Vacation Rental Reviews: Homeaway – Brugge, Belgium

Thrifty Travel Mama - My Homeaway Experience, BruggeFor families wanting a vacation rental for their next getaway, VRBO is a good resource, but Homeaway is much, much better!  Today’s review is of our Homeaway experience in Brugge, Belgium.

Though Homeaway doesn’t have as many search options as Airbnb, I am still usually able to narrow down my search enough to find what I’m looking for.  This is the main advantage that Homeaway has over its sister site VRBO – and the prices are usually better on the former.

As I mentioned in my comparison of the big three vacation rental websites, I find the listings on Homeaway to be a tad more expensive than Airbnb.  This is probably due to the difference in structure between the two sites – Airbnb charges a service fee for completed bookings, but simply listing your place is free.

Homeaway often has minimum stay requirements, but if you’re close enough to the booking date, you may be able to request an exception.  The rental agreement for teh apartment in Brugge insisted all visitors must stay at least three nights.  We only needed two, and since the reservation was only a few weeks away, the owners acquiesced.

As always, I sent multiple emails to the owners, inquiring about all sorts of random details.  Is there an elevator in the building?  Is parking free?  Plentiful?  How long is the walk to the center of the city?  I received prompt replies, and the answers turned out to be accurate.  The owners were courteous and personable; the whole situation felt safe and comfortable.

My experience with Homeaway was so positive that I used the website to book our two-week Tuscany vacation in August.  If each reservation is as smooth as our Brugge experience, Homeaway will continue to be my primary vacation rental website.

For those interested in a review of Brugge Homeaway property #854271 here goes!

Tom and An rent a neat and clean two bedroom apartment in Brugge, twenty minutes by foot from the city center.  An welcomed us with a bottle of wine and personally showed us how to work everything in the apartment.

Loads of cable channels - many in English!

Loads of cable channels – many in English!

Light pours into the apartment, and the open plan of the living area makes the space seem large and bright.  Though it’s obvious that the building is old, the rooms have been thoughtfully renovated.

Second bedroom with double bed.

Second bedroom with double bed.

The view from the flat is nothing to write home about which is a pity since Brugge is such a beautiful city.  The front of the apartment looks onto the street; the back balconies face a sea of patchwork rooftops.  But, no matter, this apartment is a fabulous budget choice.

Street view.

Street view.

We walked in to Brugge each day; we didn’t need to take a bus or car.  At the property, on-street parking is free and plentiful. We experienced no street noise at any time of day or night.

Back balcony view.

Back balcony view.

Want to buy groceries and cook a meal at home instead of paying outrageous Brugge restaurant prices?  A gigantic Carrefour is located just a few blocks away.  The kitchen boasts a toaster and paper towels (not standard for most vacation rentals), but lacks dish soap.

Bathroom with tub and rain shower, a nice surprise.

Bathroom with tub and rain shower, a nice surprise.

A high chair and baby travel cot (pack & play) are available.  An has also collected various children’s games, puzzles, and books that other renters have left behind.  What a nice surprise to find new toys to hold the boys’ interest!

Kitchen and dining area with high, wobbly chairs.

Kitchen and dining area with high, wobbly chairs.

If forced to find a fault with this property, I’d mention that the table is a high top (not great for little kids), and the dining chairs are quite wobbly (dangerous for young ones who want to do everything themselves!).

Would I stay here again?  Most likely, unless of course I could find something comparable in price and amenities located just a tad closer to the center.  To sum it up – a fabulous find in a wonderful city!Signature-Marigold

Advertisements

Nerdy Travel Dad: The Atomium, Brussels

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - The AtomiumIn honor of Father’s Day this past weekend, Doc Sci has whipped up another post for nerdy and not-so-nerdy travelers to Brussels.  Whether you dig atoms and molecules or not, you’ll want to check out his review.

On our recent trip to Belgium with the boys, the Atomium was the one place I just HAD to see.  This structure is truly a wonder to observe.  The design is meant to be a full scale model of an iron crystal unit cell only way, WAY bigger… 165 billion times bigger.

For those of you not here for the brainiac review, I’ll start with a few practicalities..

