In September 2017 I spent a long weekend in Brussels meeting up with my cousin and her boyfriend who had spent the year travelling. Brussels had always been on my to-do list (great architecture, great attractions, great beer and food etc.), and I jumped at the chance of meeting up with them on the final leg of their trip.
I took a cheap and early flight on a Thursday from Manchester to Brussels South-Charleroi which, despite being a fair distance away from Brussels itself, has easy transport links into the city including a shuttle bus directly from the airport which I was able to pre-book.
The shuttle bus drops you off at Bruxelles-Midi, a train station to the South of the city centre. You can then walk around 20 minutes to get into the centre, which in the late September sun was what I chose to do. As I was meeting my cousin and her boyfriend at the main train station in the city, I headed that way aiming to find the nearest bar and sample some Belgian beer in the afternoon sun. I stumbled across the perfect Brasserie La Madeleine which offered outside seating and cheap beer overlooking a local park and the train station. As someone who loves the sun and being outdoors, the end of summer is always a tough time for me, so being able to enjoy a beer and read a book outside in the sun on the first day of a break in a new city was the perfect start.
Brasserie La Madeleine
Address: Rue de la Madeleine 53, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
After meeting my cousin off the train at around 2pm, we had a drink and catch up in Brasserie La Madeleine before heading to our AirBnb apartment in Ixelles area of Brussels. The public transport was great, and we purchased the 72hr Jump pass with a MOBIB card that entitled us unlimited travel on the tram, bus and train which was more than enough to get us to our apartment and the city, along with all of the attractions we visited. All of the public transport we used was clean, safe, reliable, and on-time, and really made travelling around the city easy.
We stayed in the Chatelain’s Cosy Apartment in the friendly and trendy neighbourhood of Ixelles, birthplace of Audrey Hepburn. Modern, spacious, and clean, the apartment was everything you could wish for in an AirBnb, and provided the perfect base for our stay in the city. After an early morning flight and beer in the afternoon-fuelled nap, we decided to head into the city to explore the sights.
Our first stop was at Moeder Lambic, a well-stocked hipster craft beer bar close to the Mannekin Pis. The bar was fairly expensive (and had some rather weird snacks) but one of those that had been recommended by friends and it was a nice start to the evening. Our next stop was for some quick food at Manhattn’s Burgers, a local favourite serving up classic burgers and the famous Belgian fries. We then decided to go and get our first view of the Grand-Place, and it blew us away. I’ve been to a fair share of cities with incredible architecture – Manchester alone has its fair share – but standing in the famous square and being totally surrounded by the incredible and splendid buildings was really something else. Centred around the majestic Gothic 15th Century town hall the square plays host to festivals throughout the year, and acts as an important hub for Brussels life.
After exploring the streets around the Grand-Place, we headed back to the tram at Koning, and stumbled across the fabulous Mont des Arts Gardens on the way, which was setting up for what we later found out was DCL | Grand Prix Brussels, a hotly contested drone festival! After spending some time admiring the gardens, we jumped on the tram and headed back to our apartment for the night.
Mont des Arts Gardens
Address: Mont des Arts, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
On our second day we started the morning off with a great coffee from Holy Bagels, ideally just across the road from our apartment. A cosy little cafe tucked away on the corner of the street, they served up wonderful coffee and cake, and all of the staff were incredibly friendly.
Address: Rue Armand Campenhout 62, 1050 Bruxelles, Belgium
We decided to head to one of the most famous attractions in Brussels; the Atomium. The journey from our apartment in Ixelles was fairly simple, taking around 40 minutes on the tram and train and with a stop just at the Atomium. Constructed for the World Fair in Brussels in 1958, the imposing structure represents a single unit cell of an iron crystal, magnified 165 billion times, and is an incredible feat of architecture and engineering.
Address: Square de l’Atomium, 1020 Bruxelles, Belgium
Originally cited to last no longer than the World Fair, the Atomium still stands today as a result of its popularity within Brussels. The 9 spheres are connected by tubes 3 metres in diameter, and today house a number of permanent and temporary exhibitions, along with a restaurant at the very top with a 360 degree view. The permanent exhibitions look at both the significance and history of the Atomium, as well as an interesting overview of the World Fair Expo that it was built for in 1958. The temporary exhibition when we attended had launched the Atomium’s 60th year, and looked at the Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte. The exhibition was a mix of both his famous quotes, and bringing his art to life in 3D form, allowing visitors to totally immerse themselves in the works of the famous artist.
After grabbing some delicious waffles from a nearby van, we headed across to the nearby Mini-Europe which we had bought as a dual ticket with the Atomium. Featuring all of Europe’s major landmarks, the park was actually bigger than we thought and it was easy to spend a good couple of hours following the route and admiring all of the designs. You can interact with the majority of the landmarks including driving boats, experiencing an earthquake, and mourning at London’s Houses of Parliament which were sadly decorated with an army of tiny Brexiteers.
