Wanted to share our experience in Belgium this year. It was our first visit to the country and I hope it is not our last. We had the most wonderful time. The people are fantastic, and fortunately for us they almost all speak english. We stayed 5 nights at the Ghent Marriott and two nights at the Brussels Marriott, with one day trip to Brugge. Both hotels were great - location, accommodations, staff and breakfasts.
In addition to the people, we had great meals, excellent beers, decadent chocolates, delicious waffles, tasty cuberdons and saw great sites. The weather wasn't too bad, either. Mid 50's to mid-60's with only a few days of drizzle.
We loved Ghent. It was the perfect sized city. Much of the history and beauty of Brugge, but in a livelier, slightly more urban setting. Seemed to be the perfect blend. The Ghent Marriott is precisely where you would want to be - right on the canal, in the middle of the historic center of town. If it didn't have Marriott over the door, you would assume it was one of the many historic old merchant or shipping buildings that dot both sides of, I believe, the Lei River (canal). It is between the St. Michael's Bridge/St. Michael's Church and the Gravensteen Castle. Everything is an easy walk, though bring some comfortable shoes, because you will be walking on lots of cobblestone streets and the ankles can get a little sore, without some support.
In Ghent, we had dinners at Valentijn (in Patershol neighborhood, near Castle), Pakhuis (block or two southeast of St. Michael's Bridge and Korenmarkt), Cafe Theatre (about a block or so, west of Kouter) and Volta (about a 15 minute walk west of the Marriott, though walk back along the canal at night, its beautiful) - and would highly recommend them all! Lunches were at Brasserie 't Stropke (right next to the Castle with a great stew - I had pork and it was like braised short ribs, and my wife had the waterzooi - a cream based chicken soup/stew, very popular in Ghent, this was our first lunch upon arrival), Brasserie Bridge, right in front of St. Bavo's (both had their house/chef salad and it was fantastic), 't Vrij Gevoel (I had salad, my wife another waterzooi - more of a stew here), an indoor/outdoor Brasserie, right on Vrigdagmarkt (Friday) Market. The squares around town are referred to as markets.
If it is Sunday morning in Ghent, you must be at the flower market in Kouter (a square south of Korenmarkt), about 10 mins walk. What a great experience. All the best flower vendors in the region and many folks in their Sunday best. In the middle of the square is a beautiful, ornate elevated bandstand, complete with a small orchestra. At one end of the square was a stand selling coffee, sandwiches and other snacks and at the other end (our favorite) was a stand selling still wines, champagne, oysters and what they referred to as toasts - a variety of little squares of toasted breads with salmon, shrimp, tuna and crab. Delicious!!!!!
Then there were all the wonderful beers and pubs/cafes. I won't name all the beers I tried - to avoid judgement - but suffice it to say, I tried a few and they were all delicious. Some must visit pubs would be Bierhuis, right on the canal across from the Castle. On the same patio, overlooking the canal, is the Bierhuis, a restaurant which looked nice but we did not eat there, and 't Druepelkot, a bar serving Belgian jenever - they call it gin, but only one we tried tasted like a traditional gin (only smoother), the rest are flavored liquors, basically. Pol, the gentleman who owns and runs the place, has numerous reciped flavors he serves and you can even bring some home. If you buy from him to take home, let him know though. If you take it home, its 20 euro, if he assumes you are buying it to take out on the deck with your buds, its 30 euro. That is for a 750 ml bottle. Great place to sit outside when the weather is good, have a few beers and relax. Another nice spot is Cafe Leffe, at the base of the Belfry. De Dulle Griet on Friday Markt is a great 'brown bar', dark woods, great character and a wonderful selection of Belgian beers. As a matter of fact, I had my first ever Westvleteren 12 there!!!! For those of you who know beers, this is a gem and like hen's teeth to find. Trappistenhuis is down just past the red light district (walking through there is an unusual experience). The bar is great, actually in a nice neighborhood and the owner is quite the beer expert. he also brews his own, called Joannes. My wife had one, it was great and he gave us a champagne size bottle to bring home. Still in the closet. 't Galgenhuis is a tiny little bar on Groentenmarkt, across the street from Bierhuis and next to the old meat hall. Great place to sit outside and people watch. On that same little square is sometimes an outdoor market, Tierenteyn-Verlent (they have been making the same recipe mustard since 1790. It must be refrigerated, as it has no preservatives, but it is delicious and worth the work to get it home. VERY spicy with horseradish. Our bottle is almost empty :-( ) Also, there is Koffie, with a waffle stand in the window (yum), Himschoot (a wonderful very old bakery next door), and usually two carts out front selling cuberdon, a nose shaped candy that has an exterior kind of like a soft jelly bean with an almost liquid or at least gooey center - rasberry flavored and quite tasty. They are only in Ghent.
