guides are based on the following visits: Brussels: Sept 2001, July
2003, August 2004, June and November 2005; Amsterdam: April 2000
and November 2003; Arnhem: April 2000. I've never set foot in Luxembourg,
so low or not, I'm not reviewing it!)
Often pilloried as “boring”, Belgium is a real gem.
I’ve only been to Brussels, which you can read about below,
but I have heard that Leuven, Ghent, Antwerp and Bruges (very touristy!)
are all well worth a visit in it’s own right.
The country is rightly famous for it’s beer and it’s
chocolate, but it’s cheese and other cuisine are pretty spot-on
as well. The people are also very friendly, if somewhat eccentric
at times, and in no way are to be confused with the Dutch or the
Brussels is one of my favourite cities in Europe. When you arrive
at Gare du Midi, don't be put off by the surrounding area (a bit
grubby) - either walk up Rue du Midi for about 15 mins to the Grand
Place, take an underground tram to the Bourse, or get a taxi to
the centre (assuming you hotel is in the centre). We used "A
Great Weekend in Brussels" (costs around a fiver, and is a
thin small book) and a fold-out "sporran-sized" map (you'll
find them on the counter in Waterstones) and these were great to
get by with.
Beer-wise, you'll be spoilt for choice. Be warned, some is as strong
as 14% (Kasteel double and triple), and the bitter-tasting trappist
beers all check in around 8%! Stella is the weak option over there!
Fruit beers are very good: Helen swears by Framboise (raspberry),
and I also like Lambic and Faro (as well as Duvel, Orval and Kwak).
Be warned, Belgium can be pretty laid back, and waiters can take
a while to the bring the beer to your table. Maes and Jupiler are
normal draught lagers (around 5%), but "real" Belgian
beer always comes in bottles and is served with the correct glass
- to see this taken to extremes, I really recommend having a "Kwak"
(seriously - you'll thank me for that!), just make sure you have
a camera handy!
Here's a brief rundown of things we've done and liked...
See! Not as boring as you heard, and in any case, the beer itself
(and the pubs) are a tourist attraction in their own right!
An open-top bus tour -
from outside Central Station or the Palais du Justice, a variety
of buses with multi-lingual commentary ply their trade. As ever,
a good way to get your bearings.
Mini Europe - second
or third last stop on the metro, only 1 away from the Heysel stadium,
Mini Europe has models of famous sights and is really worth a
visit. When I was there, you could buy a joint ticket for...
The Atomium - the big
atom-like structure, with a fast lift up to the top for the sights,
and escalators back down. Just a few minutes walk from Mini Europe
- you can't miss it!
Grand Place (GP) - right
in the centre of town, and famed for it's medieval architecture.
There's a sound and light show around 10-10.30pm every night.
Be warned, the bars and restaurants on the square (and on the
nearby famous Rue des Bouchers,
with all the fish restaurants) are mostly renowned rip-off spots
and not really favoured by the locals.
The Mannekin Pis - but
only to see how crap it is! It's tiny - laugh at the crestfallen
faces of gullible tourists who thought it would be much bigger.
The Jannekin Pis - like
her Mannekin brother, but squatting. Tasteless to the extreme,
but keeps the ultra-feminists and dirty mac brigade happy. Hidden
on a side wall of a dead-end alley off the Rue des Bouchers.
Chocolate Museum - the
Chocolate museum is in the South-East corner of the GP, and I
didn't really think it was worth a visit, a bit like...
The Brewery Museum -
Again, SE corner of GP, just diagonally across. The admission
does include a glass of pretty ordinary beer, but all you get
is to look at some chrome tubs and watch a very uninteresting
video. Not a patch on...
The Cantillon Brewery
- between the GP and the Gare du Midi (to the left of the main
road), is Brussels sole remaining authentic lambic and gueze brewery.
Well worth the trek (around 10-15 minutes from the GP), a few
Euros gets you a self-guided tour (with an English language pamphlet)
and two glasses of the good stuff. The best bit is that you can
buy extra glasses or even 75ml bottles at near cost price and
enjoy them in the bar bit (complete with toilets, should you need
them!), whilst deciding what to buy from their excellent shop
(we ended up with a lambic jug).
