Brussels, Belgium

Travel from Paris to Brussels was 1.5hrs travel on a direct train. We bought our reservations on Eurail when getting into Paris so we had first class seats. This is when we realized how important it is to get to the train station early since it was sort of difficult to navigate in Paris and there were a few closed elevators/escalators at a couple of the metro stations that made the situation more difficult.  I also had trouble with my metro pass and had to buy a new ticket – which made for a stressful situation since we were short on time. We ended up just getting to the train as we were all called to start boarding.  We were supposed to get our Eurail pass validated on the first day of travel but because we were running late and couldn’t find the Eurail office we decided to chance it and get it validated in Brussels.  It worked out, they didn’t check our passes during this train trip… the only trip it wasn’t checked (and some were checked multiple times). phew. It was a quick trip, (as you can see, I had to convert the km/hr to miles/hr out of curiousity), 182miles/hr! Also, we were offered breakfast, which I didn’t realize is included in first class tickets for some trains – what a perk!  We also found out that once you exit the gates in most train stations you are left to have to pay to use the bathroom – this added an extra fun task to run into in every country since they were all different.  We ran into this a little in Paris but Paris also had free permanent port-a-potty type bathrooms on the streets. 

Brussels, Belgium: July 13-15, 2017; the place for “waffles, chocolate, fries, & beer.”

Hotel: Hilton Garden Inn Louise ($191 USD/2 nights). This was a good location, (close to the train station) and obviously your more normal hotel which was welcome for a few nights. For some reason I was feeling that I needed an american style hotel so I booked this one without any hesitation… to top it off Dominos is across the street. A bonus here was a king bed (many of the hotels in Europe had king beds but they were actually two single beds pushed together and in various ways held together successfully or not-so-successfully). It’s amazing how much better a bed that isn’t made of two single beds is. We did laundry here, $4 euro. 

Transportation: Getting around in Brussels was easy. Like Paris, you buy a multi-day or multi-ride pass. We did a jump pass (multi-ride) that you share. You go through a double pass area and tap the pass twice. They have a mix of subways and above ground trams. I liked riding the tram especially when it was rainy because you could see a lot of the city and not get wet. We did see a dinner tram pass by a few times that seemed like a good tourist idea too.

Food:

  • Fries: Frites Tabora made delicious fries while we waited. You could pick from 40+ sauces and they were given to us in a hand held container for walking. We chose a spicy/sweet sauce that was delicious. 

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  • Waffles: these are everywhere on the streets for $1 euro. They have waffle stands, trucks and shops. They are Liege style with sugar crystals you can taste.  You put whatever toppings you want on top for an extra cost. I got cream, chocolate and caramel. The chocolate was warm and immediately melted everything making a quick mess out of the situation, but delicious to eat. My warning is that there are businesses/cafes trying to sell waffles for a lot higher prices. Do not pick these places, choose from the shops selling them starting at $1 euro.

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  • Chocolates/Sweets: Chocolate shops are everywhere in Brussels, and you can’t go wrong.  I liked the Neuhaus chocolates the best. Nutella and praline flavored products were very popular. We also went to Pierre Marcoloni which had tons of macarons. I got a golden flaked one that was pretty but I also had a chocolate one on the train to Germany that was really good too.

  • Beer: Cantillon Brewery the oldest lambic brewery in Brussels. I happen to love lambic style beer and sour beers so this was something high on my to do list. Lindeman’s lambic brewery is outside of Brussels also if that is of interest. The brewery itself is not that welcoming from the outside as it is a big giant barn/cellar door. Once you’re inside everyone is welcoming and you can see the process of natural fermentation on a self guided tour with tasting at the end.

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  • Breakfast/brunch: Hinterland was a cute cafe we found close to the hotel that had brunch all day. The food here was great and many healthy options were available.
  • Dinner: We found a restaurant close to the hotel with good reviewed on trip advisor or yelp called Ma Folle de Soeur and headed over. We arrived around 6pm (in typical American style) and the place was empty. Soon it filled up and they were turning people away by the end of our meal. The menu was hand written in french so our translator skills were put to the test but the waitress was very patient as well and helped us out.  I ordered chicken risotto and Chris ordered duck confit. We shared ravioli risotto for starter. This dinner was soooo good and reasonably priced.