If you want a fantastic coffee in Ghent, go about a block behind the Starbucks on Korenmarkt, up the tiny street, to Mokabon!!
Sites in Ghent - we visited St. Bavo and the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, St. Nicholas, St. Michael's, climbed the Belfry, toured all through the Castle, the Holy Corner (Ghent Beguinage), took a canal tour, walked all over the place and did some shopping mostly on Langemunt between Groetenmarkt and Friday Market, and some on Veldstraat, on the way toward Kouter.
Chocolate in Ghent - Van Hoorebeke, one just outside the hotel on the left and over by the Belfry is homemade and wonderful. Daskalides, a few blocks from the Belfry was wonderful - and where we spent the most on Chocolate. You will find a number of Neuhaus outlets and they are very good. Leonidas is a good middle of the road chocolate and is everywhere. And then there are numerous boutique chocolatiers scattered about. That is pretty much the case in all the cities.
The tram was an easy way to get from St. Peter's Station to Korenmarkt and within a block of the hotel.
Took a day trip to Brugge by train - about 25 minutes. Had a beautiful day there. Canal tour, visited St. Salvatore, Basilica of the Holy Blood (although the main chapel and the relic were not open because of restoration) and unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to climb the tower. Had lunch at Cambrinus (which is owned by the same folks who own de Bier Tempel in Brugge and Brussels - a great beer store, complete with all the glasses too). We both had the beef stew and it was awesome. Again, like braised boneless shortribs, a dollop of applesauce in the gravy and a big cone of fries. Lots of great fries with pretty much everything you get - everywhere. Dinner was at a beautiful, small restaurant (recommend reservations at all the dinner spots in Ghent and this spot in Brugge), called Gruuthuse Hof. Wonderful meal. A few must visit bars are Staminee de Garre (down a very tiny alley, between the main square with the clock tower and the square with the Basilica of the Holy Blood). Their exclusive house draft is a must have. Brugs Beertje (Brugge Bear) is also a great old pub.
Then on to Brussels. We were only there a day and a half. The first day we had a fantastic stand up lunch over in the St. Catherine's area at Mer du Nord. You walk up to the outdoor counter at this seafood market/restaurant and order your wine and food off the board behind the servers/cooks. They cook everything right in front of you and it is fabulous. Clams, calamari, grilled swordfish, escargot in broth, champagne, chardonnay. It was great. Visited the Grand Place on a number of occasions, as it is a block from the hotel. Walked past the Bourse to get almost anywhere. Visited Mannakin Pis - they do love their little peeing boy statue. Toured the Palace of Justice, went to the Royal Palace and all the things near it, including the church in the middle of the square nearby, then St. Michael's, what remains of Ravensteen Castle where some say Anne of Cleves was born (others say otherwise), Le Petit Sablon - a beautiful park with alot of statues of historical figures, and the church in Grand Sablon, Parc d' Egmont and simply looked at all the designer stores on the way. Ate mussels and fries at Chez Leon - though it is in a very touristy area, it was recommended to use by several Belgians and it was perfect. A nice cafe/bar is A La Mort Subite, another, between the Grand Place and the Bourse, down a tiny alley, is A la Becasse - they serve a Timmerman's Lambic Doux, from a ceramic picture, which is surprising delicious. Very old bar and a really neat find. In addition to the other chocolatiers in the down, Pierre Marcolini's near Grand Sablon is a must - very high end and outstanding. As several belgians told us, you buy chocolate at all the other stores for family and friends, you buy Pierre Marcolini's for yourself.