Address: 1020 Brussels, Belgium
After taking the train back in to the centre of Brussels, we visited the uniquely popular and crowded Manneken Pis. Originally designed in the early 17th Century, the original Manneken Pis currently resides in the Museum of the City of Brussels, however the replica is still one of the most popular attractions in Brussels. On the winding streets back to the Grand-Place, we managed to find some fantastic (and cheap!) Greek Gyros that certainly filled us for the afternoon.
After wandering around the Grand-Place for the first time in the daytime, which was equally as impressive as at night, we headed to what quickly became our favourite bar in the city – Au Brasseur. Located just off the Grand-Place, the bar had great seating right on the street in the sun, where you can watch the world go by. We opted to try the 6 beer tasting flight featuring some of Belgium’s favourite beers including La Trappe, Waterloo, Brugge Triple, Tripel Karmeliet, Kwak and Delirium. The standard beer menu is fairly daunting, with plenty to choose from, so the taster is a great chance to try out some of the most popular choices. Kwak quickly became my go-to drink, partly due to the fantastic glass and holder it comes in when ordering it normally. After enjoying a few drinks well into the evening, we decided to call it a night and take ourselves back to the apartment.
Address: 22 Rue des Veaux, 67000 Strasbourg, France
The first thing we did on our third day was head back across the road for an amazing breakfast at Holy Bagels, consisting of Bagels with cream cheese and jams, and great coffee to set us up for the day. After this we jumped on a tram to head to the Cantillon Brewery Tour, the only traditional lambic brewery left in the country. Behind an unassuming facade sits a deceptively large and fantastic brewery that has been operating for over 100 years.
Address: Rue Gheude 56, 1070 Anderlecht, Belgium
The popular tour starts with an overview of the brewery and the traditions of lambic brewing, before you can self-guide yourself around the whole site, taking in the whole process of the traditional brewery (and meeting some friendly spiders along the way in the dusty stores). The tour finishes with an opportunity to try the beers in the bar area, two of which are included in your tour price. There’s also a shop to buy beer and gifts to take away, and the whole experience takes around 90 minutes.
We took a tram back to the centre of Brussels and wandered around the streets close to the Grand-Place, buying the best Belgian chocolate and gifts, before ending up back in Au Brasseur for another flight of beer. Being an avid Manchester City fan, a quick Facebook search took me to The Big Game Sports Bar to watch our game against Crystal Palace. Walking in, it looks like you’re entering a Sky Sports studio, with TVs covering every wall. Their happy hour famously lasts most of the day making it an obvious favourite for tourists and local sports fans. A couple of hours later, a few cheap beers, and a great 5-0 win, we emerged back into the heat and light outside and headed back to the apartment to grab some food before returning to the centre for the evening.
The Big Game Sports Bar
Address: Rue Henri Maus 5, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
We made it back into town for around 9pm, and stumbled upon the end of the DCL | Grand Prix Brussels drone festivals in the fantastic Mont des Arts Gardens. I never realised drone racing was such big business until we saw the international competitors and the incredible speed of the drones racing around the custom track, it was amazing to watch! We then spent a couple of hours at our now regular haunt Au Brasseur, during which we saw several street bands popping up along the cobbles, including a very interesting and fun jazz act.
As Brussels seemed an incredible safe and welcoming city, we decided to walk the 40 minutes back to the apartment, and unintentionally but happily found ourselves in the middle of the Brussels Night Run, a yearly 8km run through the heart of the city. We clapped the lead the runners through the centre of the Grand Place, and then enjoyed an incredible amount of entertainment along the route on our way home. It was great seeing how much was going on the city and everybody we met was so friendly and welcoming.
We ended the night in Supra Bailly, a small bar back in Ixelles. Despite it being midnight by this point, the bar was great with a really chilled and easy atmosphere, with no drunk groups or issues, something you don’t always find back in the UK! There was a great mix of young people, old people, students and more, and it was a great way to end the night.
Address: Rue du Bailli 77, 1050 Ixelles, Belgium
On our final day we packed up and had breakfast in the apartment as we had to leave by midday. As we were not flying until later in the evening we made our way to the Brussels Central Train Station to drop our luggage off in the lockers. We purchased our dual train and bus tickets to Charleroi airport from a helpful assistant in the train station, and then jumped on the bus to the Leopold Quarter.
In this part of town you will find the very corporate area of the European Commission Headquarters, as well as the interesting Museum of Natural Sciences. With some impressive Iguanodon skeletons on display that were originally discovered in Belgium in the 19th Century, the Museum has plenty of exhibitions and attractions to enjoy, and allowed us to while away a couple of hours before we needed to make our way to the airport.
Museum of Natural Sciences
Address: Rue Vautier 29, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
After walking back to the centre of Brussels, we headed to the train station to begin our journey back home. The train and bus take around 1 hour 30 minutes in total, and although it is slightly cheaper than the shuttle bus I would recommend sticking to the shuttle for ease and speed. Brussels South-Charleroi is a fairly basic airport but includes all of the amenities you need, and we spent the remainder of our money on Jupiler’s and reminisced on a great few days in the Belgian capital.