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Brussels Midi train station and Ghent vs Bruges

Our trip is still many months away so we obviously haven't decided anything definitively yet except that I want to take the Eurostar from Brussels to London at the end of our Belgium visit. I suspect it will be a fairly boring standard train trip, except I've been in love with the idea of the "chunnel" since I was a kid in the 80s, so darn it all I am travelling through it! :-D

Anyway...

Since we will be needing to get on a morning Eurostar to London I think we should be using Brussels as our home base for our 3 days in Belgium. (willing to let someone talk me out of this if compelling reasons exist). Eurostar leaves from Midi - is staying in a hotel near Midi a good idea? I'm more attracted to staying near the Grand Place but there are lots of hotels I could choose from near Midi. Is Midi in a good neighborhood, safe for walking to and from the hotel at night? Are there good restaurants? Is it a convenient location for getting to Brussels sights, and/or convenience for getting to a train to take a day trip to Ghent or Bruges?

Which brings me to my second question. We'll be taking one day trip from Brussels - to Ghent or Bruges. If you had to choose between the two which would you choose? Our main desires will be: beer, chocolate, cheese, medieval architecture, art. Willing to throw Antwerp into the mix if it excels at any of those over Ghent and Bruges.

Posted by
11170 posts

I didn't see the area around Midi myself, but I've never read anything good about it. It certainly is not particularly convenient for sightseeing. Domestic Belgian trains all stop at Nord, Central, and Midi, so being near Midi is not more convenient for daytrips than being near the Grand Place (a 5-10 minute walk from Central).

As for using Brussels as a base for 3 days - I think you'll regret this quickly. I hate to badmouth places because I realize everyone has different likes and dislikes, but Brussels really was uninspiring to me. You will read very divergent opinions about Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent, and Brussels, but few would call Brussels their favorite of the 4. I liked them in the order I listed them (Antwerp most, Brussels least), but that's just me. All four of them have beer, chocolate, cheese, and art, so those criteria won't help. Read as much about them as you can and set your own priorities; in the end, you won't know how you will feel about them until you see them for yourself.

The one thing I really did like in Brussels was my Art Nouveau tour with ARAU: http://www.arau.org/en/tours. It connects far flung sights and gets you into buildings not normally open to the public, so it's better than trying to see these places on your own. If I ever go again, I'd arrange my visit around their tours; that's how much it stood out from the rest of my sightseeing there.

In your situation, what I'd do is go right to Bruges, Ghent, or Antwerp to spend two nights, and spend your last night in Brussels to get your Eurostar. Stay near the center/Grand Place area; I'm not sure if the short ride (on a separate train) from Central to Midi is included in your Eurostar ticket, or if it costs a few euros extra, but trains go between those two stations quite frequently (as I said, all domestic trains do this).

Posted by
351 posts

Harold,
I really appreciate your frank comments on staying in Brussels. I think I am leaning toward Brussels as home base because of the Eurostar departure and not much else. A desire to change hotels as little as possible, but at that point in the trip we'll still be traveling light (that will continue to be the case until we leave Scotland when we'll be weighed down with bottles of whisky).

I wonder if it's as easy to do a day trip from Ghent or Antwerp to Bruges. I'll look into that.

What did you like best about Antwerp?

Posted by
4701 posts

Every train ticket written "to Brussels" is good to any of the three stations in downtown Brussels (not to the airport, however.) Since the Eurostar doesn't stop in the other two stations, you CAN use your Eurostar ticket to take any, very frequent, train to anywhere (well, maybe not special sleeping trains .. ) that's going in the direction of the Brussels station you need. Of course, you have to hump your own luggage. But the Eurostar platform has an elevator.

If you decide to sleep elsewhere, especially Bruges, price the "Any Belgian Station" option for Eurostar for comparison.

Because you mentioned art, you have to determine whether the superb museums in Brussels trump the pleasanter street life in Antwerp and Ghent. You should use the search box and read up on people who spend three nights in Bruges, and people like me who wouldn't be caught dead sleeping in Bruges. My vote is for Antwerp, or if you're younger, maybe Ghent. But there is no definitive answer to this question.

There is important art in all of these places. To my mind, the very, very attractive city of Bruges has the least. Unfortunately, the best of the 12 or so museums in Antwerp is closed for years of renovation. But there's still lots to see and do there.

Some people think the Midi station area is too gritty, but I don't really agree. Most European train station areas, Antwerp included, aren't the most attractive section of town.

Edit: It is incredibly easy and affordable to make train day trips in this part of Belgium. Just don't sleep too far from the station or transit to the station.

