Wanted to share our experience in Belgium this year. It was our first visit to the country and I hope it is not our last. We had the most wonderful time. The people are fantastic, and fortunately for us they almost all speak english. We stayed 5 nights at the Ghent Marriott and two nights at the Brussels Marriott, with one day trip to Brugge. Both hotels were great - location, accommodations, staff and breakfasts.
In addition to the people, we had great meals, excellent beers, decadent chocolates, delicious waffles, tasty cuberdons and saw great sites. The weather wasn't too bad, either. Mid 50's to mid-60's with only a few days of drizzle.
We loved Ghent. It was the perfect sized city. Much of the history and beauty of Brugge, but in a livelier, slightly more urban setting. Seemed to be the perfect blend. The Ghent Marriott is precisely where you would want to be - right on the canal, in the middle of the historic center of town. If it didn't have Marriott over the door, you would assume it was one of the many historic old merchant or shipping buildings that dot both sides of, I believe, the Lei River (canal). It is between the St. Michael's Bridge/St. Michael's Church and the Gravensteen Castle. Everything is an easy walk, though bring some comfortable shoes, because you will be walking on lots of cobblestone streets and the ankles can get a little sore, without some support.
In Ghent, we had dinners at Valentijn (in Patershol neighborhood, near Castle), Pakhuis (block or two southeast of St. Michael's Bridge and Korenmarkt), Cafe Theatre (about a block or so, west of Kouter) and Volta (about a 15 minute walk west of the Marriott, though walk back along the canal at night, its beautiful) - and would highly recommend them all! Lunches were at Brasserie 't Stropke (right next to the Castle with a great stew - I had pork and it was like braised short ribs, and my wife had the waterzooi - a cream based chicken soup/stew, very popular in Ghent, this was our first lunch upon arrival), Brasserie Bridge, right in front of St. Bavo's (both had their house/chef salad and it was fantastic), 't Vrij Gevoel (I had salad, my wife another waterzooi - more of a stew here), an indoor/outdoor Brasserie, right on Vrigdagmarkt (Friday) Market. The squares around town are referred to as markets.
If it is Sunday morning in Ghent, you must be at the flower market in Kouter (a square south of Korenmarkt), about 10 mins walk. What a great experience. All the best flower vendors in the region and many folks in their Sunday best. In the middle of the square is a beautiful, ornate elevated bandstand, complete with a small orchestra. At one end of the square was a stand selling coffee, sandwiches and other snacks and at the other end (our favorite) was a stand selling still wines, champagne, oysters and what they referred to as toasts - a variety of little squares of toasted breads with salmon, shrimp, tuna and crab. Delicious!!!!!
Then there were all the wonderful beers and pubs/cafes. I won't name all the beers I tried - to avoid judgement - but suffice it to say, I tried a few and they were all delicious. Some must visit pubs would be Bierhuis, right on the canal across from the Castle. On the same patio, overlooking the canal, is the Bierhuis, a restaurant which looked nice but we did not eat there, and 't Druepelkot, a bar serving Belgian jenever - they call it gin, but only one we tried tasted like a traditional gin (only smoother), the rest are flavored liquors, basically. Pol, the gentleman who owns and runs the place, has numerous reciped flavors he serves and you can even bring some home. If you buy from him to take home, let him know though. If you take it home, its 20 euro, if he assumes you are buying it to take out on the deck with your buds, its 30 euro. That is for a 750 ml bottle. Great place to sit outside when the weather is good, have a few beers and relax. Another nice spot is Cafe Leffe, at the base of the Belfry. De Dulle Griet on Friday Markt is a great 'brown bar', dark woods, great character and a wonderful selection of Belgian beers. As a matter of fact, I had my first ever Westvleteren 12 there!!!! For those of you who know beers, this is a gem and like hen's teeth to find. Trappistenhuis is down just past the red light district (walking through there is an unusual experience). The bar is great, actually in a nice neighborhood and the owner is quite the beer expert. he also brews his own, called Joannes. My wife had one, it was great and he gave us a champagne size bottle to bring home. Still in the closet. 't Galgenhuis is a tiny little bar on Groentenmarkt, across the street from Bierhuis and next to the old meat hall. Great place to sit outside and people watch. On that same little square is sometimes an outdoor market, Tierenteyn-Verlent (they have been making the same recipe mustard since 1790. It must be refrigerated, as it has no preservatives, but it is delicious and worth the work to get it home. VERY spicy with horseradish. Our bottle is almost empty :-( ) Also, there is Koffie, with a waffle stand in the window (yum), Himschoot (a wonderful very old bakery next door), and usually two carts out front selling cuberdon, a nose shaped candy that has an exterior kind of like a soft jelly bean with an almost liquid or at least gooey center - rasberry flavored and quite tasty. They are only in Ghent.