  • Admission for children under 6 is free; adults are 11 euro each.  Ogling the structure is free.
  • Wait times can be horrific because the Atomium is crawling with school children.  Check your intended visit time with the chart here.
  • Bathrooms are crowded, grimy, and not free (30 cents).  No changing tables in sight.
  • Use a backpack carrier for babies.  Strollers are not allowed inside.  Though there is an elevator to initially get to the top, visitors must use stairs to travel between spheres.
  • Parking is plentiful in front of the Atomium (metered) as well as in the Miniature Europe car park (flat fee) next door.
  • For those coming by public transport, the metro stop Heysel / Heizel is located a short walk from the entrance.
  • The park surrounding the Atomium is an excellent spot for a picnic or simply letting the little ones roam around.
  • Should you need to grab a bite to eat, a cafe is located near the entrance.  A fancy schmancy restaurant with a view is located on level 8.

Next, a disclosure.  We (okay, my wife) read loads of reviews that mostly said the same thing.  The tour of the Atomium is expensive and overrated.  The exhibitions are rather boring, and the big highlight is being able to view Brussels from above.  Unfortunately, the Atomium is located so far from the Brussels city center that it’s impossible to see anything of note even on a clear day.  So, since we are a thrifty bunch of travelers, we opted out of the tour.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - The AtomiumA much cooler option (though unfortunately only available for school children that live in the area) is to spend the night in the Atomium.  It’s rather obvious from the special offerings to the admission priority that school children are the Atomium’s bread and butter.  If you do decide to pay to go inside, consider yourself warned.

But, all that being said, I still consider it worth any family’s time to take a ride out to see the Atomium.  It’s just awesome to stand there and be dwarfed by science. 

Now on to the cheat sheet bits.  The main things to remember are:

  1. 165 Billion
  2. Elementary iron crystal
  3. Body Centered Cubic

165 billion is the amount of magnification.  This makes for interesting conversations with little ones who can’t quite count past 20.  The iron crystal bit just lets us know what type of unit cell it will be.  And from looking at the model, we can tell that it is a body centered cubic structure.

From there we can go on to tell our prospective (captive!) learners that each lattice point (ball) represents an atom.  At this point, your offspring with either stare at you blankly (8 and under), or whine about what a nerd you are (13 and older).  If you dare, continue to elaborate on how densely packed the atoms are and how that creates certain scenarios and so on.

But, a better idea is to have your children pick a spot with a good view of the Atomium.  Provide paper and colored pencils.  Have them sketch the structure (it’s really just circles and straight lines).  Later on, compare their drawings to other pictures/diagrams of actual atoms.  Help older children correctly label their interpretation of the structure.

For little ones, I honestly couldn’t figure out a way to dumb this down to 5, 3, and 0 yr old levels.  Telling my preschool boys that the huge shiny thing in front of them is actually a model of an iron crystal, (what’s iron? what’s a crystal?) blown up a billion times (is that more than 100?) makes no sense.  Thrifty Travel Mama | Nerdy Travel Dad - The Atomium

To T-Rex, I simply said, “Wow, look at that big thing.” (Brilliant, I know.  They don’t give PhD’s away to just anybody.)

He replied, “Daddy, it’s GINORMOUS.  Can we go inside?”

Instead of saying no, I opted for, “Maybe, but do you want to know something amazing instead?”

“Uh huh.”

“This thing is a HUGE model representing something super tiny.  So tiny, in fact, that it could be inside you.  So tiny that you couldn’t see it just by looking at it with your eyes.”

“Whoa.”

The beginning of science career?  Most likely not.  But I’ll settle for a love of learning and an appetite for exploration.  So, despite our reluctance to spend 22 euros for what is most likely a lame tour, I definitely think the Atomium is worth a gander if for no other reason than to be fodder for good discussion.

Headed to Brussels?  Check out our Snapshot of Brussels with Kids.

More Nerdy Travel Dad: The Strandbeests, The Zaanse Schans, and Essen Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex.

Budget Restaurants in Brugge

As I mentioned in my Brugge, Belgium – With Kids! post, eating out here will bust your budget.  In fact, restaurant meals in BeNeLux cost a lot more than we are used to paying here in Germany.

