By Pamela Jacobs
Brussels, the capital of Belgium and of the European Union, is not one of the most popular European cities for American tourism—but frankly, after a recent visit, I can’t understand why. This lively, colorful, flavorful, friendly city boasts some of the best food, shopping, and sightseeing in all of Europe, is easy to get to and get around, and is as beautiful as (if not more than) many of the more well-known European destinations. For the sake of the American traveler, I would say that everyone should pay a visit to Brussels, but in the spirit of it remaining one of Europe’s best kept secrets, I’m tempted to keep it all to myself. Alas, if you are looking for a long weekend filled with just about everything most travelers are looking for, Brussels should go to the top of your list.
Of course, as I sat in my enormous business class seat aboard American Airlines, I didn’t really care where I was headed. American Airlines business class is worth taking a trip, not getting off the plane, and just turning around and going home—it’s a vacation in itself. If you like unlimited champagne, warm towels, plush quilts and blankets, and seats that electronically recline to a full horizontal position, this flight is for you. Cozy up in the soft socks they provide, cover your ears with the noise-blocking Bose headphones, watch unlimited movies, and feast on grilled shrimp and fish platters, filet of beef crusted in boursin cheese, truffle mashed potatoes, and ice cream sundaes. If this isn’t a vacation, I’m not sure what is.
After an experience that comfortable and luxurious, you’ll arrive in Brussels well rested and ready to go explore. Bring a pair of comfortable shoes—this is a walking city—and a map, and get going, there’s much to do, and yet it’s not overwhelming. If you have a long weekend, you can get a lot in.
The center of Brussels, and the heart of it all, is the Grand Place, one of Europe’s most famous and most beautiful squares. Here you’ll find red flower covered buildings, cafes and restaurants, an enormous open cobblestone space, museums, and many people speaking many languages, all looking up, in awe of the beauty and overwhelmed by the magnificence of the sight. This is a great place to begin, and a great place to come back to every time you want the maximum amount of jaw-dropping; I was blown away every time I entered that square.
Surrounding the Grand Place you’ll find small, winding, cobblestone streets filled with restaurants, bars (of course, this is Brussels, beer capital of the world), souvenir shops, and stands for gelato and waffles (we’ll get back to that). Just wander around aimlessly, take in the sights, listen to the variety of languages being spoken—I dare you not to smile like a little kid. Also be sure to breathe deep: Brussels is perhaps the sweetest, most delicious smelling city in the world. Combine the smell of hot waffles, homemade chocolate, and fresh frites (fries), and you have what heaven must smell like.
As an American, you’ll find Brussels is easy to get around, for a number of reasons. First of all, while the primary language spoken in Brussels is French, almost everyone speaks fluent English. Second of all, it’s a fairly compact city. All of the major sights are within a small area, making it quite easy to see a lot, even in a short amount of time. From the Grand Place, you can head in several directions, or just circle around, checking off sight after sight, while making your way back to the Grand Place.
Note: the bi-annual Flower Carpet in the Grand Place is said to be one of the most beautiful sights in the world. The next one is in August 2012—don’t wait that long to get to Brussels though!
After you take in the awesome spectacle of the Grand Place, walk less than a minute and you’ll hit the Manneken-Pis, Brussels’ answer to the Mona Lisa. But in typical Belgian fashion, much more comical. The Manneken-Pis is the very famous statue of a little boy, well, peeing. This little boy also happens to have many costumes, and they change him regularly. Go back every day to see what he’s wearing. You’ll see his image everywhere in Brussels: on magnets and t-shirts, in store windows drinking beer and eating waffles, and on coke machines. They love their Manneken-Pis, and by the end of your stay, you will too.
From the Manneken Pis, it’s a short walk uphill to the fashionable, upscale neighborhood of the Grand Sablon, where you’ll find excellent shopping, cafes, bars, chocolate shops, and a lovely weekend antiques flea market where you’ll be tempted to go home with many treasures. Also be sure to check out Notre Dame du Sablon, one of the city’s many gorgeous old churches, and just on the other side of it, Place du Petit Sablon, a quiet, sublime park with flowers, greenery, and impressive statues from Belgium’s history. From there it is a short walk to the Place Royal, complete with remarkable architecture and museums, including the Rene Magritte Museum, a must-see. Magritte was one of Belgium’s most famous artists, a master and pioneer in surrealism, and an artistic genius. According to in-the-know Belgians, this museum offers not only a window into the culture of Belgium, but into the mindset of its people.
