In Belgium, the land where the Smurfs were invented, you might be wondering how long it will take you to get there, to which Papa Smurf would reply “smurf up!” Best known for its beer (some locals drink it as early as 10:00am), waffles, fries, and chocolate (need I say more?) there’s always something delicious to devour. The locals speak not one but three languages (English, French and Dutch) and seem open-minded free spirits at heart. Yet they take their drinking and eating very seriously as well you should on your exploration of these two fair cities.
How to get there: Fly to Brussels and take the train to Sint-Pieters Station (2 km from the city center) in Ghent. Connecting trains depart three times an hour and take half an hour. Children under 12 travel for free on trains.
When to go: July is likely the best time to make this trip as it’s festival time and that means warm weather and plenty of opportunities for live music, street food, and children’s activities.
What to bring: Make sure you have traveler’s checks, children’s Tylenol, Airborne or Emergency for the plane, umbrella and rain gear (it can be supremely wet), your camera, warm clothing for cool weather, and comfortable walking shoes.
Where to stay: In Ghent, we recommend Novotel in the city center (ask for the suite with the balcony) or Marriott Hotel overlooking the Korenlei on the banks of the River Lys canal.
Sightseeing: Gravensteen, Castle of the Counts of Flanders, (rebuilt in 1180) boasts towers, turrets, and an incredible museum of crossbows, swords, armor, and chain mail on display that will make every would-be knight giddy imagining jousting at court. The torture chamber with an original guillotine, thumbscrews, and rack was a bit too gory for us. However, walking the ramparts, overlooking the city from its battlements high up on the keep, and looking down into the dungeon brought this castle back to life.
Not bats in the belfry here, but Belfort might inspire your children to act like Quasimodo and Esmeralda. With impressive views of the city from the observation level, a clock museum, the tower’s former dragons, and the Roeland bell which used to ring out to warn of an enemy invasion, you’ll be impressed. (Closed around lunch time.)
Take a canal tour, but bring an umbrella in case of rain. The city of Ghent is best viewed from the canals where you can see the original medieval architecture in all its glory. Your guide can fill you in on the city’s history while you ogle the many cathedrals. Canal boat rides leave from Graslei or Korenlei, close to Gravensteen, and last about forty minutes.
Sint-Baafskathedral’s greatest treasure is Van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, an altarpiece that was stolen by Napoleon and seized by the Nazis. It’s a miracle it’s survived at all. Open daily from 8:30am-5:00pm, but viewing hours for Adoration of the Mystic are limited to 10:30am-4:00pm Monday-Saturday and 1:00pm-4:00pm on Sunday, admission €3.
Don’t miss the fantastic children’s natural history museums and elegant Design Museum, a modern building cleverly hidden behind an 18th century façade, with workshops for children. Open daily 10:00am-6:00pm except Monday.
*Children under 6 have free entry to most museums, and they can travel for free on buses, trams, and trains.
Shopping: Zoot Costumiers offers vintage-inspired retro fashions from gingham dresses, Betty Boop 40’s style bikinis, and beautiful jewelry in sweet designs. Zoot Shoes are made for walking in truly unusual styles that would shock any cobbler like the winged blue high heels with buckles
For Kids: Jacob (Bij Sint-Jacobs 7 in the city center) is the place to have a wild seventies and eighties fashion show with your kids. Get down with their funky fashions and remember your clothes from yesteryear. All of the clothing is vintage yet in perfect condition. Zsa-Zsa Petit has a treasure trove of alluring and fun fairytale-themed knick-knacks like Little Red Riding Hood aprons. Also check out Zsa Zsa Rouge for adults.
Take your wild things to Monsters with Attitude for cool T-shirts and toys and Louise & Madeleine for your more dainty handmade gifts.
Home Décor: Huiszwaluw is a small narrow shop packed from floor to the ceiling with Orla Kiely cups, pillows, dolls, cutlery, vases, organizational items, baskets, jewelry, rugs, and adorable children’s items in the back.
Dining: Simon Says you’ll love this hipster hang-out serving delicious prosciutto and cheese croques with chutney and salad or Panini with feta, pesto and chorizo, or quiches and salads. This cozy small café is the perfect retreat on a rainy day. Try a pot of Mariage Freres tea or hot chocolate with carrot cake.
Barista II is a charming lunch spot with vintage wallpaper and Swedish blond wooden tables throughout. It has a sophisticated yet communal spirit plus delicious soups (try the tomato) fresh-baked bread with sunflower seeds, and the most scrumptious quiche with baked pears and brie or goat cheese. With its hearty fare and ample selection of organic sodas, you get the feeling that Heidi Swanson would dine here.
