The Thalys Explorer Project showed me how to get the most of my European holiday and now I’m sharing that awesome itinerary with you all! Thanks to my friends at Thalys, I learned just how easy it is to cram as much fun, food and sightseeing into five days as possible. If you’re planning a Euro-trip this year, then this itinerary should cover some awesome things to see and do in Brussels, Paris, Cologne, Rotterdam and Amsterdam, of course hopping from city to city aboard the red Thalys trains. To learn a bit more about what it’s like to experience a Thalys train journey, you can check out my post on it here.
Hold on to your hats and here we go on the Thalys Explorer adventure of a lifetime!
The Complete Thalys Explorer Project
Day 1. Brussels
It’s day one of the Thalys Explorer Project and I don’t have to meet the other bloggers until tonight. I’m staying in the north end of Brussels, so I decide to have a nice leisurely brunch at a very cool cafe called Streetpecker. These guys serve amazing coffee (and I’m a coffee snob coming from Melbourne) in giant mugs, so that’s a breakfast all in itself. They also do super yum and healthy smoothie bowls that are so full of colour that they’re almost too pretty to eat. I figure since Belgium is the capital of all things beer, chocolate and waffles that I should at least start the day off on a healthy note, right?
After breakfast, it’s off to check out Le Botanique, which isn’t far from Streetpecker. When I was reading up on places to take a look at, this botanic garden had mixed reviews, but when I got there I was SO glad I’d gone with my gut and visited. The gardens themselves are pretty enough, but the most picturesque spot in Le Botanique has to be the giant greenhouses looking over manicured hedges and a spurting fountain. It’s a view perfect for sitting and taking it in and for the social media hounds among us, the photos look extremely impressive on the ‘gram. It’s free, pretty and perfect for a picnic in nice weather.
It’s off on a wander down the street now towards the Grand Place de Bruxelas, which has got to be the number one drawcard of the city (with the exception of the aforementioned beer, chocolate and waffles). I’m here smack bang in the middle of the Jazz Weekend, so the UNESCO World Heritage Listed square is full of a stage and beer stalls as locals meander waiting for the bands to start. Beer is going for 2 Euros; I figure it would be rude not to join the locals, so I grab one for my walk. Around the square are the magnificent guild houses, golden decorations glistening in the Brussels sunlight with designs and facades so intricate it’s hard to imagine that they were built in the 1600s.
Now, here’s where I have to admit that I packed for Europe completely wrong and brought clothes for coolish weather. More fool me – Brussels is in the midst of a heatwave when I arrive and so my jeans and long sleeved tops quickly give way to light summer dresses that I acquire on an emergency shopping spree in a couple of stalls on the main shopping drag of Brussels. Lucky my trip started in a big city with plenty of shops!
New clothes in one hand, and with a cone of Belgian frites (fries) in the other, it’s time to head to the other side of town to the Zoom Hotel – my home for the next two nights. Here I’ll meet the other bloggers heading off on this Thalys Explorer adventure with me, and I’ll get in with just enough time to freshen up and look presentable before we head out to dinner. The Zoom Hotel in Brussels is uber cool. When I arrive, I’m greeted by a funky retro photo display and bright yellow room doors with the room number illuminated in a neon sign. The rooms are similarly awesome – each one is different and all the funky add ons in the room are for sale!
Now it’s time to meet the bloggers! What an awesome crew we have for this Thalys Explorer adventure! We have one American vlogger, three Indian bloggers a Filipino/Australian blogger and me!
I want to give their blogs all a shout out too, because these guys are awesome. So in no particular order they are: Shayla from Living On A One Way, Jean from Holy Smithereens, Revati from Different Doors, Madhu from The Urge To Wander and Siddhartha Joshi from Sid the Wanderer. Definitely give their blogs and vlogs some love, because these guys are all doing awesome things in the travel blogging industry!
Now, it’s off to a fancy dinner in a tram because what better way to do a round trip of Brussels city whilst eating a menu created by a Michelin hatted chef and drinking champagne? The Tram Experience is your ticket to doing just that. With six tours a week and enough food to tantalise your taste buds and make you ready for bed when you hop off, this experience is definitely a fun and luxe way to see the city. And the food itself? Incredible. Bite sized morsels with so many complex flavours that seem to just keep coming as the trip goes on. For any foodies wanting to see Brussels a little differently, this is a night out for you.