I know I missed alot, which will come to me later. But if you are trying to think of a place to go and you haven't been to Belgium - GO!!!! And stay at these two Marriotts.
THanks for the great trip report! We had planned to be there in April too, but had to postpone until September. We will be referring to your recommendations as we eat, drink, and sightsee our way through Belgium. We will be flying in and out of Amsterdam. Did you spend any time there?
Terrific write up. This has all the buzzwords I'm looking for, great beer, fantastic people, English, chocolates, waffles (mmm waffles), sites, walking tours, good ground transportation, did I mention great beer? This is my blueprint for a 2014 trip, I've already put in for permission with the Mrs. this morning (the movie In Bruges got me pumped and your review closed the deal). Thanks for taking the effort. The photos you mentioned will be icing on the cake. Great stuff.
I'm proud to announce I just closed the deal with the Mrs. to head to Belgium in '15 and it's our turn to pick among the traveling couples. We're going to go in May, which of course gives me plenty of time to plan, although, literally I'm going to follow your format 90-100%, heck, if it was up to me, I'd use your photos also (if I was smart enough to know how to figure out how to put them in my digital picture frame ). I'll fly UA to Brussels.
For presentation purposes to the other couple here's my first few questions;
1) If it's still alive when I book in June, I'm going to do the five nights for four points deal. Having gone, would you still do 5 Ghent and 2 Brussels or would you reverse or would you add a day to Brussels?
2) Did you stay in Brugge overnight or return on train after dinner?
3) The tram was easy (I love the views), were the trains pretty easy or walking distance from hotel? (A detailed answer is not necessary, if you say it's easy, given the credibility of your report (I'm handing it to the other couple), I'm just telling them you said so and that's good enough for us .
Thanks for your guidance.
Congrats on a great decision -- I only wish I had more research reasons to go to Belgium these days.
For your questions:
1) Absolutely. Brussels is easy (believe it or not) to do in two days, whereas Ghent gives you a vision of history and a lively cultural environment today. Do not miss the Lamb of God in Ghent's Cathedral (you need to go into a special room but it's worth it for even non-art history fans -- it is one of the only depictions of a literal lamb of God on an altar by a later Flemish painter). Visit the castle, and you'll likely get medieval re-enactors who are really good. Take a tour of the canals. Eat at Elliot's for sure (I've done so twice) -- even though it was a year or more apart, they remembered me (go figure). It's near the castle. Food is fabulous, decor equally so. You can easily go from Ghent (or Brussels to Bruges, but don't spend a night in the latter -- as others have said, Bruges is wonderful but Ghent is better and lest touristy).
2) Even when I first visited Bruges it was a day trip from Paris (sorry, French is my first foreign language -- but that brings up an important point). Language and cultural identity is a big deal in Belgium these days. The French and French language have dominated for centuries, but the majority is now Flemish, and they are pushing as far as separatism (though with no signs of violence whatsoever). It is why in Flemish territories you often will find a menu only in Flemish, not French or English, whereas the waiter will speak both effortlessly.
3) Are you talking about Ghent or Brussels? I have never taken the tram. In Ghent, you'll probably need a taxi from the airport (not a bad idea in Brussels either since the train station area is not great). Once in Ghent, you can walk everywhere -- and the same is true of Brussels.
Once again, I strongly advise for great restaurant meals to walk to the west (I think) of the Grand' Place to Saint Katherine's Platz. where the restaurants (in my view) have better food. When I lived in Paris from 1985-7 and visited frequently I always ate at the restaurants off the Grand' Place and had some of the best meals of my life. However, in recent times, I have not had the same experience, though I have at Saint Katherine's Platz. The latter is closer to the fish docks so if you like fresh fish, you'll get it there.
