When talking of touristic European Capitals, Brussels isn’t necessarily one of the first that comes to mind. Less majestic than Paris, less buzzing than Madrid, less Catholic than Rome. Added of course to the unpredictable weather. I was informed when I arrived that “in Brussels it is sunny several times a day”.
Granted, there is less to see than in Paris or London. However, I found Brussels held some real gems that would make it a perfect destination for long weekend or a few days visit. I really fell in love with the place in the time I was there. Only a train ride away from London, so no baggage allowance – something that will be appreciated by anyone who has travelled with ... some of the less expensive airlines. So, what would I suggest...?
The Grande Place
No point saving the best till last. The Grand Place is the breath-taking central square of Brussels, a large cobbled square surrounded by beautiful gold-gilded Guild Houses. Each building has a story of its own as they date back to the old guilds of bakers, ship-makers, and textiles. During the day it is beautiful but at night when it is all lit up, this place is my favourite place to be. It is also surrounded with quaint little streets where you will find a whole range of restaurants and shops.
A statue of a little boy having a wee. This is one of Brussels most famous monuments, and supposedly symbolic of Belgium. Certainly it is symbolic of the Belgians' sense of humour. You will find it down Stoofstraat, a small street off the Grande Place, surrounded by a crowd of excited tourists and probably sporting one of its famous costumes, if you are there on a weekend. So, to put your mind at rest, if you pass a lot of shops selling figures of naked little boys, fear not. You could even take a souvenir chocolate figurine home for your parents.
Capital of Europe...?
Although the French would beg to differ, Brussels does have a sense of being the capital of Europe. The mix of languages and cultures wherever you go is testament to this. An entire region of bourgeoisie Belgian houses were swept away to make way for the immense European Quarter near the city centre. The European Parliament building is an entire world unto itself, complete with restaurants, hairdressers, post office and even a train station underneath. You can walk through the grounds and get a good view in from the outside, and from Place de Luxembourg you have an impressive view of the whole Parliament. Also of interest in Place de Luxembourg are two remains from the Berlin wall, which stand intact to one side of the square.
Parc du Cinquantenaire/ Jubelpark
Once you have journeyed as far as the European Quarter, it is not much further to walk to Parc de Cinquantenaire. This is a beautiful park to walk in and is dominated by two enormous museums, joined by an “Arch de Triomphe” inspired Arch. Entry to the Military museum, on the left, is free, and from there you can gain access to the roof of the arch, where you get a view of the whole European Quarter, and out to the East of Brussels. This arch originally marked the entrance to the city. Also in the military is a large aerodrome full of aircraft from both world wars, amongst others – definitely worth visiting if you are interested in aircraft.
The Giant Atom
On my first day in Brussels, I was pointed out proudly by a Belgian: the Atonium. Shocked when I failed to react, she explained that this was “the Eiffel Tower of Brussels”. The population of Brussels are convinced that this structure is as world famous as the Eiffel Tower. However, even if it is not recognised by the world at large, this giant metallic structure, built in the form of an atom, is truly impressive. Although in my opinion it is a lot more impressive viewed from the outside, you may pay to go inside and access the different spheres via a series of escalators along the connecting arms.
I was amazed by the turbulent history that Belgium has, reflected in the ongoing linguistic struggle today between the French regions and the Flemish regions. Belgium only became a country in 1830, a seemingly short existence for the country that now houses (part of) the European Union. The Royal Palace is not spectacular inside, and only worth visiting over the summer months when it is free entry. However, to its right, there is a brilliant museum called Belvue Museum, which recounts the entire, if short, history of Belgium and Brussels.
Eat waffles! They are delicious. Chocolate sauce. Mmmm.
It's famous. There's lots of it. The truffles are amazing. If you fancy a particularly fancy chocolate shop, visit Marcolini Sablon in Place du Grande Sablon. There the chocolate is displayed and packaged like jewellery.
Belgian has a great selection of its own beers and ciders which are worth a taste. Even if you are not usually fond of beer, there are some delicious fruity varieties. Kriek, the cherry flavour beer, is a popular choice.
The Belgian Courts of Justice are the largest in the world. They were built purposely bigger than the royal palace, as a symbol that the law is more important even than the King. However, they are hugely impractical due to the costs of electricity and the security risks, and are therefore used less and less. You can go in as far as the forecourt and practically feel the tangible power prestige of the law.
While the GrandeMusée des Instruments is another personal favourite. This may seem strange when I confess that I have never once been round the museum. However, you can take the lift directly to the 10th floor for free and there you find a rooftop restaurant overlooking the whole of Brussels. It is shut in the evening, so if you would like to eat out there, it will have to be lunch. A lovely place to start the day with a morning coffee. I took every single visitor here when they came to Brussels.
If you are a fan of Art Nouveau, Brussels is bursting with its influence. Frescos, beautiful window frames and doorways, and some spectacular Art Nouveau Houses. The beautiful house of Albert Horta, a famous Art Nouveau architect, is now a museum open to visitors, although make sure you check the opening times before going. The other road worth a visit is Rue Defacqz / Defacqzstraat, which has several beautiful art Nouveau Houses.
Something else I enjoyed about Brussels architecture was the variety. In Brussels, each family built their own house, and due to lack of space, this means they are on average 4 or 5 storeys high, despite only one room wide. The resulting effect is a patchwork of different houses all glued side by side, each made of a unique design and height and generally each using different bricks than their neighbours.
Once you have seen the sights of Brussels, it is only an hour train journey to the well-known town of Bruges, which is one of Belgiums treasures. Often a honeymoon destination, this town offers endless quaint streets and buildings. I warn you though. Take an umbrella. And some waterproof shoes. I spent an entire day walking around Bruges with wet feet, which did dampen my mood somewhat. Weather in Belgium is always hard to predict.