Bruges, Ghent and Brussels, the three cities I knew I had to visit in order to say I have ticked off Belgium! It might sound harsh but after spending three days in Antwerp I was ready to tick these three cities off the list and say I was done with Belgium forever. To me Belgium seemed to be full of cities lined by picturesque buildings whose roofs look like steps to the sky, chocolate stores, waffles and Tin Tin. Having seen all four cities I can now say perhaps I judged it a little too quickly. People were quick to give me advice, tell me their opinions and even warn me about further exploration into Belgium. I won’t bore you with the details of the extensive opinions but I will say this “Brussels is horrible and quite seedy, Ghent is worth a half day trip at best, and Bruges is beautiful but you only need a day”. Now after seeing them myself something struck me, everyone is different and advice can only go so far. It might have been due to the fact that I chose to visit Belgium in December and consequently each of the cities featured christmas markets that added to the charm, but I found Belgium much more enchanting than I was led to expect.
Yes it is beautiful – True – but it is tiny, and if it weren’t for the christmas market I think I would have gotten bored in the 24 hours I was there. Walking from the station through the city centre to my hostel, which was on the opposite side of the city, I crossed the city in less than half an hour. The main square was incredible, cobble stoned and framed by impressive buildings. The highlight had to be the line of coloured buildings directly opposite the tower. A winding road twisted around the right side of the square carrying horse and carts catering to the bustling tourism that now floods Bruges. Continuing onwards is a street full of chocolate shops, a christmas shop and a great cookie store. This one street was lovely revealing the two christmas markets, the main shopping drag, a canal and giving way to a quaint corner or two…but thats it. I climbed the tower and was unimpressed. The barricades at the top were high and thick making it very difficult to see the view below, I would hate to be any shorter than my 168cm! Additionally the wire mesh was less than visually appealing. Once off the main square the beauty significantly diminished as well. Even the walk to Choco Story their popular chocolate museum meant walking down a very quiet and uninviting street. Walking multiple circles around and up Bruges was too easy in under 24 hours. I truly enjoyed the walk back to the station spying a view of the outside of the city, a red brick fortress and a lone swan swimming in its outer canal – reminded me of the Swan Princess. Ghent
It became immediately clear that Ghent deserved much more than half a days visit. Walking across town I notably appreciated the incline of some of the narrow city streets – especially coming from The Netherlands where everything is so flat! The cafe culture, bike, car and pedestrian congestion on a central road made me smile as a police car watched on half attempting to assist the chaos that can only be the lunch time home rush. I would live here. This is a statement I have only said about a few places, but the vibe in this gorgeous lively student city provokes it. I wandered around for hours. There were beautiful buildings and an abundance of things to see and do. Initially concerned that there would be too much for me to accomplish in my 24 hours here I surprised myself and managed to see nearly everything I wanted to see. I also had time to get lost in back streets wandering alone, away from the busy tourist throng flowing the central christmas market clad main squares and streets. Ghent was charming, bustling and chic, featuring historic buildings, graffiti alleys, canal side weeping willows and a medieval castle. I would love to come back here and spend a few days, even anything up to a week or so to chill out and soak up the culture on offer, especially the cafes and bars! Brussels
Here’s to the dreaded capital city…the place that I heard was nothing but touristy, dirty and uncomfortable. So why did I go you might ask? Well I had to see it for myself, and I am glad I did. It wasn’t so bad. I liked it to a certain extent. It was definitely a capital city and the tourism was overbearing! That being said I am a city girl at heart and an overbearing touristic capital city doesn’t generally bother me. The christmas markets were fantastic and I loved spending a sizeable portion of time wandering around those, shaking off the rain and cold with a cup of vin chaud in-between my cold hands. Most obvious differences? The size – it’s enormous! The language shifts to predominantly French as opposed to Dutch/Flemish in Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent. The architecture is much more extravagant and theres no denying that Brussels square is breathtaking…although I think it depends on your personal taste as to whether you think it deserves the title “The worlds most beautiful square”. I didn’t mind Brussels as much as I thought I might based on prior warnings. I found enjoyment visiting the sites, chocolate stores, Galeries Royals Saint Hubert, spotting Tin Tin wall art and strolling the christmas markets.
Each of us travels differently. We will all enjoy or dislike different things about different places. I think it is important to reserve judgement about a place before you yourself have experienced it. Despite how ever many people have told you a place is one way or another go into a place with fresh eyes and without expectations! I did this in Belgium, giving myself a day in each to appreciate and explore them, seeing first hand what they have to offer.
I do not want to tell you how long to spend in each as this will vary on how you yourself travel and what you like and dislike. Instead I will say have a browse through guide books and research what there is to do in these places. If you’re flexible then be happy to play it day by day, hopping between them when you feel you are done with one and ready to move on to the next. The trains and transport between them are frequent, cheap and quick so moving around at short notice and your own pace is easy! Just take care that it isn’t peak season so that you will be sure to find a room somewhere. Alternatively it is possible to day trip to each from any other city if you prefer to do it this way.
For myself I spent a day in each, which was enough for me to get an adequate feel of each place. If I was to do it again I would have allowed myself an extra day in Bruges to do a day trip to Ypres – the World War 1 Western Front battle field. I will return to Belgium to go to Ypres. I also hope to return to spend a little bit more time in Ghent if I am in the area.
I have also become recently aware of the number of beautiful castles and chateaus in Belgium. One day with a car I would love to take to the land and explore the country side and lesser known treasures Belgium has to offer.