- I present you with a word – Venice. What do you think of? Canals? I do. Here’s another one – Sydney. Now, I’m not sure about you, but images of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge are currently flowing through my mind. But Brussels…now that’s a different story.
It’s hard to associate the Belgian capital with one particular attribute as this is a city famous for many things. This is the city where every district is plastered with comic strip art, where the European Union has been headquartered for decades and where streets upon streets boast some of the world’s most beautiful Art Nouveau architecture. It is also where you can sample gallons of the world’s best beer, and where you can risk possessing a face full of pimples and a backpack full of tight jeans by pigging out on some of the world’s best chocolate. And did I mention the famous Belgian waffles?
One of Europe's grandest squares
You will find all of the above here. But before you stumble upon any, you are bound to encounter the breathtaking Grand Place, one of Europe’s most beautiful squares. Dating back to the 12th century, it is also unashamedly one of Europe’s most touristy places. I found myself here on a number of occasions, namely to get the right picture as I wasn’t graced with many blue skies on my trip to Belgium. Each time I went I had to meander my way through streams of tourists who trickle in and out of it all day. Two of these visits were at night. I made sure to return after dark as it looks decidedly more beautiful when both Hôtel de Ville and the Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles are lit up in all their glory.
Like the majority of people who pass through Brussels either on a weekend break or on a whirlwind trip of Central Europe, the Grand Place was one of the first places I encountered. But before this I found a rather gaudy street called Rue des Bouchers. Populated by pushy waiters who hazard any hope of getting of one end of it to the other in less than three minutes, there is a gem located in the middle of it nonetheless. This, my friends, is a restaurant called Chez Leon. Opened in 1893, its delicacy is ‘moules et frites’, or mussels (served in a bowl) and fries to those of you not equipped with the French language.
I finished my healthy helping of mussels and fries by 2pm. I hadn’t achieved much else before this as I only landed in Brussels at 10am. Then I didn’t manage to leave my hostel until midday as I had to check-in, shower and all that stuff. This meant that by the time I’d finished my meeting with the Belgian press officer (who gave me some tips for backpackers and what not to miss) at 3.30pm, I didn’t have a whole lot of time to get much in before shaping up for my first night on the town. It did, however, give me a couple of hours to relax with a couple of ‘half and halves’ (a mouth-watering mix of white wine and champagne) brought on a tray by a tuxedo-clad waiter in Le Cirio (Rue de la Bourse 20) and plan out what was going to be an extremely productive second day in Brussels.
This industrious second day began with some tea, bread and a jar full of jam in a charming bakery/café called Le Pain Quotidien on Rue Antoine Dansaert 16. Of all the cities I’ve travelled to, it’s hard to think of a more pleasant establishment to have breakfast in. Its communal table in the centre of the bright room means you can end up chomping on your first meal beside anybody from an office clerk to a fellow backpacker about to embark on a day’s sightseeing similar to yours. It’s only minutes from the Grand Place and a great place to start any day. Check it out.
There's a lot to be said for planning
So what happened next? Well I strolled up to Place St Catherine to have a quick word with my maker in Église Ste Catherine. I then turned hot on my heels back past Le Pain Quotidien en route to Place du Jeu de Balle Flea Market in Brussels’ Marolles district. If you, like me, like to experience the more local side of a city, and not the commercialised touristy end of things, you can visit this market any day of the week. Granted, you may not find anything there that warrants a purchase, but it is a hive of activity and a feast for the senses.
As I had planned out my day over a cup of Earl Grey two hours previous (not very spontaneous, admittedly, but totally necessary when you only have two and a half days available), Palais de Justice was only minutes away from here. Built between 1866 and 1883, for years it was the biggest building in the world. As you would expect from such an imposing building, you need a guided tour to appreciate it fully. This wasn’t something I had time for, but I did manage to squeeze in a mosey around its enormous hall before savouring the view over Brussels that Place Poelaert, where the building is located, boasts.
By this stage I had all but maxxed the memory card on my camera and fancied perusing the photos I took to do so. I did this over a tasty €3 baguette in Funny Lunch, a bright, simple sandwich bar on Rue de la Régence. Next on my hitlist was Place Royal. This impressive square, dominated by Église St Jacques sur Coudenberg, is a daytripper’s dream come true. Within minutes each way of the monument which stands proudly in the centre of the square you will find the Palais Royal, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Parc de Bruxelles, and Musée des Instruments de Musique, a museum with as much to offer from the outside as from within. Finally, on the way back to my hostel, I called into Cathédrale des Sts Michel & Gudule, Belgium’s national church.
Fancy going for a beer or two (thousand)?
That evening, after what can be best described as a filling meal in Happy Buddha, a Chinese restaurant on Blvd. Emile Jacqmain, I checked out a bar called Délerium under the recommendation of Vincent, the owner of the hostel I was staying. He had told me to check it out on Thursdays as this was when I would be treated to live music. Located down a small alley called Impasse de la Fidélité off Rue des Bouchers, it has a menu full of over 2,000 beers! Plonking myself on a stool at the counter, I was befriended by Stacey and Lucy, two Australian girls who, like me, were in search of some good music and some good beer.
We didn’t venture anywhere further that night. One too many beers made sure of that. But we did manage to meet up the following day for some more trays of half and halves in Le Circuit, more bowls of ‘moulles et frites’ in Chez Leon, and more Belgian beers in the bars that border the popular hangout that is Place St Géry.
I find that Brussels receives some bad press. Surpassed by many other European capitals in the popularity stakes , it is seen as a slightly seedy and, dare I say it, dangerous city . But Brussels has lots going for it. Take a break from the norm and pencil it in to your itinerary.
Is there something about Brussels you are curious about but isn't covered in this story? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.