Le Pain Perdu is a lovely place to have breakfast in their backroom dining area that overlooks a backyard garden. Try bordje kaas (bread) with homemade strawberry preserves and eitje (a soft-boiled egg) with tea or coffee served with a small bar of fair trade chocolate. Bonus points for the wide selection of juices: apple-cherry, apple-mango, and apple-pineapple! Walpoortstraat 9, 9000 Gent, 09/224.18.25
Voorhuit is a stunning art deco bar and café that’s part of a cool venue where bands play. This is the perfect spot to people watch and have an afternoon snack. If you get a sitter, try Pink Flamingo’s a kitschy tiki bar on Onderstraat.
Don’t miss Turkish pizza in Patershol! Try any of the many Turkish pizza restaurants along Sleepstraat for a wide selection of pizza choices (sausage and egg is highly recommended). You won’t be disappointed.
Huize Colette makes four kinds of hot chocolate: white, milk, medium dark, and very dark. Within seconds of drinking the medium dark hot cocoa, you’ll feel sated in a cosmic way. Far out. For children, try the hot cocoa with Malteasers and pick up a book in English while you’re there. The upstairs is also fun to explore. (Belfortstraat 6 in Gent)
For cocoa (or beer) by candlelight, try Het Spijker. Your kids will love walking down the old steps to enter this cavernous bar and restaurant. Pure delight! (Pensmarkt 3)
Don’t miss: Graffiti alley. You may even see some n’er-do-well hooligans adding their own tags.
Bruges may be known as one of the most romantic cities in the world, but it is also an idyllic spot to vacation with your family in tow. The quiet streets (apart from whizzing bicyclists and horse-drawn carriage rides) are blissfully traffic-free which makes for a fun and safe way to travel back in time over picturesque canals within the old city walls.
How to get there: From Brussels airport to any of the main train stations in Brussels (Nord, Centrale and Midi) all of them have connecting train services to Bruges.
Sightseeing: Lined by medieval gabled houses, the 13th-century Markt square is a carnival playland perfect for trying a warm waffle and letting your kids take a bumper car ride or spin on the merry-go-round. If you’re feeling even more adventurous, you might take a horse-drawn carriage ride. Market days are every Wednesday.
Who could ever forget the Belfort after seeing the film In Bruges? This stunning belfry tower looms over the market square. You have to climb 366 steps to the top, but it’s worth the view. Follow Blind Donkey Alley through its narrow, arched passageway from the Burg to 19th century Vismarkt.
Take a lovely canal boat ride from Dijver, Wollestraat, Rozenhoedkaai, Vismarkt, or Katelijnestraat. Tours are every day from 10am- 6 pm (March – November) € 6,50 Children (4-11 years old) € 3and free for children under four.
You’ll have to employ your softest whisper voices if you enter the Beguinage, a tranquil garden abloom with daffodils and surrounded by white-washed houses. It’s worth a tiptoe among the flowers.
Dining: For authentic French and Belgian dishes, try The Huidevettershuis with views of the canal. This former Tanners’ Guild House has cozy and warm dining rooms serving Flemish specialties like waterzooï (with chicken).
Facing the old Fish Market in the town center, Visscherie, is a seafood lover’s paradise with lobster stew and channel sole. Restaurant Pro Deo offers French and Belgian cuisine in a warm café. Enjoy a beer while the kids dig into Spaghetti Bolognese.
There are a number of cafes along the market center perfect for al fresco dining on mussels and fries while people-watching. Your kids can play nearby as well.
Shopping: Bruges is a tourist haven with multiple boutiques and specialty stores. Although you’ll probably spend the majority of your time seeing the sights, here are a few highlights.
The hip windows at Callebert stun passer-byers as they flock to this cool design store. The children’s department includes stylish mobiles, art, and inventive toys and furniture. Your kids will dance like Fred & Ginger at this fashionable clothing shop. Zara Kids and Petit Bateau are also worth dropping in for sale items or accessories.
Don’t forget: You’ll enjoy these beautiful medieval cities the most if you allow yourself to ramble and get lost as you explore and make new discoveries.
–Nicki Richesin (this super star travel mama took the photos, too!)
Editor’s Note: While we know we haven’t made it a habit to publish stories on international travel, we couldn’t help but love Nicki’s take on travelling to Belgium with her daughter. Let us know in the comment section below what other international destinations you’d like Red Tricycle to write about.