Starting around 10am in Bruges, I hopped on the hourly train to Brussels for 9 euros, arriving at around 11am. Then I took Tram 82 for 2.10 euros to get to my hostel at Meininger Hotel & Hostel, dropped off my stuff (since check-in wasn’t until 3pm), and headed out to explore Brussels for the day.
After about 15 minutes of strolling through the northwest neighborhoods, I first hit Bourse.
Right by it is the first ever Le Pain Quotidien.
Don’t miss the comic-strip designs on some of the buildings.
Brussels’ symbol, Mannekin Pis, is a few minutes walk from Bourse; it’s a 60cm high statue of a kid literally taking a piss in a fountain and has been adopted as the city’s symbol since the 1400s.
Various theories of his origin exist: One is that he was the son of a Brussels nobleman who got lost and then was found doing the twinkle. Another was that he was exercising his patriotic duty by urinating on a Spanish sentry guard from his window. The most heroic of these was that he extinguished a bomb’s fuse with the first thing he could think of (while happening to be wandering around naked of course), thus saving the Brussels Town Hall.
On holidays you can find him dressed up in over 800+ costumes that are now on display in the Musée de la Ville.
Mannekin-Pis just got served
I then headed to Grand-Place, the main plaza surrounded by beautifully gilded buildings, museums, and the Town Hall. This whole square was demolished by the French in 1695, the Town Hall being the only original building still standing, but was rebuilt by the Belgians on a even grander scale within 4 years.
The Town Hall
Close by Grand-Place is the beautiful line of shops of Koninklijke Sint-Hubertusgalerijen (Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert).
Among the winding streets immediately north of Grand-Place is a small alleyway leading to 2 more notable Belgian treasures.
One of them is Delirium Café/Bar which won the Guinness Book Of World Records for serving the most number (2000+) of different beers in one location.
The other, facing Delirium Bar, is Jeanneke-Pis. It’s a similarly small statue of that was built in 1987 as the female counterpart to Mannekin-Pis.
Afterwards I headed north to 18th century Place Des Martyrs, where 500 martyrs of Belgium’s 1830 War of Independence lie in state.
East of Place des Martyrs is the only museum I bothered to check out: the Belgian Center for Comic-Strip Art, which explains the history and social/cultural impact of the comic book strip.
Except for an exhibit on Tin-Tin, The Smurfs, and the history of the comic-strip dating back as far as caveman-art, all the rest of the exhibits might only appeal to the local Belgian (none of the comics are in English).
I then walked southeast to Cathedrale des Sts-Michel-Et-Gudule of 1226, a Roman Catholic Church that’s been known as the “purest flowering of the Gothic Style.”
Afterwards I walked by Palais de la Nation…
…through Parc de Bruxelles…
…landing at the Palais Royal on the southern end of the park.
From there I took a metro train to Schuman Station, the heart of the European Union (FYI Brussels is the capital of the EU) and where 25,000 people now work in a 1.2 million square meter space to run the entire EU. The European Commission, the European Parliament, and the Council of Ministers are all here.
On top of Schuman Station is the X-shaped Palais de Berlaymont, the former headquarters of the European commission.
Across the street is the Council of Ministers:
Then with a stroll through nearby Leopold Park, you’ll end up at the humongous post-modern structure that is the European Parliament.
The European Parliament just got served
In the middle you can find the official statue of Europa:
More of the European Parliament:
The EU just got served
I then headed back to the Brussels city center, swinging by the Eglise St-Jacques-sur-Coudenberg.
Flanking the church are 2 squares, the cafe-lined Place Du Grand Sablon:
…and on the other side, the recently renovated Place Du Petit Sablon:
At the very south of the city center is the Palais de Justice. It’s the highest point in Brussels, and where you can catch a great sunset over the city.
The Palais de Justice itself is an architectural marvel. I ignored the front scaffolding and headed inside.
It’s worth a look:
After that, you’ve pretty much seen all of Brussels has to offer in one day, save for the 75+ museums I decided to save for another trip.
Time to end this 4 day weekend and head home.
- At time of posting in Brussels, Belgium, it was 1 °C -
Humidity: 88% | Wind Speed: 14km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
I have to admit, the first time I ever heard of Bruges was when I saw the trailer to Colin Farrell’s dark comedy “In Bruges“ back in 2008.
A little context for the post’s title…
The film makes fun of Bruges as a place “no one has ever heard of” but also cherishes it for being one of the loveliest, most romantic city in Western Europe.
Either way, the film locked Bruges a spot deep within my social consciousness; if I would be in the region, I would go. Amsterdam became nearby enough.
From Amsterdam Centraal, I took a 9:17am NS International Train to Antwerp Centraal, arriving at around 10:31am.
Then I switched to a train heading in Belgium’s direction. You have to be careful here as you might have to change again at Ghent, lest you may continue onwards into France or the edge of Belgium. And I did just that: I overslept my stop at Ghent and woke up at around 12:20pm as the train was pulling away from Wevelgem.
Too tired to curse to myself, I stumbled off at the next stop at Menen and spent an extra 9 euros to take a 12:38pm train heading in the opposite direction. I got off at Kortrijk at 12:56pm, just missing the connecting 12:56pm train to Bruges. No fear, however, as the European rail system is quite comprehensive; I only had to wait an extra half hour to get on the 1:35pm train to Bruges, arriving at around 2:20pm. Crisis averted.
From the train station I took Bus 4 (14 also works) heading northwest, stopping right in front of Snuffel Hostel. After checking in, I walked southeast towards TheMarkt.
Once you come across TheMarkt, you’re at the main hub of Bruges.
