"I'm off to Europe for the weekend, dahhhling" sounds like something the Kim Ks of the world would say, right? But what if I said you could one up that with a day trip AND you could do the whole thing for less than £150? Yep, it is totally doable; all you need is a passport and a well-timed Eurostar sale and you're away.
Train travel lends itself more easily to day trips than flights do, and with the Eurostar, you've got direct trains to various locations across France, the Netherlands, and Belgium (and even more options if you’re happy to change). Eurostar often has sales where tickets are far cheaper than heading up north; I took advantage of this and opted for Brussels, as I had not yet been to Belgium.
Going to a new city for the day may seem quick, but you can pack a lot in without rushing - and you get all the fun of travel without the cost of a hotel or hassle of living out of a suitcase. Here's how to make the most of a day in Brussels (or elsewhere on the continent):
Choose your dates wisely
You'll be governed by the dates of the cheap tickets, but the earlier you book, the better choice you have; we were able to get the first train out and the last train in on a Saturday (which is just as well as my annual leave is spread pretty thin already…) We had such good experiences at both terminals: the staff at the Pret in the morning were super friendly and one even let me off the extra change for my water, so I didn't have to break a larger note, while the one in Brussels in the evening had pedal bikes to charge your phone and a football table to while away the waiting time.
Had we been less impulsive, we would have probably chosen a Saturday later on in the year; Brussels abounds with beautiful parks, such as Jubilee Park, Brussels Park and Elizabeth Park, and it would have been lovely to chill out with a picnic of sweet waffles, salty frites and beer in the warmer weather at one - or all - of them. However, no amount of on-off rain will hinder a Brit, no matter the time of year.
What to pack
I am guilty of pretty much always over packing for my trips, prepared for all manner events that are unlikely to happen, but going for a day trip means just picking up a (small) backpack or handbag and heading out. Apart from the weather-appropriate gear, such as an umbrella, scarf and gloves, all you need is:
- Eurostar tickets
- Oyster (or travel) card (for getting to and from Kings Cross in London)
- Lipstick (totes essential for me)
It's so easy to get from Brussels Midi to the central station: there's a four-minute train or you can hop on the metro (via the ticket machine that has an English option and directions on how to navigate the interface above the screen) for a few stops to De Broukeer, and either change or walk for 10 minutes.
Those who have read my previous travel guide posts will know that I love a city sightseeing bus, and when you're doing a day trip they're an absolute no-brainer. For £20-something (it varies city to city for a 24-hour ticket), you can see the city's top landmarks on a whistle-stop tour, hopping off at the ones you wanna see a little closer, without having to faff about with public transport. All the while, you’ll be getting information through your personal headphones. In Brussels, there are two stops at the central station, one each for different tours. This is the only point where they cross over, so make sure you're on the right one if you don't want to do both lines (which we did easily and had plenty of time for other stuff, but this may not be everyone's cup of tea).
Food and drink
You can definitely do 'top line' Brussels in a day. Of course, you can't see and do everything the art nouveau capital of the world has to offer, but you can get a real taste for the city - something we did pretty literally. The sweet smell of waffles tempts from around the corner, and not in a whimsical way: the city literally smelt sweet AF in a lot of places we visited or streets we wandered down. Our afternoon pit stop was at the Waffle Factory near Grand Place, which was teeming with tourists and locals. I opted for a Brussels waffle with dark Belgian chocolate. It was DELICIOUS and strangely light for such an indulgence.
Earlier in the day, we stopped for lunch at Le Faucon Den Valk, a cosy pub-type joint with an open fireplace. Heeding the advice of some of my colleagues, I opted for mussels (alongside a hot choco) and my flatmate had the onion soup and a beer, and we were both happy with our choices. They weren't the best mussels I've had - this goes to Oslo - but they were pretty good.
Going back to the beer for a minute, the beer scene in Brussels is highly rated and for those who even just tolerate the stuff, it is essential to try on a day trip. Now, I'm not a beer drinker myself, but my housemate is, and we ventured into Poechenellekelder, the most kitsch cool beer house ever. Atmospherically lit, from the ceilings hung puppets, musical instruments, upside down beer glasses and mannequins, with some tables made from old barrels. Each beer (and there are loads!) comes with its own uniquely styled glass - bog standard pints this ain't. However, at €4 a pop for really good local beer (according to my flatmate), standard pint prices this is. Recommended is the Brugse Zot.
What to do
Hopping on and off the city sighting bus, we saw a fair bit. The city abounds with Horta-designed buildings, much like Barcelona has a strong Gaudi influence, which are lovely to admire. We hopped off at the European Parliament, where you can take a virtual selfie in the arena at the Visitor Centre, see original pieces of the Berlin Wall (but, ya know, in Belgium) and get as close to the EU as us UK folk can probably get for a while after March...
Ascend the Atomium for a unique bird's eye view of the city, and to observe Mini Europe from above, if you don’t have time to go in, and check out the Manneken-Pis (which is exactly what it sounds like). It's smaller than it looks like in pics and sits behind a small barrier, but is still major lols.
In the morning, and again in the evening, we stumbled across the Grand Place square with its gorgeous, gold-gilded buildings and Town Hall - they are an absolute must-see. Round off your day with a walk back to the Midi station, so you can experience the city by night, even if only for a short while. In the centre, the way the cobble-stone roads are lit with their overhanging street lights is pretty fairy-tale like, especially with the romantically, art nouveau buildings. On your way back to Brussels-Midi, you'll also pass through a more 'Hackney-esque' part of the city. Be sure to grab some frites for the walk home.
So, there you have it - a full day in Brussels! And, if you're not knackered (and live in London), you'll be back in London before your local pub closes. Shame about the beer here though, eh.