In 2020 we had planned on a Thanksgiving trip centered on European Christmas markets, as it had been 6 years since we were last in Europe late in the year. Of course, all of our 2020 plans were wiped out, so we made an extra effort to get in a pre-Christmas trip this year. After finding a good deal on the direct flight to London, we crafted a trip that had us on our first Eurostar train to Belgium, with stops in Ghent (1 night), then Bruges (2 nights), followed by Lille, France (2 nights in a city new to us), and then 3 nights in London. Food and drink were a big part of this trip, especially beer, chocolate, and pastries!
Map of our route:
Both trips on the train between the UK and mainland Europe were easy and uneventful. In London it took ~25 minutes to clear security and the UK and French border controls. There was not enough seating in the waiting area, so we stood to the side while we waited for our train platform to be announced. The duty free was surprisingly small and food options fairly limited, so it is best to grab a snack in the main station.
On our return in Lille we first cleared customs, then went through security, and this time we found some seats. Luckily the area was heated, as most of the train station is not. Seats on the train were fine, a bit firm, but no complaints. The Eurostar is a remarkably quick option for this type of trip and prices vary greatly depending on day and time. Being able to catch a train from central London instead of going through an airport was a plus.
Train service in Belgium has always been a bit rough in our experience. On one hand, you can get to most of the country, but on the other, the trains are usually a bit beat up and crowded. Brussels Zuid/Midi station was especially busy and it wasn’t obvious from the signage which train would get us to the right place. We found it easiest to check the schedules on our phone rather than the overhead boards and eventually we figured out the correct option. On the day we arrived a strike was slowing down service which made things even more hectic.
In Ghent the tram stop by the train station had moved in September, but the signage in the train station had not been updated yet! Thankfully Google maps pointed us toward the new stop a short walk in the opposite direction. To pay on board with a tap credit card you must use the white colored boxes.
The mid-afternoon train we choose from Ghent to Bruges was packed, so we had to stand in the vestibule. Thankfully the trip was only 25 minutes.
Surprisingly, all the train options from Bruges to Lille included a change of trains, which is a pain with luggage. Instead, we decided on a direct bus, and went with Flix since they had been reasonable in Poland. The international bus stand was on the south (far) side of the Bruges train station, reasonably well marked. The driver left each stop a little early, so be there at least 10 minutes before the scheduled departure! Overall, it was a quick and unmemorable trip, with the exception of the driver loudly humming for most of it.
Where We Stayed
1898 The Post, Ghent
Getting in to this hotel was overly difficult, as what appears to be the main entrance on the street is in fact not. Instead, there is a small sign pointing you to an entrance along the riverside. The signage along the river is terrible, just a small brass plaque on a wall that is especially difficult to see after dark. What you must do is go through a small garden, then up a flight of stairs to find an elevator and/or more stairs to take you to the hallway for reception. Once we found the check-in desk, the staff were friendly and helpful (and apologetic for the confusion). From reception we had an elevator ride and even more stairs to get to our room on the top floor. Thankfully it was worth it for the very chic space.
The soaker tub was especially nice after all our travel.
Our room had views of the cathedral and the temporary Ferris wheel setup for the market. As a welcome gift we each received a complimentary cocktail during our stay at the The Cobbler bar. We chose the Birds & Bees (gin, Cointreau, shiso, passionfruit, honey) and a Goose (vodka, Acqua di Cedro, violet, grape). Both were delicious.
Hippe loftstudio centrum, Bruges
About a 10 minute walk from the train station, the apartment entrance was fairly easy to find and key access was via an app that the owner had previously sent us. Our studio was on the top (4th) floor up some fairly steep steps – this would be very difficult for those with mobility issues. The view of towers through skylights made hauling our luggage worth it!
The room was fairly cold, so we got the heaters working right away. We appreciated the Christmas lights information left in the room for us. Overall it was a comfortable space with everything we needed, including a nice kitchenette, and the area was mostly quiet at night – we would stay here again.
Charmant appartement au coeur du Vieux (Airbnb), Lille
We would not stay here again. Thank goodness we were only here for two days because we had nothing but problems. The washing machine had a stained towel and standing water in it, and clearly not been properly maintained. There was no detergent available and no hot water in the shower on the second evening.
The kitchen had expired condiments and open rice bags in the cabinet, no coffee pods for the dusty coffee machine and the dishes and glasses were dirty. We had to wash everything before using it. At least the heat worked once we turned on the unit. While the owner was quick to respond to our messages, nothing was resolved during our stay and I would avoid this place.
Wilde Aparthotels by Staycity, Covent Garden
We dropped off our bags around 11a and came back at 4p to check-in and they had already deposited our bags in our room, a nice touch. The room sizes are small but well laid-out, and it is quite nice to have the mini-kitchen for breakfast and snacks. Storing large check-in sized bags could be difficult, you’ll be better off with carry-on sized bags for sure. The rooms were also surprisingly quiet for being in the heart of Covent Garden.
The location is excellent for shows and shopping in central London, a few minutes walk to multiple tube stops and Trafalgar Square. We’d definitely consider a return in the future.