After Budapest, I’d decided to come home via Belgium – due to flight prices and times, it made more sense to fly to Brussels, spend a night in Belgium, and then fly home from there, saving me £100 in the process. This quickly turned into one of my mad plans to then spend that £100 to see as much as possible when I discovered that you can get between the main cities in little more than half an hour.
And so the plan was – fly into Brussels at hideous o’clock in the morning, take the bus to Ghent, spend the day in Ghent, take the train to Antwerp, spend the evening and morning in Antwerp, and finally spend a couple of hours in Brussels before my flight home. It was a ridiculous plan, which ended up working (mostly) better than I’d actually imagined.
The reason for choosing Belgium, is that I had a choice: fly home from Budapest for £128, which is an outrageous price to pay for any Ryanair flight, or fly instead to Brussels for £12, and onwards from there for £20. I decided I’d spend a day in Brussels and come home later that night. Then I decided I’d be better off spending a night in Brussels.
Well, I did at least spend the night in Belgium…
The mad dash trip started with a 3.30am alarm, leading me bleary-eyed onto the nearest airport bus in torrential rain, and onto a flight where I could sleep a bit more.
Brussels Charleroi airport is nowhere near Brussels, but it does have excellent connections around Belgium, and you can easily hop on a bus to Ghent or Bruges and even Lille in France. Bruges would have to wait, as Ash had explicitly given me instructions not to go without him. This was fine by me, given all the other options I had!
You can book buses from Charleroi Airport on flibco.com – the online rate is always slightly cheaper than the on-bus price!
The bus time to Ghent also worked out reasonably well – I landed at about 8am and my bus was at 9.30am, so there was a bit of a wait but it meant I didn’t have to worry about rushing or the flight being late. I stopped for a much-needed cup of tea in a coffee shop in the airport which was surprisingly reasonable for airport prices and really friendly.
Caffeine-fuelled with another doze on the bus, I arrived in Ghent just before 11am, giving me most of the day to explore.
The only issue with Flibco is that unlike Flixbus, it doesn’t stop in the city centre – it stops at the train station, a 45 minute walk away, which meant I had to jump on a tram. Luckily, Belgian public transport is really easy to use and I got to the main town square seamlessly.
As I expected, Ghent is charming and lovely and all those other cliché words.
To carry on the clichés, the first thing I did was head to a café for Belgian waffles and more tea. Admittedly half the reason I went in is because it was called Tearoom Wally, but it ended up being just what I needed – an energy boost with great service, full of regular customers!
Also the milk had a picture of a cat with “milk is for pussies” on it. Excellent.
From there, I think I walked the entirety of Ghent’s city centre several times.
You see, Ghent is a fantastic place to just wander without even needing to do a lot. The views along the river are sublime, and the backstreets are wonderful. I loved the architecture. Those two buildings in the top picture on the left were some of my favourite buildings ever.
Unfortunately, there was also 90% chance of rain for the entire day, so I was making the most of any dry moments.
It didn’t take long to see everything in the centre, so I headed to a pub I’d been told to check out. It opens at midday every day – except Mondays, when it opens at 4.30pm. No matter; I’d been told about a few other cool places as well – options for lunch, fun bars, gaming cafés. All shut on Mondays. What the f*ck, Ghent?
By this point, it was raining and Ghent’s charm was losing its touch. I hid from the rain while listening to someone play a Coldplay song (one of the two good songs they’ve ever done, I think) on a public piano. People gathered for a few songs, and dispersed as the rain stopped. Despite the weather, it was really nice!
I did also take a video, but you can hear the rain battering on the roof so it’s not really worth sharing.
I wandered up to Gravensteen Castle, although in my usual fashion I didn’t pay to go in. I took a walk up Graffiti Street, which was pretty cool. I felt like I was sort of running out of things to do at this point – on a nice sunny day, there would have been nothing better than sitting outside with a drink, but on a rainy day with lots of places shut, I felt like I was exhausting my options and I almost considered taking an earlier train to Antwerp.
I stopped for some Belgian fries at Frites Atelier, where all the indoor tables were taken, and sat on a wet bench outside under cover of the awning while I thought about what to do. It seemed silly to wait around just for a pub to open!
However, I did… and would you believe, it was absolutely worth it!
De Dulle Griet is, no exaggeration, one of the best pubs I’ve ever been to!
Their silly selling point is that you can order a yard of beer, and your deposit for the glass is a shoe, which they put in a bucket and raise to the ceiling!
Unfortunately, I don’t drink beer, which seemed like a faux pas going into a place that serves 500 varieties of it, and definitely meant I wasn’t going for the yard glass. And so I did order a fruity beer – a raspberry one which was actually really nice!
A lady sat down next to me and ordered one of the yards – I took a photo of her with it, and we got chatting. She was completely deaf, so she was writing to me on her phone and I was writing back. It was lovely. She was from America and wanted to visit Edinburgh; I told her about our travels in the USA. At one point she wrote a message saying “we are still sorry for Trump” hahahaha. I said it’s not much better in the UK!