I scoured Pinterest, Yelp, TripAdvisor, and other corners of the web in hopes of compiling a respectable list of lunch and dinner options.  Unfortunately, the best research doesn’t always translate into a good dining experience.

I personally have the worst luck when it comes to choosing a restaurant which is why I prefer to stick to simple, inexpensive food, or make something from the local grocery store in our vacation rental.  I’ll be sharing some of my travel dinner recipes soon, but for now – budget restaurants in Brugge.

Manna & Co.

Manna & Co.

Manna & Co.  This restaurant was described as being a refreshing place to grab a quick and light lunch.  After all the fries and waffles we’d been eating, I really looked forward to a salad chock full of fresh vegetables.  Regrettably, my salad was served with a side of attitude.

The woman in charge clearly communicated her disdain for the little mouths in our party.  Portions were subjective and tangibly stingy, especially for the make-your-own salad.  When we drank some tea out of our thermos, she scolded us and insisted it was “not possible” for us to partake of our own beverage inside.  This only goes to show that just because a restaurant has high chairs, it doesn’t mean it’s kid-friendly!

Regardless of our poor experience, Manna & Co was obviously a local favorite.  Police officers came in for “the usual” and seating became scarce once the clock struck 12.  Katelijnestraat 46

Quick

Quick

Quick.  Our family has a somewhat twisted tradition of trying the McDonalds ripoffs in every country (Lotteria in South Korea, for instance).  Quick is the Flemish imitation.  Burgers and salads are acceptable; fries are atrocious by Belgian standards.  Kids meals (Magic Box) even come with a strawberry yogurt for dessert.  Come for the cheap food, stay for the market square view.  Markt 14

Chez Vincent

Chez Vincent

Chez Vincent.  Located on the east side of St. Salvator cathedral, Chez Vincent is a great place to grab a cone full of Belgian frites and some grilled snacks (we tried the shrimp on a stick).  Not as good as Fritland, but still delicious and inexpensive.  Sint-Salvatorskerkhof 1

Brasserie Medard.  So close to the Markt, you won’t believe your good fortune when the heaping plates of 4 euro spaghetti Bolognese arrive.
Of all the restaurants on the list, I looked forward to Brasserie Medard the most.  As my awful luck would have it, the restaurant staff didn’t feel like working the evening of our visit.  No reason, just a “kitchen temporarily closed” sign on the door.  Two female students who just happened to speak Dutch and also have their eyes fixed on the spaghetti prize confirmed what we suspected.  The telly was more interesting than the customers.  Sint-Amandsstraat 18
Republiek.  Billed as a funky student hangout, I found the prices a little bit above my post-doc budget.  Not the most kid-friendly, but an extensive menu and generous opening hours make up for it.  Sint-Jakobsstraat 36

Grand Cafe de Passage.  A little bit off the beaten path, this restaurant serves mains costing no more than 10 euro.  Dweersstraat 26

De Halve Maan Brewery

De Halve Maan Brewery

De Halve Maan Brewery.  Take a tour of the brewery (7 euros including a beer), or stop in for a beer and a snack in the tavern.  Walplein 26

Ribs 'n Beer

Ribs ‘n Beer

Ribs ‘n Beer.  At 18 euros just for the ribs, the only redeeming factor is these bones are all you can eat.  Dinner only.  Ezelstraat 50

If you know me, you’re wondering what in the heck I’m doing with a list that doesn’t include one single Mexican option.  Sorry – I couldn’t find ANY!  But, no worries, we still stuffed our faces with beans & rice and chips & salsa back at the holiday home.  For an excellent Amsterdam option, check out my Los Pilones post here.

Any Brugge budget restaurants I missed?  Leave a comment or review below.

Want to know where the best fries in Belgium are?  Check out my snapshots of Brussels and Antwerpen, and then decide for yourself!Signature-Marigold

Exploring Brugge by Boat

Thrifty Travel Mama - Canal Boat Tour, BruggeEverywhere I looked, the guides all insisted the same thing – explore Brugge by boat!  Or by horse drawn carriage.  Pick your pleasure, but either way a tour of the city must be taken.

I don’t normally spring for expensive tours in new cities.  I prefer walking, taking public transport, wandering about on my own and at our family’s pace.  But, I couldn’t get away from this advice no matter where I turned.  And, let’s face it.  Little boys love boats and water.