Hopping off the tram (and resisting the urge to undo the top button of my jeans), it’s time to walk back to the Zoom Hotel for a well-earned rest. Tomorrow, we make our own beer and eat more food!
Day 2. Brussels
With a free morning in hand, I grab a quick pastry breakfast at the Zoom Hotel and head out in search of some good coffee and some pretty Brussels scenery. Oh and toothpaste. I forgot to bring toothpaste. D’oh. Season traveller fail right there. What is lucky, though is that my quest for coffee and toothpaste takes me to the Sablon area of Brussels which is just lovely. It’s there that I find a cute-as-a-button coffee shop called Cafe du Sablon, directly opposite the Notre Dame. Not THAT Notre Dame, you guys. Brussels has it’s own Notre Dame du Sablon and although it’s not as huge as the Parisian one, it’s still picturesque with all the gothic architecture a girl could ask for at 10am. I manage to score a little nook in the window of the cafe to watch the world pass by.
Then it’s time for beer. Now, I’m a massive beer fan. I love to drink it. I would even say I’m fairly good with beer tastings and picking flavours and ingredients in beer. But nothing could prepare me for the amazing process of learning how to brew my own beer with Brew Spot. With a beautiful lunch at Brasserie 28 by Caulier paired with some hearty Belgian beers (including a beer-infused tiramisu) taking us into the afternoon, we spend our time eating, drinking and working hard to brew up our very own Belgian beer under the watchful guidance of Senna, our Brew Spot guru. When we met Senna he jokingly said when it comes to beer, he knows more than Google. Well, after a few hours listening to Senna’s knowledge, I’m no longer convinced he was joking. The guy is like the Yoda of beer!
After three courses of amazing food and so much beer, it’s time to bid farewell to Senna and his beer expertise and head towards the Grand Place for a walking (and eating) tour of Brussels. At this stage, I’m convinced if I eat anything else, I may just combust, but I’m hoping that the walk to our meeting point helps me feel less full. It doesn’t.
We meet Bruxelles Bavard for our walking & eating tour and (thank goodness) we start with walking rather than eating. This Thalys Explorer journey is certainly awakening my taste buds in the best way, but I do need a little break from eating for a moment!
The first spot we visit has quickly become one of my favourites in Brussels – the Halles Saint-Gery – a former market, now turned meeting place where I stumble on a bunch of men engrossed in their chess game. For the next little while, we see beautiful former residential areas, a beautiful art deco cinema and the art nouveau inside of Le Falstaff where the film, The Danish Girl, shot some scenes. Then, it’s back into the food and beer, but thankfully I’ve been able to work up a little appetite after all that walking in the Brussels heat.
We are taken down a passage way to La Becasse, a traditional beer hall, serving up original style Brussels beers in large pitchers designed to be shared across the table. This beer tastes almost cider-y – it doesn’t have the heaviness or give me the bloaty feeling that some other beers do sometimes. It’s the perfect refreshing drink for the heat on a full stomach and goes down even better served up with some white cheese and radishes or some sausage.
Our walk continues around the Grand Place with some amazing stories being told by our super cheery and enthusiastic Bruxelles Bavard guide. We stop for a moment in the middle of the square to watch the golden glow of the sun going down hitting the buildings and it’s truly a magical, warming sight. We eat more food, from La Rose Blanche right on the square, this time changing things up with some salmon and a glass of wine. The last stop (and best in my opinion) is in the stunningly beautiful passageway, Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert where we hunker down for a coffee and try to squeeze in a Belgian waffle for dessert. Now, I’m not usually a sweet tooth, but these Belgian waffles have got me hooked. Mine comes out with strawberries, ice-cream and chocolate. Talk about decadence in a decadent setting to match!
That’s it for day two of the Thalys Explorer Project. Tomorrow we split up into pairs and get assigned to a different city where we’ll be following a scavenger hunt. Madhu and I are off to Cologne, Germany for half a day!
Day 3. Brussels to Cologne, then Cologne to Paris
It’s an early morning today, as Madhu and I make our way to the train station to catch the Thalys to our second country of the Thalys Explorer project – Germany. We’re off to Cologne for a very short time and we’re in competition with the other teams of bloggers: Shayla and Sid are off to Rotterdam and Revati and Jean are off to Amsterdam. I’m pretty rapt we’re heading off to a destination that I’ve never visited and the Thalys proves to be a super comfy and easy way to get from Brussels to Cologne. We’re served breakfast on the train (check out how much I rave about that in my Thalys review here) and we even have a bit of time to stretch out, get some work done and enjoy the Thalys first class experience.