But don't miss Elliot's in Ghent! So many people have told me afterward they remembered me mentioning it but forgot. It's GREAT.
Here is the stuff about The House of Eliott (sorry for previous misspelling):
I'm quoting the most recent review from someone in Wales but here is what he said:
"This is no ordinary eating experience - it is something you will remember and talk about for ever more! The décor is simply stunning and the service outstandingly attentive, friendly and informative. We went for lunch and had the 2 x lobster menu with a bottle of house white - highly recommended. If you're in Ghent this place is a must."
Eliott's it is! I was just commenting on how psudad had said the tram in Ghent was easy, so I was wondering in general what all was involved in commuting by train from Brussels to Ghent and Ghent to Bruges.
Is the Fleming/French issue the reason behind Ghent/Gent and Brugge/Bruges?
Thanks for the info - good stuff. I'm mostly just putting an overview together to present to my traveling mates, I'll study later (I'm about to start my prep for this years Baltic Sea cruise - Stockholm to Copenhagen).
You bet it is! As a historian, I study the problems that language and ethnic differences have caused all the time. In the 16th C. during the Wars of Religion and after Spain invaded the Low Countries, Belgium and the Netherlands split. But within Belgium there was a strong majority of Walloons (French) and a lesser number of Flemings. The numbers have changed in recent years and the Flemish want to split away.
Belgium is perhaps the one and only country in the world where I would suggest you speak English. Everyone understands it and no one is offended, whereas if you speak French (few non-Flemish speak Flemish) you might not be treated AS well. Still, I've found Belgians to be wonderful. And if you know what area you're in, you're fine. French is fine in Brussels, but not so much in Bruges/Brugge. Just speak English in Ghent.
HI Erc, sorry to disagree with the professor but I would recommend spending at least a night (or more) in Brugge. It is so much more charming at night when the day trippers have left. I spent 3 nights...it wasn't enough for me.
Very much enjoyed Ghent also.
if you are interested, I can send you my itinerary for Belgium.
Thanks newhiltonmember. Bruges certainly appears interesting from everyone's accounts. I'm still working on my 2014 travels for now (I'm chatting with the other couple later this month about a '15 trip to Belgium, so this entire thread is invaluable), so I'm ok as far as itineraries go (I don't even know what I don't know yet). But you can be sure (more of a threat than a promise ), I'll be following up with everyone about their travel tips - you too gm1 .
I would absolutely do 5 in Ghent and 2 in Brussels again. It's all in what you like. There is certainly much to see in Brussels - much that we didn't - but we really enjoyed the environment, friendliness of the people, laid back lifestyle of Ghent.
We did not stay in Brugges overnight. It is only about a 25 minute train from Ghent. You can walk easily into the center of Brugges and all over town. Yes, we had a wonderful dinner at Gruuthuse Hof (Home - Restaurant Gruuthuse Hof te Brugge) which I highly recommend. Make reservations well in advance as it is a small restaurant and a hot property. It is a nice walk to the train station from there.
The trams are very easy in Ghent. Following our arrival at St. Peter's station, we went outside the station and picked up the tram. It takes you within a few blocks of the Marriott. You get out at Korenmarkt (near the McDonalds), walk over the St. Michael's Bridge, take the stairs down on the right side, and walk along the canal to the Marriott. We landed in Brussels and took an express train to St. Peters station in Ghent. Took the tram in Ghent to and from St. Peters station and walked everywhere else. Took the train to and from Brugges. When we left Ghent to head to Brussels, we took the train to Centraal Station in Brussels and walked down Grasmarkt, took a left at either Petite rue au Beurre or Rue des Fripiers, then right along the Bourse, crossed Boulevard Anspach, and you are at the Marriott. We traveled light, with a few roller bags - and we love to walk. Because we had an early flight home on our last day, we took a cab from the hotel to the airport. Hope that helps. When it gets closer, I would be happy to point you too some excellent restaurants and, if you are so inclined, some wonderful beer spots!d
Hopefully, I can complete this post. I have tried to list the restaurants in Ghent, three times and got kicked out each time.