My boys also love horses, but we could only afford one splurge and the budget choice (though not exactly cheap) ended up the winner.  Plus, I can walk where the horses trot, but I can’t swim where the boats glide.

One of the many Brugge boat tour operators.

One of the many Brugge boat tour operators.

I couldn’t find any concrete information (as in a credible website, exact address, phone number, GPS coordinates) as to where exactly I should find said boat tours.  The only clue?  Head down the Wollestraat, and keep your eyes peeled for the skipper.

Our captain/guide - and a view of the Belfort!

Our captain/guide – and a view of the Belfort!

Well, whaddya know, those imperfect directions sufficed.  Several boat tour companies have set up shop in this small area.  We picked the only one open at the time we visited, plunked down some cash (€ 6,50 adults / children 4-11  € 3 / free for children under four), and climbed aboard.

Behind this house is the Lake of Love.

Behind this house is the Lake of Love.

Beautiful Brugge.

Beautiful Brugge.

Boats are small, so little ones should be closely supervised to avoid swimming with the sharks (just kidding, no fin friends here).  The captain offers gossipy and historical tidbits about the charming houses and occupants lined up along the water.  Not too dense, not too dull.  Our guide spoke English, but other languages were available.

Brugge through young eyes.

My boys couldn’t get enough of the giant swans.

Careful you don't take the wrong exit in this building!

Careful you don’t take the wrong exit in this house!

The whole shebang lasted about 35 minutes, just enough time to absorb a few facts but not long enough to drive little ones over the edge.  Tips will be solicited at the end of the ride, so keep your euro coins handy.

Fish eye view.

Fish eye view.

Speaking of tips, here are a few weather-related ones… Tours do not run when the canals are frozen.  Duh.  However, just a little ice doesn’t scare these fellas; our boat crunched its way through Brugge during our visit at the end of March.  Also, no tourists, no tour.  The captain waits until the boat reaches capacity before sailing off.  If you’re the first to arrive, you may find yourself shivering under the open skies waiting for the rest of the frozen folks to show up.

The Church of our Lady - constructed entirely of bricks.

The Church of our Lady – constructed entirely of bricks.

Brugge is full of canals, and known as one of the European “Venice of the North” cities, so no wonder all the experts insisted on seeing it the way residents have for centuries.  Our whole family enjoyed taking in the unique scenery that a boat tour affords, soaking in the atmosphere of this beautiful old city.

Fantastic!

Fantastic!

Would you rather experience Brugge by boat or horse drawn carriage?  If you’ve had the privilege of either one, share your experience in the comments below. Signature-MarigoldLooking for more about Brugge?  Check out the best things to do in Brugge with kids, and tips on eating out in the old city.

Climbing the Belfort Tower in Brugge with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama - Belfort Tower, BruggeNo one likes working out for nothing.  Whether it be to lose weight, get in shape, stay healthy, or eat that extra scoop of ice cream, we all have our motivation to get moving.  Other than the occasional (ahem) bar of Belgian dark chocolate, I’m easily persuaded to work hard for an amazing view.

If that rings a bell with you, then don’t miss a visit to the Belfort (belfry) in Brugge (Markt 7).

Thrifty Travel Mama - Belfort Tower, BruggeThree hundred and sixty six steps to the top – keep the kids’ complaints at bay by making a counting game out of it.  Can the little ones really make it all the way?  Absolutely, but probably not without your help.  Most kids five and under will need to hold a hand going up and down.  Bring a backpack carrier for the babies – no prams, no elevators!

T-Rex beginning the climb.  Check out the very sophisticated rope railing.

T-Rex beginning the climb. Check out the very sophisticated rope railing.

Claustrophobics, be forewarned.  The staircase becomes more and more cozy the higher one climbs.  Add in the two-way visitor traffic, and tower starts to get cramped and personal.

For those needing a break from the stair master, several landings provide a respite.  But, don’t give up – the panorama of Brugge awaits!

Doc Sci and the boys on one of the landings.

Doc Sci and the boys on one of the landings.

