A City a Day: Brussels, Land of Mussels, Fries, Beer and Waffles (A Guide)

Brussels MapAfter a long and rainy day in Luxembourg, we boarded the train and made the 3 hour journey to Brussels, Belgium. We stayed at 2Go4 Hostel, about a 10 minute walk from the Brussels Nord train station. We were excited about seeing the sun here (apparently it is a rarity), but the second we walked outside we realized that the wind chill was absolutely insane. We stopped along the way to ask one lady for directions, and she was literally crying from the wind. Anyways, the hostel was pretty nice, and I would recommend it. It is about a 10 minute walk from the main center of Brussels, but they do require an extra €10 deposit that they return to you upon check-out. The decorations here were pretty cool, the lounge there looks like it would be fun to hang out in if you had some extra time. We were also upgraded here from a 6 bed to a 4 bed because we had asked to be placed together, so boo yah! The only problem with this hostel is that it doesn’t serve breakfast. There is complimentary tea and coffee in the morning, but the coffee is instant and the cream is powder… blech.

We asked our hostel for some restaurant reservations and headed off towards the center. The hostel recommended Chez Léon, which has been in business since 1893. It is on rue des Bouchers 18, which is a main restaurant tourist trap avenue. There must’ve been at least 20 other restaurants on this street, all advertising those hokey big yellow signs with giant pictures of mussels and fries. And the waiters are relentless, too… They’re all standing outside trying to convince you to come in, and they really don’t leave you alone. I hate to ignore people, but you have to here. You so much as look at them and they follow you down the street, offering you free drinks and refusing to leave you alone. If you don’t respond or look at them, they start talking to you in 5 different languages, trying to figure out which language they can communicate to you with. Some of them say the darndest things, too…

Chez Léon, Photo Cred: http://www.insidebrussels.be

Anyways, Chez Léon. It was one of the few restaurants on the street that didn’t have all of those cheesy tourist signs, so we figured we’d give it a try. The food was pretty good, although pricy. We didn’t realize until after we had eaten just how huge and touristy the restaurant really is. I wouldn’t say that I wouldn’t go back, but I will say I might recommend finding something better for next time (see other restaurant recommendations below).

Anguilles au Vert

My friend decided to try the Anguilles au Vert, or Eels in Green Sauce. During my research, I read that this is a specialty of Brussels and tastes better than it sounds. However, neither of us really liked it… There was the spine still in it, which we weren’t expecting, and it had a strange texture. My friend didn’t like the green sauce, but I did. I have actually tried eel before on sushi and loved it, but this is nothing like that.

Mussels Provençale

I decided to order mussels, because hey… it’s a Brussels classic after all. They had many different variations of Mussels, and instead of going for the normal version, I decided to try something new: Mussels Provençale, basically mussels sauteed in snail butter and topped with a melted layer of parmesan cheese. It was very tasty, I must admit… but my god it was a lot of cheese! You can’t even see the mussels underneath. I, of course, paired it with a fine belgian beer and fries.

Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, Photo Cred commons.wikimedia.org

Nearby, you will find the Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, a beautiful glass-roofed mall (or arcade). It was built in the mid 1800’s and is famous for being the first mall built in Europe. We only went through one corridor, and it was lined with chocolate stores galore. There were some pretty amazing displays! Definitely worth a visit.

Charles Buls Square

When you exit one of the main halls, you come out onto Charles Buls Square, a very nice area to walk around and often accompanied with live music. If you go to the right, you hit the main square and Grand Palace. If you go to the left, you find the Cathedrale St-Michel et Ste-Gudule.

Cathedrale St-Michel et Ste-Gudule

If you’re sick of seeing cathedrals, just go right towards the main square (or Grote Markt). The cathedral was nice, but it wasn’t spectacular. One interesting thing was how they had statues of saints lining the main hall on the pillars, I had never seen that before.

After that, we headed back towards the main square. It really is a sight to see. In all directions there are beautiful buildings lined in gold. I guess during one part of the year, they also cover the majority of the ground in a beautiful flower carpet like this:

If you could visit during that time, it’d definitely be a sight to see! But the square is beautiful regardless, and is known as one of the most beautiful squares in all of Europe.

