Izzy Bunting travels by train to Belgium to explore two of the country's most fascinating cities
In the face of climate change, travelling sustainably is more important than ever. Recent studies have shown that a train trip uses up to 70% less energy, and emits 85% less pollution, than a flight of the same distance.
So the environmental benefits of choosing trains over planes is obvious. But surprisingly, once you've factored in checking in, and time wasted waiting at the airport, trains can also take you to your destination faster than a flight would.
And taking the train often gets you straight into the heart of the city – with no need for lengthy and expensive transfers from outlying airports.
For people living in the UK, it's easier than ever to avoid flying, with Europe's extensive rail system creating a gateway to iconic cities across the continent. And if you really want to explore Europe, an Interrail pass offers an all-in-one ticket that allows you to travel to over thirty countries.
Nearby cities like Belgium's capital, Brussels, are ideal to visit by train. After a quick two-hour journey from London on the Eurostar, you can find yourself in a completely new country and culture.
As well as being easily accessible, Brussels is also an excellent choice for travelers on a budget. When I visited the city during my Interrail trip in the autumn, I discovered that it's brimming with budget-friendly attractions, from the gilded Grand Place (the city's opulent central square) to the nearby Manneken-Pis (directly translated: 'little pee man') – the unusual but iconic fountain statue that has been an emblem of the city for centuries. It's also worth checking out one of the many vintage clothing shops scattered across the centre, the bustling covered street of the Royal Gallery of St Hubert, and trying delicious vegan waffles at Veganwaf' near Grand Place.
One of the more surprising sights was the green plumage of distinctly tropical-looking birds fluttering through trees in the city's parks. I later found out that Brussels has an uncontrollable parakeet infestation. In 1974, the owner of a local zoo released 50 birds into the wild as “the city needed more colour”. Now there are more than 8000 parakeets in Brussels' green spaces.
Of course, it was essential to sample some of Belgium's famous cuisine, so I started off my explorations with the Belgian Brewers Museum, which offers a free beer or lager at the end of your visit, and the Choco Story Museum. The latter was particularly fantastic – an audio guide and clever exhibitions take you through the story of chocolate, across continents and centuries.
Exhibits at Chocco Story Museum
Near the Natural Sciences Museum, I was interested to discover that a meadow has been sown with native varieties of plants – with the aim to attract more insect species and increase biodiversity. There has also been a reintroduction scheme – native two-spotted ladybirds (Adalia bipunctata) have been introduced to the meadow. All this is sponsored by the museum.
But the Brussels Card isn't restricted to the city centre – a number of attractions included in the card are found further out, such as Meise Plantentuin. This botanic garden is situated in the town of Meise, a 30-minute bus ride away.
During my visit in October, the garden was full of spectacular autumnal colours. I also discovered plenty of impressive Halloween decorations – from pumpkins scattered everywhere to spooky figures half-hidden in groves of trees.
Other great museums were the atmospheric Museum of Fashion and Lace, the Natural Sciences Museum (containing fascinating exhibitions on dinosaurs and evolution), and the Museum of the City of Brussels. This museum, located in one of the ornate buildings lining the Grand Place, is home to the original Mannekin-Pis statue, dating to the early 17th century. Unknown to many tourists, the sculpture that is currently on the fountain is actually a replica from 1965.
Brussels is also home to a wealth of cultural experiences, with plenty of museums on subjects from everything from brewing to Belgian chocolate, industry to art, and fashion to freemasonry.
An excellent way to get the most out of the city is with a Brussels Card, which gives free entry to 41 of the city's museums.
I opted for a 72-hour card, but 24- and 48-hour options are also available.
Meise Plantentuin is home to WoodLab – a museum dedicated to wood and trees. The garden is also working with local primary schools to build 'luxury hotels' for bees and other insects.
A day trip to Meise Plantentuin was a welcome break from the city. Situated in the grounds of Bouchout Castle, the gardens consist of almost 100 hectares filled with over 18,000 species of plants. It was easy to spend an entire day here, exploring the giant greenhouses and the extensive parkland.
Once your Brussels' card has expired, it's easy to visit other nearby cities like Ghent, Antwerp or Bruges. You can visit these cities on a day trip – but spending a night or two is recommended, as it gives you plenty of time to explore.
I spent two nights in the beautiful city of Bruges, a truly atmospheric place to visit in autumn.
I spent some time wandering along the canals that give the city it's nickname of 'Venice of the North', before soaking up the ambiance of Markt – this historic square, with it's distinctive gingerbread-house buildings, was historically used for medieval festivals, tournaments and executions. Nearby, the Old Chocolate House is home to a chocolate shop and cosy tearoom, where I tried what was quite possibly the best hot chocolate in the world.
Another lesser-known feature of the city is the windmills that run along the east side of the city centre. In the 16th century, Bruges was once home to 23 windmills, but now only four remain. I walked from Koeleweimill, the most northerly mill, to Sint-Janshuismill, the oldest of the four – it was built in 1770. The latter is the only mill standing in its original position, and still grinds flour today.
I finished off my Bruges adventure with a Belgian fruit beer at Le Trappiste, an 800-year-old cellar that has been converted into a bar. With its candlelit tables and arched stone ceilings, it was almost as if I'd stepped back into the Middle Ages – a memorable way to spend the last night of my trip before my train journey back to the UK.
Way to go
Brussels is just over two hours by train from London St Pancras. Visit Eurostar for more information and to book tickets.
Interrail offers a range of fantastic value, Europe-wide rail passes for all ages, with discounts for families, under-26-year-olds and seniors (60+ years). I travelled to Brussels (via France and Luxembourg) as part of the DiscoverEU scheme, which awards free passes to 15,000 18-year-old European citizens each year. My pass gave me seven days of travel within a one-month period. See www.europa.eu/youth/discovereu_en.
The Brussels Card costs from 27.00 € and offers free admission to more than 40 museums and attractions across the city and beyond. For more information, travel inspiration, and to buy a Brussels Card, see the Visit Brussels website.
Where to stay
There's a huge range of accommodation in Brussels to suit all budgets, from hostels to luxury hotels.
In Bruges, I stayed at the excellent, eco-friendly Snuffel Hostel. With a choice of private rooms and dorm-beds, it's good value and has a great location right in the city centre.
Izzy Bunting is a writer, photographer and climate activist who is passionate about travel, wildlife, environmental issues and history. She regularly contributes to Reflections – a Derbyshire lifestyle magazine – and provides many of the photographs for the Green Adventures website. Her wildlife photographs have twice been shortlisted for the Bristish Wildlife Photography Awards. Follow Izzy on Twitter and Instagram.
Green Adventures January 2020