A few notes on reaching the top (because you can! you will!)… the wind is particularly vicious, so don’t toss your jacket out halfway through the climb because you’ve worked up a sweat.  My boys could not see over the walls, so the reward of the view was lost on them.  They amused themselves looking at the bells which lasted all of about three minutes.

View

View of The Church of Our Lady (left) and St. Salvator’s Cathedral (right).

Since the Belfort only allows 70 people in the tower at one time, I highly recommend arriving before opening time to be one of the first visitors of the day.  Otherwise, it’s anyone’s guess how long the wait could be.  And, trust me, you do not want to be waiting in a gigantic line here for an indeterminable amount of time…

The bells!

The bells!

Admission is 8 euros for adults, and both of my boys were free.  Toilets are 50 cents per person, per visit.  If you need to make a pit stop in the center of Brugge, this is one of the cleanest places to go.

I loved the view from the Belfort, and you can’t catch a glimpse of Brugge from above anywhere else in the city.  Unfortunately, I don’t think I would climb it again, if for no other reason than I just found it it leans about three feet to the east – Yikes!

Are you – or have you been – brave enough to climb the leaning Belfort tower?

Going to Brugge?  Check out the best things to do in Brugge with kids, and my guide to supermarket souvenirs in Belgium.Signature-Marigold

Brugge, Belgium – With Kids!

Thrifty Travel Mama - Brugge, Belgium, with KidsMy apologies for just now posting about THE MOST AWESOME PLACE IN EUROPE!  Okay, yes, Europe is filled with amazing spaces, but Brugge, Belgium, completely impressed me and made me want to never leave.  We only forced ourselves to get in the car and zoom away because, well, hey I have a hard enough time with German.  No way I could be officially tri-lingual like the Flemish!

Seriously, Brugge is still (mostly) unspoiled and positively gorgeous.  It’s quaint, walkable, unassuming, and nearly perfect… though eating out will bust your budget.

Here are the best things we did with the kiddos…

Soaking in the beauty of Brugge.  As an art history lover, I relish visiting cities with unique architecture and all-around beauty.  Brugge really hit the spot.  I’ll inundate you with magnificent views in a subsequent post.

Brugge - this place is so beautiful even the trash is attractive!

Brugge – this place is so beautiful even the trash is attractive!

Climbing the Belfort Tower.  For a total recap and what to know when visiting the Belfort with kids, click here.

Sneak peak at the Belfort view.

Sneak peak at the Belfort view.

Canal Boat Tour.  Again, this was so picturesque, I think it deserves its own space.  Details coming soon!

Brugge by boat.

Brugge by boat.

Begijnhof.  I can’t believe I’m recommending visiting a convent with kids (and I have all boys to boot), but this little enclave is such a sight to behold especially in spring. Admission to the hof is free, and the area is small enough that you can get an eyeful of architecture before the “quiet game” gets old.  Begijnhof 30

Bejinhof - I can't say I have ever had a convent on my top 10 list.

Bejinhof – I can’t say I have ever had a convent on my top 10 list, but whoa.

Chocolate Shops.  All of Belgium is teeming with truffles.  If you want to browse in peace, ply your little ones with “local chocolate” from the supermarket before you step into the ‘spensive stores.  Chocolaterie Dumon struck our fancy, but feel free to browse other fine establishments.  Simon Stevinplein 11

Crazy chocolate flavors at The Chocolate Line - coke...

Be prepared for some funky flavors in those truffles.  Two of the most ridiculous – coke…

and cannabis?

and cannabis?!

Churches.  As I mentioned in my snapshot of Brussels with kids, T-Rex is totally into churches right now though I can’t put my finger on why.  After all, he has to be quiet and he can’t touch anything.  Perhaps he just has a love of art and architecture in his DNA?  Our favorites were The Church of Our Lady (Mariastraat) and St. Salvator’s Cathedral (Sint-Salvatorskerkhof).

We were a little turned around when we stumbled upon the quaint courtyard behind The Church of Our Lady.

We were a little turned around when we stumbled upon the quaint courtyard behind The Church of Our Lady.

Listening to organ music

Listening to organ music in St. Salvator’s cathedral. The boys look bored in this photo, but they were begging to stay.  They loved listening to the music and watching the organist (to the right).