Posted by
6087 posts

I agree that the Midi (Sud) station area is not the greatest for walking around at night, but it's not horrible. I stayed in a hotel that was half way between Central and Midi and I was perfectly comfortable walking alone to and from my hotel in the evening (I don't stay out very late at night when traveling anyway) and I had no problem walking to Midi station in the morning for my train out after my visit. I found the area between the two stations quite acceptable, there were quite a few restaurants in the area and it was very convenient to either station and just a short walk from the Grand Place. It worked well for me to stay in Brussels even though I spent 2 of my 3 days on day trips to Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp, all of which I enjoyed. If you only have time for one I would say Bruges is probably the one to do unless you're not hooked on very cute photogenic medieval tourist towns. I found it very hard to pick which I liked best because I liked them all but maybe for different reasons. If I went back I would probably stay in Ghent because I was very drawn to that town (I'm a sucker for college towns, love the vibe). The other poster's idea to stay in Ghent or Antwerp for 2 nights and then stay in Brussels the last night before taking the Eurostar might work for some but I, for one, am not fond of moving hotels if I don't have to so I would stay in Brussels for the whole time.

Posted by
4509 posts

If you are going to stay in Brussels, don't stay near Midi. The area closer to Central and the Grand Place is MUCH better and allows you so much right out your front door. And it takes little time to hop any train heading to Midi the day of your departure.

I like Brussels though I can concede it is not for everyone. Like Harold, the architecture tours and seeing Art Nouveau is what attracts me the most but few will put that so high on their list. The Grand Place is one of the best in Europe, but makes for an easy daytrip too. It also has great neighborhoods that make you feel as if you are in Paris's 16th, but again that sort of neighborhood exploration isn't the norm for most people's travels.

Bruges will be the most scenic of the towns you list but is extremely crowded. However, if you stayed there you get the town practically to yourself in the evenings and its charm really comes out then. Gent is a great town and makes for a good base. It isn't as charming as Bruges, but having some beer, chocolate and strolling would be more accessible. Have not been to Antwerp.

Posted by
23851 posts

Gent has the advantage of easily acquired excellent chocolate. My wife and I have done extensive pseudo-scientific research across the gamut of the chocolate-Flemish salient, and have concluded that a place in Gent is head and shoulders (not dandruff) above all the others, although some of the no longer produced artisan chocolate in Brugge was most excellent. Now it is tourist chocolate primarily in Brugge; and high priced tourist chocolate in Brussels. We never found a place - although we are still looking from time to time - in Antwerpen to compare with what we love in Gent.

I find that Brussels can feel a bit depressing, Brugge a bit full of people, Antwerpen very laid back but busy at the same time, and Gent relatively peaceful. Now that Rick has put Gent in his book I notice that my favourite haunts in Gent have raised their prices.

Art in each of those towns is different. What period do you like?

What time is your train from Brussels to London? Be sure to be there well ahead, but as long as you are not one of the early trains you could stay in any of the 4 places and easily connect to the Eurostar.

Posted by
14014 posts

I would stay in Ghent for 3 nights.

  1. It is about equidistant from Bruges and Brussels, making both good day trips.
  2. There are frequent trains from Ghent to Brussels, the trip is 36-37 minutes, so you should have no trouble getting to the Eurostar in the morning, even early morning.
  3. Ghent is beautiful in the evenings, when the Gothic buildings and bridges are illuminated. It's quieter and less touristy than Bruges.
  4. Lodging is cheaper.
Posted by
1803 posts

In terms of ranking them based on some of your interests, I would say that while Bruges was very postcard pretty, almost Disney-esque looking - I found it exceedingly dull after the sun went down (although on the plus side, the majority of the day-tripping tourists clear out so if you enjoy wandering the quiet streets and canals, it could be ideal for some). While the architecture was great in Bruges, I did not exactly feel like it was busting at the seams with loads of opportunities to look at art. It definitely has some solid highlights to keep you busy for a day, but not much beyond that, so I would never use it again as a base.

I only did Brussels as a day trip. I've been to Belgium several times already and as I have seen most of the tourist highlights already, I would actually consider using Brussels on a future trip as a base to stay for a couple nights - but only because my time in Brussels was limited to one day and I have used the others already as lodging bases and would like to explore more of the outer areas that are less touristy and more neighborhood-y in Brussels, as well as hit up some more of the museums I missed during my one day there.

I actually liked Antwerp quite a bit. While I was disappointed that one of their major museums was closed for renovations during my visit, they still had a really commendable amount of alternatives (e.g., The MAS, Rubens House) and a decent amount of their main museum has been dispersed among several smaller museums and historical homes so it is still on view to the public during the renovations. The Cathedral and the Old Town section of Antwerp had some great medieval architecture on view. Antwerp also had a lot of really great contemporary art and photography, interesting gallery scene and is the home base for some important fashion designers so it offers a fashion museum and some really good window shopping. It had some really good options for nightlife and dining.

Being around the train stations during the day is not a problem. At night, you see a little more of the weirdness coming out of the woodwork, but if you are ok with dealing with similar when you come out of certain T stations back at home, or are hanging about South Station after the majority of business commuters have gone home for the night, then you should be just fine. Just remain aware of your surroundings and use a taxi when you can if you are going to be out late at night.

Posted by
4656 posts

Only tourist chocolate in Brussels? You obviously haven't heard of Pierre Marcolini, Wittamer, Marys, Blondeel, or Laurent Gerbaud! Neuhaus, Galler and Corne are chains, but I wouldn't call them "tourist".

Posted by
351 posts

Thanks everyone for all the input. I'd love to say you've solved all my problems but what you've actually done is make everything sound even more interesting and make me want to spend more time in Belgium.

Tim mentioned "any Belgian station" Eurostar ticket - Sounds like we could use it to get from Central to Midi on the morning of our departure (our likely departure will be 9am or 11am). I assume the ticket won't help us if we're coming from Ghent that morning, only within Brussels?

Ceidleh - we're quite comfortable on and around the T at night, even around South Station, though less so on surface streets south of Tufts Medical Center. The more foot traffic the more comfortable we feel.

I hope I haven't started a chocolate war here on the forum. We're willing to help broker peace by eating all the chocolate for you. I really appreciate all the suggestions of shops to try.

Chani's comments about Ghent being beautiful at night sounds compelling to me - our "nightlife" activities usually run to getting drinks and then strolling around.

Art - I'm most interested in old masters but otherwise we're all over the place in the type of art we like.

Posted by
23851 posts

A "Any Belgian Station" could, I suppose, be used for the 5 minute or less journey on the backbone through Brussels, but it was designed to allow British and others the opportunity to travel on the Eurostar to Brussels and seamlessly continue their journey to wherever they were going in Belgium - whether that was Antwerpen, Brugge, Charleroi, Dinan, etc. all on one ticket not much more than just Brussels.

The further you go, the more valuable the add-on.

It is designed to reach your final destination in basically a direct line. It used to be that you could have up to 24 hours in Brussels on the way, but I don't know if that is still true.

Posted by
4701 posts

Yeah, motorgirl, you missed my first sentence:

Every train ticket written "to Brussels" is good to any of the three stations in downtown Brussels (not to the airport, however.)

That means you should not pay extra for the ABS option (Any Belgian Station) if your final destination on Eurostar day is Brussels - any of the three in-town stops. It sounded like you were, like a zillion Brits, considering the magnetic destination of Brugge on your first day in Belgium. In that case, ABS might be convenient and a good value, so I mentioned it.

When you leave on the Eurostar to London, do not fail to allow time for immigration formalities and a line at the Midi Eurostar terminal. Also try to find the Composition of Trains poster/board (it's not called that anymore!) because I always have trouble finding my reserved seat there. They don't mark the platform well.

A very well informed local on the TripAdvisor Belgium board implied that ABS still has a 24-hour window, but I have no information on that myself. I would think it would be clear from the Eurostar terms and conditions. And I certainly would not risk a no-ticket fine by failing to do my own research.

Posted by
351 posts

Tim, thanks for the additional notes. I think I misunderstood your initial post. We will be taking a day trip to Bruges at some point during our stay, but not immediately when we arrive in Belgium. On the day of our departure to London on the Eurostar we may be in Brussels, or coming from Ghent or Bruges depending on where we decide to have our home base.

Posted by
504 posts

Midi isn't such a bad neighborhood, but it is a long walk from most of what you'll want to see in Brussels. I did the walk, in the other direction, twice last week. I like walking, but it does take some time. As others have said, you can transfer to a train to Central without a problem. That said, the Porte Hal is near the Midi and gives you a compact display of art, armament, and city history. As of last week they were also running a special exhibition on toy soldiers from the Great War era.

In contrast to what someone else said, I found Bruges to be enchanting at night, after the tour groups have gone away and the carriages were all in their stables. You suddenly have room to walk around, and you can stop without fear of being in someone's way. For art, take a look at Sint-Janshospitaal, where you get both art an a look at medieval medicine.

Antwerp has a great zoo. For art there is Ruben's House, the Rockoxhuis Museum, and the Museum Plantin-Moretus. They are all walkable from the central station.

Posted by
16788 posts

If you use Bruges as your home base, it only adds 45 minutes train travel time on that day you go to London. DB train schedules suggest a connection time of 45 minutes at Brussels Midi, most of which needs to be used for Eurostar check-in - you would still need to arrive that early if sleeping in Brussels.

Posted by
2 posts

"My wife and I have done extensive pseudo-scientific research across the gamut of the chocolate-Flemish salient, and have concluded that a place in Gent is head and shoulders (not dandruff) above all the others, "

Nigel, you can't leave us hanging like that! What's the best chocolate you found in Ghent? I'm going there, and I want some! :)

Posted by
23851 posts

Well I still have some research to do - there are father and son and I haven't yet made it to the son's store, although I hear that they are very similar.

Between the Mystic Lamb in the cathedral and the wedding balcony on the town hall, is Sint Baafsplein, 15. At that wonderful address, right on the corner, you can find the small shop of Van Hoorebeke Chocolatier, and the chocolates made by the father, Luc.

Cédric, the son, has his shop nearer to the Marriott and the canal. It is still on my list.

Details on their website - http://chocolatesvanhoorebeke.be/en/