Last Updated on December 14, 2023
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
By Jim Ferri
I had been training about northern Europe for two weeks and, facing an additional three in southern Europe, asked my wife join me for a weekend in Brussels. It was phenomenal. And also delicious.
I had a Eurail Pass and planned to take the train from Amsterdam, which turned out to be the perfect choice.
Train service is surprisingly good between the two cities. You can take the Thalys high-speed train from Amsterdam, which is a 1h50 journey. Thalys trains depart every two hours (more frequently in late afternoon) from Amsterdam’s Centraal Station and arrive at Brussels Midi. Check here for the difference in classes of service and for fare conditions.
Note: if you have a Eurail Pass, all trains, including Thalys are also free. If you’re training in Europe – for an extended period or through several countries – a Eurail Pass is usually well worth the cost.
Place du Grand Sablon
Taking the train from Amsterdam to Brussels, I met my wife who arrived Friday morning from Miami. After a half day’s rest we set out for Place du Grand Sablon. My taxi driver pointed it out on my way to my hotel, and assured me it was a place we should see. He was right.
When we arrived, we found a small antique market in full swing. Being Belgium, it was one of the better markets I’d seen anywhere in Europe.
The market added to the ambiance of the beautiful little square that was ringed with cafés and restaurants, chocolatiers, and an occasional antique shop. We roamed about it for a while inhaling the atmosphere.
At one point, we passed an old Volkswagen van with “Warme Watels” painted on its side. It was a mobile Belgian waffle kitchen and walking by we got a delicious whiff of freshly cooked waffles. €2 each, the sign said, or €2.50with chocolate, €3 with crème fraiche. It set the tone for the weekend.
A Weekend-in-Brussels Theme: Chocolates, Chocolates, Chocolates
There were more delicious aromas to come since we discovered Place du Grand Sablon is also ground zero for luxury chocolatiers. There we found many of the top names: Pierre Marcolini, Godiva, Neuhaus, and Leonidas. Marcolini, in fact, had two shops, only a minute’s walk from one another.
We went into one, which was a showroom and not where they made the little cocoa jewels. Still though, we were amazed at the variety we found. There were even boxes of chocolates with each piece labeled with the name of the bean’s country of origin.
There were also chocolate cakes, chocolate-walnut cakes, Napoleons, and everything else imaginable chocolate-wise. Off to the side was a little counter where customers could eat their newly purchased little treasures.
On the second floor was a section that invited you to “discover our chocolate bars in pre-packed bags or customize your own box.” There was chocolate all around of different colors and flavors with customers ordering different assortments in multiple boxes. It was nothing short of chocoholic heaven.
If you’re in Brussels for a weekend or a week, by all means stop off here. You may go home a few pounds heavier, but it will be worth it. In fact, if you’re on London you can take an easy day trip to Brussels on the high-speed Chunnel train.
Breakfast, a Great Museum and Beautiful Park
We returned to Place du Grand Sablon the next morning. There we enjoyed our first meal of the day at Le Pain Quotidien. I had seen the bakkerij-boulangerie the previous day, and we sat at one of the communal tables.
After a very good breakfast, we set off across the square. En route we made a quick stop in Notre Dame du Sablon. It’s a small church renowned for its beautiful stained glass windows.
Once out of the church we crossed the adjacent Rue de la Régence. We paused for a few minutes to see the tiny but beautiful garden in the Place du Petit Sablon, before continuing up the street.
Our target on this Brussels weekend, however, was the adjacent Magritte Museum on Place Royale. We wanted to view a collection of works by the Belgian artist René Magritte.
After spending two hours viewing Magritte’s surrealist masterpieces, we topped off our midday adventure wandering along the wide Chestnut-tree pedestrian avenues of the beautiful Parc de Bruxelles for another half hour. It’s just across the street adjacent to the Royal Palace.
Day 2 of Our Brussels Weekend: An Urban Picnic and Les Galeries Royales
We also wanted to spend the afternoon visiting Brussels’ Grand Place, the famously huge old market square of the city.
To reach it we backtracked to the Magritte and took a small stairway behind it down into another little park. There we found hundreds of Belgians out on the sunny Sunday afternoon.
At little tables under the trees, many were enjoying food and wine they had bought at several nearby stands.
We considered joining them but instead continued on our way to the Grand Place. We made a detour to visit Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, an old arcaded shopping street just a few blocks beyond.
It was a fantastic place, not only for the shops and restaurants but also for the ambiance. The old arcade made you feel that you’d stepped back in time.
Galleries such as the Saint-Hubert were once popular in both Belgium and Paris. (See Where to Find the Hidden Passages of Paris). But I particularly enjoyed Saint-Hubert since it has bettered retained the atmosphere of past centuries. If you’re ever in Brussels or Paris, they’re well worth visiting.
A Don’t-Miss Place on Any Weekend: The Grand Place
For many travelers, the Grand Place epitomizes Brussels. In fact, its name alone hints at what it holds: the most incredible assemblage of 17th-century Flemish Baroque buildings in the world. it is so large and incredible, the entire area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It is one of the top sights to visit in all of Europe, if only to see the magnificent Hôtel de Ville, the most magnificent civic building in all of Belgium.
The streets in the area leading to the Grand Place were crowded, with a gaggle of small flea markets contributing to the throng. When we arrived at Grand Place, we also found it also quite crowded, with a festival underway.
The crowd, fueled by samplings of different foods, wines, and beers over the previous few hours, was having a fun, but not raucous time. A small brass band played as a quartet of giant paper-mache figures danced across the square. In cafés on its periphery, people were whiling away the afternoon over beers and wine.
A Weekend Treat: Dining on Mussels In Brussels
We had been looking forward to dining during our Brussels weekend, since the city is also famous for its cuisine and restaurants. While we dined in several restaurants over the long weekend, our surprise favorite turned out to be Chez Leon. It’s on Rue des Bouchers (Street of the Butchers), a street devoted mainly to tourist restaurants.
Chez Leon remains one of the most famous restaurants in Brussels mainly for its moules (mussels), the national dish. As incredible as it may seem, this one restaurant serves half a ton of mussels every day.
I normally don’t eat mussels – I ordered rabbit that evening – but the mussels my wife ordered were exceptional (even I liked them). I’m certain that also accounted for the long line of people continually coming into the restaurant all night long.
Sitting there with a glass of wine after finishing dinner, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them had been sampling chocolates on Place du Grand Sablon earlier in the day.
It was then I realized the effect Brussels has on visitors: you not only remember memorable sights but also memorable meals. And it’s all so easy thanks to a fast train ride from Amsterdam to the restaurants of Brussels.
If You Go:
Belgian Tourist Office
300 East 42nd Street, 14th floor
New York, NY 10017
Tel: (212) 758-8130
Tourist Office for Flanders – Brussels
620 Eighth Ave – 44th Floor
New York, NY 10018
Tel: (212) 584-2336
Rue des Bouchers 18