In less than the time it takes to travel from New York to Boston, you can hop a train from Paris to Brussels to explore Art Nouveau squares, munch on waffles and sip some of the world’s finest beers.
Brussels is a vibrant, international city, with beautiful architecture, great food and world-class beer. It’s also quite manageable, meaning you can see a lot of the best this urban center has to offer in a short amount of time. For the slightly ambitious traveller, it can even be done in a day trip from Paris, thanks to the region’s convenient high-speed rail.
It takes less than an hour and a half to travel from Paris Gare du Nord station to Brussels Midi station, which is a short cab ride from the historical city center. If you reserve your seat far enough in advance, you can find tickets for less than 30 euros each way, and trains make the trip virtually every hour throughout the day. So book an early morning train and get to exploring!
Start your day with waffles and sightseeing.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Belgium? OK, there are a number of things, but they’re probably all food. Good thing Mokafe opens right as the first train arrives from Paris. Early risers can snag a table at this cozy, wood-paneled breakfast spot tucked away in the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert in central Brussels. The menu is extensive, but visitors come here for the waffles — they’re light and fluffy, but also crispy enough to hold up to fruit, chocolate, whipped cream or any other topping you fancy. I ordered the hazelnut-chocolate-topped waffle, which was absolutely drenched in delicious sauce, a good old-fashioned Belgian waffle dusted in powdered sugar and a decadent Viennese coffee to wake me up after my early departure.
It may be too early to visit the museums or shops, but you don’t need a ticket to see some of the best of Brussels. The city is famous for its architecture, which spans from dramatic Gothic structures to whimsical Art Nouveau landmarks. Wander from the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert (itself a neo-Renaissance arcade worth admiring) to the nearby Grand Place, a central square where you can see gingerbread house-like facades and the stunning Gothic architecture of Brussels Town Hall. Keep an eye out for the works of Art Nouveau master builder Victor Horta and his disciple Gustave Strauven, as well. Their splashy structures can be found throughout the city, most notably embodied in the Musee Horta, the architect’s late 19th-century home and the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée, which you can admire for free from its central hallway or attached coffee shop.
Don’t let this be the last you see of the Grand Place. Visitors during the holiday season are treated to a light-and-music show every evening that combines songs spanning classical favorites to modern pop songs, with accompanying light and color projections that are sure to wow visitors of all ages.
Make a beer pilgrimage.
A short walk outside the city center lies Brasserie Cantillon, a traditional, family-owned brewery founded in 1900. This small warehouse facility makes some of the best beers in the world, many of which are virtually impossible to find outside Belgium. Take a self-guided tour and then taste-test the brewery’s famous fruit-infused sour beers. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot owner Jean-Pierre van Roy plying his trade while you wander the facility, like I did.
Brussels is full of famous beer bars to while away the afternoon. To feel like you’ve stepped back into Medieval times, visit Au Bon Vieux Temps, a bar tucked into an alley off the Grand Place that has been in operation since 1695. Sparsely populated with surly locals the night I visited, you can sample rare, top-rated beers like the Westvleteren 12. Meanwhile, Moeder Lambic has a more modern feel, but an equally excellent beer list with a wider range to satisfy a variety of tastes. Not sure where to start? Ask your mustachioed server, who can easily point you to the perfect pour for your palette.
Take a little time to wander.
All that beer sampling can work up an appetite, so pick up a cone of frites, or rather fries, from nearby Fritesland, which can be topped with one or more of the 13 sauces on offer. While it looks incredibly touristy, several locals recommended it to me as the best fries in Brussels, and I couldn’t agree more. Nibble as you walk and make your way over to the Eglise Notre-Dame du Sablon, a stunning 15th century Gothic cathedral known for its Baroque chapels.
The church is conveniently located across the square from Passion Chocolat, a small shop where you can pick up excellent Belgian chocolates for loved ones back home. It’s also a short walk from a number of noteworthy sights, including the Parc de Bruxelles, the manicured, statue-filled garden in the Kleine Zavel Square and, in the distance, a view of the impressive Palais de Justice.
For visitors looking for a little more culture, consider architecture tours and the Musée Magritte, or plan for family-friendly stops like the Atomium and the Musée Hergé, home to the stars of the Adventures of Tintin.
Enjoy an evening of markets and mussels.
As the sun starts to set, make your way back to the Îlot Sacré, or historic city center, where you’ll find a vibrant holiday market open in December. I managed to restrain myself and save my appetite for the last of the trifecta of famous Belgian foods: mussels. In’t Spinnekopke is a charming bistro located slightly below street level in a whitewashed 18th-century cottage. I tried the mussels two-ways: broiled as an appetizer and the “mussels maison,” a fantastic pot of steamed mussels in an herbed white wine sauce. With frites and plenty of bread for dipping, I left completely satisfied.
The last train to Paris leaves just after 9:00pm most evenings, so you’ll have plenty of time to digest and look back on your action-packed day trip to Brussels as you make the quick journey back to Paris.
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