There's a lot of diversity, for such a small and manageable metropolis:
Grand Place/Bourse -
This is the central area, so very touristy, but lots to do and
see, and lots of places to drink.
Schumann - This is the
EU area, reachable by metro. It's big, with wide streets and huge
EU buildings, as well as lots of Irish pubs (if that's what your
looking for, but then, if it was, why not go to Dublin instead!?)
St Gery - If you walk
from the GP past the Bourse, you'll come to the St Gery/St Catherine
area. Full of old cobbled streets, curious shops (antiques and
taxidermists!) and trendy bars.
Anderlecht - a huge working
class (and largely non-descript) area stretching from the Gare
du Midi right round and up past the back of St Gery. Home to the
famous FC Anderlecht (who have a rather fetching lilac away kit).
There's a nice supporters bar (Le Coupe) right opposite the boxy
ground, if you feel the need.
Les Marolles - Marolles
is a working-class bohemian area near the centre (south of the
GP, west of the Rue du Midi - look for Rue de Haute on a map).
There's loads of antique shops and wee bars with their own traditions
- we really liked this area.
You're in for a real treat! (The first 6 listed are all very close
to the Grand Place):
A la Mort Subite - you
really need to visit here. They sell an eponymous range of beers
(the Faro is my favourite, but it's quite sweet), including some
suberb fruit beers (peach, raspberry and cherry). They also do
cheap and filling bar snacks (like omelette with a massive slice
of bread). Be warned: the waiters can be grumpy and there are
cheaper places to drink!
Delirium Cafe - I have
seen the future of Belgian Beer, and it's name is the Delirium
Cafe! Not cheap, but it does have over 2,000 different beers served
by expert bar staff. Can take a while to see the menu (it's built
like a phonebook!), then make a choice, then wait for the bar
staff to locate it and bring it up from the cellar, but it's well
worth the wait! An excellent selection of real gueuzes and krieks.
Up a wee alley off Rue des Bouchers and opposite the Jannekin
A La Beccase - on a side
street near the Bourse, look for the blue and red neon sign pointing
down an alleyway. A La Becasse serves a flat, sweet Lambic (brown
and white varieties) out of vases. A wee bit similar to proper
cider, you won't believe you're drinking beer.
L'image de Nostradame
- come out of A La Becasse and look left - you'll see its sister
pub L'image diagonally opposite. An okay place with a good beer
list and very bad toilets.
Au Bion Vieu Temps -
The next alleyway along from L'image. This is my favourite normal
bar in Brussels - red velvet seats and flock wallpaper, with toilets
the barmaid has to buzz you into.
Toone Theatre - on a
cobbled street between Rue des Bouchers and the GP (I think it's
called Petit Rue des Bouchers), the Toone Theatre is a puppet
theatre with a bar on the ground floor.
Le Maison des Brassuers -
on the NE corner of the GP and brews its own - ask to buy a "palette"
and you get four different types of beer to taste. They do food,
but again due to location, it's not the cheapest.
L'Archiduc - This is
the only trendy bar I'd recommend. It's in the St Gery quarter,
and is open 4pm-4am. It's very 1930s art-deco and decadent, with
a big grand piano in the middle of the floor, and sometimes you
need to ring a bell to get it.
The bars of Les Marolles
- the whole of Rue de Haute in Marolles is full of wee cafe-bars
that are well worth a visit. We strolled down here on a hot Saturday
afternoon and had fun watching the oddballs in action (including
a bar owner with his jeans round his ankles getting one his customers
to tell him what size his trousers were).
Falstaff - classic old
style cafe-style bar facing the south side of the Bourse, serving
food and drink late into the night (at quite a premium). Favoured
by guide books, but not worth going out of your way for. Head
Le Cirio - would be facing
Falstaff but for the Bourse in the way! A very ornate interior
and a good terrace for people-watching.
La Lunette- named after the bucket-sized glasses over the bar (in
which everything seems to cost 10 Euros). Don't worry - they do
normal sized beers at normal sized prices (for the city centre)
L'Ecuyer - a much more
basic bar just over the road and around the corner. Earthy!