From the museum, you’ll find the large and exquisite Palais Royal, across the street from the Parc de Bruxelles (the Central Park of Brussels), which is an oasis of greenery, and one example of how lush Brussels actually is. From there, take a stroll back towards the Place Royal, and look out at the view overlooking the city, which is quite the photo opportunity. You’ll see the steeple of the Grand Place, and realize how close, and easy to find, everything is.
Other must-see sights include: the Palais d’Egmont (another beautiful palace), the Palais de Justice (a large, formidable building built by King Leopold), the Palais des Beaux Arts (an art center, and perfect example of Art Deco architecture), Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts (an all-inclusive collection of art museums, including the Magritte Museum), Cathédrale des St-Michel et Ste-Gudule (a 16th century French Gothic church modeled after Notre Dame in Paris) and the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinee (Brussels’ one-of-a-kind museum dedicated to the art of comic strips). Depending on how long you’re staying in Brussels, the list could go on and on. Just remember, it’s all beautiful, all easy to find, and all worth seeing. And if you do get turned around and need to be pointed in the right direction, the people of Brussels are some of the nicest, friendliest you’ll find.
Also be sure to venture just outside the tourist area of the Grand Place and its surroundings—head to the neighborhoods of Saint-Géry and Sainte-Catherine (a five minute walk from the Grand Place) for a hip, young, urban vibe and a selection of great, non-touristy shops, restaurants, and bars.
Ahh, the food of Brussels. So much to eat, so little time, is all I kept thinking. This is a city in which to chow down. Moules frites (mussels and French fries) are the best in the world, and should be eaten as often as possible here. Feel free to do what I did: eat them every day, at a different restaurant, and compare. Also, eat as much chocolate here as humanly possible, as Belgian chocolate is truly the best in the world. Head to Leonidas and Neuhaus, with several locations around the city, for classic (read: exquisite) Belgian chocolate, or to the uber-luxurious chocolate boutique, Pierre Marcolini, an award winner located in Grand Sablon. Do not, I repeat, do not leave Brussels without consuming many waffles (or gaufres), which are the real Belgian waffles, to be eaten as a snack or dessert, served plain with caramelized sugar, or with a variety of sweet toppings, piping hot, and out-of-this-world. American so-called Belgian waffles should be ashamed of themselves. My favorites were served at Elisabeth, right off the Grand Place (Rue au Beurre).
For excellent food served in one of Brussels’ trendiest restaurants, head to Belga Queen (32 rue Fosse-aux-Loups, www.belgaqueen.be), a sprawling, visually pleasing space full of beautiful people and delicious food—go for the moulons (small mussles) served escargots-style. Magnifique! Head to Rue des Bouchers (Butchers Street) off the Grand Place for a dizzying array of seafood restaurants where charming maitre d’s beckon you in. Skip the tourist restaurants on the street, though, and go for a sophisticated, classy dining experience at Aux Armes de Bruxelles (13 rue des Bouchers, www.armebrux.be), where I had a plate of fresh-from-the-sea raw oysters, and what might have been my favorite moules frites of the trip. They are also known for some of the best steak in the city. If you want a meal as good as some of the top New York restaurants, look no further than the Italian (yes, Italian in Brussels) restaurant, Bocconi, in the Hotel Amigo (1-3 rue de l’Amigo, www.ristorantebocconi.com, see the “Where to Stay” section). The inspired menu by Chef Adriano Venturini is a journey to Italy by way of Belgium, serving up exquisite dishes utilizing local products. The result is stellar. Dishes such as pumpkin risotto, bacon-wrapped monkfish, and heavenly seared scallops are some of the best I’ve had anywhere.
For food so good it’s worth flying there and back in one day, a visit to Nordzee (aka Mer du Nord, 45 Rue Sainte-Catherine, www.vishandelnoordzee.be/nl/home.asp) in the charming, tourist-free neighborhood of Saint Catherine is a must. At this fish monger/casual restaurant, patrons stand around counters outdoors, feasting on inexpensive, amazingly delicious grilled fish, escargots, sardines, and my personal favorite, the to-die-for fish soup. While deciding what to have, an older woman next to me said (in French) “get the soup, it’s heaven on earth.” She was right. The American ex-pats next to her told me to get anything, it’s all great. They were right too. I texted several people back in America after I ate that soup, saying “I just had the best soup I’ve ever had in my life.” That was how much I loved it.
Beer is to Brussels what champagne is to France; what wine is to Tuscany. It’s more than a drink here, it’s a culture, an obsession. And for good reason. The beer is simply fantastic. If you’re a real connoisseur, head to the Brewer’s Museum (Musée des Brasseurs Belges; 10 Grand Place, www.beerparadise.be) in the Grand Place for a mini-tour of the beer-making history and process, and for a taste of their beer of the day, which always changes, and is always good. If you’re looking to take beer home, there are several stores, such as Beer Mania, that sell hundreds of varieties of beer, as well as glasses, accessories, and other beer-lovers delights.
