Friday, 15 July 2016

The Best of Brussels

Brussels is often overlooked as a city for a short European break but as the centre of the European Union this is a city that definitely has a buzz about it and after three days there I can say it is definitely worth a visit!

We travelled to Brussels on a super cheap Ryanair flight booking it in advance it worked out at about 23 euro one way so look out for those deals! We were staying with a friend so thankfully didn't have the added cost of accommodation so keeping to that student budget proved easier.

Belgian waffles and fries are a must try for any foodies and I can honestly say it was the first time I had ever tried a waffle but anyone who has a sweet tooth or is a chocolate lover this a must try. Tiny waffle eateries and frite-haus are all over the city with most places offering waffles starting at €1. It is sweet enough to eat by itself but of course given the huge selection of toppings available we had to try them out . I went with nutella and strawberries which was a heavenly combination.

Brussels has the most amazing transport system and we bought a 24 hour card for €7.50 which allowed unlimited transport on trams, metros and buses to save you all the walking. We also did hop on a few trams without paying but sssh... you do risk a fine! We wanted to do all the usual tourist attractions and headed to the Grand Place and to see the Mannequin de Pis which unfortunately wasn't dressed up the day we went to visit.

The Grand Place is a gorgeous square surrounded by amazing buildings such as the most ornate town hall you have ever seen. The Mannequin de Pis was a little bit underwhelming as it was very tiny and you would nearly miss it (pun unintentional). We were still glad however that we got to see the usual touristy sights. Brussels is very popular with Asian tourists as you will see and trying to take a photo without someone getting in the way proved difficult.
We had heard a lot about the Atomium and Mini Europe and decided to hop on a tram to take us to BruPark. You just get off at the last stop at Heysel. Its kind of like an area where a good few of the touristy attractions are grouped together which does make it handier as a one stop shop. You can also visit the aquarium and the planetarium there and when you group tickets together for attractions it will work out cheaper overall...
We had heard the Atomium wasn't worth going inside, but it was spectacular to look at from the outside and we had great views of it from Mini Europe. Mini Europe was definitely one of the highlights of our trip to Brussels. It basically has monuments of all the famous landmarks in buildings of countries in the European Union - it was definitely worth a visit and we spent about three hours there stopping for ice cream of course as it was one of the hottest days of our trip when we were there! We also cooled off with a cocktail or two (they were the cheapest and strongest we had found!) for only six euro in one of the bars at BruPark. Ask for the Cuba Libre.
Nightlife wise, Brussels proved to be a tough nut to crack. Flagey was the main square near where we wee staying and we returned to CafĂ© Belga the three nights we were there as it was the only lively place we found nearby with a younger crowd and some 90s tunes and a laidback vibe. Belgian beers are a must try over there. I'm not a beer drinker but I drank it when I was there as you can get cherry and raspberry flavour 'kriek' as its called which goes down a treat. A round of three flavoured beers will only cost you about €8 or 9. Wine was also super cheap ranging from €3.20-€5.20 depending on glass size so if you like beer or wine this is the place for you. All cocktails and sprits were as expensive if not more expensive as Dublin. Watch out for some of the super strong Belgian beer! Other recommendations beer wise are Duvel verte and Leff Blonde.
The lakes near Flagey are gorgeous to sit by in the early to late evening and a lot of students take advantage of this and public drinking doesn't seem to be an issue just make sure you clean up after yourself.
A plus of the outdoor pub life is a lot of places allow you to bring food in to enjoy with your beer so you can enjoy some of the traditional Belgian frites or kebabs, burgers, meatballs with your beer for extra soakage!
Eating out, there are a lot of Italian restaurants we noticed so we went for a delicious pizza one of the days near Schuman called La Bracce. We also went to The Black Sheep for burgers...this is where I discovered that Belgians like their cow nearly mooing on the plate. If you aren't a fan of rare burgers I recommend asking for your beef to be well done. I can handle a pink steak just not pink burgers!
A lot of Turkish/Arab men live in the area of the Flagey and we did feel uncomfortable at times with men openly staring and making comments towards us in the street. It is most definitely a cultural thing and we didn't experience this in Amsterdam. I guess they don't see a lot of blondes in Belgium! It's the one thing that could kind of leave a sour taste in my mouth about Belgium. When you travel you don't usually need to factor in an expectation of street harassment!
Despite that, Brussels is a great starting point for extra travel to the nearby cites of Leuven, Antwerp, and Bruges. We discovered Bruges for a day and I can confirm that it is well worth a visit...
***More to follow in the next blog post***

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

48 hours in Amsterdam

I've always been one of those people who like to start at the end be it a magazine or like this - a blog post -detailing the last stop on my 'mini euro trip', Amsterdam.