Graf Visartpark.  When the boys grew tired of specaloos slathered waffles (okay, no, no that never happened), we treated them to an afternoon in the local park.  This particular play place offered super fun structures for the boys to climb, swing, jump, duck, bounce, and shake every last little bit of energy out before bed.

A stroke of genius, the raised platform allowed mamas with prams to easily navigate the sandy area.

A stroke of genius, the raised platform allowed mamas with prams to easily navigate the sandy area.

Even Doc Sci loved this park!

Even Doc Sci loved this park!

Fun kid stuff in Brugge that we didn’t have time to visit…

Sebrechtspark and Astridpark.  Sebrechtspark is gated, and we must have missed the opening hours.  Both parks are rumored to have playgrounds perfectly suited to reward good behavior.

Sebrechtspark - closed!

Sebrechtspark – closed!

Zeventorentjes.  A small animal park for kids with a biergarten for the parents.  Located a ways from the Brugge city center.  Canadaring 41

Been to Brugge?  What made your top 10?  Anything I missed?

Headed to Belgium?  Check out our Snapshots of Brussels and Antwerpen with Kids, as well as our Supermarket Souvenirs – Belgium guide!Signature-Marigold

Supermarket Souvenirs – Belgium

Thrifty Travel Mama | Supermarket Souvenirs - BelgiumWondering what to buy from Belgium for the folks back home?  Chocolate and specaloos are great places to start.  But don’t buy them from the expensive tourist shops in town.  Stock up at the supermarket!

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, BelgiumGrab some Galler chocolate at the nearest grocery store.  This company sells solid bricks as well as delicious filled types.  Pick up a few bars or even a variety pack from the local Carrefour.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, BelgiumWhen we arrived in Brugge, I couldn’t wait to skip on down to the store and pick up some specaloos.  What is this crazy stuff?  It can be described as a cookie-flavored spread, similar in consistency to Nutella.  If you’ve ever tried Biscoff cookies, you’ll be familiar with the taste.  It’s uh-MAZING!

The smooth variety is delicious enough, but Doc Sci and I are currently into the crunchy kind.  Think crunchy peanut butter but with cookies.  Yum!  There’s even a chocolate variety – whoa, buddy!Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, Belgium

So, what do you do with specaloos?  The smooth kind is great for smearing on waffles, toast, and bagels.  I’ve even used it as a dip for apple slices and plopped a spoonful in my coffee.  The crunchy kind is also spectacular on morning carbs, but I also like it melted and smeared on top of a bowl of oatmeal.  You can even find numerous recipes for baked goods using specaloos.

But really, just keep it simple and enjoy with a spoon straight from the jar.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, BelgiumSpeculaas cookies are in the same flavor family as specaloos.  Specialty shops sell these for big bucks in tourist areas, but you can save some euros by stocking up where the locals do.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, BelgiumWant to try that specaloos now?  Pick up a package of Belgian waffles to go with your jar of cookie spread.  My boys were thrilled to have this fun vacation treat in the morning, but you could also take a few boxes home.  Note: the sturdier the waffle, the better chance of making it back in your suitcase.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, BelgiumNot really a waffle person?  Try some thin, crepe-style pancakes.  Smeared with specaloos of course…

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, BelgiumWorried about all these baked goods staying fresh while you travel?  Perhaps a pancake or waffle mix is right for you.  Use Google translate to help with the instructions.

Thrifty Travel Mama - Supermarket Souvenirs, BelgiumThis last one is only for enjoying in-country (or squirreling away in the car cooler).  Belgium also boasts some tasty cheeses.  Try the Brugge brand, sold in slices, chunks, or hunks.

You may be wondering, “Where’s the beer?”  I’ll admit, I’m totally clueless about the stuff.  I couldn’t write a decent (or reliable) guide to save my life.  I did, however, buy a few bottles for friends in Germany.  I made a small list based on recommendations here and here.

What are your favorite supermarket souvenirs from Belgium?  Anything I missed?

Headed to Brugge?  Check out my post about visiting Brugge with kids!Signature-Marigold

Snapshot: Antwerpen with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama - Antwerpen with KidsAfter our delightful time in Brugge, we needed to make our way up to Haarlem, the third home base of our BeNeLux week.  On a bucket list trip, I find it difficult to simply going from point A to point B.  It’s imperative to squeeze in one or two stops along the way.