That’s the shoe basket on the right! I got a video of my new friend’s shoe going up too:
In the end, after spending time with nothing to do, I could have happily stayed longer in Dulle Griet. If only it had opened earlier!
Anyway, it is what it is – I was off to check out my second city of the day.
Antwerp has one of the best arrivals of any city if you’re arriving by train.
The train station is STUNNING.
In fact, Antwerp’s train station was one of my main reasons for wanting to visit, which sounds a bit ridiculous, but if you look up things to do in Antwerp, the train station is number one on all the lists.
It wasn’t altogether wrong in the end either, as I wasn’t a massive fan of Antwerp in itself, though I feel like that’s a slightly fraudulent opinion considering how much time I’d spend there.
Don’t get me wrong, the town square is beautiful. Better than Ghent’s, in my opinion. But outside of that, it’s just “a city” – which is fine. It’s probably a great city to live in.
I arrived in a bit of a panic, because I was going to miss the hostel’s reception hours by a couple of minutes, and they’d emailed me a code to enter the building and instructions on how to get my room key. I got slightly lost walking from the train station, so I put google maps on and it kept sending me in the wrong direction. It kept showing me as walking in the opposite direction to where I was!? I’ve never had this in any other city before, and it happened the following morning too. And then, despite my phone being on 20%, it suddenly died! I even had my portable charger, but for some reason it wasn’t charging properly.
That 20 minute walk from the train station was stressful. Technology is great and all – look at how much that lady and I were able to “talk” because of it – but we rely on it too much for some things. I was walking through the streets of Antwerp with no idea whether I’d now have anywhere to sleep. And let’s be honest, that probably didn’t help me enjoy it.
Anyway, thankfully I got there, and the door was open. I had somehow memorised the code to get my key. An absolute miracle.
Antwerp City Hostel isn’t the best hostel I’ve ever stayed in, to be honest, but it was fine for a night, and it’s in an unbeatable location – right in the town square, in one of the beautiful, iconic Belgian buildings lining it. There’s also free breakfast in the atmospheric basement, including waffles, so it wound up being fantastic value.
I’d earmarked a place to eat, Het Elfde Gebod, which turned out to be just around the corner, just off the main square. At 9pm, I was worried that they wouldn’t be serving food any more and, given that everywhere around the square seemed to be busy, that I wouldn’t even get in. Luckily, I got the last table!
It’s a really unique restaurant, with Christian statues and artworks everywhere – but don’t be fooled into thinking this is some mega-religious establishment. “Elfde Gebod” means 11th commandment, which in here is to drink beer and enjoy life! A Belgian motto, I should think.
I’d already filled my beer quota for the day (with my whole one beer) so I settled for something else instead (I honestly can’t remember what this was), with a delicious meal.
There was also live music going on and the guy playing kept grinning over at me. I had a great time, and would have headed out to another bar afterwards if I wasn’t so exhausted from the early start and long day of exploring.
After breakfast in the morning, I just wanted to take a few photos of the town square before the walk back up to the station, although I stupidly had no idea about the fountain. In fact, I was too tired to really notice that the naked man is throwing a severed hand!? What the. I thought it was a weird-looking fish or something, and didn’t even give it a second thought.
I’ve read up on this since, and my trusty Atlas Obscura tells us that the statue is of a Roman soldier, Silvius Brabo. The legend goes that a giant, Druon Antigoon, forced people to pay a toll to cross or pass him on the river. Anyone who refused would have their hand cut off and thrown into the river. Silvius Brabo refused to pay, and fought the giant to the death, chopping off his head and his hand. Such a great story, and I had NO IDEA that it was being commemorated right in front of me. They even say that the name Antwerpen comes from this legend – meaning “hand throwing” in Flemish.
This is what happens when I don’t read Atlas Obscura BEFORE I go somewhere!
Despite my tired state, I should have had an earlier start. Instead, it was 11am by the time I rocked up to the station, and instead of reading the board properly, I hopped on the next train to Brussels.
Turns out… I was on the slow train, which stopped at many, many stations, instead of the fast train that took half an hour. Even more annoyingly, the fast train would have been a double decker!
I was worried my time in Antwerp would be too short, but I managed to see the two main things – the train station and the Grote Markt – and the rest of the top 10 is museums, so I think I did pretty well with my time there.
Brussels, however? Well…
With my monumental f*ck up of getting on the wrong train, I didn’t arrive in Brussels until gone midday. I needed to aim for an airport bus around 2pm, which left from almost half an hour from the city centre. This meant I had a mere hour and a half to acquaint myself with the city.
Begrudgingly, I got off the train and headed straight for the town square, which miraculously unlike the other two cities, was actually a five minute walk from the station – or at least, the station I went to, which was Centrale. A lot of people might arrive into Brussels-Zuid – more on that in a bit. I was already enjoying the atmosphere in Brussels far more than I was expecting, when I turned the corner onto Grote Markt.
I had vastly underestimated how beautiful Brussels was going to be. I think this might be my favourite town square in the whole of Europe!
After some time admiring every single building on the square in great detail, I decided to go off in search of a pissing dog.
