Brussels, Amsterdam, & Paris – October 2014

Brussels, Amsterdam, & Paris  October – 2014

Soon after we returned from our ten-day trip to Paris, we wondered when it would be feasible to return to Europe. I started looking at various dates in the fall since we wanted to spend more time near Disneyland Paris. While searching for flights and getting the trip’s budget together, I decided to check other airports in Europe—both to see if they were cheaper than flying into Paris directly and to give us the chance to see another European city.
As it turned out, flying into Brussels was over $300 cheaper than flying into Paris or Amsterdam. So we decided to book the 2 week trip with return airfare in and out of Brussels airport, and the rest of the trip would be done via trains (Thalys and TGV).


We flew from Orlando to Brussels via Atlanta, and like 99% of the flights to Europe from North America, we landed in the morning. After getting through passport control and customs, we took the local train to the Gare du Midi/Zuidstation (South Station) and transferred to the 2/6 metro line after getting our 3 day public transport pass. Our hotel was near the Botanique/Kruidtuin metro stop in the north part of the city. As is the case with most people who arrive in Europe on a morning flight, we had to check our luggage at reception. Then we set out to discover this multilingual and multicultural city, which is home to the European Union, NATO, and some amazing chocolate.

As a word of note: Belgium is a nation divided along linguistic lines, resulting in the proposal by some Belgians to make 2 nations out of current-day Belgium. While this idea is just a proposal, visitors should be aware of these differences. People in the northern part of the country speak a dialect of Dutch called Flemish, or Vlaams. People in the southern part of Belgium speak standard French with a few variants in vocabulary and phonology. In the far eastern part of Belgium, the official language is German, rendering the country officially trilingual. However, these linguistic divisions have had massive implications in the nation’s political and social spheres, so much so that English has emerged as the lingua franca in metropolitan areas. Brussels is officially bilingual (French and Dutch), but French is the main language of the city due to its European Union and NATO ties. But, everyone we encountered also spoke conversational English. So those wondering about any communicative problems can rest easy, although a few words of French do go a long way in establishing a rapport with people.

Grand Place
We walked through a nearby mall, had lunch, and made our way to the Grand-Place/Grote Markt, which is the central square in Brussels and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The square is surrounded by Town Hall; the Breadhouse, which contains the Museum of the City of Brussels; and ornate buildings that once served as guild halls for various guilds. Today, the ground floors of the guild halls are occupied by restaurants, shops, and a Starbucks, at which I continued to amass my Global Icon collection. The surrounding streets still bear the names of sellers of butter, herring, coal, and cheese, just to mention a few. Voted the most beautiful square in Europe in 2010, the Grand-Place plays host to a flower carpet every 2 years in August covering over 19,000 square feet in an intricate flower display.

After exploring the area, we returned to our hotel and checked in. Since we were tired from the overnight flight, we rested for a while before heading out to grab dinner at a Greek restaurant. We walked around the area, which is completely pedestrian, and explored some of the shops. We found a great candy store called Sucx, where we got some licorice and sour candies. Having been up for 24 hours, we called it a day early and headed back to the hotel.

Botanical Gardens
The next day we started by walking through the city’s botanical gardens, which were a 5 minute walk from our hotel. The multi-level gardens no longer have the many sculptures that once dotted them, but this green space in Brussels’ financial district offers a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of the nearby chaos.

We then went to Mini-Europe and the Atomium, 2 attractions located within walking distance of each other near the end of the 6 metro line or at the end of the 7 tram line (Heysel/Heizel). Opened in 1989 and operating from March to October, Mini-Europe contains reproductions of monuments within the European Union at a 1:25 scale. It takes about an hour to walk through the approximately 350 buildings and 80 cities, some of which have live action trains, mills, cable cars, and airplanes. Some countries are represented more heavily than others, with Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and Germany having the most to see. The park is a great way to spend 60-90 minutes, is suitable for everyone, and is a must-see if you’re ever in Brussels.