After staring in awe at the beautiful buildings a while, follow the signs (or your handy map) to get to the famous Mannekin Pis. But don’t expect much… it is literally just a little boy having a wee. I don’t get it. At all. But the best part is that right next door, you will find a famous waffle house… and you just HAVE to buy a waffle there.

Oh, and on the way there, you will see some fun street art:

Adventures of TinTin! On the road from the main square to Mannekin Pis. Photo Cred clausitosfootprints.com

As for Mannekin Pis… behold, the wonder that is a little peeing statue that everyone comes to see:

It’s so very terribly interesting, don’t you think? Sarcasm aside, if you come at special times of year they dress him up. I’ve heard they have a museum dedicated to his outfits… -_-

Here’s what you do: take the mandatory picture in front of the statue, and move on. In fact, turn left onto the same street you came from and go a couple doors down until you find a line coming out of a delectable smelling waffle shop. Take out your wallet and give them your money… it’s worth it!

The famous waffle shop, right next door to Mannkein Pis. Don’t be fooled by that €1 sign, though… We paid about €5-6 for our waffle complete with strawberries, bananas, chocolate, and whipped cream. The €1 must be just for a plain waffle… how boring! Don’t be that person.

Yummers. It is messy as all hell, but get over it. And throw the forks away, there really is no use. Just use your fingers and enjoy!

After you’ve enjoyed that deliciousness, check your map and head towards the palace. It is a bit of a walk, though… Expect about 10-15 minutes, depending on your speed. If you go back to the right of the Mannekin Pis statue and go uphill, you’ll pass by some more street art:

On your way to the palace, you will come across the Jardin du Mont des Arts which houses a statue of Albert I on a horse and some nice landscaping. From the top, you will have a nice view of the gardens and the city laid out below you, especially on a clear day. I’d imagine it’d be quite nice to have a picnic there during the warmer months.

If you continue upwards further, you will find a lovely street with some beautiful architecture and lovely museums. We decided not to go inside any of them, but if you have lots of time and enjoy museums, here is a list of the top ones from my research:

You can really take your pick, though… I saw a museum of cinema, of musical intruments, etc. It’s a museum-goers paradise up here.

The Courthouse and Plaza

Up at the very top of the hill, you will find the courthouse. If you turn left and then make a right on the first street, you will find Coudenberg (the remains of the ancient palace; we decided not to go in, but I’ve heard it is interesting) and then the current palace, Palais de Bruxelles. However, unless you’re in Brussels during the summer months, don’t expect to go inside. It is closed to the public, but you can get your cheesy picture out front:

Royal Palace of Brussels. When you see the flag flying at the top, it means the King is in town.

By this time our feet were extremely tired, so we decided to circle back around towards the central square and grab a drink at the Delirium Bar. If you like beer (and well, you’re crazy if you don’t), you should definitely check it out! They have lots of varieties, and the prices are pretty good. It also has a very fun atmosphere, and seems to be one of the more popular hang outs at night. On the way to the Delirium Bar, you will pass by some other lovely street art:

For a peek inside the bar itself, here you go:

Photo Cred ourtastytravels.com

Photo Cred: Trip Advisor

If anyone reading this has ever been to or knows anything about Brussels, you’ll realize that there’s something very important missing: Atomium. Unfortunately, Atomium is located way outside of the city center, and is a little difficult to get to if you don’t have time and don’t know where you’re going. I had a goal of visiting the Atomium during the day so that we could go up inside of it and see the wonderful views, but that didn’t happen. Instead, we came at night to admire the beautiful lights. There weren’t many other people around, but it was definitely a lovely sight to be seen. I guess there’s also a really nice restaurant at the top, but expect to pay a lot of money and have a reservation!

Atomium during the day. Photo Cred ojoscuriosos.com

If you want to go to Atomium during the day, make sure you have at least a half day to do it. Also, ask your hotel for SPECIFIC directions on how to get there. When I google mapped the directions, it told me it’d only take about 15 minutes. However, when we followed the basic directions of the hostel, it took us about 45 minutes… and the trams only came about once every 20 or 30 minutes.

