When one thinks of Brussels a hotspot for tourist activity is not always the first thought that comes to mind. Paris, London, Berlin, Madrid, Rome etc. these form the pantheon of European cities to visit at all costs. Then again, different places mean different things for different people.
For most Europeans Brussels is the capital of the EU and seat of the European Parliament where the fate of all Europeans is decided. For non-Europeans, erratic flashes of chocolate, beers and questionable statues of children may come to mind. Americans might think of a certain vegetable as European geography is generally not their strong point (a joke obviously, Americans are one of the most numerous expatriate populations of the city).
As a frequent of visitor of the city I think I can clear some things up and try to give a somewhat accurate representation of the unofficial capital of Europe. An incredibly underrated city in my opinion for a variety of reasons. Its vast cultural sphere, nightlife, diversity, eclectic architecture, gastronomy, fascinating history and especially beer make Brussels one of the most captivating European cities to visit.
Exploring the Grand Place
The beating heart of the city is the Grand Place located in the borough of Centre-Ville (Brussels is divided in 19 self-governing municipalities each with their own mayor). This dazzling square is covered on all sides by magnificently embellished edifices of the city’s many guilds. The Maison du Roi and City Hall take the centrepiece with their gold decorated façades symbolising the might of the Flemish republics of old.
Brussels went through many periods of foreign domination but always as seat of power stemming from its importance during Hapsburg Spanish domination (an interesting tidbit of history, because of dynastic succession present day Belgium and The Netherlands were ruled directly by the Spanish crown).
The square constitutes the fulcrum of the city with weekly cultural events, concerts and more. A mere 5-minute walk on Rue de Chenes and we find a landmark that for some mysterious reason (maybe the copious amounts of beer) is the most photographed in the city.
The Manneken Pis is a statue of a young boy gleefully urinating dating at least from the 1600s. It is one of the most photographed statues in the world (which is odd, considering it is a replica. The real statue is housed in the Brussels City Museum). Numerous legends surround the statue and it is said to represent zwanze, or Belgian sense of humour in face of adversity.
The statue has a female counterpart (built in the 1980s) the Jeanakke Pis located in the same cul de sac as the headquarters of the Delirium Tremens, one of the nations most frequented beer distilleries. A common scene involves masses of tourists making their way through tipsy revellers spilling on the street to get a shot of this peculiar statue (yes Belgium is a strange place).
Walking through Centre Ville
Walking around the old medieval streets that surround the plaza we can find two distinct quarters, an international restaurant quarter centered around Rue des Bouchers (butcher street) divided in local, French, southern European, Asian and middle-Eastern and the so-called beer quarter clustered around Impasse de la Fidélité. In actuality pubs, bars and brasseries are everywhere.
One might notice numerous murals some occupying entire outer walls of condominiums depicting characters ranging from TinTin, Lucky Luke, Asterix to Corto Maltese. Belgium is known as a comic book haven having contributed massively despite the nations small size.
Behind the square (depending on which direction I guess) is the Mont Des Art, a counterpart to Montmartre in Paris where one can enjoy a spectacular view of the city. For an even better vantage point head over to the museum of musical instruments the Museè de Instruments Musical. Not only is it one of the best in the world of its type but the roccò building it is held in is a beauty of its own. The building was the old trading emporium of the city named the Old England and the view from on top is free and truly stupendous.
To the south of the centre proper is the bohemian quarter of Saint Gilles. A medley of dazzling art nouveau buildings hosting everything from art galleries, record shops, chocolateries, antique stalls and obviously bars upon bars. The quarter is incredibly popular with the thousands of university students that call the city a temporary home. Ranging from full-on dive bar scenes to more relaxed brasseries where it isn’t uncommon to find people playing board games while sipping on a Leffe while listening to smooth jazz.
The last neighborhood on our list is Marolle and Sablon, once the old blue-collar environs of Brussels. Heavily gentrified now but still maintaining its working-class identity . The reason for most visits is its renowned flea market. Belgians of African and North-African descent dominate the market scene selling handmade wares every morning.
This all makes for a lively atmosphere in the square under the towering Palais de Justice (thought to be the largest building in the world by volume).
All sides of the square are bound by quaint bistros, pubs and bars but a special mention goes to the Mar Del Sur, a bar that specializes in Provençal drinks and food with some of the best takeaway herring sandwiches you’ll ever try, to be accosted with a smooth Corsican Pastises’.