When we arrive in Cologne, though, it’s down to business. We have a scavenger hunt to win! The team behind the Thalys Explorer project have given us a bunch of clues and places to discover around the city and there’s a Rail Europe voucher up for grabs for the winning team. As soon as we exit the station, though, I’m completely torn between running around like crazy in the scavenger hunt and stopping to marvel at the sheer enormity of the Cologne Cathedral. I’ve seen plenty of churches in my travels, but on size alone, this one has to be right up there with the most impressive.
It becomes pretty apparent early on that Madhu and I are unlikely to be the victors in the Thalys Explorer hunt. It’s a super hot day, we’re carrying heavy backpacks and we’re growing tired scrambling through the streets of Cologne. Eventually, it becomes a choice between enjoying all the old town goodness this city has to offer and running around to beat the clock… and you can guess what we picked. Five minutes later, Madhu and I are cooling our heels with an ice cream wandering through the streets of this quaint German town, which definitely feels like the right decision.
All too soon it is time for us to bid adieu to Germany and hop back aboard the Thalys to Paris, France where we’ll be getting one glorious night in the city of lights and love. Lunch is served on the train and again, I’m loving the red plush chairs with enough to set up my laptop and get some blogging done from the comfort of my first class seat. This Thalys Explorer trip definitely has its perks!
On arrival in Paris, Madhu and I head out to Quartier Pigalle at the base of Montmartre where we check into Hotel Villa Royale. The Sacre Coeur looks down at us as we check out our rooms. Mine is in the very decadent Catherine Deneuve room, full of red velvet drapery and a cute little terrace looking straight up the hill at the Sacre Coeur. Oh, and there’s a bathtub. Just what I need after hitting up three countries in a day! A brief moment later and there’s a knock on the door. When I open the door (a little gingerly – lets be honest) I’m greeted by a complimentary pastry and a piccolo of Moet to kick off my Parisian adventure perfectly. Champagne, pastry and a bath has the power to revitalise like nothing else and after a dip in the tub and some bubbles, I’m ready to hit the town again for our dinner at Le Train Bleu at Gare de Lyon with the rest of the Thalys Explorer team who have by now managed to make their way back from their respective cities to meet us in Paris.
OK, so last stop of the day is Le Train Bleu and just WOW. This restaurant looks like it could have been a palace in another life. It’s golden, painted ceiling has frescos all over it and the decor is just stunning. The place has been a restaurant since 1901, so they have had a bit of time to perfect the opulent and grandiose setting and service that patrons can expect here, but still, it’s pretty outstanding to look at. I’m already in love with this place and I haven’t even eaten yet!
When our food arrives, it’s just as spectacular as Le Train Bleu’s appearance. Perfect French cuisine, washed down with some of the nicest local wines and finished off with a Rum Baba like nothing I’ve ever tasted before. It’s amazing sitting here and chowing down, thinking that between all of us at the table we’ve covered five cities in a day thanks to the super convenient Thalys trains and the Thalys Explorer Project. I’m sure we will all rest easy tonight.
Day 4. Paris
With the best of intentions to get out and see a lot of Paris in my free morning, I accidentally (OK maybe not) switch off my alarm and allow myself a bit of extra snooze time. When I get up, the sun is shining and I spend way too long on my terrace trying to get the perfect shot of me in the foreground and the Sacre Coeur behind me. Photoshoot complete, it’s time to wander around Paris, and I catch the train down to the Musee D’Orsay and start to stroll along the Seine. My next appointment is a lunch at midday, so I have time to amble along down alleyways, stopping at cafes and peering into shops as I go. I come out near a sight I clearly recognise – the Notre Dame (my second Notre Dame in three days) looms ahead. This means that one of my favourite haunts in Paris is nearby, the ever cute bookstore Shakespeare & Co. which awakens the inner bibliophile in me every single time. It’s one of those old-school bookstores that still use wooden ladders to slide around and grab books down from the higher shelves. I just love everything about it, and because there are no photos allowed inside, it’s a nice haven away from selfie sticks and bulky cameras where I can really just enjoy being surrounded by so many amazing stories.
