It was a fondness for Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, chocolate, and tulips, that drove our decision to visit Belgium and the Netherlands. Just a little bit of research added Luxembourg to the list, with a day trip to Trier, Germany. We threw in a Saturday in Paris which may not have been the best idea. And we did it all on the one thing that the U.S. could really use, an awesome passenger rail system. So, in the summer of 2014 we headed to Europe with the following itinerary in hand.
Days 1 & 2 – Fly to Brussels, Belgium
We flew into Brussels (via London) on a red-eye and stayed at the Marriott Executive Apartments near the EU Parliament buildings and the closest train station. Normally the executive suites are outrageously expensive, but Parliament wasn’t in session, so we got a deal.
Day 3 – Brussels to Dinant
We slept in, bought a Belgian rail pass, and caught the 11am-ish train to Namen and then on to Dinant. The total trip took a little over an hour. From the station, it was a 15-minute walk from the train station to the Hotel Ibis, a bargain chain that offers the basics and feels like it was furnished by Ikea. It’s also on the river which was nice. Since it doesn’t get dark until after 10pm in the summer, we had plenty of time for a stroll down to the Bayard Rock, a large, cleft rock formation with a road running down the middle.
Day 4 – Dinant, Belgium
This was a day for exploring Dinant and soaking up the charm. It’s a small town, but it does have a lot to offer. If you want to know why we chose Dinant, then read this post. We visited the imposing Notre Dame de Dinant cathedral, the looming Citadel, found an infamous Couque de Dinant cookie, and poked around in every other alley, nook and cranny that we could find. In the afternoon when the sun came out, we rented an electric boat and took a leisurely cruise on the lovely River Meuse. Click here to see our photo essay of Dinant.
Day 5 – Dinant, Belgium to Luxembourg City
In the morning, we said goodbye to Dinant and caught the train to Libremont, which was as far as our Belgian rail pass would take us. There, we bought tickets for Luxembourg City. (Total time: two hours.) Upon arriving in Luxembourg (most people drop the “City”), for 15 Euros, we hired a taxi to take us to the Youth Hostel, which was an adventure unto itself. Read this post to get our take on the whole hostel experience. We spent the rest of the day walking at an angle — this tiny Grand Duchy is nothing if not hilly — and exploring the Upper part of the Old City. All white cement streets, stores, cars, and busy people, this part of Luxembourg is decidedly modern. The Grand Duke’s palace sits right in the middle of it all, open for tours only when the royals are on summer holiday. Nearby is the 17th century Church of Our Lady, the only Roman Catholic cathedral in town and the final resting place of a number of Luxembourg’s former rulers and Grand Ducal family.
Day 6 – Luxembourg City, Luxembourg
This morning, a bus ride and a short hike took us to the Luxembourg American Cemetery, the burial site of 5,076 American service members who lost their lives during WWII in the Battle of the Bulge and advance to the Rhine River. The cemetery is peaceful and beautifully maintained. General George S. Patton is also buried here. (Maps and routes are available at the Tourist Information Office in town.)
Back into Luxembourg proper, and we set our sights on exploring the Lower and much older section of town, which is situated in a gorge and surrounded by the city’s defining feature… the Casemates du Bock. The “Bock” is a natural rocky promontory that once shored up part of a medieval castle that’s connected to the ruins of three ring walls. The “Casemates” are remnants of more modern, but dismantled, underground fortifications. More than 10 miles of multi-level tunnels and stairways remain. While a tour is available, we chose instead to explore the parapets and hidey-holes on our own, eventually making our way to the bottom where the Alzette River rings the well-tended flowers and bee hives of the old Neumünster Abbey and the charming Grund quarter. Click here to see our photo essay that shows all these amazing places.
Day 7 – Day trip to Trier, Germany
Now that we knew our way around town, it was a piece of cake to catch the #9 or #14 bus to the train station for our trip to Trier. It’s easy to enjoy the highlights of this town in a single day, which include the ancient Roman gate known as the Porta Nigra, shopping on the main market square, and visiting several stunning cathedrals, namely the Basilica of Constantine, Church of Our Lady, and Cathedral of St. Peter. While the churches all sit fairly close to one another, we chose to hike a bit further to see the old Imperial Roman Baths, which were on the far side of the lovely Palace Gardens, and worth the extra steps. See our photos of Trier here.