On the way, I also needed to find a pissing girl.
This whole area is delightful, and I found myself already yearning to come back to Brussels with more time. I have to be completely honest – I didn’t expect to like Brussels all that much, hence only planning a short stop there. I was flying in and out of Brussels; I at least needed to see the city. But wandering these alleyways and feeling like nothing had changed in centuries, I was smitten.
And I still hadn’t got as far as the pissing dog.
So – what is it with all the pissing statues? Manneken Pis is, bizarrely, one of the main attractions in Brussels – a statue of a little boy peeing. An interesting concept for a fountain, that’s for sure. Manneken Pis has become such an institution that he’s regularly dressed up in all sorts of weird and wonderful clothing, and there’s even a museum of all his outfits!
(Unfortunately I wasn’t a big fan of the outfit he was wearing on the day I was there. I also think it’s a bit overrated considering how crowded it gets.)
Thanks to his popularity, they’ve now made a matching girl, Jeanneke Pis, and a dog, Het Zinneke!
I didn’t have much time left in Brussels, but I did manage to hit one last all-important place and pop into a chocolate shop to pick up a few presents – this place (Le Comptoir de Mathilde, which is French, not Belgian, but never mind) had a buy 4 get 1 free offer on, and they had some, errr, interesting chocolates!
I did not buy the sex chocolates, but I did buy five of those slabs. We enjoyed most of them over Christmas!
I swung by the square for one last look, in case there were any buildings I had somehow not taken a photo of yet – also hoped that cherry picker would have moved by then, but alas, no luck. I had to settle for more photos of the insanely beautiful city museum instead. I’ll definitely have to go inside next time!
It had been a far-too-short visit to the Belgian capital, although that was mostly owing to the fact I didn’t expect to enjoy it so much!
The airport bus leaves from Brussels-Midi station, which I mentioned before as it’s over a 20 minute walk from Grote Markt (so exactly like the other Belgian cities). I have to admit, the walk to the airport bus was not… great. It was incredible how quickly it went from the spectacular architecture of the Grote Markt to a run-down neighbourhood where you have to walk under huge, ugly road bridges to get to the station. It might have been better to take the train from Centrale to Zuid, to be honest.
It also takes almost an hour to get from the city to the airport, which is probably the longest transfer time I’ve seen for a city airport. That’s another reason I decided on Ghent – it was only about half an hour longer to get there!
Truthfully, I would actually do this trip again! I had a fantastic time. I loved Ghent, even in the rain, and although I wasn’t a huge fan of Antwerp overall, I had a really good time with what I did there, and I’d spend longer in Brussels next time. It’s really, really easy to get around Belgium.
Also, side note: I love the departure boards at the train stations!
In fact, considering I had saved £100, the trip overall cost probably even less than that – the hostel plus buses and trains came to about £50, and I doubt I spent £50 on food and drink.
It’s actually possible to do this exact trip from Edinburgh too – flights to Brussels land at 8.30am, and obviously I flew home from there too. So if you’re thinking of a mad weekend trip from Edinburgh, this might be right up your alley. (Or you could go to Bruges for a weekend too! I’ve not been to Bruges yet, but it would be good to do a weekend in Bruges and Ghent.)
Overall, Belgium has gone right up on my list of brilliant European countries you should visit, with so many architecturally beautiful cities within easy access of each other and some fantastic food and drink to boot.
Here are some of my other favourite European cities to read about:
⭐ Three Days In Fairytale Budapest, One Of My Favourite Cities
⭐ Loving Lisbon: A Perfect 3 Day Itinerary
⭐ A Day In Beautiful Seville, Spain
⭐ Sofia: A City Of Colour And Contrast
⭐ Surviving Dubrovnik – And Falling In Love With It
8 thoughts on “A Whirlwind Tour Of Belgium: Ghent, Antwerp & Brussels”
Whoa, what a whirlwind tour! I feel like I only ever hear about Bruges, and maybe Ghent, but not really Brussels. It looks stunning! I can see why it was your favorite.
I am EXTREMELY impressed at how much you saw of Belgium, let alone several cities, in such a short amount of time! Bar Antwerp, I’d visited those cities you checked out, but dispersed over 4-5 nights, and it still wasn’t enough! Nevertheless, you saw so much of the country, and I commend you for pulling this off!
Wow – you overcame some obstacles with grace. I voted for Bruges, but I’ve only been to Brussels and Bruges. I’d like to see Ghent sometime.
Beautiful pictures all around! Belgium is definitely on my list of somewhere I would love to see 🙂
Amazing the amount of things you visited in such a short period.
Wow how did you do all of this?! My husband and I have a joke that everywhere in continental Europe is closed on a Monday so we always try to fly/transit on Mondays. Amazing you saved money by doing all this – I’d totally have been suckered in to the £100+ flight.
I think Brussels is so underrated! We’ve seen all the sights so next time we’re definitely just going to concentrate on the beer 🙂
Ghent looked so charming! I’ll have to keep that in mind whenever I visit Belgium. Loved all the quips and fun details you fit it!