Sites:

  • Grand Place: This square is beautiful, old architecture with gold trim on everything.  There are lots of shopping/eateries in little shops at the Grand Place and all around in the wandering streets surrounding the square. Make sure to see it in the daytime and at night. We were there at 10:05 at night and with a flip of a switch all the buildings became illuminated which was beautiful.

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  • Beautiful parks, churches, and government buildings were everywhere. There were tons of ornate statues lining parks,  manicured bushes in parks with various designs.  The buildings lining the streets would vary in architecture and period style from building to building which was very interesting. Lots of comic stuff for murals/street art as comics are very big here. We ran into the most interesting stuff while just wandering the streets of Brussels. In Brussels Park, there was an art exhibition with giant photos of Belgium from WW1 that German photographers were commissioned to take called “German photographs (1917-1918): Belgium’s artistic heritage through the Occupier’s lens.” This included many before and after photos with explanations which was fascinating. 

Next, on to Prague….

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Paris, France

Our 30 days in Europe started with a red eye flight from North Carolina at 6pm to Paris, arriving at 8:20 am. We did pay for a slight upgrade in coach to two seats by the window – totally worth it to not be in the middle row and to avoid middle seats/sitting next to strangers for such a long flight – but otherwise it was a long night with little sleep. We arrived in Paris pretty groggy still, it was dreary and gray with light rain. This is when I think we realized we didn’t really have much planned.

I had previously reserved a hotel room for 3 nights in Paris but I didn’t really do much planning in terms of how to get there besides knowing the address of the hotel, a screen shot of the location on a map and the name of the train line/station that was recommended on the hotel’s website. Otherwise, we had purchased a Eurail pass that was good for 15 travel days that I had read about and knew we needed to reserve train tickets at some point to get to our next stop.

Here are some of the specifics about the trip, highlights, lowlights and things we learned:

Paris, France: July 10-13, 2017

    • Airport/Transportation:
      • Free wifi is available inside the Paris airport, if I recall it isn’t available after you go out past security after picking up your checked luggage. 
      • The Metro/Subway and train station are all connected to the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport and you can just follow the signs to these stations.
      • Metro/Subway passes can be bought at the airport. If you need more than a ride/day pass they must be bought in the office and you can’t use the machines. There’s a $27 week pass to buy that we were told is the best deal if you need to take the metro more than 3-4 days. You have to then go to a photomaton booth (outside of the ticket office) to get your photo taken and stick it on the pass for $5. This was quite the ordeal as the first Photomaton booth was broken and wouldn’t take payment after going through all of the motions to get your eyes lined up correctly to take the photo (you get 3 tries before you have to start over). The next booth worked, the photos printed and then we had to figure out how to cut them small enough to fit on the passes. We ended up just tearing them and there is adhesive on the pass itself. IMG_0324
      • After we got our passes, we had to figure out the routes to take to get to the hotel.  I recommend downloading the Paris Metro Map and Routes app to use for offline metro directions/map access for free.
      • Before we left the airport we decided to buy train tickets for the next leg of the trip since the train station was at the airport and we knew we’d be back.
        • The Eurail station is in the airport near the subway office.  You can buy tickets for multiple train trips here. We ended up buying tickets from Paris to Brussels and then Brussels to Prague. We did have trouble buying eurorail tickets after Prague. The Eurail employee explained that it could be because Prague is more than two countries from France so their system was limited. 
        • Everyone was very helpful and spoke English well at the Eurail office.

Hotel: Hotel du Printemps ($250 USD for 3 nights)

  • Pros:
    • It was very close to a couple of metro stations which made it very accessible to take multiple metro lines to and from the hotel. 
    • Clean, it had great AC, blackout curtains (which helped with the jet lag), good breakfast – hard boil your own eggs. Free and good wifi – which we found important everywhere since we didn’t plan much ahead of leaving for this trip.
  • Cons:
    • Small shower? There weren’t many cons for this hotel. I think we were frustrated initially getting to the hotel because with a red eye we were tired/unshowered and just wanted to be able to check into our hotel room – which understandably wasn’t available at 1pm so we dropped our bags in a holding room and tried to start exploring Paris… lessons learned about risks of flying a red eye.