Next to Mini-Europe is the Atomium, a building originally constructed for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair and which underwent a 2 year renovation from 2004 to 2006. The structure’s 9 spheres are connected by tubes 3 meters in diameter (containing stairs, escalators, and an elevator) so that they form the shape of a unit cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. Visitors can go through 5 of the 9 spheres housing exhibit halls, convention space, and a restaurant at the top. The other 4 spheres are not open to the public due to a lack of vertical supports. The elevator takes visitors to the highest sphere where a 360 degree observation desk offers vistas, on a clear day, all the way to the North Sea, the Netherlands, and France. There are permanent and temporary exhibits on display in the various spheres. In order to see everything, however, you will walk up 80 steps and walk down 167 steps. These areas are not accessible for those with limited or reduced mobility as wheelchairs cannot access these areas. Only the panorama sphere is accessible by elevator.

Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History
The next day we went to the European Commission building at the Schuman metro stop. We couldn’t go in, but walked around it. Then we went to the Musée Royal de l’Armée et d’Histoire Militaire/Koninklijk Museum van het Leger en de Krijgsgesechiedenis (Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History), which had a temporary exhibit on World War I. The museum is located just east of the Schuman metro stop in the Parc du Cinquantenaire/Jubelpark. Being a historian of the time period just before the outbreak of the Great War, I was quite interested in seeing the temporary exhibit, which also discussed the Parisian World’s Fair, a topic on which I’ve published. I thought the exhibit was well laid out and offered varying perspectives regarding the lead-up to and during the war.

European Parliament
While most of the European Parliament is inaccessible to visitors, they can visit the Parliamentarium, which is housed in the Willy Brandt Building. This interactive exhibition explains the history of the European Union, lets visitors take a virtual tour of Europe, and hear from Europeans about their perspectives on the EU. The exhibit is fully accessible to those with mobility challenges, to the blind via multilingual Braille maps, and to the deaf via multilingual sign language videos and induction loops. The Parliamentarium is probably the most inclusive attraction we’ve ever visited.

After 3 days in Brussels, it was time to take the high speed train to Amsterdam. We booked tickets on the Thalys from Brussels South Station to Amsterdam Centraal. The train also calls at Antwerp, Rotterdam, and Schiphol Airport. We arrived in Amsterdam after 1 hour and 20 minutes.

If you arrive in Amsterdam by train, odds are that you will arrive at Amsterdam Centraal, the city’s main train station. While there are other train stations in Amsterdam, most international trains terminate here. Outside and to the left of the tram loading zone is the Visitor Information Center, where you can get free maps, make hotel reservations (if you haven’t done that already), and buy tickets including the I Amsterdam card, which is what we purchased for 3 days. We then took the tram to our hotel, the Golden Tulip, in the Bos en Lommer district of West Amsterdam.

After having walked around the city and becoming familiar with its layout, we headed to the Van Gogh Museum, which is located on the Museumplein, along with the Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk Museum. We arrived less than an hour before closing time, and thanks to the I Amsterdam card, we skipped the single ticket line and walked right in. While we like museums, we aren’t the type of people who sit and linger at specific paintings. We completed our visit to the museum in under 30 minutes and entered the gift shop just as the last group of people were being allowed in for the day.
We then walked around Museumplein where you can buy the typical souvenirs such as magnets, postcards, key chains, T shirts, etc. This is where we found the cheapest postcards in the entire city. There is a shallow pond in the center of the square overlooking the Rijksmuseum and the grassy knoll.

Canal Cruise
Included in our I Amsterdam card was the City Canal Cruise which lasted 75 minutes. The cruise has an audio guide in 19 languages and departs across from Holland Casino near the Hard Rock Café on Stadhouderskade. If you don’t have the I Amsterdam card, pre-purchased tickets are €14,00, and the normal price is €16,00. Even though it rained a little bit during our cruise, I would highly recommend this for visitors since it gives you an overview of the canal ring, goes through the Jordaan and past Anne Frank’s House, out to the IJ, and past City Hall.