Atomium at night. Photo Cred Flickr

During the day until 6pm, you can go up inside of this marvellous structure and see some great views, from what I hear. If you’re here for longer, you should definitely check it out!

Below, I will list other museums and restaurants that I didn’t have a chance to see, but which my research found to be worth seeing:

Museums

Food and Drink

Think I missed something? Please feel free to let me know in the comments! 🙂

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Weekend Trip to Ireland, Part I: Dublin

It was November, and I was really exhausted at this point from working constantly and not really getting to see as much as I would’ve liked. I found out that there was a 3 day weekend coming up in December and immediately began thinking that this would be the perfect time to travel. However, I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes either in case my host family had already planned something for that weekend.

One day, the host mother came up to me to let me know that they would be going to Italy that weekend (sin me). I was a little bummed, but then also realized that this meant I officially had the OK to go somewhere. I began planning vigorously (no exaggeration) and found some cheap flights to Dublin, Ireland. The girl I had met the first day I was in Spain was also down to go, so it was perfect.

Unfortunately due to culture differences, I got into a little bit of an argument with the host family when I told them I had planned the trip. I figured it wouldn’t be a problem since they’d be gone that weekend anyways, but they viewed it as I had been planning all of this secretly behind their backs for weeks (which wasn’t anywhere near true). Luckily we hashed it out and things returned to normal quickly, and I was extremely excited to have this amazing opportunity. I mean seriously… the idea of a weekend trip to another (awesome) country (besides Mexico) is like a dream for a Californian like me!

We took a late flight on a Thursday night and landed in Dublin around 11pm. We found some cheap transportation into the city and were dropped off right in front of Trinity College, Ireland’s oldest university. We needed to find our way to the hostel, so we asked people if they could point us in the right direction.

A quick side note here… I cannot begin to tell you how amazing it was not to have to pause and think about what we were going to say before saying it. It felt so strange being able to just walk up to someone and speak in English and to have them understand. I cannot describe just how exciting this was for us after 3 months of broken Spanglish.

Anyways, one young guy we asked for directions said “Oh, sure, I’m heading that way. Just come with me!” He proceeded to tell us he had just finished a date with a girl he had met on tinder, that it went really well, and he was super stoked about it. At one point we were crossing the street on an orange light (a completely foreign thing to us – what does an orange light even mean?) and we began jogging across because it looked like the cars were about to get the green light. One guy yelled out the window of a taxi “Yeah, you better run… You mischevious little devils… On an orange light, oh, you better run!”

At first I was REALLY taken aback by this and took his actions as threatening. I guess that is the typical American response, to be afraid of everything. The guy we were with started laughing and continued the banter, and this lasted at least a minute… a back and forth, loud banter yelled out from the street corner to some random guy in a taxi. It was hysterical. I immediately decided that Ireland was an amazing place with fantastic, friendly people.

We said goodbye to the nice guy who helped us and went into our hostel. There was a laughable sign at the front desk of our hostel that said “Absolutely no alcohol allowed inside the hostel.” HA! Did they not get the memo that they were in Dublin?

2014-12-05 01.52.34After dropping off our things, we tried to find a pub to have our first beer in Ireland (a big deal, of course). Surprisingly (and sadly) many places were already closed past midnight on a Thursday, but luckily we did stumble upon a nice bar called The Porterhouse in Temple Bar. They had an awesome beer tasting flight for €5 that we tried, all with their own craft brews. It was fantastic to be sipping a cold one in Ireland, a place I had dreamt about visiting my entire life. Their specialty is the Oyster Stout which is made with actual oysters! Not vegetarian friendly, but even my pescatarian friend really enjoyed it.

2014-12-05 02.34.03We tried walking around some more to find another bar, but we could only find one place open right across the street. We popped in because hey, we were super excited to be in Dublin and weren’t quite ready to go to sleep yet. For the life of me I can’t remember the name of the place, but it was very nice inside! They had everything decorated in mosaics (it reminded me of dear ol’ Gaudi) and eclectic decorations.