Restaurant Valentijn - Beautiful small restaurant in the historic Patershol neighborhood.
Volta - we walked but its a hike. Very nice, creative cuisine. Was the most expensive of our choices.
Pakhuis - Excellent and beautiful.
Cafe Theatre - also excellent and beautiful. And a wonderful walk back, after dark. The city is gorgeous at night. They spent millions on a lighting strategy.
In Brussels, we actually never had dinner out. We ate some great lunches, Mare du Nord (standing at the outdoor counter eating incredibly fresh seafood and sipping champagne) in St. Catherines, then mussels at Chez Leon, a few blocks off of Grand Place. Chez Leon is in a very touristy area, but it was recommended to me by several Belgian natives both in US and Belgium as THE place for mussels. It was a good choice and if the weather is even halfway decent, sit outside. Then, every night we had dinner in the concierge lounge at the Marriott - for free. Nice wines, great cheeses and salads and a few hot items. Actually got this tip from Prof, before our trip. We would then go out after dinner, up to Grand Place to see the lights, stop at a bar and relax.
But as Prof says, there are great restaurants in the St. Catherine's area and it is a short walk from the hotel. We had reservations at two of them but cancelled both.
Also, breakfast is great at the Ghent Marriott and pretty good at Brussels, so as long as you have status, you are covered there.
3564 is the view out of the front of the Ghent Marriott
3565 - over my left shoulder is the front of the Ghent Marriott
3570 is outside Bierhuis and 't Druepelkot, along the canal.
**85 is the flower market in Kouter (square) on Sunday morning
**91 champagne, oysters and 'toasts' at the flower market.
More Ghent pictures
602 - The Belfry
609 - St. Nicholas
610 - St. Bavo (home of the painting by the Van Eyck brothers - Adoration of the Mystic Lamb
611 - The Theatre and St. Bavo's and some of the cafes.
15 - some chocolates at Neuhaus
17 - more chocolates at Neuhaus
22 - interior of St. Bavo
29 - Pulpit at St. Bavo
32 - Peter Paul Ruben painting of St. Bavo giving away his wealth and entering the church
34 - A Statue of the Van Eyck brothers behind St. Bavo
44 - There were a number of places that made/sold french style macarons. Unfortunately, they need refrigeration, so none followed us home. :-(
45 - The same place made all handmade chocolates. It was on the main street behind St. Bavo, on the right as you are walking east from the church, toward the red light district. Limburgstraat
58-61-64 - great views from up in the Belfry.
Yep, still Ghent
74-75 - A cuberdon stand - those rasberry flavored nose-shaped candies made only in ghent.
76 - refreshments
84 - great canal view. The Marriott is on the right, past the bridge. Beyond is St. Michael's
89 - This is across from the Ghent Marriott - This entire area is like the town beach. People gather there in the evenings to drink and socialize. All were well behaved and it was peaceful. Fun.
A few more Ghent pics
92 - Marriott Lobby from the 5th (top) floor.
702 - The theatre at night. The entire city had a master lighting plan and it is gorgeous. Walking through the historic area at night is a must.
703 - St. Nicholas and the Belfry
706 - looking at the Marriott across the canal.
24 - a view from the Castle - you can see the class lobby of the Marriott on the right side.
A few more Ghent pics
85 - on St. Michael's Bridge, looking toward the Marriott and the Castle in the distance.
88 - the pulpit in St. Michael's Church
91 - a Van Dyck in St. Michael's
96 - Great spot to hang out, drink and eat - the patio overlooking the canal at Bierhuis, Chez Leontine and 't Druepelkot
98 - Front of the Marriott, from our canal tour
29 - a beer victory - enjoying my first rare Westvleteren 12 at De Dulle Griet. A dozen followed me home, from de Bier Tempel in Brussels and are now resting for a few more months.
32 - inside of De Dulle Griet. They serve one beer, Kwak, in a large yard. If you order it, they take one of your shoes and hoist it to the ceiling in a basket, to ensure they get the glass back.
