It’s time for my report on things to do in Brussels!
My husband arranged the trip for my birthday and left it up to me to decide what I wanted to see. There was so much I wanted to see!
Unfortunately, I am still not used to travelling with a child. I used to travel regularly (I saw most of Europe while at university, travelled regularly for work and had two long distance relationships, including one with my now husband). I could get ready and packed in just a few minutes. Now it takes me much, much longer to get organised, especially when Miss M is determined to pick out her clothes and accessories. On the upside, Miss M decided to wear her princess crown the whole weekend for my birthday.
On the Saturday, we ended up leaving an hour later than planned. Our late departure, the weather and probably my over planning meant that we didn’t end up doing everything on my list. Still, we had fun and it was lovely to see my daughter’s wide-eyed reaction to things that were once normal for me. And our lateness meant we missed roadworks and the worst of the weather.
During our drive I discovered – quite by accident – that we had to register our car in advance for the Brussels “Low Emission Zone” or risk a fine of EUR 150. Registration is free and there is a registration form to use. Of course, the LEZ website was down for most of the weekend, so we had to register via email. If you are planning a trip by car to Brussels, make sure you register your car in advance!
Where we stayed
When we reached our hotel, we managed to find a car park almost right out the front. Our later arrival meant we could leave our car there all weekend.
We stayed at the relatively new Motel One next to Park. We have stayed at a number of Motel Ones in Germany and have always had a good experience. While the rooms are a little on the small side, clever design and good quality furnishings and mattresses make them quite comfortable. They are still normally larger than the average hotel room in London or New York. While the rooms are always similar, the reception / bar / breakfast area is normally themed to suit the location. Brussels has chosen a modern regal look, with huge pictures of the first King on the wall and large velvet covered armchairs.
First stop: the flea market
After checking in and dumping our stuff we caught the tram to the Palais de Justice. There must have been some recent protests near the courts and barbed wire had obviously been used to restrict entry. In typically Belgian style, the barbed wire was still there, with no warning signs.
The view from the Place Poelaert is nice, but it the weather was not really conducive to good photos. The view from the top of the Music Instrument Museum is better as you get a better view of the Grand Place. You can visit the restaurant without paying to enter the museum and take a couple of photos. We had a quick look, then took the elevator down to square Breughel L’ancien in the Marolles to visit the flea market at Place du jeu de balle.
I love this little market. The variety of things on offer is amazing: pictures and picture frames, mirrors, tools, furniture, carpets, cutlery, toys, music (notes and records) and miscellaneous paraphernalia. And the prices are surprisingly reasonable.
Case in point: I bought one of my favourite pieces of furniture at the market many years ago. It is a small handmade wooden cupboard with 15 small drawers for nails, screws etc. It was only EUR 20 and was badly in need of a clean. The drawer knobs were originally just metal screw hooks, so I updated them to glass knobs. Now it has a special place in our lounge room.
This visit I fell in love with a little handmade bench. It was like a school bench, without the table, with a narrow seat and short back. The wood had a lovely patina and was smooth from years of use. Amazingly, the stall owner only wanted EUR 20 for it! I was hooked. Nearly. However, after discussions with my husband, we passed. We really had nowhere to put it and it was too small to be practical in our entry. By that stage, it had also started to rain and it was just a little too big to carry all the way back to our car.
We did have some success though. My Dad collects oil cans and I managed to find a couple that are unlike anything he already has. Of course, our little dinosaur aficionado found the toy dinosaurs. She had about 50 to choose from and chose the ugliest plesiosaur that she could find. Strange child. I was looking for a tea strainer or teapot, but didn’t find anything that I liked.
We walked through the rain along Rue Blaes towards Sablon, stopping at various shops on the way. There are a number of shops that feel like a smaller version of the market, but the prices are not quite as good, and others sell specialty goods. Many of the shops tend to be short lived, but Miss M was fascinated by the shop that seem dot sell every type of drawer pull you can imagine.
For me, Place Sablon is synonymous with chocolate. Our first stop was Pierre Marcolini’s flagship store. So pretty. So delicious. And the smell! Mmmmm. Pierre Marcolini was Mum’s favourite chocolate shop for cakes, but she also appreciated their chocolates.
We bought a selection of their filled chocolate hearts, which are filled with raspberry, salted caramel, passion fruit and other flavours. Yum! We also bought a box of their “Flavours of the world” for my mother-in-law. Pierre Marcolini is one of the few chocolatiers, who sells their chocolates based on where the cocoa beans were grown: Java, Ecuador, Peru, Cuba, Brazil and their patented Pierre Marcolini mix with beans from Ecuador and Cameroon. After we had paid, our daughter was given a small chocolate bean for being such a good princess. She promptly spat it out. I guess Miss M is not yet a chocolate connoisseur.
We stepped outside to discover that it had stopped raining. Across the road you can find real “muscles from Brussels”. No, not the ones from the Men at Work hit and not Jean Claude van Damme, either. Fresh mussels and oysters. We didn’t try any – I am allergic and we had more chocolate planned – but Miss M was fascinated.
Our next stop was Wittamer. The bright pink awning meant Miss M was already a fan. Their shop is downstairs, and upstairs they have a small café, which was our destination. Miss M was the only child present and was on her best behaviour. The staff treated her like a princess, which made her feel even more special. And she really savoured her selection of ice cream.
This was Mum’s favourite place to have hot chocolate and they serve it with whipped cream separate, so that you can mix in as much as you want (and you do not need much). It also comes with a small selection of chocolates.
A little shopping
After walking around the square and through the (overpriced but interesting) antique market to walk off our lunch, we caught the tram to Place Stefanie, in order to do some shopping. We visited Mig’s Wine World, one of my favourite wine shops, and were lucky to walk out with only two bottles. One was for us to drink that night once Miss M was in bed and the other was to take home with us. Mig and his team really know their wine and the have never steered me wrong.
We then wandered down Avenue Louise, doing some window shopping, and stopped off at one of my other favourite shops, Dille & Kamille. According to their website, they focus on “everyday products. Make life pleasant.” using natural materials and practical designs for the house, garden and kitchen.
We still have a number of the kitchen gadgets I purchased there while I lived in Brussels and Miss M loves her wooden coffee machine that we purchased last time we went to one. (They don’t have the same one now, but here is one similar).
This time we purchased a small easter decoration for a gift and a couple more kitchen gadgets. As always, there were a number of tempting things, but I remained strong. Fortunately, a month of purging to make space for our bathroom made me strong and we only purchased things that we needed. The plants were very tempting though.
By this time, Miss M was flagging, so we headed back to our room for a rest. The hotel had provided some pencils and colouring in materials, so she was happy as a kid in mud.
The Grand Place
For dinner we took a short walk from our hotel, past the cathedral to the Grand Place. Most of the renovations (mostly cleaning) are finished, and it looks gorgeous. Miss M loved the lights and the gold. “Very sparkly” was her comment.
If you are looking for somewhere to live, there is an apartment for rent in one of the buildings. You would have sour own Starbucks in the building next door, numerous restaurants and chocolate shops within less than a minute’s walk, and a great view of the Hôtel de Ville.
We went to dinner at the Hard Rock Café. While it was not the gourmet meal I would have liked to have, it was easy and we knew they have easy kids options and distractions. And some good cocktails.
My old neighbourhood
The next morning after breakfast (Miss M has decided she loves croissants), we drove around my old neighbourhood. The house I lived in is still there and the street has not changed much. I still love it. As we slowly drove through the city it was interesting to note which things were the same and which things were new. Clearly, I have been away too long!
Dinosaurs – Roar!
Our highlight for the day and possibly Miss M’s highlight of the whole trip was the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences with its dinosaurs. There is so much to say about our visit that I have decided to write a separate post. Here’s some eye candy to encourage you to take a look.
French Belgian fries
Before leaving the city we stopped off at Place Jourdan for some fries from Maison Antoine (they are really Belgian not French). I remember when it was just a shack; now it has brick walls and doesn’t stink of grease. Unfortunately, I had forgotten that Sundays is a market day for Place Jourdan. Getting close was a problem. Still, the fries are some of the best in Brussels and they definitely brought back memories. Miss M liked them too – she was falling asleep in the back of the car but didn’t want to stop eating.
If you are visiting Brussels, I hope you might find time to see some of the places I loved when I lived there.