Solo travel, especially solo female travel has been a growing trend over the past few years. It became a goal of mine to accomplish during this year abroad, just to see if I could figure out my way around in another country by myself. I ended up going on my first solo trip a couple of weekends ago to Brussels, Belgium aka Europe's Capital.
I was able to find really inexpensive flight tickets, again through Skyscanner and again with Ryanair, for a weekend in January. For £19.99, I left Manchester International at 7:50 am on Saturday morning, reaching Brussels Charleroi at 10:15 am. My return flight from Brussels Charleroi left at 8:30 pm on Sunday night, reaching Manchester International at around 11 pm. This gave me approximately 36 hours to enjoy in the city.
Apart from the cheap tickets, I choose Brussels because it frequently appeared in lists for the top safe destinations for female travelers, and it's a smallish city where almost everyone speaks English. While many did speak to me first in French, my confused expression told them that I had no idea what they were saying, and they were more than happy to help me in the language I was most comfortable in. The official languages, however, are French, Dutch or Flemmish, and German. Most if not all signs also appear in at least two of the languages.
In my research before going however, I realized quickly that in comparison to many other cities I've been to, there wasn't really anything specific in Brussels that I needed to cross off my bucket list, so I ended up spending most of my time wandering around Grand Place and the surrounding streets, eating waffles and chocolates.
I reached the city around noon on Saturday - budget airlines typically fly into Brussels Charleroi, which is actually far from the city center. The best way to get there is with an hour-long airport shuttle bus that unfortunately costed me €34 roundtrip, almost twice as much as my return flight tickets. There is one bus that runs every half hour, and drops you off at Brussel's Gare de Midi train station. From there, I took a €2.20 train to Brussel's Gare de Central station and walked about ten minutes to my hostel, Jacques Brel Youth Hostel. (I ended up walking A LOT the entire weekend as places were quite spread out and to save some money - Brussels is not cheap.)
I first set out to Grand Place, a UNESCO heritage site and the central square of the city. There are tons of cafes, restaurants, bars, and shops on the surrounding streets, as well as a few attractions and museums. I especially loved the way everything looked though - cobblestones everywhere (be sensible with your shoes) and the architecture was incredibly beautiful. Easy to see why it's considered one of the most beautiful places in the world.
To get the most of your time in Brussels, definitely take a free walking tour. There's a group with orange umbrellas that stand in the central square, with a few representatives going out to the hostels to pick up anyone who is interested. The tours are about 1-2 hours and cover various parts of the city - mine was focused on the center. I learned so much about the history of Brussels, as well as tips about where to go for the best waffles, beer, chocolates and frites.
The best part of the tour, I thought, was learning about Manneken Pis, an emblem of the city. It is a small statue of a little boy taking a wee at the intersection of two streets. There are many stories about the statue and why its so beloved by Belgians. You can learn more about them in the Musee de la Ville de Bruxelles, which houses the original Manneken Pis and many variations of him in costume. You can also find Jeanneke Pis, his sister, near Delirium and Het Zinneke, the dog, near a street marker.
As you walk through the streets, waffles, chocolates and frites are always in your view. As as vegetarian, I stuck to waffles and chocolates (Belgian frites are famously cooked twice in animal fat, and as hard as I searched there was no vegetarian frites in Brussels). The waffles, both Belgian and Liege, were delicious though. Belgian waffles are typically lighter and crispier whereas Liege waffles are more doughy and on the sweeter side. Go to Maison Dandoy for its large selection of both types. Also be sure to try savory waffles at Peck47.
For chocolate, you really can't go wrong. There are a number of chocolatiers with boutiques spread across the city. My personal favorite was Neuhaus, which actually started in Brussels. Other world-known Belgian chocolate-makers include Godiva, Pierre Marcolini, Galler and Mary. Many of their boutiques are located in and around Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. It's actually the location of the original Neuhaus, which started as an apothecary, but is now more famously known as the creator of the praline.
Towards the end of my weekend, I was able to sign up for a chocolate making course at Neuhaus. While it was pricey at €35, it was a great way to make new friends, especially when traveling solo, and learn about world-famous Belgian chocolate. I also got to take home all the chocolate I made, and it was quite a bit, so I'd say the class was worth it, making this solo adventure more special.
After lunch at Ballekes for vegetarian Belgian "meatballs" (if you're looking for a different type of Belgian food, this was a great place for lunch), I headed back towards the airport. While I was exhausted from all the walking on cobblestones, I do wish I had a bit more time and better weather conditions to visit the Atomium, which is about 45 minutes away from Grand Place. I'll have to save that for my next Belgium trip.