Amsterdam seems to be on most people I've talked to travel bucket list and it's not hard to see why. The draw of the Red light district and the freely available highs are what Amsterdam is most known for alongside a wealth of culture such as the Anne Frank house, Van Gogh and Rembrandt museum to name a few as well as some spectacular 16th century canal houses. It's the combination of the quaintness and the artistic history behind the city muddled with its edgier underbelly that appeals to traveller both young and old. 

We stayed at Clink Noord, a hostel just a short ferry ride from Amsterdam Centraal Station. We travelled to Amsterdam Central Station via train from Brussels but if you were flying over the train from the airport would drop you in this exact location. We were delighted with the hostel literally only being a five minute journey away by ferry and on foot as after a long few days of travelling the last thing we wanted was to venture straight into the city centre. (Tip: the ferry is a free 24 hour service! Just make sure you don't get on the wrong boat back to the hostel after a space cake or too...) 

The hostel was so comfortable, clean, and quirky. We would definitely recommend it and are already looking at returning. There are rooms with double beds, twin beds and they range up to a ten bed dorm. There are plenty of common spaces to chill with a book, play pool, ping pong, eat, have a drink and chat.

The stained glass window is a quirky touch to an otherwise very industrial building as the hostel was converted from an industrial lab. 

Our first morning we went on a free walking tour that started from the hostel. Our guide Mark was Northern Irish and had a masters in history and literature and was the perfect combination of humour and information to hold our attention on the tour. He brought us through the Red light district which isn't half as intimidating in the daylight and onto all the sights. The main places to head would be Centraal Station - the stations buildings are stunning, Dam Square with the New Church and some markets take place there also, Rembrandtsquare is the touristy square area with coffee shops and nightclubs, also Museumplein is where you will find the famous 'I am Amsterdam'  sign and a variety of museums. 

We were on such a tight schedule there is so much we didn't manage to pack in but the highlights include breakfast in De Pijp, Amsterdams hipster neighbourhood. We headed to Bakers and Roasters which was incredibly popular. We had a long wait for our food but it was delicious when it arrived. Not sure if this brunch place is a little bit overhyped  as it doesn't come cheap but the food was certainly Instagram worthy with a huge selection of brunch menu items I.e. Corn fritters, tacos, eggs benedict, bacon, pancakes, maple syrup and plenty of veggie options. 

Food wise we weren't overall impressed with the eating out options but we may have been looking in the wrong area. Definitely try some of the frites - fries with satay sauce and onions is a speciality as are the stroopwafels and mini pancakes. Herring is their main dish so if you are into raw fish give it a go. 

Our first night we headed to Rembrandtsquare as it is basically where all the clubs are. We went to Smokys nightclub which is quite well known and has a popular coffee shop by the same name nearby. Other clubs are Prime, Escape, Cool down cafe to name a few. Drinks are as expensive if not more expensive as a Dublin prices in these places so be warned. They are also quite strict on ID, and have metal detectors on the doors. If you plan on going to any coffee shops bring ID in case...

We visited the Ice Bar - you can get tickets for many of the tours and attractions in Tours and Tickets. It was 18 euro and you get three drinks included but I came out with about six! The ice bar is minus ten degrees Celsius and you are given thermal jackets and gloves to wear in. The glasses are also made out of ice hence the gloves. Don't be stupid like I was and wear open toed sandals or wedges! 

After the Ice bar we decided since it was our last night to head to the Red Light district and with a good few drinks taken six of us decided to visit a live 'adult' show... It is definitely a once off experience that is debatable over whether or not it was worth the money. Tickets were €40 or €50 with any two drinks included. 

So if you're prime reason for going to Amsteram is to try their coffee shop culture, see some of the attractions and experience the Red light district two nights was sufficient. We would have loved to fit in more and personally I would have liked to visit the Van Gogh museum and Banksy exhibition as well as get to the Jordaan district. Even though the best way to get around Amsterdam is by bike ( and not on foot - we did about 40,000 steps a day!) I'm not sure I would brave cycling around the city as it is just so busy. 

If you are staying in a hostel the free walking tour was a lifesaver. It showed us how to get around the city, the main attractions and help us meet other people staying in hostel who we ended up clicking with and spending our time there with. So don't be shy! The four guys we ended up hanging out with were all travelling on their own from different parts of the world, it definitely opened up my eyes to solo travel and it is something I would definitely consider in the future. 

***Next up I'll be doing a blog post on our time in Brussels and Bruges!***

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