I've been traveling by myself for many years. In the US I've sometimes stayed in a city for a week by myself, but in Europe I've always gone with a group tour, maybe tacking on an extra independent day in the start or end city. This is a very sheltered way to travel, but more than once people have told me how "brave" I was to do even these tours alone. Why was that, I wondered? Safety concerns? Loneliness concerns? Did they think I couldn't possibly enjoy being one in a couples-oriented world?
When I chose to go to Belgium, I couldn't find a tour group that had everything I wanted. I thought things over and decided to take control. I'd go-it-alone, base myself in Brussels for a week, and explore independently. I would go at my own pace where I pleased, when I pleased and without any of the compromises necessary when traveling in a group or even with another person.
Still, there's definitely something unnerving about getting lost in unfamiliar territory even though I knew that Brussels is a multi-lingual city and most Belgians speak at least two of Flemish, French, or English. So, I admit to feeling nervous setting out that first morning towards Le Grand-Place (French or English) or Grote Markt (Dutch), the historic town square, even with staff reassurances that The Bourse (stock exchange) would be an unmissable landmark.
Well, here goes, I thought, doubtfully stepping out onto Boulevard Anspach, a street lined with French Second Empire-style buildings reminiscent of Paris. A five-block stroll past cafés and chocolate shops, a left turn onto a narrow street, and there was the Grand Place dominating the scene in all its distinctive gothic and baroque glory. Entering the plaza the first time felt like walking into a fairytale, and finding it so easily gave me a good boost of confidence.
The off-tone Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) dominates the longer side across from the dark gray Maison du Roi (King’s House), and the shorter sides feature guild houses from the late 17th century ornamented with gilded trim. I went there at least once every day of my stay whiling away a good fraction of my vacation browsing among the artist and flower stalls. Sometimes I'd just sit and watch the world go by, either at one of the cafés lining the square or on a curb eating a waffle from The Waffle Factory the next block over. I didn’t feel isolated by the crowd; I felt a part of it as we took the same photos of the buildings and traded cameras to get shots of one another.
I did want to explore independently; nevertheless I decided that a guided walking tour would be a good way to get myself oriented and also learn some interesting local facts. The tour began in the Grand Place where the guide explained the odd asymmetry of the Town Hall (they neglected to set aside a necessary parcel of land) and clarified that no royalty ever lived in the King's House.
Of course we visited the Manneken Pis, the famous fountain featuring a little boy peeing into a basin. He was naked the day of the tour, but I heard that he has a collection of more than 700 outfits on display in the Musée de la ville de Bruxelles (City Museum), which is located in the King's House. I was glad I had days on my own to go back to see him dressed. I saw him clothed twice, once as a modern journalist and once in a historic costume featuring a cap with a feather as tall as the statue.
I had brought along two guidebooks but wasn't entirely satisfied with either. For instance, I was particularly annoyed by an instruction to walk north, without even a hint as to which way that was. Even with maps and instructions I got lost more than once, which in retrospect wasn't a bad thing. In fact, I never felt lost in any dangerous way. The mix of architecture was always visually intriguing, and there was an added interest in coming across places as if by my own discovery, like when I “found” the tower from the old city wall now protected in the central courtyard of an apartment building.
During my walks I visited parts of town not covered in the guided tour and also revisited places we had been. In the upper town’s royal quarter, the guide had vaguely gestured toward the Palais Royale Royal Palace and mentioned several museums, but we were on a schedule and had to keep walking. On my free days I headed back and was able to spend time exploring the breadth of the museums’ collections.
The Musees Royaux des Beaux Arts (Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium) houses the Old Masters Museum, with its collection of notable Flemish painters, and the sharply contrasting Magritte Museum, dedicated to the surrealist. The Magritte exhibit was surprisingly entertaining, prompting me to invest in an expensive souvenir T-shirt. I also visited the BELvue Museum of Belgian history. I wished the exhibits talked more about the origins of the country but was fascinated that they didn’t shy away from the dark history of the Belgian Congo era.
I also explored the Musée des Instruments de Musique or Muziekinstrumentenmuseum (Musical Instruments Museum), in an Art Nouveau building on the hill leading to the upper town. Much less serious than the other museums, the collection here covered an astonishing variety of musical instruments from around the world. Some were unfamiliar variations on familiar instruments like the piano; others were novel contraptions. The admission fee included a listening device—not a guided tour, but when you reached various instruments you could hear them play. The terrace level had a café with views over the royal quarter and as far away as the Atomium, a building constructed for Expo '58.
Another place we had passed by on the guided tour was the Petit Sablon, a manicured park filled with trimmed hedges, flower gardens, and the Fountain of Minerva. We stood outside its gate while the guide talked about the many guilds of Brussels whose statues top the park's exterior fence, and about the Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon across the street.
I went back one afternoon to take photos of the flowers and discovered they have a guard who will scold you (in French) if you step on the grass. Unlike the Grand Place, where most of the people I saw were tourists, most of the people here were locals relaxing and taking in a little sunshine. I sat on a bench and cooed at the many babies in their carriages (baby talk is a universal language) and wondered where the music I heard was coming from. When I later walked around the outside of the park I discovered an abandoned palace behind it and a music school across the side street – explaining the “concert” I’d just enjoyed.
Dining alone has always been one of my big reasons not to travel alone, but this wasn’t a problem in Brussels. Besides waffle places that sold savory as well as sweet waffles, all the restaurants were welcoming. I did eat mainly in tourist restaurants, including some on the famous Rue des Bouchers restaurant row. I had a bit of fun chatting with the restaurant touts who tried to sweet-talk me into entering. Even though these restaurants catered to tourists, they served traditional Belgian food such as rabbit in beer sauce.
Being alone worked to my advantage when I showed up, without a reservation, at Aux Armes de Bruxelles, one of Brussel's fine dining establishments. After first turning me away, the maitre’d practically chased me down the block when he found a seat for me after all. That was one of my favorite meals. I ate off the prix fixe (fixed-price) menu, starting with a salad of haricots vert (green beans) and delicious smoked duck. You can't leave Belgium without having mussels; although locals had warned that it wasn’t the season and the mussels now were “shit,” I ordered them and took much pleasure in stacking up many empty shells.
Of course there was chocolate, chocolate, everywhere. The original Godiva shop is in the Grand Place and there are unique chocolate shops all over town. No matter how many times I walked up the streets around the Grand Place I noticed a new venue. I bought a treat from a different store every day.
To see more of Belgium I took an organized tour to visit Bruges, Ghent, and Ostend, so I suppose I can't say my trip was completely independent. This excursion was somewhat unusual because it used the train instead of a chartered bus. By our first stop it was obvious that the tour was totally wrong for me: I was the only English-speaking guest, and we spent hours in the resort town of Ostend, where our guide’s girlfriend joined us, instead of exploring the more interesting history in Ghent and Bruges.
This was my biggest mistake and best learning experience of the trip because I learned how easy exploring on my own would have been. The train was simple to ride independently – stops were announced very clearly and no connections or transfers were required. All 3 stops were on the same line and we simply rode out to the furthest and then worked our way back. While the train stations weren’t near the historical attractions, there were buses and trams, and if those were too confusing or inconvenient, there were also plenty of taxis. There would have been some stress in managing those details by myself, but by the end of the day I felt sure I could have seen what I wanted at my own pace.
In fact, I wished I had an extra day in my vacation that would let me go back to Bruges to explore on my own. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time. But in the future when someone calls me “brave” for traveling solo, maybe I will have actually earned the compliment.