I bet you don’t know much about Belgium and it is not on your top list to visit in Europe either. Many people actually picture Brugges and its fairy tale look when talking about Belgium, but that doesn’t really apply to all the cities or regions from the country, even if it is quite small and there is about 3 hours ride by car between west and east.
In the past few days, I have been looking at my photos from Belgium and I started to miss its delicious beer, those mouth-watering sweets, its cobblestone streets and green areas. I have been there two times already, in 2011 and 2014, and I am going for the third time in March 2016. Up until now I’ve seen more from the Flemish side, as I have some friends living in Kortrijk, a traditional Flemish town just near the border with France, and I have also been hopping around Brugges, Gent and Ypres.
Today is not about the Flemish fairy tale region but about Brussels, the unofficial capital of the European Union and such a multicultural place. So don’t go there expecting gingerbread homes and traditional Belgian life because you will be disappointed! Instead, you will find awesome beer, waffles and chocolate…we are still in Belgium after all!…plus many other things.
Join me for a tour throughout my memories and my 3-days spent in Brussels in September 2014. 🙂
Grote Markt/Grand Place is the main square of Brussels and you will probably pass by numerous times while wandering through the cobblestone streets of the Old Town. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, very touristic, but it shouldn’t be missed as it is full of life and surrounded by opulent guildhalls and two large buildings, the Town Hall and the Breadhouse, which houses the Museum of the City of Brussels (one room presents the collection of over 750 costumes of the famous little boy who pisses in a fountain – the Manneken Pis statue)
Tip 1: Remember that every 2 years in August, volunteers gather in Brussels and create a flower carpet tapestry covering most of the Grand Place. Next one from 12th to 15th August 2016!
Tip 2: Go to Grote Markt both by day and night. It is beautiful and you might catch up a local event too! (I caught a local orchestra playing some Classical music – https://vimeo.com/157823049)
To understand better Brussels and its history or to receive recommendations from knowledgeable people, book a free guided walking tour around the Old Town (guides receive voluntary tips at the end, the amount is up to you). The tours normally last 2,5 hours or 3 hours, it is not long at all and you won’t even feel the time pass as the guides are really passionate about the stories they are telling you. I used SANDEMANs NEW Europe for my tour and totally loved it!
Taste Belgian beer at a local bar or try the Feest Fiets. What are those? It is a Beer Bike, a bar on wheels and a party bike, which gives the opportunity to pedal around the city under one roof with friends or family, all while drinking Belgian beer and having fun. You will see them around the city for sure!
Eat waffles and chocolate or at least do window shopping for sweets! Although I honestly don’t believe you will refuse eating sweets after you see these photos. Don’t hate me, just book a flight and go!
Admire the buildings, wander the streets without any direction and observe the people. You might even see street signs with funny pictures.
Visit the Atomium, that bizarre building constructed for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, made from several stainless steel spheres connected to each other to form a single unit cell. In the interior you will find stairs, elevators, art exhibitions and a panoramic view of Brussels from the top sphere. Don’t forget to take a photo with Tintin, the fictional hero of the Belgian comic books series ‘The Adventures of Tintin’, one of the most popular European comics of the 20th century!
Once you finish with the Atomium, check the nearby Mini Europe and take a tour through the representative buildings of all the EU member states. You can see a mini Tour Eiffel and a mini Sacre Couer, try some Dutch wooden clogs, dress up like a British royal guard, admire a Spanish bullring or a miniature functioning airport. Not all the monument replicas are that representative for their respective countries, but it is a fun and relaxing place.
Enjoy the outdoor green spaces, especially if you are going in a warmer period! In the city center, you have a large public park called Warandepark/Parc de Bruxelles, which is surrounded by the Royal Palace of Brussels (used for the royal duties and affairs of the state), the Belgian Parliament building and the US embassy. The 19th-century city park with floral gardens & fountains – Parc du Cinquantenaire – is not very far from there being situated in the nearby European Quarter and houses the Royal Military Museum, the Cinquantenaire Museum (art and history collections), the AutoWorld with its vintage car collection and the Great Mosque of Brussels (dating from 1880, the oldest in town and also the seat of the Islamic Cultural Centre). Outside the Old Town, in a suburb, you can find the beautiful and quiet Parc de Laeken, which is the seat of the Royal Palace of Laeken (official residence of the Belgian Royal Family), a Chinese Pavilion and Japanese Tower, a Neo-Gothic church and a cemetery.
Tip 3: All areas from Parc de Laeken can be visited, except the Royal Palace and its domains, which are open for public just a few days per year when the family is not there. So, grab a book and enjoy an outdoor picnic there!
What did I notice in and about Brussels?
You don’t really need to hop into any museum to feel the vibe of the city, unless you really want to see that military or vintage cars collection. For me, it was enough to see the Atomium and Mini Europe, which are not actually traditional museums but more of entertaining attractions.
Belgian food? Where is it? Except some typical snacks, like Belgian fries and sweets, there are many restaurants with international food in the city center. I loved the small Greek tavernas and eating all sorts of delicious and cheap gyros, but I didn’t feel I was in Belgium.
There are Spanish people everywhere! At least in September it was full of them. There are even free guided walking tours in Spanish (in the end, I signed up for it as the English one was super crowded), which says a lot about the amount of them coming to Brussels for a city break. So, I ended up speaking Spanish instead of practising French as initially planned.
Brussels is super quiet for an European capital! Except the rush hours, which are nothing compared to other cities, you can easily end up being alone on the metro platform at 11-12 am. That never happens in Romania, not even after New Year’s Eve! The Old Town is the most active in the evening with bars and restaurants open until late, but most of the shops close around 7 pm.
I stayed in a hotel in Schaerbeek area, 5 minutes from Bruxelles-Gare du Nord and about 20 minutes by foot until Grote Markt. Whenever I came back in the evening, I saw the Turkish and Moroccan men gathering outside their shops to socialize and I had the feeling I was actually going to my suburban residence. Although Muslims and Arab communities are not very well seen around the world right now due to numerous conflicts and terrorist attacks, I always felt safe around them.
Thank you for joining me in this tour! I can’t actually recall the route I followed each day, so this was more about photos, the stuff that impressed me and things that I believe you should do also while in Brussels.