A little further down and I find my lunch spot, Le Reminet, directly opposite the Notre Dame. The rest of the Thalys Explorer group has been held up, so I take a moment to pull out a book and read a few pages on a bench feeling totally Parisian for a moment and without a care in the world. When we get inside Le Reminet, we’re ushered down to a cavernous candlelit room for a three course meal with French wine. French food is rich and flavoursome, but somehow everything on each dish balances perfectly and nothing is overpowering.
Then it’s off in a rush to get to a wine tasting at the Caves Du Louvre which is quite honestly the most comprehensive, informative and easy to understand wine tasting lesson I’ve ever had. Designed around the different senses, the wine tasting here explores wine production and taste in the location formerly used by King Louis XV’s sommelier. It’s beautifully presented and set out, with a particular highlight being the decorative arched lit up wine feature wall over a mirrored table in one of the final rooms. Totally perfect for Instagramming.
Wine and food in our bellies, the Thalys Explorer crew now have a couple of hours to kill in the Parisian sunshine before heading back to the Thalys Lounge to take our high speed train to our next city, Rotterdam. Luckily, Revati from Different Doors knows how to get to the oldest planned square in Paris called Place des Vosges in the Marais area. It’s totally peaceful and extremely popular with locals who are lounging around on the lush green grass enjoying the summer heatwave. After the hectic couple of days we’ve had, I think we’re all excited about just plopping down on the lawn and soaking up some sun in full view of the park fountain. Of course, we’re bloggers so we also spent a whole bunch of time setting up for the perfect fountain shot!
After what seems like a nano second, it’s already time to say “Au Revoir” to Paris and make my way back to the Thalys lounge for a quick recharge before catching the late train to Rotterdam. I love Paris, so it’s always hard to say goodbye, but I am so excited to visit a city I have never been to before!
The Thalys journey from Paris to Rotterdam is around 2 hours and 40 minutes, so there’s plenty of time to relax, have a drink and get some work done. At this stage, all my electronics are pretty much out of battery, but luckily Thalys has thought of everything including power points for charging devices! Arriving into Rotterdam around 10pm, it’s time to quickly make our way to our funky home for the next two nights, The Student Hotel, grab our Rotterdam info kits and turn in for the night.
Day 5. Rotterdam
I wake up so excited to get out and about in Rotterdam this morning. I’ve been reading up on how magnificent the architecture in this city is and how different it is to Amsterdam, which is a quick, less than an hour train trip away. First up is a little wander through the very unique hotel I’m staying in, which is a co-working space, study area and student housing facility all in one. There are cool quotes on the walls and the design is youthful and fresh – I’m probably on the older end of the guests staying here, but it’s still simple and fun to be here. Breakfast is a simple buffet with pastries and some cold charcuterie and the bartender makes me one of the best lattes I’ve had since I arrived in Europe.
Then it’s time to get out and see Rotterdam. Walking along the waterfront, grey and gloomy weather starts rolling in and as we rush to board a ferry, the rain starts coming down in buckets. The ferry is covered, though, and it’s kind of cool to be charging along the waterways of Rotterdam as water cascades down around us. Of course, being the terribly last minute packer that I am, I haven’t brought an umbrella or a waterproof coat, but it’s luckily not that cold – it’s just wet. About 30 mins later, we pull up outside the UNESCO World Heritage listed site, Kinderdijk.
Kinderdijk is a quaint and peaceful site with nineteen 18th century windmills working to drain the polder to prevent floods. These windmills are still run by the families who live in them, with a couple of mills open for visitors to wander through and catch a glimpse of miller life. It’s still drizzling as I walk through the green fields, but it adds to the experience as the contrast of the mills against the grey sky and the green grass looks truly beautiful. It’s quiet here; a far cry from the hustle of the city and the people here enjoy the simple way of life. Living off the land, surrounded by water, fields, ducks and gardens does look pretty attractive when the scenery looks like this.
As we leave, the sun comes out (of course) and by the time we get back into town, the day has turned from winter to summer in the space of an hour. I’m treated to lunch at the awesome Fenix Food Factory, which is a converted warehouse cum food hall full of local produce and treats. We’re signed up for a blind tasting of some Dutch delicacies including bitterballen, Dutch beer and stroopwafels – all of which are totally yum and I’d definitely sign up to eat more of any of them.
