We made a last minute decision to go to Brussels early January…why? It’s my birthday on 5 Jan and we were due to be in Thailand as it was a ‘big’ birthday, long story but we didn’t go. I didn’t want to be at home, would have ended up working, big girl would have been back at uni and January in England is never particularly ‘wow’. Where can we go in a short journey time as big girl will have to nick off for a day?
Paris – nah, husband has commuted to Paris for the past few years and sees it as ‘work’ not play.
Bruges – lovely, cute but will there be sufficient to entertain the teenagers for 3 days, maybe not.
Brussels – bigger than Bruges, sod it, book Eurostar and phaff about finding a hotel.
While we were phaffing about finding a hotel the really nice boutique one we had our eye on became fully booked. Having had experience of staying in grotty hotels in city centres we decided to try Booking.com as we’d found such a fab apartment in Rome, but nothing. So tried Airbnb.com – result. The apartment was gorgeous, £817 for 5 of us for two nights, it was for my birthday so we wanted somewhere nice, Eurostar tickets were around £70 each so total for the three days came to £1167 making it £233.40 per person, not bad for two nights in a really nice pad, dead in the centre of Brussels including train fares.
Crack of dawn train to St Pancras on a very cold, dark January morning. First thing you have to do, even BEFORE getting the adults a coffee is, go on, guess? Go to Kings Cross and do the obligatory tourist shot at Platform 9 3/4. At 6.30am it was almost empty, no queues at all.
Breakfast at Le Pain Quotidien. A really good start for the day with Homemade Raspberry Granola Parfait and lovely coffees for us. For the kids, a great range of pastries plus something to nibble on the train. The train journey passed quickly and smoothly, far more pleasant than sitting around in an Airport terminal and we arrived in Brussels ready to take on the metro.
Took a bit of working out but we got there and three stops later we found the wonderful apartment. 4 mins walk from the metro and 2 street back from the Grand Place, on the non-touristy side too.
At the back of the apartment was a wreck of a building which was rife for redevelopment, I’d loved to have looked round it but never managed it, here are some of the photos.
The apartment was gorgeous, huge, amazing. So much better than a hotel and right in the middle of foodie heaven.
Great restaurants in Brussels
A Brazillian restaurant, La Cantina, was right next door. The interior was covered in murals and at lunchtime they offer a buffet lunch. This meant the children were in heaven as they could choose what they liked and we were charged by the weight of the plate. All the food is home cooked and delicious.
On the next street was my favourite restaurant KoKoB, an Ethopian restaurant. We walked passed this place twice a day going to and from the Grand Place and it looked interesting. It was more than interesting, it was superb. I admit, I’ve never eaten Ethopian food before and the younger children were less than keen but they weren’t given a choice.
When you enter you are asked to wash your hands. You share the food using injera bread to scoop up morsels of food to pop in your mouth. My 12 year old son, who tends to be a little fussy and not that keen on spicy food, loved it. My mission is to learn how to cook this food and create an Ethiopian workshop around it as I can’t find any decent Ethiopian restaurants in Buckinghamshire or Oxfordshire to go to. If you find any please tell me.
We also did the touristy foodie thing of moules et frites, it was the worst meal we had in Brussels. Very disappointing, especially when we could have eaten at KoKoB a second time.
Things to do in Brussels in the rain
Beware – Brussels closes on Mondays, yep, most of it, restaurants, museums, art galleries, everything, arrange your trip so you go home on Monday mornings.
Beer Museum – you have to really, don’t you? You’re in Belgium after all, it would be rude not to. Located on the Grand Place in a cellar it’s €5 entry and you get a free beer for that. It started off as somewhere to go to get out of the rain and cold and was a real find. You mooch around looking at old beer making stuff, watch a short film on beer making (in the dry and warm) and then you get to try a beer (included in the entry price), either a Blonde or the other one that’s darker and my husband likes. Our son, who was 12 years old at the time, quite rightly declared that he didn’t drink beer but they didn’t want to leave him out and gave him a tiny mug of beer.
