Two years and three months after his birth, my son has finally had his first experience of flying to a foreign country. I wish it had happened sooner but am still grateful that it happened at all, considering how difficult it was to travel during the last two years. For our first international trip, we chose Brussels, the capital of Belgium, the city of chocolate, waffles, french fries and beer. Unsure what to expect from our first trip as a trio, we dived in without too much preparation and fretting and for that we were rewarded with a wonderful experience in a wonderful city.
Is Brussels a good choice for a visit with a child?
Short answer? Absolutely. Long(er) answer? Well, there were a few things we took into consideration while planning:
· flight lenght: for Oliver’s first plane journey, we wanted to keep the flight short, up to the maximum of two hours; luckilly, given our departure country, the majority of European destinations check that criteria
· getting from our home to the (domestic) airport: what we needed was a short and simple journey, which is why the direct flight from Zagreb (1,5 h away from Rijeka) was a very practical solution
· getting from the (destination) airport to the city centre and our accomodation: ideally, we were hoping for the connectivity of London or Barcelona (a short bus or train ride), but ended up having to use a bus and then the metro; it was a bit of a hassle, especially on our way back, but it was still perfectly maneagble
· compactness of the city: we were searching for a city with a compact centre or with a well developed underground network – just to make it easier to reach the sights we wanted to see
Brussels checked all of these boxes and more – we loved that the railway network in Belgium was so well organized that we could also squeeze in a day trip to Bruges and afford Oliver another amazing experience (he had never travelled by train before).
Apart from its practicality, Brussels has more qualities that make it a child-friendly city:
· green spaces – what kid doesn’t like gardens and parks? We especially loved strolling around Parc de Bruxelles close to the Royal Palace and the lovely landscaped garden full of colorful flowers on the Mont des Arts
· quick bites – in the capital of chocolate, waffles and french fries, there is no fear that your little one will remain hungry
· kid-friendly attractions – Choco Story, a fascinating Museum of Natural Sciences, a famous boy peeing from the top of the fountain and a bustling, lively main square are only a couple of attractions that any kid will like
Best sights in Brussels for children
Museum of Natural Sciences – Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences
This fascinating museum was the highlight of our kid-friendly (and kid-centric) visit to Brussels. Within its vast permanent collection, visitors can learn about the evolution of life on earth from first forms of primitive life to human beings of today, see speciments of more than 850 animals, learn about humans, minerals, insects and play educational interactive games about the natural world.
The highlight of the Museum, however, for us, was the Dinosaur Gallery, the largest one in Europe, covering the surface area of over 3000 m2 and displaying dozens of majestic specimens. For a boy obsessed with dinosaurs, this experience was mind-blowing, and we still talk about the Dinosaur Gallery today, almost a year after our visit. This is every kid’s dream. There are things totouch, drawers to open, dinosaur sounds to hear, and seeing the kids running from one enormous skeleton to another and recognizing Brachiosauruses, T-Rexes and Iguanodons was a delight beyond words for us parents. When exiting the museum, we passed through a really well equipped museum shop full of great books, stuffed dinosaurs and other adorable souvenirs from this amazing place.
In a fun, exploratory way, this museum displays the story of beloved chocolate. Here you can learn about how first the Mayans, then the Aztecs, grew cocoa trees, how the cocoa bean came to Europe and how it is made into chocolate. The story is told in a fun, interesting way and the highlight of the visit is at the end of the tour, where you can see a master chocolate-maker prepare pralines right in front of you and let you taste them. It is an interesting experience for both kids and parents, and the story of chocolate ends with an impossible-to-avoid gift shop where parents can test their kids’ patience and rationality while telling them that they cannot buy all the chocolate they want.
Choco Story is located in the old city centre, close to Grand Place, in a lively area filled with chocolate shops with wonderful, colorful shop windows, waffle shops, cafes and souvenir shops. Just to walk around this area and people and window shop is a fun experience for visitors of all ages.
It is a strange feeling to search through town for a not-very-remarkable fountain with a teeny boy peeing and then wait in line for a photo opportunity in front of it. If Manneken Piss wasn’t the symbol of the city but just some anonymus boy on a fountain, I’m not sure the touristic allure would be that great.
However, this bronze statuette from the 17th century became the embodiment of Brussels and its spirit and is today a legendary sight. Throughout his “life”, starting from 1698, the boy was gifted costumes and decorations and his wardrobe today, displayed in the Museum of the City of Brussels, comprises some 8000 items. While we haven’t had time for that visit, I’m sure that it is a fun activity for children.
While the sight of the fountain left us adults slightly underwhelmed, although with a smile on our faces, Oliver really seemed to like it. He laughed at the peeing boy and posed proudly in front of it. I guess the sentiment has something to do with representation, and I am sure that the sight of a small boy to whom a child can relate to brings more emotions than a monumental fountain full of allegorical or mythical creatures. For anyone visiting the fountaint with their kids, this should be kept in mind. We should all try to see the world from our children’s eyes as often as possible.
Calling the central square of Brussels one of the world’s most beautiful places is not at all an exaggeration. This beautiful site has a long history dating back to the 12th century, and today it serves a political and administrative purpose by housing the Brussels Town Hall. It is a place surrounded with majestic representative buildings with gilding and intricate decorations, cafes perfect for people-watching and it is a place full of life and activity, one that urges you to stay for just a bit longer. Filled with people, the square was great fun for Oliver as well as for us: we ran around, took photos, enjoyed the atmosphere and overall had great fun.
What is it like flying with a toddler?
I must admit I was really nervous about Oliver’s first flight. I was afraid he wouldn’t sit still for the duration of our flight or that the change in air pressure or potential turbulence would scare him or that he would just scream or cry for two hours. Of course, there were also moments in thedays before the trip that I was also afraid of the plane crashing down and when I thought that I shouldn’t have pushed the plane trip at all.
None of these things happened (luckilly). Oliver was a real sport during the check in, passport control, search and all the other preparatory steps at the airport. He was visibly excited when he saw our plane and all the other planes at the airfield and especially as we were boarding the plane. It helped, I guess, that we kept describing and talking about all the things we would see and how we would fly like birds through the clouds. Once we reached our seats, he looked through the window a bit and then lost interest in the flight, opened his chips and asked for a cartoon, which he enjoyed for the duration of the flight.
Should you visit Brussels with your child?
Our trip to Brussels was a raging success on all fronts and we loved every second of it. I am so grateful that it turned out the way it did because our Brussels experience proved to me that travelling with children is a complete delight. Oliver is now in the age when everything is interesting, when he notices things the adults often overlook, when he has a lot of questions and fascinating, innocent conclusions about the world that surrounds him. And Brussels was a great discovery ground for him. A city that had a lot to offer but was not too demanding for him as a child or for us as a family. Oliver’s experience of the journey and the destination changed and enhanced the way us adults experience the world around us, seeing it from a child’s perspective. It gave us courage and motivation to continue traveling with our son while he is still young, as often as possible. And – it helped us create amazing family memories that we fondly remember – yes, even our (now) three-year old.