Just have one day in Brussels? Here's how to make the most of it!
Finally, we've made it to Brussels! Considering that Brussels was the original destination of this stopover it’s a good thing we've made it into town. In early 2013, Brussels was featured on my list of top ten destinations for first time, solo female travelers. I love its beautiful architecture, multi-lingual and friendly residents, and the clean streets and smooth public transportation. I’m thrilled to make a return visit and immerse myself in the city’s culture once more.
Once again, we’ll be turning to our Rick Steves e-guidebook to take advantage of their self-guided walking tours. We’ll first start in the Lower Town to take in the most famous sites and have a relaxing lunch around the Grand Place before hiking up for a look around the Upper Town – assuming we’re not too lazy! One place that’s definitely on our list – if only for a short visit – is Le Cerceuil, aka “The Coffin Bar”, where drinks are served in stone skulls and cocktails have names like "bat’s hemoglobin". Fun and cheerful, right?
We will have to take care of two important chores in Brussels. We’re planning on setting aside time for doing laundry and checking in for our flight to Istanbul the next day.
This research will have to wait until we’re on the ground: we’re going to plot out the walk between our hotel and the train station since we have a very early departure the next day.
Leaving to Chance:
Our evening activities, as I’ll likely want to relax, rest, and prepare for the early morning flight, while Ryan will probably want to enjoy his final evening to bond with fine Belgium beers. We’ll just play it by ear and see how we feel.
We'll be missing breakfast at our hotel due to the very early morning departure. We're going to ask if we can grab some fruit and pastries the night before we depart.
There’s no need for us to leave the city center and we’ll be spending the day walking, so no transportation costs for us! We’ll also seek out Brussels’s free public art – everything from comic strip inspired graffiti to the impish Manneken-Pis.
Splurges and Souvenirs:
We’ll be indulging in final pints of rare beers and have a list of 6 chocolate shops to hit up on a self-guided chocolate walking tour!
SOOO.... How Did Our Day Go?
In some ways, Brussels is just as I remembered - charming, romantic, easy to navigate and multi lingual. I noticed some changes, however, and not for the better. The city seemed to be a little bit grubbier and I noticed more people acting as touts. Even the Grand Place seemed smaller than in my memory. But the best things remained the same - especially the food!
Our first stop was a frites joint called Mannekin Frites (get it?!?) for what would be our final serving of frites and mayonnaise. Not as good as the little hole in the wall that we discovered in Liege, but definitely respectable.
Next up: waffles, x 2! In my opinion, the best way to eat waffles is hot, fresh, and plain. I have nothing against the assorted toppings, like whipped cream, berries, and chocolate , but I find the taste of a traditional waffle is so sublime it doesn't need any dressing up at all. Plain waffles cost about 2 Euro around Grand Place (and slightly less around Mannekin Pis) and the toppings were 50 cents - 1 Euro each (if you really need to have the berry sauce!)
Even if I didn't put chocolate on my waffles, I still made sure to include it in our day. We didn't do a spree of 6 different chocolate shops as originally planned but we did pop into quite a few. I learned that the chocolate is slightly less expensive if you buy it unpackaged or if you pick up a bag or box of random assorted pieces. Unless you have a special occasion or strong flavor preference, it pays to go for plain packaging! We sampled florentines, chocolate covered marshmallows, and chocolate truffles throughout the day and all were delicious!
Brussels had the coldest weather of our entire trip. With temperatures around the freezing point, we had to layer on all our clothing to stay warm and still we were chilly! Our best laid plans to follow the Rick Steves self-guided walking tour were cast aside in favor of staying warm. Clearly, this was a day that called for some indoor hot chocolate!
The Galleries Royale is a gorgeous indoor shopping plaza that's just off the Grande Place. It's fun to wander around and look at the beautiful window displays of the very posh shops, but there are many affordable treats as well. We popped in to a couple of bookstores (which all had a good English language selection), as well as the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts (which has a gift shop any writer would die for!) However, the main attraction for us at the Galleries was Neuhaus Chocolates.
Neuhaus does a to-die-for hot chocolate that is so incredibly rich and decadent that one cup is enough to share. This delectable brew is made for sipping, not gulping! We took ours to go, knocking nearly 2 Euros off the eat-in price of 5 Euros and the staff included an orange macaroon on the side as well. (I'm not sure if this is a standard treat or if it was just my lucky day!). Either way, if you are a choco-holic or if you want to experience the high quality of Belgium chocolate on a budget, you can't go wrong with about 3 Euros for a medium size take out cup of pure molten chocolate goodness.
Of course, all this walking around in cold weather made us hungry for lunch! Tasting waffles and chocolate sure take a lot out of a person! We revisited a trick we learned in Bruges and sought out Italian food. La Piazzetta at 1 Place Ste Catherine is a small, charming Italian cafe and grocery shop that's about 5 minutes from Grand Place. There was an amazing spread of take out items available but we decided to eat in as part of our winter-avoidance strategy.
Staying inside to linger over food turned out to be a great choice! We feasted on bruschetta to start, followed by wood-oven prepared pizza, with red wine for me and coffee for Ryan. The food was hot, fresh, and delicious. And, most happily, it was also a great deal! 4 pieces of bruschetta cost about 6 Euros and the pizza was only about 11 Euros. These prices are the rule, not the exception. All pizzas, regardless of toppings, cost around 11 Euros, as did pasta dishes like lasagna, linguine with shrimp, and tagliatelle carbonara. Together our meal and drinks came to less than 25 Euros, a great deal for a delicious feast in the heart of any European capital.
Back at the hotel, it was time to take care of some business. A few pieces of laundry were done in the sink, our plans for Istanbul were re-confirmed, blog business was followed up on, and long showers were enjoyed. Ryan dropped in on the hotel's happy hour while I wrote. Sadly, between the cold temperatures and our fatigue we never made it out to the Coffin Bar. But never fear, we made it out for one final, gut-busting Brussels experience. I know this will come as a shock but we had.....
A wander through the streets of Brussles brought us, surprise, surprise, to an Italian restaurant. We hadn't set out with I Primi Piatti in mind as our destination but between the cold weather and the full tables at a nearby French restaurant, a second round of Italian food was looking pretty darn good!
Since it was our last night in Europe, we treated ourselves to half a liter of wine before digging into bruschetta - yes, again! The bruschetta at I Primi Piatti was much different from the one we had at noon, as it was covered in arugula and drizzled with a bespoke balsamic dressing. I honestly could have eaten it all night long!
With a radical break in tradition we did NOT order a pizza to share but instead had our very own plates - crazy! I devoured a huge bowl of rich, creamy mushroom risotto while Ryan took care of a massive plate of carbonara pasta. It was absolutely one of our favourite meals from our entire trip and, while it wasn't quite traditional Belgium fare, it seems fitting that we had so many different cuisines in a multi-cultural city like Brussels.
Even with no specific agenda, and battling the cold weather, we were still able to see a huge amount of Brussels' Lower Town and we had a great day revisiting favorite sites and indulging in incredible food. I'd go back in a heartbeat! Next stop: Istanbul!
Previous stop: Liege
Next stop: Istanbul
Related article: Reviewing Brussels' Hotel Atlas (and how to save 50% on all Brussels hotels!)