On the southern part of TheMarkt is the Belfry, where for 10 euros you can climb up 366 steps to its bell tower, even as its rings a song every 15 minutes.
The views of Bruges from the top of the belfry:
Adjacent to The Markt is The Burg, similarly surrounded by an array of medieval buildings, including the Town Hall, the Basilica of the Holy Blood and the Liberty of Bruges.
From The Markt and The Burg, everything to see in Bruges is within a 10 minute stroll, so take your time to explore the canals and the various exhibits each building has to offer.
On the southern part of Bruges is the Princey Beguinage of the Vineyard at the Minnewater (Lake of Love), a tranquil spot to walk around if you’re getting tired of all the cars and traffic in the city.
I found a beautiful gaggle of swans swimming in one of the canals, following them up north as they headed towards The Markt and The Burg.
Afterwards, I headed back up to Snuffel Hostel, grabbing dinner before calling it an early night. Eat your heart out Colin Farrell!
- At time of posting in Bruges, Belgium, it was 3 °C -
Humidity: 86% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: drizzle
One of those surprises is how much I actually found myself enjoying the last 24 hours in one of the most travelled, on-the-beaten-path, family-friendly, safest places in Western Europe. Uhm, just 5 days ago I was crossing the border on foot into Kazakhstan. What the hell happened?
After submitting my second visa application to Turkmenistan on January 3rd, I waited…and waited…and waited until literally the date of departure, January 17th. And with less than 6 hours before my supposed flight to Turkmenistan, there was still no answer (not even a formal rejection like last time). So I scrambled and miraculously found last minute $400 roundtrip flights to Norway, The Netherlands, and Belgium….I haven’t been the to latter 2 countries yet, so why not? I booked the flights and within 3 hours I was on a flight from JFK to Oslo. I’ll get you one day, Turkmenistan!
Us at the bus terminal lockers in August 2015; the group was doing the nae nae and singing "A Whole New World" here.
Returning to the scene of the crime, January 2016
After returning to Oslo Airport via their fancy direct airport train (took only 20 minutes and costs 1/5 of a cab!), I boarded my 7:30pm flight to Amsterdam.
After arriving at around 9:15pm, I took the 20 minute train into the city and getting off at Amsterdam Centraal, an architectural masterpiece in its own right.
I stayed the night at Ecomama Hostel, one of the best hostels I ever booked. Already impressed, I befriended everyone in my room within a minute of unpacking my stuff; I even took a few of them out into the Red Light District for drinks and hookah 10 minutes later (you can tell Amsterdam was already beginning to grow on me).
The next morning I began my day at 9am with the Verzetsmuseum, aka the Dutch Resistance Museum. It’s an impressive, compact exhibit that detailed the Dutch efforts to fight back against their Nazi occupiers during World War II.
Nearby is Wertheim park and their simple yet elegant memorial to the victims of Auschwitz.
Then walking past the Hortus Botanicus, I stopped by for a photo at the Hermitage Amsterdam:
A bit more walking led me to the FOAM Photography Museum, where the admission fee was was 50% off (2 of their exhibits were still being set up at the time).
I headed up north from the FOAM Museum to stroll along the Bloemenmarkt, Amsterdam’s last (and the world’s only) floating flower market featuring the famous Dutch tulips in a dizzying array of colors.
A bit northwest is Begijnhof, a sheltered residence for the elderly. Its gate is hidden off Spui somewhere; ask around and you’ll be directed to the best preservation of old Amsterdam.
From Spui I headed up more northwest towards Westerkerk Church and The Anne Frank House.
Unless you bought online tickets at least a month ahead (which I definitely didn’t), prepare to wait at least 30min outside in the cold (or up to hours in warmer seasons) to get into Anne Frank’s House.
Once inside, you can visit the 500 square meters of space where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis for nearly 2 years, before they were betrayed, captured, and sent to the Nazi concentration camps.
The bookcase that hid the secret entranceway to Anne Frank's quarters
Anne Frank's room, with its blackout curtains still intact
The stairs leading up to the attic
After about an hour at museum, I proceeded east towards Koninklijk Paleis, the official residence of the Dutch royal family (even though they currently prefer to reside in The Hague).
By the Palace, is the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), where they feature impressive rotating museum exhibits in its grand hall. This is where King William I took the oath of office in 1814, and where His Majesty King of the Netherlands Willem-Alexander married Argentinian Princess Máximain 2002.
A few paces more east is Oude Kerk (Old Church), Amsterdam’s oldest building and impressive for its use of natural light for its massive interior.
East of the New Church is De Waag, Amsterdam’s only surviving medieval fortified gate, its oldest secular building, and the site of many public executions.
By now you’ll notice you’re already in Amsterdam’s famous Red Light District. It’s now more of a commercialized family-friendly (at least relatively to what it used to be) tourist trap than the controversial safe haven for sex workers for which it once stood.
With its many many empty booths/window displays, or at least booths in the process of being shut down and converted into gentrified fast food chains, you can tell that the RLD’s days are slowly numbered.
He was generous enough to have changed his plans last minute to head over from his home in Utrecht and take me to the famous brewery Wynand Fockink for their secret-recipe liquors made on-site.
Then we reunited with Maureen Vlaar, whom we met 8 months ago in Paramaribo, Suriname, nearby at her bar/restaurant Maapa. From there I drank with them and their other Dutch buddies until the wee hours of the morning.
At around 2/3am (I forgot at this point), I stumbled back to Ecomama to catch my morning train to Brugge.
- At time of posting in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, it was 3 °C -
Humidity: 85% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy