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Two nights in Ghent, Antwerp, Lille, or Leiden?

My family (2 parents and 2 kids, aged 11 and 13) is planning a three week vacation with stops in London, Amsterdam, Cologne, and Brussels. We have two nights to fill between longer stays in London and Amsterdam. We would like a quieter couple of days in a quaint town or city to relax a bit between two big cities. We are thinking of a stop in Lille to also get a visit to France in but also looking at Ghent and Antwerp, or Leiden in the Netherlands. We love to walk and explore new cities with stops for a long lunch or midday drink! We’ll be traveling between stops by train. Any advice is appreciated!

Posted by
1411 posts

What does your full itinerary look like? And how do you plan to get from London to Amsterdam?

Posted by
7550 posts

Month of year? First time to Europe?

I agree that London creates a long day of dreary travel. Are you flying on an open-jaw ticket? How long do you plan to stay in Brussels?

Posted by
7007 posts

Well, Ghent and Leiden are two of my favorite cities in that area, and both would fit your need to relax in a small city. Leiden is a beautiful university town and has lots of interesting museums, sights and canals to walk along. Ghent has a lovely city center with a large public square, and some very interesting historical sites. I don't think you could go wrong with either.

Posted by
7 posts

Sorry, we are going in July!

It’s a first trip to Europe for my husband and kids but not myself. The itinerary is:
5 nights London
2 nights ?
4 nights Amsterdam
3 nights Cologne
3 nights Brussels
Leave late day from London (train from Brussels in the am)

We will be using the eurostar and with the direct London-Amsterdam route off in July figured we may as well just make an additional stop for two nights somewhere!

Any trip advice welcome. Thank you!!

Posted by
1411 posts

“ We will be using the eurostar and with the direct London-Amsterdam route off in July figured we may as well just make an additional stop for two nights somewhere!”

Sadly there has been some misinformation going around recently on this forum about the Eurostar. I have asked the poster who provided the incorrect information to adjust or remove his post, but unfortunately the wrong information is still there.

So, to be clear (and please excuse me for using capital letters to emphasize my point);
The Eurostar trains FROM London TO Amsterdam are NOT affected and will continue to operate DIRECTLY.
The Eurostar trains FROM Amsterdam TO London will indeed require a change of trains and passport control in Brussels in the period between June and December 2024.
The Eurostar trains between Amsterdam and Paris and vice versa, formerly known as Thalys, are not affected at all.

Posted by
1411 posts

“ It’s a first trip to Europe for my husband and kids but not myself. The itinerary is:
5 nights London
2 nights ?
4 nights Amsterdam
3 nights Cologne
3 nights Brussels
Leave late day from London (train from Brussels in the am)”

I would add 1 night to Brussels so you can make day trips to Ghent, Bruges etc
I would also never ever train into London on the same day as you plan to fly out. This is a recipe for disaster. So I would add one night in London at the end. Or even better; fly out from Brussels.

Posted by
7550 posts

I personally don't think that London and Amsterdam pair well, but if you are prepared to spend all that travel time, it's your decision. I do think Amsterdam is a good start on Europe for people who are mistakenly afraid of not speaking a foreign language.

In the U.S., open-jaw air tickets are not more expensive than spending time and money returning to the same city you arrived in. The airline website has a shopping tab with a name like "Multi-City Flights" where you can see and price them. I would add that we once flew from NJ to Cologne (two segments) for the same price as NJ to Frankfurt or Brussels. I mention this case (which is generally true, anwway), because while it's 2-hours, Brussels and Cologne pair very well. (It is virtually impossible to fly back to the U.S. from London after waking up in Brussels and taking a train. This is a high-risk strategy. I once had a Eurostar delayed 8 hours!!!)

We only slept in larger cities on our first five trips to Europe. You mostly have big cities on this list, and Antwerp, Lille, and Leiden are pretty "urban" anyway. That is not a bad thing, since "suburban sprawl" is a "thing" in Europe just like it is in our hemisphere. A busy tourist does not want to have to take a train every single day to do something interesting. You are not going to sleep in a wooden village, because they're all gone.

I happen to be a big fan of Antwerp, because it's so walkable, and because it has such a variety of museums and neighborhoods. However, like Leiden, it does have some ... commonalities ... with Amsterdam. And that includes abandoned bicycles in canals, and homeless people. Just to avoid sugar-coating! I like your itinerary. Brussels is over-rated, and not as nice as Amsterdam or Cologne. I grew up in NYC, so I like big cities. But I really like waking up in Antwerp, and walking a different direction each morning. Note that Cologne is famous for being walkable as well. But you need the U-Bahn for the Botanical Garden or the Ethnographic and Medieval Art museums in Cologne.

I trust you know that you can daytrip to all the cities around Antwerp and Brussels. Lille is farther away, and not a logical part of your itinerary. Ghent is popular on this forum, but while it has a nice "university town" feel, and cost level, it is not big enough to sleep more than one night, and I won't change hotels that often. My vote is probably for Antwerp, and daytrip to Bruges, Ghent, and Brussels by unreserved, five-per-hour local trains. The trains can be crowded. Unless you family wants to see the Ghent Altarpiece, I'd also consider Leuven or Lier as pretty towns. But note that all these "medieval towns" are surrounded by banal, reinforced-concrete, low-rise sprawl. That's the price of postwar prosperity.

Although I don't insist on Antwerp, I would re-order your list like this:
5 nights London
5 nights Antwerp ("Any Belgian Station" Eurostar option.)
3 nights Cologne (look for easy daytrip to Monschau, second choice train to Dusseldorf)
4 nights Amsterdam (like Antwerp, many train daytrips easy and cheap. 5 nights also okay.)
Fly home from Amsterdam

Edit: I suppose you've already thought about this, but you have to be prepared to go to a train station every morning, herding 4 people, and buy 4 tickets at a confusing ticket machine, to do daily daytrips! So a walkable hotel might add value. But Europe tends to have very good public transit.

Posted by
7 posts

Dutch_traveler and Tim, thank you! That is all extremely helpful!!

Unfortunately, where we are in Canada not flying return from London increases the cost by over $1,000 per person. I have tried several open jaw options but flying out of all other cities costs a fortune. I’ll look at heading to London the night before…just didn’t want to miss a night in Brussels!

Posted by
1411 posts

“ I’ll look at heading to London the night before…just didn’t want to miss a night in Brussels!”

Agree, that’s why I suggested to add 1 night to Brussels and add 1 night to London.

Posted by
332 posts

This sounds like a wonderful first family trip. We’ve been traveling to Europe with our now adult daughter for 20 years and our first city ever was London.

I agree that you need one of your two unassigned nights to return to London at least the day before your flight home. That now leaves you with just one extra night. I also, agree with your instinct to add in a smaller town between big cities. My husband and I call that texture. But, with all that it takes to change towns and hotels, especially with kids in tow, I’m not a fan of a one night stop. I’d just add the extra night to any one of the cities already on your itinerary. From a pure which-city-deserves-more-time standpoint, I can’t decide which because I enjoy all of them. With well-planned day trips, they each have potential for as many days as you’ve given them, if not more. From Cologne, I’ll bet that your kids would love the Schwebebahn “Flying Train” in Wuppertal.

That said, from a practicality standpoint, I’d be inclined to add the extra night to London at the end so that your trip doesn’t end with a repositioning one-nighter thud. Or create London bookends: 7 nights total, 4 at the start and 3 at the end, and split your time there more evenly. We’ve done this in Paris when we needed to double back for our return. This works great for a large city. We stayed in two very different parts of town and split our sightseeing agenda to match the two areas for transportation convenience and time efficiency.

London 5 (4 to bookend)
Amsterdam 4
Cologne 3
Brussels (maybe Antwerp instead?) 3
London 2 (3 to bookend)

I like the idea of substituting Antwerp for Brussels. The city is smaller and less grand than Brussels, but has lots to see and do and has convenient transit connections for day trips.