Greenwich - Absolutelty
superb famous backstreet cafe. Pull up a chair and a chessboard,
but be wary of taking on the expert locals. Very chilled, very
big, and very antiquated toilets! Close to L'Archiduc but far
closer to true Brussels life than most of the other bars above
The following is a diary-style excerpt of an email sent just after
returning from celebrating my birthday in Brussels (November 2005):
First things first, late November is
a great time to travel. Gatwick was like a ghost town, both
leaving and coming back, and Brussels was the quietest I've
seen it in five trips - perhaps people are waiting for December's
Christmas markets? Anyway, this is a story of beer, not sight-seeing
(we've already seen the sights on previous visits). You have
After a very bumpy flight through the looming snow clouds, it
was out and about into the start of a blizzard. Our hotel was
right opposite the station (part of the reason for the trip
was to get a free night in Le Meridien as our points were about
to expire), and the plan was to stay nearby on Friday night
and maybe head further afield (maybe a second visit to Cantillon)
on the Saturday. A La Mort Subite is one of our old favourites,
being one of the first bars we ever went into, and Helen loves
the Framboise, so it was our first port of call for a couple
of Faros (me) and Framboises (Helen) to wash down the obligatory
half-cooked omelette. By now, the snow was coming down hard
and lying, making progress slow in order to stay on our feet.
We cut through the arcade and Rue des Bouchers for shelter,
and headed for L'image du Nostredame and Au Bon Vieux Temps,
two small bars at the end of alleyways off Rue Tabora near the
Bourse. Nostredame was playing host to some kind of anarchic
Belgian karaoke (more fun that it sounds), and I was able to
sample a Boon Oude Gueze Mariage Parfait and a Rochefort 8 (Helen
stayed on the raspberry juice); Bon Vieux Temps next door was
empty, and out of Westvleteren, so I played it safe and went
for my relaible standby - Orval. We made it into Delirium just
after midnight, and the place was heaving, mostly with drunk
American student types. The only seats were at the bar, and
the phone-book-sized menus were all in use, so I bowled straight
in with a request for Westvletern Abt (very nice) before keeping
my promise of "just one more beer" by trying a Rodenbach
Grand Cru (probably my "find" of the trip, as it's
a beer I could have again and again).
We were in no rush to get out and about on the Saturday, as
the scene from our hotel window showed the snow/frost covered
streets to be a bit on the treacherous side (no grit on the
pavements) - we abandoned our plans to go to Cantillon on practical
grounds. Instead, we headed to Toone for our first beer of the
day - a Cantillon Gueuze for me and a Jupiler for Helen (a weird
one - she wanted to stay off Framboise at first to allow her
to try some different stuff). Next up was Delirium again (well,
it was just around the corner!) - the plan was to have a couple
of beers whilst it was quiet and we could peruse the menu, then
head off to another couple of bars, then come back to finish
off. Best laid plans... Delirium was again really busy (around
5pm), but with only one (unfazed) barmaid to satisfy the baying
crowds. There also seemed to be loads of punters ("umm,
ahh, what lagers do you have?", "three hot chocolates
and a small lager"... arrgghh - what's wrong with every
other bloody cafe in Brussels??!!), so getting served with the
minimum of frustration required no small amount of timing and
skill! But enough of the bad: first up was a €20 bottle
of Cantillon Lou Pepe Framboise 2001 (it was my birthday the
week before, so I was still celebrating! And it was 75cl), which
was nice, but not quite sweet enough for my sweetheart; she
followed with a Hanssens Oudbeitje strawberry beer whilst I
went down the cherry route with a Drie Fonteinen Oude Kriek
(a great beer - probably my favourite available kriek); Helen
then went predictable with Mort Subite Framboise whilst I worked
my way through a Sint Bernadus Prior (okay), another Rodenbach
Grand Cru (wanted to check it wasn't just a one-off!), and a
year-old, room temperature (I was given the choice) Orval (very
good, and accompanied by some Orval flavoured saucisson) and
to finish, a large bottle of 15 year old kriek from a closed
brewery (I had wanted the gueuze, but they'd sold out - not
cheap, but at €12.50 for something I can never try again,
I'm not complaining). At this stage, it was leave or spend the
rest of the night in the same place, so we upped sticks and
made our way to L'Ecuyer, a pretty basic bar slightly to the
north of the main action - a Rochefort 10 was the most interesting
thing on the limited menu, and rounded off the night nicely.