After lunch, the Thalys Explorer team is free to enjoy Rotterdam for a while before our last dinner together. I’m headed straight to the renowned architecture of the Markthal and the Cube Houses, neither of which disappoint. The Markthal is a spectacular tubular building with huge glass frontage on either end and an enormous mural depicting the fresh produce being sold. It’s definitely a place where I’d want to do my shopping.
The Cube Houses are a stone’s throw from the Markthal, so both are definitely doable in the same afternoon. Arguably Rotterdam’s most famous and curious piece of architecture, the 38 yellow and white cubes that form the housing complex are totally iconic to the city. It’s possible to pop into a ‘show-cube’ which is essentially one of the cube houses that has been set up as a museum to demonstrate what life would be like inside a cube. I have to admit, they’re actually more spacious than what they look like from the outside, but they would be difficult to furnish well.
Finally, it’s time for the last stop of the day. All the Thalys Explorer bloggers are back together and sitting down for our last supper at Ayla. This is a gorgeous summer venue doing sumptuous tapas varieties in a courtyard setting. As the sun goes down, we’re sipping cocktails and enjoying one last night of each other’s company before bidding farewell tomorrow in Amsterdam. And the food? It’s absolutely divine. Definitely check this place out if you’re in Rotterdam looking for some share plates and inventive cocktails.
Day 6. Amsterdam
Well, the Thalys Explorer project officially comes to a close today and I have to say, I will be sad to bid goodbye to all the awesome people I’ve met on the trip as well as saying farewell for now to the comfy, big red trains that have helped me see so many amazing European cities in such a short time.
First, though, it’s time to make our way to Amsterdam on a local train, which is super crowded in peak hour. We manage to make it on, and our first stop is at the IAmsterdam store at Central Station. This is where visitors to the city can grab their IAmsterdam City Cards, which I have to say offers fantastic value if you’re in town for a few days. For 72 hours, City Card holders can gain access to most of the museums in town (including the Van Gogh and the Rijksmuseum), as well as use city public transport AND a free canal cruise (which is an absolute must do in Amsterdam). You can also pre-order the cards online here.
Once I’ve grabbed my City Card, it’s time to join the Thalys Explorer crew on a canal cruise. I’ve been to Amsterdam before and done a canal cruise, but it truly is the kind of experience that I could do over and over again because it is the best way to kick back with a Heineken and see the city. Last time I visited, it was in Autumn, so I was rugged up and freezing for the duration of the cruise, so it’s nice that this time around the sun is out and it’s warm enough to sit outside.
Once we hop off the boat, we just have time for a final lunch with the Thalys Explorer team and then we go our separate ways. Lunch is at The Lobby Fizeaustraat, which is a bit out of the centre of town. It’s nice to be in a non-touristy area, milling around with the locals and eating more amazing food. No kidding, this week has spoiled me forever with the amount of yummy food I’ve been eating and this three course meal is the perfect way to finish it off!
I couldn’t end this mammoth post without saying a massive thank you to Thalys, Rail Europe and the tourism bodies of Brussels, Paris, Cologne, Rotterdam and Amsterdam for showing me an amazing time in Europe over the past six days. I truly recommend this itinerary – it’s a life changing, taste-bud tantalising way to see some of the best cities in Europe.
Note: Thalys trains are best booked in advance on Rail Europe‘s website to ensure the best price.
I travelled on this itinerary as a guest of Thalys and the Thalys Explorer Project. All opinions are my own.
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WOW !!! That’s insane but well done. Liked how you described Rotterdam and having lived there I didn’t know about Kinderdijk!
It was pretty full on, not gonna lie. And you MUST get back to Rotterdam so you can check out Kinderdijk! I’m so jealous you got to live there!
Been to Amsterdam and Paris but have to admit Im itching to pay a visit to Rotterdam and Brussels. In India at the moment abd really craving a good salad or healthy breakfast after seeing some of your food pics. 🙂
Oh yeah, I remember craving salads too when I was in India! The food there is awesome, but quite heavy 🙂 Rotterdam and Brussels are both awesome – Brussels is so cute and traditional and Rotterdam has such an amazing architecture scene!
Hi! I loved reading this! I grew up in Kinderdijk and lived in Rotterdam for most of my adult life. It’s so much fun to read about your experience in my hometown!
You’re so lucky to have grown up in such a beautiful part of the world! I fell in love with Kinderdijk and Rotterdam has THE coolest architecture ever!