No time for eating, Brussels and Belgium at large are known for their mastery of all thing’s beer. There are 1153 registered beer companies in Belgium, and this doesn’t even count the myriad of artisanal breweries. As is the case for many locations, establishments closer to tourist centres are to be avoided unless you’re a high roller (though having a cold one smack dab in the Grand Place may seem tempting). In any case starting from right next to the square we have the first of many bars of the Delirium Tremens chain.
Although some artisanal purists might scoff the beverages served are still vastly superior to around 90% of bars in the world (fight me). Many Belgian bars also offer dangerous combinations were two or three orders of beer automatically win you a free beverage (of beer). If we want to get serious, we can mention three breweries that merit a visit also for their cultural and technical value (showcasing preparation and centenary history of Belgian beer).
Poechenellekelder is a high-end brasserie situated on the opposite side of the Manneken Pis that is internationally renowned for beer tasting, they offer an insane amount of different beers. A tip to not get completely wasted is to stack up on their delicious selection of cheeses for each liquid taste. Moeder Lambic Pub is another beer drinking heaven presenting a beer assortment in the hundreds and two locations: one near the Grand Place one in Saint Gilles.
And finally (though the list could go on for days) the Brasserie Cantillon is certified old school (inaugurated in the year 1900) also specialized in Lambic style beers (veeery potent). The location is near the Gare du Midi (Brussels main train station). Trappiste beer aficionados can find them in numerous distilleries and bars in the city, though the actual breweries are located in other parts of Belgium: in the monk brewery/strongholds of Rochefort, Orval and Chimay.
Though we joke about never having food on our minds when vacationing in Belgium; Food is as equally important as booze, especially if we don’t want a massive hangover to ruin our stay. To that regard I advise a visit to one of the many brasseries that serve the national dish of Moules Frites (fresh mussels and clams prepared in various ways). Checking reviews online and straying further from the city centre are good ways to not be served overpriced and off brand clams.
Le Zinneke is a favourite of many, its reputation precedes it as one of the best in the capital. Not only are the Moules some of the freshest and the ambience relaxed and serene but their selection of around 70 different sauces to match with the clams Is unparalleled. Brussels is also very advanced with its street food selection, especially downtown and some of the outlying boroughs.
Another specialty of the Belgians are their incredibly creative ways of making French (or should I say Belgian) fries. JordanPlatz in the lively neighbourhood of Ixelles is an epicentre of chip stalls extremely popular with students and tourists. Matonge is the informal name for the Congolese majority neighbourhood were one can find delicious African soul food. Place Flagey and the surrounding neighbourhood is also vibrant spot popular with all walks of Belgian life for eating and afterhours activities.
European Quarter and Atomium
Although not strictly a tourist destination per se. A detour from Centre-Ville toward the European Quarter grants some of the most interesting glimpses of the city. Moving west we pass the Magritte museum, Brussels Park and the Royal Palace before arriving under the stainless steel and glass-covered façade of the European Parliament and Commission.
It is common to see motorcades carrying foreign dignitaries and even heads of state. Place de Luxemburg or Place Lux for the youngsters is an international common meeting ground for tourists, locals and the veritable melting pot of EU functionaries. Late at night one can find hordes of young EU interns partying the night away. The future of our continent is in good hands.
Bordering the quarter to the west and south are two of the city’s most frequented parks, the Jardin du Leopold and the Parc du Cinquantenaire and its massive archway. The park is one of the most popular with Bruxellians. It also hosts a WWI and automobile industry museum. Both museums and the park (also called Jubel Park) are located in Etterbeek a borough known for its quaint bars and beautiful Flemish brick homes. For those who want to explore amazing Bruges – Venice of the North or visit the most beautiful places in Ghent, it is quite easy as most of other destinations worth visiting are within 1-2 hour drive from Brussels.
Lastly, on the completely opposite (northern) side of town we have the Atomium. Located in Heysel park this daring structure and imposing (at 102m high) depicting 9 linked spheres that form an iron atom. Built in 1952 for the world fair, it was supposed to remain for a maximum of 6 years.
Close by is a curious attraction that I think sums up the whole city in a way. Mini-Europe is one of the biggest miniature parks in the world with 350000 annual visitors admiring the painstakingly recreated monuments of 80 European cities.
It’s a bit like Brussels itself, a charming miniature version of Europe but with much better beer.