Day 8 – Luxembourg City to Bruges, Belgium
Today, it was back on the bus to the Gare Centre station for the four hours to Bruges (with a short stopover in Brussels). We were picked up in Bruges by the owner of our Bed & Breakfast, who lived within walking distance of the town’s market square. (Sadly, she has retired and no longer rents out her attic space.) Since it was already late afternoon, we chose to sightsee on foot, eat powdered-sugar waffles, and light a candle in the beautiful Basilica of the Holy Blood.
Day 9 – Bruges, Belgium
We got up early and hightailed it to the canal boat tours before the busloads of tourists arrived. This was a great way to see the city and learn some of the town’s history. Afterward, we meandered through an outdoor flea market on the banks of a canal, then walked over to Koningin Astridpark, which has a playground, a lake and lots of pretty greenspace. In the afternoon, we checked out the Ezelpoort gate, which protected the second ring of ramparts around the city in the 14th Century, and St. Giles’ church, a 13th Century Gothic revival style parish church that once had a cemetery with the remains of painter Hans Memling. When the sun set, we went back to the Grote Mrkt to take in the lights of its shops, restaurants and imposing bell tower after dark. You can see some of Rick’s amazing photos of Bruges here.
Day 10 – Bruges, Belgium
Today, we set off to see a small, marble statue of the Madonna and Child in the pretty Gothic Church of Our Lady. Crafted by Michelangelo around 1504, it was purchased by two brothers from Bruges and donated to the church. Stolen twice, the statue was recovered both times and now sits in an alcove near the tomb of the Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold.
For lunch, we sought out Lizzie’s Wafels on the advice of our innkeeper. The restaurant’s namesake served us giant rectangular waffles that filled up our entire plates, topped with just about anything we wanted: bananas, strawberries, sugar, chocolate, even advocaat, or Dutch eggnog, an aged, custardy-like liquid with so much rum that you’ll be drunk by the time you’re done eating! Afterward, we walked off the calories, ending up on the east side of town where four windmills sit on a wide, grassy hill. The working Sint-Janshuis Mill can be toured for a small fee.
Belgium has a lot more to offer in the way of alcoholic beverages, namely beer! Rick tried them all. See his post here about his favorite European beer.
Day 11 – Day trip to the Belgian North Sea Coast
Our hostess thought we were a little nuts to travel to the coast for the day, but it turned out to be one of the most memorable days of our trip. We, once again, took a bus to the train station, where we bought tickets for Blankenberge. From there, we walked a short distance to a tram that runs parallel to the coast, stopping at all the little seaside towns in the area. We settled on De Haan for its lack of highrises and more authentic beach vibe. The town exudes charm, with its boardwalk and baskets of hanging flowers. The beach is exposed, windy and cold (even in June!), but there are many sheltered areas (some free, some not) where you can stake your claim in the sand and eat your daily, warm, sugary waffle and ice cream cone. Back at the station that afternoon, we took the time to buy our tickets to Amsterdam for the following morning.
Day 12 – Bruges to Amsterdam
It’s a fairly long haul from Bruges to Amsterdam (about five hours), with a few train changes in the mix. Our journey took us through Antwerp and Roosendaahl, before arriving in Amsterdam sometime after lunch. Next, it was a 20-ish minute walk to our bed and breakfast. Like everything in Amsterdam, our lodging was not cheap. But having saved money at the Youth Hostel and the Hotel Ibis, we decided to splurge on the Maes Bed & Breakfast, a very tastefully renovated canal house (with a street view) within walking distance of everything. We had pancakes for dinner and finished the day at the Anne Frank house in the 30-45 minutes before it closed (which is how you should do it if you want to avoid the line).
Day 13 – Amsterdam, Netherlands
There is plenty to see in Amsterdam, and if you follow our itinerary, we’d recommend hitting some of the museums that we missed, like the Stedelijk or Van Gogh. On this day, we met up with Rick’s step-first-cousin-once-removed (?), who lives outside of Amsterdam in a town on the other side of the airport called Nieuw Vennep. We attended a Dutch birthday party, followed by a quick jaunt to the seashore, and then dinner in a windmill-turned-restaurant where the menu was written on wooden clogs. If you have the opportunity, by all means, get out into the ‘burbs and see where everyone else lives. If not, we’re sure you’ll find something to do in the city proper.
Day 14 – Amsterdam, Netherlands
We had a 12-year-old with us, so the giant boat-shaped Science Centre NEMO was on the list for today. The exhibits were interactive and interesting for all ages. We really liked the life-sized Rube Goldberg machine, but steered our son away from the teen facts (read: sex) exhibit which was explicit enough to make Rick blush! After eating lunch on their rooftop terrace, we walked over to the National Maritime Museum near the old harbor, where we rested under their beautiful glass atrium. The museum is recently renovated and includes exhibits and a tour of a replica three-masted sailing vessel of the Dutch East India Company.