A side note… when most people think of Ireland (sorry, Irish people), they think of loads of beer and drunken people in the streets. However, that was not our experience at all. Perhaps some new measures in Ireland changed everything because you couldn’t even buy alcohol at a store after 10pm (or something around there, my memory is faulty). Also, I can’t remember ever seeing a crazily drunk person wandering the streets like my host mother had warned me there would be. Everyone was extremely friendly and responsible.

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Christ Church Cathedral

2014-12-05 15.41.25The next day, we woke up and took a free walking tour around Dublin. It was beyond cold. Like, to the point where we couldn’t feel our toes and fingers and had to awkwardly jog around in circles to stay warm. Despite that, it was a beautiful day with only a few clouds in the sky (I guess a rarity in Ireland), so we lucked out.

Dublin Castle

Dublin Castle

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Dubhlinn Garden

We walked around Dublin Castle, the gardens, and then meandered our way through the Temple Bar area and then over to the famous Trinity College. Unfortunately with free tours, you can expect quite a lot of self-advertising and less sight-seeing… but oh well, it was still very nice to see everything, learn the history, and hear the perspective of a native Dubliner.

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Temple Bar

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Sweet Molly Malone, who has a song named after her. We’re touching her boobs for good luck, I promise.

Trinity College is Ireland’s oldest university, and there’s a lot of pride for an Irish person if you are accepted. They have some fun traditions as well… Most notably, if you pass a certain exam you have the right to ask test proctors for a glass of Guinness during any other exam for the rest of your time as a student. The university is also a popular place to get married, but one (or both, I can’t remember) spouses have to have graduated from the college… and so on. It is a huge university, and it was actually the first thing we saw upon arriving in Dublin.
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After that, we ran on over to the Guinness Museum. Before going, we had heard a lot of different opinions on the place. Some said it was fun and good to see, if for nothing else than to have a Guinness at the top of the Gravity Bar for lovely views of Dublin. Others, our tour guide included, said it was a waste of time and money. My friend and I were also a little wary because neither of us remembered liking Guinness all that much when we had first tried it years and years ago.

2014-12-05 15.57.29But hey, when in Dublin… go to the Guinness Museum, right?

And we are so happy we did! We were blown away by the museum itself and all of the information we learned. And it’s state of the art, too… You’re not just walking plaque to plaque reading boring information. They have activities and virtual boards that talk to you. It was super cool!

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Unfortunately not the highest quality photo, but it is a giant pillar of hand-carved wood and a chandelier at the top to form a giant glass of Guinness.

They also had a special tasting experience, which was like nothing I had experienced before. They guide you through a dark tunnel with neon orange lights and then it opens unto this room in all bright white. They said it’s supposed to challenge your sensory experience. In the white room, there are 4 (or were there 6?) pillars with smoke coming out of them. You could go up to each one and smell the unique aromas of the hops, barley, etc. so that you could discern all of the different elements that go into a good glass of Guinness.

2014-12-05 17.07.45After that, they lead you into a darker room with special glass holders and portraits of important Guinness family members on the walls. There, they show you how to properly taste a Guinness (we are adorable mini Guinness glasses). From what I remember, you have to raise your elbow in the air as you hold the glass then swallow a sip while breathing so that you can both taste and smell the beer. It was quite interesting!

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Up at the very top of the museum, 7 stories or so up, is the Gravity Bar. It is a circular room surrounded in all glass so that you can see Dublin all around you, and you get a pint of Guinness included in your ticket. A professional pourer gets you a glass and draws a shamrock into the foam… it was such a nice experience!

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And even better…? We LOVED the taste of Guinness! I don’t know if it was just because we were in Ireland and we felt like we had to, but it was absolutely delicious. We came to the conclusion that perhaps the bottled Guinness you can get in the states does not come even close to comparing to the deliciousness of a professionally poured draft Guinness with that creamy head. And the view from the top was so beautiful… unfortunately I didn’t have a camera to do it justice!