Now, off to Brugge for the day
35 - Tower of St. Salvatore Church
46 - on the main square, next to the clock tower.
48 - also on same square, looking away from the tower
49 - City clock tower
50 - base of clock tower building
52 - on the right side of this picture is the Church of the Holy Blood, which is reported to contain a vial of christ's blood, brought back from the first or second crusade. Unfortunately, it was closed for renovation.
55 - Brasserie Cambrinus - very nice lunch and they have a huge selection of beer, because they also own the store de Bier Tempel next door. This is just off the main square
63- lunch at Cambrinus - very nice stew (braised beef) with a dollop of applesauce and wonderful fries - and a Westvleteren 12, the Mrs. had a Zot, a local draft.
68 - Our dinner spot in Ghent - Gruuthuse Hof. Great spot, make reservations
71 - Statue by Michelangelo (Madonna and Child) in the Church of our Lady
81 - in the same church is the tombs of Charles the Bold and Mary of Burgundy
23 - Inside the Brugs Beertje
Off to Brussels
81 - Mer du Nord - great stand up lunch in the St. Catherine's area, a few blocks west (behind) the Marriott
90-91 - Grand Place
01 - Mannekin Pis
14 - St. Michael's
27 - shopping (well, mostly just walking through) Galleries Royales St. Hubert - one of the first covered shopping 'malls' in the world. 2nd, I believe
29 - View of the Bourse from our hotel room window at Brussels Marriott. The tower behind it is Grand Place
39 - Go to Pierre Marcolini's for chocolates for yourself.
69 - Church on the Grand Sablon, from the small park, Petit Sablon.
05 - Royal Palace, with the Royal Gardens across the street - and a great Maserati sedan.
18 - Chez Leon for mussels
I believe we have seen that one. We recorded it and watched it before and after our trip. They looked at a very small efficiency, right on the tram line, an apartment just out of the city center, on the ground floor by the canals and an apartment right around the corner from the red light district. Picked the small efficiency. Was fun watching it afterwards, so we could actually know the areas.
It truly was a wonderful trip that we relive often. April, its off to Rome for a week (Grand Flora). We have been to Rome a number of times, so we have seen all the well known spots a few times. (all of the major churches, Coliseum, Forum, everything Vatican, so this time we are looking for things we have not seen. The lesser known sites. We are going to tour Castel St Angelo (only walked past before), will go out to Ostia for a part of a day. Probably Borghese gardens/museum and Palazzo Barberini. Any suggestions would be welcomed. We have also been compiling a list of great neighborhood restaurants to try. We both love Roman foods - especially their simple yet elegant pasta dishes - and have found you don't have to spend a ton to get true culinary greatness in Rome. There are two or three spots we will return to, the rest will be new dining discoveries.
Prof, following on your question regarding Trastevere for our trip to Rome last April, we took a 4 hour walking food tour through Trastevere one day. Awesome time. Visiting old markets and old multi-generational family shops, lunch and wine, then another place for dessert and wine. Great tour. We then strolled through the neighbor and churches in the area, and then strolled across the bridge to Testaccio, for the rest of the afternoon and dinner. The protestant cemetery there is a hidden gem. Volpetti's in Testaccio is a must visit food shop - outrageous meats, cheeses, and all the makings for an incredible picnic. We swung by there one morning, before catching the train to Ostia Antica, to put our picnic together. A wonderful older man there, directed us around the store and put together an fabulous basket of goodies. That, with our split of red, made for a great time.
That sounds like a wonderful upcoming trip. Enjoy. Yes, we had a wonderful time in Rome and our day in Trastevere, and the time we spent in Testaccio - the market, the Protestant Cemetery, Volpetti's, Wine and happy hour outside at Enoteca Palombi on Piazza Testaccio and dinner at Da Felice.
This is truly an outstanding trip report. I do not know how I missed this when it was originally posted. The photos are awesome! Thank you for taking the time to put this together and post it. We are planning a trip to France, Belgium and The Netherlands this coming fall and this report will provide a valuable resource.