Located on the 4, 9, or 14 tram line is Rembrandtplein, a square named after the famous artist who owned a house nearby. It is lined with restaurants, bars, and a flagship Starbucks store. In the square itself, as part of the celebration of Rembrandt’s 400th birthday, are bronze-cast sculptures which form a 3D version of the painter’s famous “The Night Watch”.

Natura Artis Magistra
This large zoo near Rembrandtplein can be reached by trams 9 & 14. Open every day of the year, this zoo offers visitors the chance to see a myriad of animals. Tickets may seem a bit expensive, with anyone over 10 years old being €20,50 and children between 3-9 being €17,00, but zoos in Europe are not supported by government grants or subsidies. Therefore, they have to charge more than you would normally pay in the U.S. That being said, it was worth every cent.

Het Verzetsmuseum (The Resistance Museum), located across the street from the entrance to the zoo, chronicles the Dutch people’s efforts to resist Nazi rule. If you have the I Amsterdam card, admission is included. There is also a free audio guide to use during your visit. There are permanent and temporary exhibits, including a “junior” exhibit showcasing Dutch children and their experiences during World War II. As a historian I thought the exhibits were well laid out and clearly explained what life was like in the Netherlands during the war.

This walkway along Entrepotdok Canal is a residential area located next to the Verzetsmuseum. Since we like to take pictures of bridges, this area offered us the opportunity to snap a picture of a canal bridge.

Science Center NEMO
NEMO is an interactive science center located near the Amsterdam Centraal train station. Priced at €15,00 for everyone over 4 years old, this attraction is free if you
have the I Amsterdam card. This multilevel center offers visitors the opportunity to discover the science behind light and sound, to see how math and shapes influence the world, and to experience the importance of water. While mainly geared toward children, adults will find this center fascinating and educational. A must-see is the roof terrace, which affords visitors with wonderful vistas of central Amsterdam.

Amsterdam Tulip Museum
The history behind this much-loved flower is the subject of this museum located on the Prinsengracht in the Jordaan district. First discovered by plant hunters of the Ottoman Empire, the tulip’s fame rose during the 1500s. Eventually finding its way to the Netherlands, the Dutch made tulips famous the world over. We opted to pay a visit after seeing the hour-long line at the Anne Frank House. While it only takes about 15-20 minutes to see everything here, it’s well worth the visit and is included on the I Amsterdam card. They do have tulip bulbs for sale, but make sure you ask for those approved for import to the U.S. if you decide to purchase some since the USDA has strict import regulations on plants.

Flower Market
Along the Singel by the Koningsplein is a vibrant flower market that sells many types of flowers. As with the tulips, make sure what you purchase is approved for export to the U.S. Otherwise, you risk having your purchase confiscated upon your return at customs.

Dam Square
The Dam Square is the historical center of Amsterdam, the site upon which a dam used to control the flow of the Amstel River. The west side of the square is flanked by the Royal Palace, which once housed the City Hall from 1655 to 1808, when it was converted into a residence. The National Monument, an obelisk dominating the square, memorializes the victims of World War II. There is also the flagship store of the retail chain De Bijenkorf (The Beehive), on the north side of the square.

Red Light District (De Wallen)
No trip to Amsterdam is complete without a visit to the Red Light District, which is located east of Dam Square. This (in)famous part of the city, filled with sex workers and coffee shops (that don’t serve coffee), also contains the Oudekerk (Old Church). The Netherlands has long been at the forefront of legalizing, but controlling, certain habits that more conservative people may find offensive or morally compromising. Prostitution is one of those parts of life that is ever-present, but rarely affords its workers the proper health and social services needed. The Dutch government offers these services, requires sex workers to undergo regular health checks (which the government pays for), and requires health certificates before a sex worker can lease a room. Similar to marijuana, the Dutch feel it’s better to regulate a particular habit and make a tax off of it than to make said habit illegal and spend tax dollars on policing it.