We wandered back towards the kebab street considering another
beer, but decided it would be better to rise and drink another
day (albeit briefly, as our flight was late afternoon).
The plan for Sunday was our traditional "last day in Brussels"
lunch at Mort Subite, but as they had decided not to open by
12.15pm (there was movement inside, but it was freezing outside,
and there's no telling when they'll decide to open the doors!)
we headed back through the galleries and down to the Grand'
Place, where we chanced the locked looking doors of the brewpub
on the corner (that always seems to be completely arbitrary
with it's own opening hours). The doors were open, but the place
was in complete darkness - this was okay, the barmaid assured
us, they were having a power cut so no food but the pumps were
working fine. I plumped for a palette (which I always gravitate
towards when I see them, but this is the third time I've been
in this place, so you'd expect me to know what I like by now!),
and sampled a blonde, a double blonde (that's what she told
me!), a brune and a kriek (which was clearly just a blond with
syrup, in a cynical attempt to cash in on the passing tourist
trade). They also sell bottled Brussels Triple, but had run
out of small bottles - to be fair, that didn't stop them popping
the cork of a 75cl bottle and pouring me out a 33cl measure
(at the lower price too) - I'd had the palette beers before,
so this was a new experience.
All in all, an excellent weekend away, even if we didn't stray
as far as we would have hoped. And all helped immensely by the
Good Beer Guide Belgium, which I'd recommend to anyone - looking
forward to the Good Beer Guide Germany coming out next summer.
I’ve only been the once, and as I was in the throes of glandular
fever, it’s fair to say that I may not have been most receptive
to it’s liberal charms. Seeking variety, we went via train
and boat (Liverpool Street-Harwich, fast hydrofoil, then Hoek van
Holland to Amsterdam): great fun on the way there, less so when
you pass Schiphol airport 15 minutes out of Amsterdam, knowing you
still have hours ahead of you.
(I recently read that calling The Netherlands "Holland"
is akin to calling the UK "England". I will never make
that mistake again!)
The ‘Dam is the sort of place you either love or hate. I’ll
be up front here: I hate it! Along with Nathan Road in Kowloon,
Amsterdam struck me as the sort of place where everyone is out to
rip everyone else off. I mean no disrespect from the Dutch –
the most obvious example was the Englishman who tried to charge
us for giving us directions.
So, armed with the knowledge that I can’t stand the place,
please don’t be prejudiced by my own opinions on this!
Amsterdam is a city of canals, and fans out from the Centraal station.
The station itself is a very hectic centre of activity (think “hive
of scum and villiany”), but is definitely somewhere you do
not want to spend the night! A lot of hard drugs change hands around
here, and on every street corner in the red light district (“Charlie?”
“never heard of him, pal”). Looking at a map of Amsterdam,
the Red Light district that most visitors head straight for (not
just for the obvious – this is where this a concentration
of coffee shops and touristy bars, as well as some budget hotels)
is to the south-east of the station. I’m not prudish, but
to be honest, the “in-your-face” ness of it all began
to grate on me after a while, although for most it was like kids
in a toy shop.
Far from it’s reputation as the “city that never sleeps”,
if you go during the week be prepared for the nightlife taking a
general downturn after 1-2am. Also, do make sure you have a hotel
booked if there is the slightest suggestion something may be going
on – we really struggled to get beds on the middle night of
our 3 night stay.
Finally, the Rembrandtsplein area is very nice, in a Covent Garden
kind of a way, and just around the corner from here is an area with
trendy bars frequented by stockbrokers.
All in all, I’m no rush to go back, but I know many who just
can’t keep away – go and make your own mind up.
