After 12 days in Germany, it was time for me to head somewhere new. I had no plan after Berlin until a few days before when I was checking out cheap flights to wherever I could go without changing planes. I saw one pop up on Easy Jet (low cost European airline) to Brussels, Belgium so I thought, why not?!
Brussels Airport is pretty massive and I’ve flown through it a couple of times in the past. This was the first time I’ve actually passed all the way through to the baggage claim, but I have to say, it’s a pretty impressive, ultra-modern airport complete with free Wi-Fi (something the big ones often cheap out on). You can take a train into the main station of Brussels for only a few Euro which takes about 15 minutes.
On my way into town, An 18 year old Belgian kid chatted me up on the train and gave me a little insight into the city. If you didn’t know, Belgium, located in western Europe in between France and the Netherlands actually has 3 official languages, Dutch, French and German.
Basically, the northern half of the country speaks Flemish which is pretty close to Dutch, the southern half speaks French, and a few small areas in the east speak German (the parts on the German border). Brussels is surrounded by the Flemish speaking area of Belgium, but being the capital city, you hear just as much French as Flemish. The Flemish native speakers often speak French, but the French native speakers often speak little Flemish, so it’s pretty common for a Flemish person to respond to French native speaker in English just to keep things Kosher (can you imagine this sort of thing happening in your own country?!).
Besides being a nationally “international” city, Brussels is in fact very diverse which came as kind of a shock coming from Germany where it was much more homogenous. The Belgians got around during the colonial era, and you’ll see many people from the former colonies, notably The Congo and Rwanda. Belgium is also the capital of Europe (ahemm a continent) so you’ll find the headquarters for the European Union as well as NATO in Brussels.
The vibe you feel coming out of the main station is, business. I arrived on a Monday evening and things were pretty desolate, but if you walk west down the hill, you’ll arrive at the old historic center which is full of very impressive architecture, countless restaurants, cafes, etc so don’t fret.
If you only have 1 or 2 days in Brussels, I’d highly recommend taking the Sandeman’s Free Walking Tour of Brussels (just Google “free walking tour Brussels”) to get a nice overview of the city. It really is free and you basically just tip on what you think the tour was worth at the end. I had a great guide who made things interesting, so when that is the case, I usually give about 10 Euro for a 3 hour tour.
The tour guide explained Belgium’s history from before the Romans came until modern day which was pretty fraught with war and invasion (why they speak so many languages) a dark colonial past (read a book called King Leopold’s Ghost if you want to see how ruthless the Belgians were in the Congo) and later, the almost unfathomable wealth which is pretty evident just strolling around the historic center until the World Wars which were pretty rough on the tiny country.
The main square, Grand Place (Grote Markt) is one of the most impressive European plazas I’ve ever seen. The majority of the beautifully gilded buildings were in fact…guilds, i.e. the headquarters for different trade unions like the Baker’s Guild, Fisherman’s Guild, etc. The majority of the historic city center was re-built at the end of the 17th century as the French heavily bombed Brussels and a subsequent fire wiped out 1/3 of the city.
One of the most popular tourist attractions in Brussels has in fact been voted, “one of the world’s most disappointing touristic attractions”, Manneken Pis. Well, what did you expect from a life-size statue of a toddler urinating? What’s more interesting about the little icon of Brussels is the countless number of times it has been stolen and the real story of why its even famous.
You’ll certainly hear a hundred old-wives tales about why the statue came about, but the truth is, back in the day, leather tanners needed more piss than they could muster themselves to help cure their leather goods (urine is a good (and cheap) source of uric acid which is what they wanted) and they would pay a few cents per bucket of mellow yellow. The statue marked the location where pisspreneurs could peddle their tinkle to the local leathersmiths.