After three days in Amsterdam, we took the Thalys from Amsterdam Centraal to Gare du Nord in Paris. The three hour trip is a great way to travel between the two capitals without having to worry about flying. If you book your trip when the booking window opens, which at the time of this trip was 3 months and has since been extended to 6 months, very cheap fares can be had. Yes, it does lock you into specific travel dates, but it sure beats paying full price for the journey, which can run more than airfare.

For this week-long stay we opted to stay outside Paris near Disneyland Paris in the town of Val d’Europe. Like the first trip to Paris, we bought a week pass on the Navigo card that covered all 5 zones in the Paris region. Our hotel, which is classified as a “good neighbor” hotel with Disney was situated one train stop away from Marne-la-Vallée, where Disneyland Paris is located. Why did we stay so far out of the city? We wanted to save money on a hotel room and wanted to be closer to Disneyland Paris.

Le Jardin du Luxembourg
Located in the 6th arrondissement, Catherine de Medici created this garden during the 1610s as a complement to the Luxembourg Palace, her new residence. Today, the French state owns the building, and the French Senate meets there. The gardens include an apple and pear orchard, a puppet theatre, and over 100 statues, fountains, and monuments. There is also a large playground for children and a vintage carousel. While we were there, many of the flowers were in bloom.

Medici Fountain
Designed in the form of a grotto, Marie de Medici, the widow of Henri IV of France, commissioned the fountain’s construction in 1630. After having fallen into ruins, Napoleon Bonaparte had the fountain restored by the same architect who designed the Arc de Triomphe, Jean Chalgrin. From 1864–1866, the fountain was moved to its present location, and sculptures were added to the end of the fountain.

Centre Pompidou
Also during this trip we didn’t spend as much time visiting museums since we did most of the ones we wanted to during our last visit to Paris. The one museum we missed last time and wanted to make sure we saw this time was the Centre Pompidou. This museum houses a vast collection of contemporary art from the 20th and 21st centuries. In addition to the museum’s permanent collection of modern art, which at times seems a bit much for my tastes, there was a temporary, retrospective exhibit on the architecture of Frank Gehry. On display were over 200 drawings, models, and supporting materials on over 60 works. The exhibit also featured a video showing an interview with the architect.

We also spent time walking around the museum’s environs, exploring the Marais district, which was once a swamp. Today it hosts both a vibrant Chinese population and is the hub of the LGBT community in Paris. Approximately 40% of the LGBT-owned
businesses, restaurants, and bars are in the Marais. One of our favorite restaurants in Paris is in the Marais, an Italian restaurant we’ve now visited 3 times. I know a lot of people visit Paris for its vast food offerings and world-famous dining establishments. But honestly, we find French food to be a bit bland for our tastes. So we seek out other options.

Tour Saint-Jacques
This tower, located in the Marais district of Paris and built between 1509 and 1525, is the only remnant of the 16th-century Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie, which was destroyed in 1797 during the French Revolution. The tower is considered a national historic landmark. Surrounding the tower today is a small park.

Tour Eiffel
Like we did during our first trip, we went back to the Eiffel Tower. While we didn’t go up the tower this time, we spent more time walking around the area, including the quays bordering the Seine.
Another highlight of the trip was the Seine river cruise. There are several companies that run river cruises, usually about 45 minutes in length, during the day. These companies also offer dinner cruises, normally starting sometime after 6pm. This is a wonderful way to get pictures from a different perspective of the many buildings that line the banks of this famous river. All river cruises start near the Eiffel Tower & Trocadéro area. There is usually indoor and outdoor seating on the boats, but the outdoor seating is sometimes without commentary, which if you don’t know what you’re looking at can be a disadvantage. I would advise having some type of map, either paper or electronic, so you will know which buildings you pass. Also, the cruises make a U-turn after passing either the Ile de la Cité or the Ile Saint-Louis, which affords you the opportunity to take many pictures of Notre Dame.