If you want a fantastic coffee in Ghent, go about a block behind the Starbucks on Korenmarkt, up the tiny street, to Mokabon!!
Sites in Ghent - we visited St. Bavo and the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, St. Nicholas, St. Michael's, climbed the Belfry, toured all through the Castle, the Holy Corner (Ghent Beguinage), took a canal tour, walked all over the place and did some shopping mostly on Langemunt between Groetenmarkt and Friday Market, and some on Veldstraat, on the way toward Kouter.
Chocolate in Ghent - Van Hoorebeke, one just outside the hotel on the left and over by the Belfry is homemade and wonderful. Daskalides, a few blocks from the Belfry was wonderful - and where we spent the most on Chocolate. You will find a number of Neuhaus outlets and they are very good. Leonidas is a good middle of the road chocolate and is everywhere. And then there are numerous boutique chocolatiers scattered about. That is pretty much the case in all the cities.
The tram was an easy way to get from St. Peter's Station to Korenmarkt and within a block of the hotel.
Took a day trip to Brugge by train - about 25 minutes. Had a beautiful day there. Canal tour, visited St. Salvatore, Basilica of the Holy Blood (although the main chapel and the relic were not open because of restoration) and unfortunately, we didn't get a chance to climb the tower. Had lunch at Cambrinus (which is owned by the same folks who own de Bier Tempel in Brugge and Brussels - a great beer store, complete with all the glasses too). We both had the beef stew and it was awesome. Again, like braised boneless shortribs, a dollop of applesauce in the gravy and a big cone of fries. Lots of great fries with pretty much everything you get - everywhere. Dinner was at a beautiful, small restaurant (recommend reservations at all the dinner spots in Ghent and this spot in Brugge), called Gruuthuse Hof. Wonderful meal. A few must visit bars are Staminee de Garre (down a very tiny alley, between the main square with the clock tower and the square with the Basilica of the Holy Blood). Their exclusive house draft is a must have. Brugs Beertje (Brugge Bear) is also a great old pub.
Then on to Brussels. We were only there a day and a half. The first day we had a fantastic stand up lunch over in the St. Catherine's area at Mer du Nord. You walk up to the outdoor counter at this seafood market/restaurant and order your wine and food off the board behind the servers/cooks. They cook everything right in front of you and it is fabulous. Clams, calamari, grilled swordfish, escargot in broth, champagne, chardonnay. It was great. Visited the Grand Place on a number of occasions, as it is a block from the hotel. Walked past the Bourse to get almost anywhere. Visited Mannakin Pis - they do love their little peeing boy statue. Toured the Palace of Justice, went to the Royal Palace and all the things near it, including the church in the middle of the square nearby, then St. Michael's, what remains of Ravensteen Castle where some say Anne of Cleves was born (others say otherwise), Le Petit Sablon - a beautiful park with alot of statues of historical figures, and the church in Grand Sablon, Parc d' Egmont and simply looked at all the designer stores on the way. Ate mussels and fries at Chez Leon - though it is in a very touristy area, it was recommended to use by several Belgians and it was perfect. A nice cafe/bar is A La Mort Subite, another, between the Grand Place and the Bourse, down a tiny alley, is A la Becasse - they serve a Timmerman's Lambic Doux, from a ceramic picture, which is surprising delicious. Very old bar and a really neat find. In addition to the other chocolatiers in the down, Pierre Marcolini's near Grand Sablon is a must - very high end and outstanding. As several belgians told us, you buy chocolate at all the other stores for family and friends, you buy Pierre Marcolini's for yourself.
I know I missed alot, which will come to me later. But if you are trying to think of a place to go and you haven't been to Belgium - GO!!!! And stay at these two Marriotts.