After that amazing experience, we explored Temple Bar with a girl we had met at our hostel who was currently living in Germany. Temple Bar is such an eclectic area, you really never know what you’re going to find. It is also famous for being a tourist trap but hey, when the shoe fits…2014-12-05 20.55.22

There were many bands playing out on the sidewalks (in the freezing cold!) and people dancing, it was so fun to see! Drinks in Dublin are pretty expensive wherever you go… we ended up going to multiple bars/clubs that night and the average price we paid for a pint was about €5.50… ouch! But hey, we tried not thinking anything of it because beer just adds to the Irish experience.

2014-12-05 23.30.18 2014-12-05 23.31.26We danced SO much that night, it was fantastic. At one point we found ourselves in a bar when there was a party in another room just finishing. They still had a lot of food on the table and it seemed like they were about to just throw it away. My friend is extremely ballsy… she has no fear. We were hungry so she just waltzed in, grabbed a handful of fried onions, mushrooms, and sausages, and waltzed on back like no big deal. It then became a game… who could pull it off best? I was the wuss of the group; after much anxiety and backing out, I finally ran over and got a small handful of some food. Those people must’ve thought we were crazy!

This girl also somehow snuck out 3 guinness glasses from the bars, one for each of us… oy vey! XD

At one of the last bars we went to, a local Irishman approached me for a dance. But not the usual club grinding dance, an actual classy dance that consisted of swing and the cha cha… I have never in my life danced like that with someone I had just met, it was so much fun! We must’ve danced for at least 30 minutes. I had enough Guinness in me not to care what other people were thinking or how horrible of a dancer I was, we just danced and danced… that is probably one of my happiest memories in Dublin!

The following day we woke up early for a tour to nearby Glendalough County (pronounced Glendalock) for some beautiful nature views and hiking. Post to come 🙂

Made it!

Today is my third day in Barcelona. It has been both an exciting and exhausting adventure so far.  As I have mentioned before, I am a horrible packer and I brought way too much stuff with me… My carry on alone was extremely heavy even though I thought I packed it really light. I have marks on my shoulders from carrying it all over the place.

I ended up taking a taxi to the hostel in Barcelona city; I didn’t want to mess with the train because I was already sweating bullets from lugging everything around. I made it to the hostel and as I dragged everything inside I could feel everyone’s eyes on me… I looked like a fool bringing that much stuff into a hostel. Once I got my keys I also had to carry it all upstairs since there was no elevator. When I made it to the room, a woman was trying to sleep in one of the beds. She woke up due to the noise and introduced herself; she was from Austria. I asked if I could turn on the light so that I could get situated but she said no… awkward.  So I tried getting out the stuff I needed in the dark and while also trying to be quiet.

It felt uncomfortable leaving my stuff in the room with a complete stranger but I didn’t really have a choice… I smelled awful due to 24 long hours of travelling and desperately needed a shower. I took all of my valuables with me and headed to the communal shower.  To my dismay, towels were not provided.  But desperate times call for desperate measures.  I decided to air dry afterwards. Once I was dressed, I went downstairs to contact friends and family then started the book “Eat, Pray, Love” and enjoyed a well-deserved cerveza.

Despite my exhaustion, I barely slept that night. Two guys came in right after I had gone back to the room and were sleeping on the top bunks of the bunk beds. Every single movement created a loud noise.  Not only that… all of these people were strangers.  It was very unsettling. I slept with my arm over my purse and a watchful ear toward my luggage.

Next morning I caught a cab to the residence where I was to meet the program.  I was one of the first to arrive which was great because I got a room pretty much right away.  I also met some interesting girls who were also in the program.  One was going to be a French conversation assistant and she was from Canada, and the other was from England.  I had one girl already in my room and we soon became friends.  She was from Ohio, so it was nice to be able to speak with someone else from the States and compare our experiences in coming to Barcelona. We ended up going as a group to a local empanada place as we waited for the rest of the conversation assistants to arrive.

From my experiences so far, I don’t really think that hostels are my thing but I will definitely be trying it again.  I never even lived in the dorms in college so this was definitely an experience I was not used to, especially in a foreign country. Perhaps after this year of travelling around and having a home base I will be more comfortable with the nomadic lifestyle and living out of a backpack. Or at least I hope so… time will tell.