As you walk around the historic center of Belgium, you’ll start to notice some pretty unique murals. They aren’t graffiti and they aren’t your standard hipster masterpiece, they are in fact an homage to Belgium’s substantial contribution to the world of comics. Believe it or not, The Smurfs are from Belgium as well as Tin Tin. There are plenty more famous ones that I have never heard of which are supposedly pretty famous, but I was more into playing Magic The Gathering and Pogs in my youth rather than reading comics. Nevertheless, they are pretty fun to check out. Notice the first one below of the two men walking together which is in the heart of the gay neighborhood (Belgium was the 2nd country in the world to pass same-sex marriage in 2003 after The Netherlands), pretty progressive.
Belgium is famous for more things than I realized, until I got there and actually THOUGHT about it, notably, BELGIAN waffles, BELGIAN fries, BELGIAN chocolate, BELGIAN beer and of course everyone’s favorite food, BRUSSELS sprouts. While all of them do in fact taste better here, head to the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, an amazing glass-canopied shopping arcade from the mid 19th century to sample some shockingly good chocolates (including hot chocolate) from world-renowned chocolatiers (I’ve got no recommendations for you, just use your eyes and nose!).
If you have time, check out the Musical Instruments Museum which is awesome, even if you just walk by to enjoy its grandiose Art Nouveau exterior. The saxophone was actually invented in Brussels and the museum houses a large collection of antique instruments. You’ll also notice a large number of jazz cafes in Brussels as well.
There is one thing that won’t happen while you’re in Brussels, and that’s you going hungry. There are so many restaurants, street vendors, etc. you basically will be a fat lard the entire time, and why not, when in Rom….Brussels right? You have to get a waffle and there are multiple types to choose from. The traditional one is just dusted with powdered sugar and has chunks of granulated sugar in the batter (didn’t appreciate that), but F it, obviously fresh fruit and syrup makes everything better so I’d opt for that one, even if it’s not the most “classic” version.
I decided to eat dinner at an authentic Belgian restaurant called Le Cirio, which is right next to the old stock exchange building (soon be the beer museum). You can order traditional dishes like waterzooi which is basically a rich stew made with chicken and/or fish, potatoes, carrots and other vegetables. I really enjoyed the opulent Art Nouveau interior and was impressed to see even the bathroom was original!
If you’re in Belgium, you most certainly have to sample the world-renowned beers. They have thousands of different types! I headed to the Delirium Tremens bar which is a famous brand and nightlife complex in Brussels. They have basically taken over an entire alley and they own 7 separate large bars/clubs so you can go any day of the week and you’ll surely have a good time. I of course had to sample a Delirium Tremens which tasted especially delicious coming from the tap (most of the time it’s only in bottles in the US). Be careful if you order this one or other Belgian beers as they are often quite strong (read the alcohol content on the menu!). The Delirium Tremens is 8.5% alcohol so if you have 2 or 3, you’ll definitely start to feel great.
I stayed at a very nice place called the Made in Louise Hotel. It is little bit outside the historic center, in a less touristy part of town, Avenue Louise, but it was only a 10 minute tram ride into the heart of the city. There were plenty of local restaurants and corner stores nearby, as well as the main shopping district just a couple blocks away.
The hotel itself is on a quiet street and is going to be just shy of 50 rooms when they finish an almost complete addition The hotel was created by combining two historic homes. Everyone on the staff I came in contact with was very friendly and accommodating. My room was on the 5th floor and I was able to open up the windows to let the cool summer air in, no need for air conditioning! The bed was very comfortable, bathroom clean and “western”, i.e. large shower, and I especially appreciated the desk with solid Wi-Fi connection to get some work done.
Breakfast the next morning was very satisfying with plenty of healthy fruits and vegetables, good coffee, eggs and other proteins like cheeses and yogurts. There is plenty of natural light that fills the breakfast room which makes for an invigorating start to the day, here are some pics.
While my 2 days in Brussels was brief, I had a very nice time and could definitely see myself coming back. I liked the vibe of the city a lot and would recommend checking it out, especially in addition to any Belgian itinerary that includes Bruges, Ghent (where I went next) or Antwerp. For my info bout traveling in Europe and across the world, check out Flight Hub Reviews, they have some great and helpful info.