christmas market trail… but more on that in a bit.

We started our Saturday with a breakfast from Woodpecker 47 (Google maps link here). I didn’t realise this before travelling here – but the food in Belgium is fantastic! We were seemingly lucky to be seated in Woodpecker 47; shortly after us there were longs queues outside. If you are staying nearby I would 110% recommend this place for breakfast – but arrive early to beat the queues.

Brunch at Woodpecker 47

I left most of the planning to the friends we were travelling with, but a reasonably short walk took us around most of the sights we wanted to see, including:

  • Brussels Stock Exchange*
  • Grand Place
  • Mont des Arts
  • Musical Instruments Museum
  • Royal Palace of Brussels
  • Church of Our Lady of Victories at the Sablon
  • Law Courts of Brussels*

* in scaffolding December 2021.

Now, Grand Place is the highlight of Brussels and if visiting at Christmas you’ll want to schedule a night time visit to include the light show that happens against Brussels Town Hall. Most of your tourist-centred shops are focused here too; you’ll find lots of chocolate, waffles & beer. If you’re looking for some more mainstream shops, these sit along the sides of the R20, which is conveniently at the end of the walking trail shown below. Here you will find most of the recognisable high street names, opposite the designer stores such as Prada, Gucci & Cartier.

We didn’t visit inside the Musical Instruments Museum (MIM), but it is worth stopping by to at least check out the art nouveau building which formerly occupied the Old England department store. And as for the royal Palace of Brussels… I didn’t even realise I had walked past it until writing this blog and revisiting my photos! If you want to visit inside the MIM it is 15 Euros a ticket, whereas entry to the Palace is free but only available in the summer; since the palace opens itself to the public from late July until September every year (booking is required).

When walking from the Palace to the law courts, it is worth stopping at the Church of Our Lady of Victories at the Sablon. When we visited there was a market, specialising in Japanese and art nouveau antiquities. This was quite a rare thing to see but it is certainly worth mooching around if its there. Its refreshing to walk around a market that isn’t selling the same old tourist trash!

Towards the end of our sight seeing in Brussels, we found ourselves back where we started: stood at the foot of a beautiful building… Covered in scaffolding. Both the Law Courts and the Stock Exchange are under renovation/conservation works at the moment. The Stock Exchange scaffolding is due to be removed next year (2023), but the Law Courts are scheduled to be clad with scaffold until 2032! You can read more about the renovation works here.

As for the Christmas Markets in town, we started at the Stock Exchange and headed to Place de Brouckère, then back to the Grand Place for the aforementioned lights show. The shops in this area remain open until about 7pm, and ice skating in 2021 was located at Place de Brouckère.

I must mention the COVID rules for our visit, albeit I don’t know if they will exist again next year. During our visit (18/19th December 2021), you had to show your vaccine status everywhere that wasn’t an essential shop. To my surprise, we also had to show it in McDonald’s! At the Christmas Markets, you had to have a “vaccinated” yellow wristband to make purchases. However, the queues for the wristbands were pretty long and we managed to get served food & drink without them.

Looking for somewhere to stay in Brussels? Here are the top 3 best value hotels in Brussels on Tripadvisor:

  1. NH Collection Brussels Grand Sablon
  2. NH Collection Brussels Centre
  3. Warwick Brussels

Bruges

For this particular trip, we only spent a few hours in Bruges before heading home. If you haven’t visited before, Bruges is an absolutely gorgeous city whose historic centre is listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. It isn’t necessarily a city that you have a planned itinerary for – but instead somewhere that you leisurely wander the romantic streets – much like Venice in Italy or Tallinn in Estonia.

We also visited Bruges back in the summer of 2017, so despite our short time there in December we are able to advise a little further on what to visit! Some of the main attractions include the Beer Experience, Choco-Story or Historium Bruges. Whereas those searching for historic architecture will plan to visit the Belfry of Bruges or the Basilica of the Holy Blood.

The food in Bruges – much like Brussels – is fantastic. But, it has to be said that dining in Bruges can feel like a tourist trap. On both of our visits we dined in ‘t Vagevuur (Google Maps link). This seemed to be the best value for money restaurant we could find in the central location. In fact, we specifically sought this restaurant to revisit after 5 years and we weren’t disappointed! They have a range of 3 course set menus available for under 30€.

After dinner you may be looking for somewhere else to enjoy a few drinks in the evening. This location seemed to be the small hub for bars in the centre. However, we spent the evenings of our 2017 trip in The Monk – a place sink some drinks and play a few games of pool, accompanied by great music in the background. Who doesn’t like getting a little competitive whilst on holiday?!

The Christmas markets in Bruges were different to that of Brussels. The markets were solely condensed into the market square (Markt Bruges), which required checked entry. To this day I’m not sure if you required ticketed entry, but you certainly did have to prove your COVID vaccination status to enter. As well as this, there were stewards and police in the streets of Bruges enforcing the rule to wear masks in crowded places.

As for summer markets, we found one on De Dijver, which hosts a craft & flea market on weekends and public holidays from 10am-6pm from mid-March to mid-November. For more general shopping you’ll want to head to Breidelstraat next to the Markt zone for souvenirs and chocolate, or Steenstraat for mainstream shopping.

Looking for somewhere to stay in Bruges? Here are the top 3 best value hotels in Bruges on Tripadvisor:

  1. Hotel Malleberg
  2. Hotel Academie
  3. Relais Bourgondisch Cruyce – Luxe Worldwide Hotel

Spending some more time in Belgium? 

If you are driving into Bruges, you might wish to take a pit stop at Kasteel van Tillegem on the outskirts of the city. You may also choose to stop at Ghent (between Bruges and Brussels). Ordinarily, Ghent would also have a Christmas Market but sadly it was cancelled for 2021.

Another place that is great to visit is Ypres, and it’s enroute between Calais and Brussels. In Ypres they host a daily Last Post ceremony at 8pm at the Menin Gate, and have a really valuable WW1 museum. I have fond memories of Ypres, for I spent a week here on a marching trip as a teen with the cadets.

I revisited Ypres in 2017 with Chris, and the area still stood out as one of my favourites. There is still traditional Belgian architecture (and chocolate), without the crowds of the major cities. A lot of lovely alfresco restaurants line the main streets in the summer, too. If I was to spend time in Belgium again, I would revisit Ypres and Bruges – skipping Brussels. 

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