I considered taking breaks in both Rotterdam (the largest port in Europe) and Antwerpen (the second largest).  In the end, I realistically thought we’d only have time for one.  Research showed that Antwerpen is prettier, and its cathedral is the tallest in BeNeLux.  I had my winner.Thrifty Travel Mama - Antwerpen with KidsDespite my best planning efforts, we almost scrapped our Antwerpen visit.  The GPS in our car is notoriously unreliable (it’s one of those built-in kinds with CDs and we haven’t gotten around to getting a new one), and even the printed directions I used landed us far beyond the city center.

We stopped at a petrol station to fill up and take a closer look at the map.  An older gentlemen was refueling his car and staring at us.  Instead of getting annoyed (my usual response to staring), I decided to ask his opinion on which autobahn was the best route to take north into the Netherlands.  He didn’t want to speak English, so I mustered up my best German and hoped for the best.

Well, the best is what I got.  Not only did this kind stranger advise me on the next road to take, but he offered to personally lead us to the city center when he found out we were (kind of) lost.

At least, that’s what I thought he said.  Everything was in German, after all…

Following our new friend - across the Mexico bridge!

Following our new friend – across the Mexico bridge!

Luckily for us, my baby brain did not fail, and we followed this gentleman along a harbor route with great views of giant ships right to the parking garage in the center of town.  Thank you, whoever you are!

Our friend led us here to the Het Steen, an old medieval castle right across from the city center parking garage.  I'm sure this fortress is worth exploring!

Our friend led us here to the Het Steen, an old medieval castle right across from the city center parking garage. I’m sure this fortress is worth exploring!

My list for our two hours in Antwerpen consisted of three things: gaze at ginormous freighters, wonder at the beauty of the Cathedral of Our Lady, and put Fritkot Max‘s best-fries-in-the-whole-of-Belgium claim to the test.

The boys loved climbing on this statue in the town square while we took in the view of the cathedral in the background.

The boys loved climbing on this statue in the town square while we took in the view of the cathedral in the background.

With one down and two to go, we ooh-ed and ahh-ed through Antwerpen’s town square on the way to the church.  We savored an eyeful of the sheer mass of the Cathedral of Our Lady, and then slipped inside for a few moments.  The Cathedral of Our Lady charges admission (probably because of all the Peter Paul Rubens works on display), but you can stand in the prayer area for free.

Cathedral of Our Lady.

Cathedral of Our Lady.

The craftsmanship of old churches is simply stunning.

The craftsmanship of old churches is simply stunning.

Doc Sci giving the boys a little lesson in stone construction (nerdy travel alert!).

Doc Sci giving the boys a little lesson in stone construction (nerdy travel alert!).

Just around the corner from the cathedral, we found Fritkot Max.  Doc Sci ordered a large for our family to share.  The fries aren’t salted, and that affected the taste for us.  So, in order to be truly scientific about it, Doc Sci thought we needed another large.  Even after consuming a few kilos of potatoes from Fritkot Max, we still voted Fritland in Brussels the best fries in Belgium.

Hot off the press!

Hot off the press!

As you can see, fries are a BIG deal in Antwerpen.

As you can see, fries are a BIG deal in Antwerpen.

While in Brugge, I had stumbled upon a super fun shop called Oil & Vinegar.  Doc Sci and I love to eat bread dipped in olive oil, and homemade salad dressing is a current obsession of mine.  We didn’t have time to shop in Brugge, so we hurried over to the Antwerpen location in the few minutes we had left.

Oil & Vinegar!

Oil & Vinegar!

As luck would have it, we discovered a small playground right around the corner from the store!  Score for us (we bagged some delicious bruschetta mix and basil olive oil), score for the boys (they let most of the willies out before we had to continue driving).

T-Rex and Screech blowing off steam.

T-Rex and Screech blowing off steam.

On the way back to the car, we quickly had a look at the water, but it was not possible to see many ships from the city center.  The best views came from the earlier detour guided by our new friend.  Serendipitous events make for the most memorable travel moments!