Disneyland Paris
Like we did on our first trip in April, we wanted to visit the Disney parks, mainly to return to the North-African themed buffet restaurant. What we did find out is that the French are unaccustomed to buffet restaurants. The ability to eat to excess is not only contrary to the rich culinary traditions of France, but also serves as a commentary to the American way of life since buffets are ubiquitous in the States. The Disney Village also has the closest Starbucks to our hotel, and anyone who knows us is aware of our affinity for coffee and ever-growing mug collection. This time the parks were decked out with Halloween decorations.

Champs-Elysées & Rue Montaigne

Parallel to our first trip, we walked the Champs-Elysées and Rue Montaigne again. Always popular with tourists, the Champs-Elysées is the main thoroughfare north of the Seine.





Louvre & Tuileries
After having spent half a day exploring the treasures of the Louvre during our first visit, we decided not to go back into the museum portion of the building, but we did return to the food court for lunch. It offers a wide variety of food styles—Moroccan, Greek, Chinese, and Italian— just to name a few. It also has a McDonald’s, which the French call McDo, an espresso bar, and a Starbucks.

We then spent some time in the Tuileries, the Louvre’s adjoining gardens. Located between the Louvre and the Place de la Concorde, Catherine de Medici created the gardens in 1564. They were opened to the public in 1667 and became a public park after the French Revolution. Some very famous sculptors have works displayed in the gardens, including Louis Auguste Lévêque, Jules Ramey, and Auguste Rodin. At the west end of the gardens is the Musée de l’Orangerie, which houses impressionist era paintings, and the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, which houses modern and contemporary art.
The gardens are quite popular with tourists and locals alike. Many locals spend time outside when the weather is good because of the small living spaces in which many Parisians live.

The Seine River has the unique distinction of being the only river in the world the flows between 2 bookshelves. This is due to the bouquinistes that line the river’s banks. These booksellers vend used and antiquarian books on the right bank from the Pont Marie to the Quai du Louvre and on the left bank from the Quai de la Tournelle to the Quai Voltaire. The tradition of second-hand books began during the 16th century on the Pont Neuf, but were driven out due to the monarchy’s fear that certain markets were not subject to official censorship. The bouquinistes were only reinstated after receiving governmental approval.
In 1859, Paris’ city government granted concessions allowing bouquinistes to sell their goods at specific points from sunrise to sunset. Each vendor was entitled to 10 meters of space. It was in 1930 that the boxes known today became a permanent feature. Today, the bouquinistes are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and sell everything from old journals and magazines to stamps, post cards, and magnets. These boxes are a treasure trove of material, especially for cultural historians.

Named after the sculptor Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, the Pigalle area of Paris borders the 9th and 18th arrondissements. The region is known for its adult shows, sex shops, and theatres. This is where the Moulin Rouge (Red Windmill) is located. Many famous artists have lived in this district, including Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, and Maurice Neumont. Josephine Baker also opened a night club in the area.

Tour Eiffel at Night

On our last night in Paris, we returned to the Eiffel Tower, this time at night. After sundown, the tower’s lights make it stand out against the Parisian skyline. Also, at the top of the hour, the tower’s strobe lights sparkle for 5 minutes. This is definitely a sight to behold if you have the chance.




The day before we flew back to the States, we had to make our way back to Brussels since we had round trip tickets from there. So we took the TGV from Marne-la-Vallée to Brussels. We splurged and got first class seats for the 90 minute journey through the countryside. The train only stopped at Charles de Gaulle airport on its way north. We spent the night near the Brussels South train station, and took an early local train to the airport for our return flight.

Special note: While this posting was written after the recent horrific attacks in Brussels, the events described herein happened in October 2014.

Author: TTG Michael