Chocolate Story – €6 adults, €3.50 children plus free chocolate tasting and chocolates at the end. Chocolate and beer – that’s what Belgium is famous for so you may as well go for it. Located on a street just off the North side of the Grand Place, closed Mondays. It takes about an hour to go round, longer if the weather is really bad and you want to stay inside longer! Make sure you wait for the introduction as you get chocolate and don’t miss the chocolate making dem at the end, again more chocolate. My favourite (apart from eating chocolate) was the dresses made of chocolate, all chocolate, only chocolate, the detail was beautiful and oh so delicate.
Magritte Museum – I admit I got moans from the kids about going round an art gallery, once they were in they really enjoyed it. Book in advance, before you leave England, we managed to get tickets but it was a struggle and you can’t just show up on the doorstep and go in, you have to prebook a timed slot.
Musical Instrument Museum – you walk past this on the way to the Magritte Museum. The museum is housed in a magnificent art nouveau building erected in 1899 and designed by architect Paul Saintenoy. The building originally housed the Old England department store. The exhibits are fascinating. When we arrived the saxophone exhibition was just finishing. My son, Max and I both play the saxophone and it was really interesting learning about the background and different types of saxophone over the years.
The Atomium – just outside Brussels and easy to get to by metro, a great way to spend a rainy afternoon. Wonderful exhibition of ‘space age’ or ‘futuristic’ furniture from the 1950s, like some my grandparents had in their ‘best’ room – yes I said ‘best’ room, didn’t everyone have a ‘best’ room. You know, a room that is only used for ‘best’ ie when very special visitors come for tea such as your Great Aunt Ada or the vicar? Or is that a Northern thing? My Grandparents lived in a terraced house and were very proud of their ‘front’ or ‘best’ room. It terrified me, it was a bit like ‘you can’t cross the threshold, there be dragons’. I was only allowed in on high days and special visitor days, probably once a year.
I digress, basically the Atomium is a big silver, shiny structure with balls that you can walk round inside and get elevators through the long shiny bits with funky lighting, take the kids, you’ll tire them out with all the walking and you can spot the stuff your granny had in her ‘best’ room.
Mooching round the shops – especially the ones off the beaten track from the tourists. I found a great 1950s retro furniture shop close to the apartment and there is an amazing flea market too, check out websites such as Fleamarket insiders.
Drink beer and eat chocolate – there are loads of chocolate shops in Brussels so you’ll obviously have to try all the different ones to find your favourite. Leonidas, Neuhaus, Wittamer, yes you can buy their chocolate in Selfridges but it’s not the same, doesn’t travel well. Or try some of the smaller chocolatiers. Buy chocolates, find a bar, try different beer and eat chocolates, there you go, beer and chocolate, done. Repeat at least twice daily.
Other stuff to do in Brussels
Mannequin Pis – a tiny fountain of a little naked boy with the water coming out of his winkle. This was round the corner from our apartment and we walked past it numerous times a day. Each day it was dressed in a different outfit. Can you imagine someone actually applied for that job….
Job description – “would suit art or textile graduate, outdoor window dressing with daily clothing changes for a small, well known celebrity. Outdoor clothing required, ability to manhandle Japanese tourists out of the way and risk of getting wet, sense of humour necessary.”
Meringues – huge sugary clouds of rot-your-teeth-out, sugar rush heaven. Of course we bought some, and of course we ate them on the train back to Blighty, shaking and talking extremely quickly as the sugar hit in. The best meringues are from Elisabeth.
Ice cream – it’s never too cold or too wet to eat ice cream, there are heaps of amazing ice cream parlours, it would be rude not to try them all out, nuff said.
Finally, you can’t go to Belgium without seeing something of it’s most famous son, TinTin. When you’re walking around make sure you look up, you never know what you’re missing if you only look straight ahead.