Day 15 – Amsterdam, Netherlands
Last day in Amsterdam, and it was time to visit at least one of the fabulous museums on the Museumplein. We took our time getting there, meandering through the Bloemenmarkt, the daily, floating flower market along the Singel canal. For lunch, we tried the local Dutch croquettes known as bitterballen (imagine a hush puppy filled with cream of mushroom soup… eww!), then headed into the Rijksmuseum, arguably the best choice if you have limited time and want to see a little bit of everything. And you will… from Rembrandt’s giant masterpiece “The Night Watch” to Asian sculptures, Dutch weapons, silver dollhouse furniture, Vermeers and Van Goghs. Afterward, we wandered around the outdoor area that is home to the “I AMSTERDAM” sign and a really cool fountain that challenges you to step inside and NOT get wet.
Later that night, we decided we couldn’t leave Amsterdam without walking through the red-light district at least once. So we left the pre-teen in the B&B and peeked in a few of the windows as the ladies were getting ready to start their evenings. Many of the scantily clad women were finishing their dinners and checking e-mail, which made the scene that much more incongruous. To read about all the things we loved (and didn’t love) about Amsterdam, see our post here. To see more of Rick’s photos of Amsterdam, click here.
Day 16 – Amsterdam to Brussels
Today, it was back to Brussels through Rotterdam and Roosedaal. From there we took the Metro to our last hotel, the Ibis St. Catherine’s, chosen for its proximity to the Grand Place, Brussels’ central market square that’s surrounded by guildhalls, a museum, and lots and lots of chocolate shops. The area is very pretty and has a local neighborhood feel to it.
Day 17 – Day trip to Paris, France
The idea of a day-trip to Paris came about when we discovered that a high speed train could get us there from Brussels in just over an hour. So we bought our tickets from the Thalys website long before we embarked on our trip. With paperwork in hand, we took the Metro to the Gare de Bruxelles-Midi and boarded our train for the 80-minute ride to Paris. We started our day with a climb to the top of the Sacre’ Coeur Basilica, and then meandered the neighborhoods of Paris while munching on baguettes and a bag of cherries bought from a local fruit stand. The planned stop-in at Notre Dame Cathedral didn’t happen because of the super long line. (Luckily, we had been in it before.) On the spur of the moment, we added a boat tour of the Seine to rest and escape the rain that began falling around lunchtime, before heading over to the Eiffel Tower. We had no tickets for the Tower (see this post to find out why that’s OK), so we had fun climbing the steps to the second tier observation tower. By that time, it was early evening, our 12 hours in Paris were coming to a close, and we were exhausted. So we caught the Metro back to the Gare du Nord for the short train ride back to Brussels.
Day 18 – Brussels, Belgium
Last full day of our trip, and it was time to explore Brussels a little bit. Unfortunately, it was still raining, and the idea of getting back on the underground to go all the way out to the Atomium made us tired just thinking about it. So instead, we kept it easy, walked around the Grand Place, and enjoyed shopping and sampling lots of Belgian sweets.
Day 19 – Fly out of Brussels, Belgium
Brussels to Heathrow to Austin, Texas… a long day made a whole lot easier when we bypassed the line of 200+ people on our plane who had to retrieve their luggage before going through Customs. Let’s hear it for packing light! We were the FIRST, let me repeat, FIRST people through Customs and were probably home a good hour before everyone else on our plane.
some final thoughts:
We chose to fly in and out of Brussels because it was cheaper than doing so from Amsterdam. However, looking back, we think this trip probably would have worked better in reverse. That is, starting in the big, bustling city of Amsterdam and ending it in the quieter towns of Belgium. It may have even made more sense to fly into Amsterdam and fly out of Brussels instead of making somewhat of a circle. Of course, that increases the cost of the flights considerably, but it’s still worth thinking about.
Also, if we were to do this trip again, we probably would not have attempted Paris in a day… at least not with a kid in tow. Rick and I had been there many years before (pre-child), and really just wanted to walk the streets a bit and take our son to the Eiffel Tower, which we did. Unfortunately, it poured on us the whole day, we had a lot of trouble navigating the Metro, and ended up walking over 11 miles that day. AND it was Saturday. If the stars had aligned differently, I think the trip would have been doable, but it didn’t work out for us on that particular day.