Goodbye, Antwerpen!

Goodbye, Antwerpen!

My snapshot of Antwerpen: industrial but beautiful, decadent but hardworking, fashionable but fun.

Have you been to Antwerpen?  What was your favorite part of the city to see, do, taste, or experience?Signature-Marigold

Snapshot: Brussels with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama - Brussels with KidsWhen our Netherlands getaway became a BeNeLux trip, our itinerary went from sane to harebrained.  Doc Sci and I decided to just roll with the punches and make this a bucket-list trip.

Ever since I heard that the Grote Markt in Brussels is the most beautiful town square in all of Europe, I decided I had to see it with my own eyes.  I made Brussels our morning stop on the way from Nijmegen in the Netherlands to Brugge on the west side of Belgium.

That’s the nice thing about being the master of your own itinerary and driving instead of flying or taking the train.  Do what you want, when you want.

But, because we were driving, I worried about navigating Brussels traffic.  (Turns out, the really heavy flow was near Antwerpen – beware!)  Finding and paying for parking was also a concern.  I wanted an interesting place outside of the city center to explore that just happened to be close enough to public transportation so we could have a little jaunt in the beautiful.  A tall order?  Maybe, but as it turns out, the Atomium fit my criteria perfectly.

I don’t have much to say regarding the Atomium at this time because I’m totally stoked to announce that Doc Sci has decided to start his own line of posts here on Thrifty Travel Mama called Nerdy Travel Dad!  Just by looking at the thing, I’m sure you can tell that The Atomium definitely falls into this category.  Update: you can read Doc Sci’s Nerdy Travel Dad review of the Atomium here.

After packing Big Foot into the backpack carrier, and stuffing some sandwiches in my pack, we headed for the subway.  In fifteen minutes, we were making our way through downtown Brussels.

Fritland - the best fries in all of Belgium.

Fritland – the best fries in all of Belgium.

First stop?  The BEST fries in all of Belgium.  Yep, I’m makin’ a claim and stickin’ to it.  Though others seem to think that Frikot Max in Antwerpen is the best, I’ll personally tell you that Fritland wins hands down.  Try the Mitraillette which looks like a huge fry sandwich.

St. Nicholas from the outside..

St. Nicholas from the outside..

While sitting at a table in the sunshine at Fritland, give the Saint Nicholas Church (across the street) a gander.  For some reason, T-Rex wanted to go in every church we stumbled upon.  After a quick visit and a few photos, we made our way toward the Grote Place.

Inside St. Nicholas Church.

and the inside!

Only a few steps later, we were sidetracked by a small sign showing the way to the other famous Brussels landmark, the Mannekin Pis.  I wasn’t planning on taking T-Rex and Screech to see a bronze boy peeing, but what the heck.  Live it up.  Walk the few blocks over, and get that cheesy tourist picture.  You’ll only be in Brussels once, right?  Right.

Other than the throngs of tourists, the worst part about the Mannekin Pis is the inclination of little boys toward mimicry.

Other than the throngs of tourists, the worst part about the Mannekin Pis is the inclination of little boys toward mimicry.

And, while you’re at it, order a big fat Belgian waffle smothered in specaloos.  If you don’t know specaloos, not to worry.  Read more about this cookie spread and where to buy it here.  Or, if you just want the cookie, taste test anything with the word spekulaas in it.

Maison Dandoy - fancy pants speculaas.

Maison Dandoy – fancy pants speculaas.

Waffles seem to affect the sales of lace.  Yeah, that makes perfect sense.

Waffles seem to affect the sales of lace. Yeah, that makes perfect sense.

After the obligatory peeing statue giggles, we finally (FINALLY!) found ourselves in what surely must be the most lovely square in Europe, the Grote Place.  Other cities have more beauty scattered, but Brussels has it all in one neat, uh, rectangle.  The gold on the buildings and the ornamental architectural styles are a feast for the eyes.  Amazing.

One view of the Grote Place. (source)

One view of the Grote Place. (source)

My snapshot of Brussels: big city feel, small town taste, elegant architecture, and an excellent introduction to Belgium.

Have you been to Brussels?  What was your favorite part of the city to see, do, taste, or experience?Signature-Marigold