Sites: Here are some of the major sites we went to. We spent a lot of time in Paris walking along the Seine River and wandering through the streets. I can’t say that we did a lot of the major tourist attractions because we were wandering and jet lagged and trying to figure out the metro still. We did try to make it to the catacombs and didn’t because we got there too late in the day and the line was 3 hours long. That was one lesson learned, if you don’t want to wait in lines in Paris either book skip the line passes or go to smaller/off the beaten path type stuff… or perhaps visit during a season other than tourist season?

  • Ile de Cite
    • Sainte Chapelle – This was our first stop in Paris after dropping off our bags at the hotel.  It was a great kick off to a dreary day and still one of my favorite places we visited in Europe. It cost $9/person to enter. It was so beautiful! I initially was hesitant to go on the day we did since it was overcast and all of the photos I had seen online were so stunning I thought there wouldn’t be enough light that day to show off the stained glass but I was pleasantly surprised. There was so much light – all of the glass was beautiful!  I Would have liked to see a concert there, but the schedule didn’t allow – next time!IMG_9357.jpg
    • Shakespeare and Company bookstore – we stopped here but found it to be very touristy.
    • Notre Dame Cathedral – great views from the outside, ever since I was a kid I remember seeing photos of Notre Dame’s architecture and thinking how amazing it looked. I was not let down seeing it in person. However, there was a LONG line to go inside so we passed.
  • Arc de Triomphe on the Champs de Elysee
    • This was fantastic to see.  It was like it popped out of nowhere, you come up from the subway and it’s right in front of you in all of its glory.
    • It was a little confusing to figure out how to get out to the monument itself since it is surrounded by a giant round-about with fast moving vehicles. Turns out, you go underground to get to the Arc, back into the subway area and there are signs about where to go. There was a long line here too but you can actually pass the line to get up to the circle for free. The line is for those paying to climb the stairs up to the top of the Arc.
    • Lots of fancy shopping on Avenue des Champs Elysee, we walked the Champs for a long time looking at all of the fancy shops. It’s a beautiful street. They were practicing for bastille day when we were there and a bunch of jets and helicopters flew over us which was somewhat disturbing until we figured out what it was for. IMG_9416.jpgIMG_9450
  • Eiffel Tower
    • I think it was surprising to realize how easy it is to see the Eiffel Tower from multiple points in the city, and then when you get close to it it’s so big it’s difficult to see the entire thing. It really is a statement making monument.
    • We found that there were great views from below. We didn’t go up but it’s $6 to climb the stairs and then $18 to the very top in an elevator but the lines are SO long. I believe, if you know when you’re going to Paris far in advance you can get tickets to skip the line but I’m not sure.  I have heard it’s much less of a line in the off season however. IMG_9488
  • Musee de L’Orangerie – This museum features Monet’s Waterlilies. It’s $13/person. It was a quick and easy museum to navigate with big bang for your buck in that we were able to see a few great pieces in a short amount of time without getting lost/overwhelmed in a museum such as The Louvre.
  • Musee de Rodin – We actually ended up buying tickets to this museum on accident but after investigating it more it seemed like something we’d go for so we checked it out.  It’s mostly outdoors so a nice day is needed. It was a beautiful garden full of Rodin and his student’s sculptures. There are some indoor parts to the museum too but I really enjoyed that we could be outside for this museum. If you are not familiar with Rodin (like I was not) he did a lot of work with Dante’s Inferno and had a large sculpture of The Gates of Hell and many smaller pieces relating to that work as well. IMG_9555

Food: In general, Paris is full of lots of little tourist trap places.  If there is person outside of the restaurant advertising to people passing by, the restaurant is probably not worth your time… unless you’re starving. We did find some great spots however. We LOVED La Jacobine in the Latin Quarter where Chris and I both ordered Duck (mine was confit  and was superb!) and likely the best cheesecake ever… we still talk about their cheesecake.  It sounds like you have to make a reservation there for peak times but we were there late at night and they had a table available. 

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Next, on to Brussels, Belgium…