Traveling While Celiac: A Gluten-Free Weekend in Brussels, Belgium
Beer. Waffles. Frites (never French fries). Chocolate. Traveling while celiac is possible, but is there any fun to visiting Belgium if you can’t taste the food? In Brussels, you can see the sites and enjoy delicious gluten-free Belgian specialties too.
Gluten- Free travel is not just about food
I have always loved to travel. Long before my diagnosis, I enjoyed getting behind the wheel and exploring, stopping at interesting little cafes to try the local specialty and see the local sites.
Yes, the eating part became a bit harder when I began traveling on a gluten-free diet. Seeing the local sites? That’s still a gluten-free adventure!
Gluten-free travel is more than possible. It’s fun and fulfilling. Do we have to plan ahead a bit more? Yes of course. Check out my tips on planning for gluten-free travel and go have some fun.
What to see in Brussels
I confess, I’m a history nut. I love old stuff: Old buildings, old roads, old traditions. And the Middle Ages is my favorite period. So European travel is my slice of heaven: almost every city has a long and fascinating history, with plenty to explore. Brussels is no exception, with the added bonus of being the home of the European Parliament, European Council and European Commission.
I spent a weekend here with my sister recently. I had no problem finding safe gluten-free food in Brussels, and I’ll share my finds in a minute. Before I get to that, here are some of the non-food things we enjoyed the most.
Belgian Comic Strip Center
Did you know that Belgium has more comic strip artists per square kilometre than anywhere else in the world? It’s true: the country is home to more than 700 professional comic artists. This museum, set in an Art Nouveau building from 1906 that is a destination in its own right, shows the history of comics in Belgium and elsewhere through permanent and rotating temporary exhibitions. The museum shop has an amazing selection of graphic art books and related items. We loved this!
Coudenberg Palace archaeological tour
This was a surprise discovery – we came out an unexpected exit from the Royal Park and found ourselves in front of a sign advertising the underground history of one of the palaces. How could we say no? In the self-guided tour, you go under the Coudenberg Palace and see the many layers below it. We walked through hidden cellars, along walls, windows, even sewers. Fortunately empty ones! Definitely not your usual palace tour.
Brussels is well-known for its comic murals – you can even do a walking tour that will take you around the city. We found murals large and small. Our favorite was the one in this photo; it looks like something from the movie Labyrinth, another favorite.
A huge column built to commemorate the Belgian constitution of 1831, it also includes the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for both World War I and World War II. I always find these memorials striking and evocative. This one has statues of the 4 freedoms guaranteed under the Belgian constitution (education, association, worship, and the press) and enormous lions to guard it.
Of course when you come to Brussels, if you enjoy quirky art, you visit the Magritte Museum. Along with some of Rene Magritte's familiar favorites we discovered new (to us) pieces, including this sculpture of a tree stump on an axe. The question is, who won?
Gluten-Free Food in Brussels
You’ve been very patient reading this far…thank you! That was part of my point. There is far more to travel than eating, and most of it is gluten free.
To find gluten-free food in Brussels, I followed my usual strategy: researching some places in advance, checking with locals, and then trying my best.
Did I cross-examine each place about their cross-contact training and whether anything else was fried in the same oil? No I did not. Call me dumb if you wish, but I used common sense. I had frites at a place that was not serving anything else fried. I stuck to naturally gluten-free foods. It worked for me. If you aren’t comfortable with this approach, consider many of these tips as starting points.
The star of the show was The Sister Café, at Rue Chair et Pain 3. Delicious savory and sweet waffles. Real Belgian Waffles. I had a blueberry waffle with ice cream and dark chocolate sauce. OMG that was good. Who knew chickpeas, rice flour and bananas could work so well together? My sister had one with vegan cheese, avocado, sun-dried tomatoes and walnuts. Way more than 5 stars for this gluten-free discovery!
Café Belga is a famous coffee shop, where everyone goes to see and be seen. It also has a great fresh fruit and vegetable market. Sunday morning breakfast was a hot chocolate at Café Belga and fresh strawberries from the market. Mmmmm.
Dinner at Volle Gas was fabulous: duck leg with roasted potatoes and green beans. Straight off the menu and right into my stomach, accompanied by a delightful glass of Sancerre.
Dinner at Ultime Atome, moules in white wine, was the classic Belgian dinner, and naturally gluten free. I didn’t eat the frites here…too many moules in the pot!
I loved the frites at Vertigo, accompanying a meat plate for me and a cheese plate for my sister. And some delicious drinks – can you ever go wrong when you start with champagne?
When in Belgium, eat chocolate. (Well, for me, when anywhere, eat chocolate). Chocolates to nibble on came from Passion chocolate. We were careful not to get anything with biscuits or crisps. These were excellent chocolates, dark and creamy. My favorites were the rose cream and the cassis.
Except for the day we ate at The Sister, I had breakfast in the room. Our hotel was near a great bio grocery called Färm, where I found gluten-free breakfast cereal and madeleines for emergencies.
Brussels offers many more gluten-free dining options. I felt comfortable eating here and I think most celiacs could find safe, delicious gluten-free food without much effort.
Gluten-free Brussels: worth a second trip?
Absolutely! I would go back to The Sister every day for a different waffle, try out some of the city’s other gluten-free bakeries, explore more neighborhoods and drink more wine.
History, cartoons and great gluten-free food make Brussels a great destination for traveling while celiac.
PS I have no financial connection to any of the external links or places mentioned.