I love to travel! While I enjoy taking in a few famous sights now and then, I often become easily exhausted by the mainstream, tourist-trap style of traveling. I truly enjoy experiencing a location like a local does. I want to shop where the locals shop, I want to eat what the locals eat, and most importantly I want to get to know the locals! I believe that our experience of a new city or country is shaped by the people we come into contact with there. This is how I wanted to get to know Brussels, Belgium!
Volunteer travel plays a critical role for me in this way. It allows me to immerse myself in a new place by getting my hands dirty with the locals, while hopefully making a small difference in one little pocket of the world. For me, it feels like I’m getting the “behind the scenes” tour. I feel so much more intimately connected with a place when I am able to interact with it, rather than just view it through the lens of a camera.
And while traveling to a foreign country can indeed be daunting, knowing that I have a community to bond with when I arrive eases a lot of the tension found in traveling into the unknown. This is why I love volunteer travel and see myself making a habit of embarking on many more of these volunteer adventures!
While volunteering with Serve the City Brussels, I was able to participate in a project at a home for migrants helping with the morning activities. This was such a remarkable experience for me in many ways. I found joy in being able to directly interact with the people that I was there to serve. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the general demeanor of most of these men was so upbeat. After learning about the challenging life they lead as migraints, I was inspired by the gratitude and positivity that many of them exhibited in the most basic interactions.
It forced me to reflect on how even the simplest gestures of kindness can radiate far beyond the point of inception. Every small act spreads far beyond our reach. This really shook me. Knowing that something as simple as giving out bread and coffee with a smile might translate into someone else’s ability to persevere through a challenging time. In my opinion, therein lies our power as individuals to amass change in the world.
If volunteer travel seems like something that is up your alley, I highly recommend the organization that I’ve used in both Brussels, Belgium and Cusco, Peru: IVHQ. IVHQ does a great job helping you prepare for your time abroad, they offer fantastic support both before and during your travels, and they keep the prices reasonable. By partnering with local service organizations in each location, they are able to help volunteers actually participate in meaningful work because the local organizations know what their specific community needs.
In addition to my time spent volunteering in Brussels, I was able to see a few “popular” sights and take two day trips, one to Gent, Belgium and one to Bruges, Belgium. I really enjoyed being able to get to know the other volunteers during these outings. Another perk of volunteer travel is the instant friends you get when you arrive. You don’t ever have to worry about being lonely or always on your own if you don’t want to. In fact, one of the other volunteers and I even traveled on to Amsterdam together after finishing our volunteer projects in Brussels.
Of course, this post wouldn’t be complete without a few real food recommendations! Below are a few places I found in Brussels that helped make my travels a little more nourishing.
Also, if you enjoy this post, please check out some of my other City Guides for Healthy Travels!
French Allergen-Friendly Vocab:
- Sans = Without (sans gluten = without gluten)
- Avec = With (avec fromage = with cheese)
- Gluten = Gluten
- Blé = Wheat
- Soja = Soy
- Produits Laitiers = Dairy Products
- Oeufs = Eggs
- Fruits à Coque, Noisettes, Noix = Nuts
- Cacahuète, Arachide = Peanut
- Maïs = Corn
Exki dubs themselves as “nature’s kitchen”. It is a grab and go style cafe/restuarant with the option to dine-in. They offer a predominately local and vegetable-based menu as well as organic fair trade coffee and tea. Each month they feature a new seasonal vegetable in their dishes. This was a fun way to try the same old veggies in new preparations. Exki was the perfect place to grab a convenient and healthy meal or snack while out and about. Plus, they also have free WiFi!
The Sister Brussels Cafe is located in the heart of Brussels just steps from Grand Place. It is the first zero-waste restaurant in Brussels and focuses on local, plant-based and gluten-free food and drinks. They have an extensive menu with everything from fresh-pressed juices, smoothies, salads, superfood bowls, sandwiches, raw desserts, and gluten-free/dairy-free waffles to coffee, tea, beer, wine, and cocktails! With free wifi and many events (like improv and dancing), it is a great place to hang out!
If you are going to indulge in the local fare, might as well make it the best there is! I sampled many “frites” while in Brussels and they were hands down the best at Frites Atelier. What makes the frites special in Brussels is that they are double-fried in beef fat. This means they aren’t fried in some industrial seed oil, definitely a step up from your usual fries. Frites Atelier has a brasserie style feel with gourmet frites that are dressed up with sauces and made into a meal. I enjoyed the Shakshouka Surprise, frites with a middle eastern flare!
De Markten is a lovely cafe located in the center of the city with an amazing terrace to relax in! The fare here is light and more tapas style, but it is absolutely delicious! They have a fun little legend that helps the allergen-friendly eaters navigate the menu. You can find plenty of gluten-free options here! De Markten offers free wifi and the terrace looks out onto the Saint Catherine church – it’s a great place to relax in between sightseeing, meet a friend, or work on your laptop.
Romain Roquette is a salad bar located near the Gare de Nord in Brussels. What?! A salad bar?! These are not common in Europe. Whether you want to eat in or take-away, this is the place to find a nice big salad. Have an allergy to gluten or dairy? They will happily help you personalize a salad to fit your desires. In addition to salads they also have acai bowls and fruit bowls if the mood strikes for something fruity instead. If you happen to take a day trip to Gent, they have a second location at Gent Centrum too!
Sometimes a girl has just gotta swim! I don’t go anywhere without my swimsuit because I’ll take any chance I can get to hop in the water. If you’re like me and traveling in Brussels, fear not! There are places to get a lap in! I visited the “Baths of the Centre” pool while I was here and enjoyed the unique experience. Definitely check out the website to make sure you understand the rules and the times it is open to the public. This pool is located on the 3rd floor of the building with tall glass windows giving you a nice view of the city while you swim.
The locker room is a bit antiquated but it adds to the charm. You go into a little stall, change, and exit through a second door leaving your belongings inside with both doors locked. When you return, you just shout out your locker stall number and an attendant comes by and unlocks it. Make sure to bring euros to pay for your swim.
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Disclaimer: The information in this post is not intended as medical advice, or to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional. Marcelle encourages you to make your own health care decisions based upon your research, and in partnership with your doctor, licensed dietitian, or nutritionist. The information provided in this post and the entire contents of www.marcellephene.com are based upon the opinions of Marcelle Phene and are for general educational purposes, and have not been reviewed nor approved by the FDA. You are solely responsible for your health care and activity choices.