Okay, okay… so the above is a pretty dreary and unfair outlook
on Amsterdam. Having returned and enjoyed it, I still go along with
most of what I said before - a lot of people there are after turning
a quick buck. However I can at least recommend
some decent pubs
and sights now,
such as the excellent Tasting Houses:
Jenever Tasting Houses are
traditional stand-up bars where the jenever (Dutch gin made with
juniper berries) distilleries sell their wares. There is a lot of
tradition involved in drinking the stuff – the glass is like
a fancy liquer glass (or a sherry glasses with a wide rim), and
it is filled to the brim. When taking the first sip, you need to
bend down and slurp it straight from the glass on the bar (i.e.
not pick the glass up first).
Be warned, neat jenever tastes like paint-stripper – try
the mixtures and fruit flavoured stuff instead. The other thing
is to watch the clock - the thing with these tasting houses is the
weird hours – the two listed below are both closed by 9pm
- all to do with tradition, apparently. Best think of them as an
accompaniment to pubs, rather than as a replacement!
The Wynand Fockink tasting
house (in a small dead-end street leading to the back door of the
shopping arcade of the Kraspolosky Grand Hotel on Dam Square) is
one of the more touristy, given its location in the RLD, but well
worth a visit! Make sure you try some of the more exotic liqeurs
on the back shelves, such as butterscotch, apple tart, after-eight
and “lotion of venus”.
Die Drie Fleisches in Gravenstraat
(just behind Dam Square). You have to try “Boswandleig”
– a house speciality involving vodka, jenever and angostura
bitters that somehow tastes like flat cola (far nicer than it sounds
In addition to the excellent Tasting Houses mentioned
above, the following are some places we can recommend:
“Die Pilsener Club”.
This wee, out-of-the way (quite near Spui) café has no
bar as such, just pumps under the stairs serving great tasting
beer (it’s kept in draughting alcoves, not a cellar, so
the beer travels a shorter distance to the pumps). It also has
great service, a nice atmosphere, and massive plates of bar snacks
(if you ask for them), including raw meat!
Spui Straat, near Spui
square – a happy hunting ground, with several pubs and bars
Hoppe, Spui Straat -
a traditional brown café (sawdust on the floor, no ladies
toilet – it’s next door! – and a convivial atmosphere),
but is also a bit of a tourist trap, having been bigged-up in
many a guide book. There are two Hoppe’s – I’m
describing the one on the right hand side (the one on the left
is slightly posher).
Café The Minds,
halfway down Spui Straat - an anarchic bar, favoured by local
lesbian punks (at least when we were there) – and boots
hanging from the ceiling.
Brewery-pub just off Nieuwmarkt (The
Berard Suster or similar) – great choice of beer,
and some very good food, but on the expensive side. Very classy,
and worth it in my opinion.
Gravenstraat - a few doors along from Die Drie Fleisches. Several
hours can easily be spent in here, trying out draught Kwak, bottled
Gueuze and other such delights.
Pub - just around the corner from Dam Square (SW side)
– a pretty passable Irish pub (but an Irish pub nonetheless).
more of an area full of bars than one specific recommendation.
The side streets leading off it can be packed with late night
action, but can be a little too glitzy for some tastes.
Arena Tour – I’ve
done it twice and enjoyed it both times. You don’t see the
dressing rooms, unfortunately, but they do take you high in the
stands and into the press room and control centre. Definitely worth
it, particularly if you like staring at big empty stadiums. The
museum also has a big display of European trophies.
Unfortunately, I’ve never done the following, but want to
Anne Frank’s House
– out near Jordaan. Go early, apparently
Heineken Brewery Tour
– just along from Leidseplein. Free beer! (But an entry
fee for the tour).
Canal Tour – get
a boat from near Centraal Station.
I was in and out of Arnhem in just a few hours, but it did strike
me as a very pleasant and friendly town. The main square is small
and surrounded by dozens upon dozens of small bars. As the Scotland
game was only a few hours away, we were too late to get a drink
here, and had to settle for a small brasserie just through the square
and to the left. Not much else to say, except the Gelredome stadium
on the edge of town is the first stadium anywhere in the world to
have a retractable pitch (on a big hovercraft that floats under
the stand) – fascinating, I’m sure you’ll agree.