If you want to get a taste (literally and figuratively) of Brussels’ obsession with beer, head to some of the many, many charming, lively, fun-filled bars. A la Mort Subite (7 rue aux Herbes-Potagères) is a beloved institution that was favored by Jaques Brel, and is worth checking out. Moeder Lambic (68 rue de Savioe) is a lively bar with an impressive selection, and Toone (21 petite rue des Bouchers, www.toone.be) is just downright cool. It’s an old, working puppet theater/bar that just oozes charm. For mind-blowing amounts of beer in a gigantic space filled with beer-lovers from around the world, you must make a stop at Delirium Café off the Grand Place (4A Impasse de la Fidélité, www.deliriumcafe.be), where they hold the Guiness World Record for most amount of beers: over 2,000. How do you choose what beer to order when a bar offers hundreds, or thousands of varieties? Take my advice: tell the bartender what you normally like, and he’ll choose the perfect one. They’re experts.
While people usually think of Paris and Rome for shopping, you can certainly make a dent in your wallet in Brussels. Local designers sell in-the-moment fashions at hip boutiques—head to Grand Sablon for upscale shopping, and Saint-Gery for young, modern, urban wear. Here you’ll also find some cool vintage shops. Rue Dansaert is considered the epicenter of Brussels fashion and design, and is filled with trendy boutiques that will satisfy any New York shopper. Right off of the Grand Place, take in the shopper’s heaven of the Galeries St-Hubert. If you want to go home with a true piece of Belgium, lace is one of their specialties. There are hundreds of lace shops around the city, all selling reasonably priced products—just make sure it is officially Belgian lace.
Where to Stay
If you’re looking for comfort and convenience, the Novotel Tour Noire (rue de la Vierge Noire 32, www.novotel.com/gb/hotel-2122-novotel-brussels-centre-tour-noire) is a great choice. Rooms are comfortable, a complimentary breakfast buffet is extensive, and it’s a five minute walk from the Grand Place. It’s also less than a minute away from Sainte-Catherine, the neighborhood where Mer du Nord serves that unforgettable fish soup, and equally close to the hip area of Saint-Gery. You’ll find the location, convenience, and reasonable prices make for an excellent choice.
If the absolute best of Brussels is what you seek, a stay at the Hotel Amigo (1-3 rue de l’Amigo, www.roccofortecollection.com) is for you. It is the closest hotel to the Grand Place (it is literally right there), is elegant, luxurious, charming, and very Belgian. “A Leading Hotel of the World,” and a favorite among movie stars, musicians, and politicians, the hotel, built around 1522 and acquired by the Rocco Forte Five Star Hotels Collection in 2000, houses 173 impeccable rooms including 19 suites, each named after a Belgian personality, each unique, and each a stunning example of perfection in a hotel. For a real splurge, stay in the Armond Blaton Suite, a huge yet warm apartment that is the ultimate in luxury. The star of the suite is the enormous private patio overlooking the rooftops of Brussels, with perhaps the best view of the city, where you feel you can actually touch the tops of the buildings in the Grand Place. Throughout the hotel, guests are delighted by fine art, award-winning service, and the true essence of luxury. If you’re not staying there, at least stop by for a signature martini in the bar, and a meal at Bocconi. The Amigo is a European treasure.
Go to Brussels knowing this: you will smile a lot. This is not a somber city. The feeling I got immediately, and that kept growing as I explored more, was that the people of Brussels don’t take themselves, or life, too seriously. Their most famous icon is a costumed child peeing. They adore comics, and have painted them on walls throughout the city. They worship beer and chocolate, and they are all friendly and happy to help. Every half hour there seems to be another parade or street party celebrating something else (I saw a parade of people dressed as leeks, drinking beer). This is a city of people who enjoy the simple pleasures in life, surrounded by stunning architecture, fine art, and unique culture. This is a city where an American tourist can at once feel at home, yet far from the realities of home, and can truly embrace the pleasures the Belgians never take for granted.
Getting to Brussels:
Fly non-stop to Brussels aboard American Airlines, which offers, hands-down, the best business class, the most non-stops at the most convenient times, and the most pleasant form of transatlantic travel. Business class features chef created cuisine, automated chairs that recline to 180 degrees, sleep masks, socks, quilts, champagne, and much more. The flight is as great as the trip itself. www.aa.com
You can board a train from Brussels to Bruges right at the Brussels Airport, and it will take about one hour.
Both Brussels and Bruges offer city cards that offer discounts and other benefits: www.brusselscard.be and www.bruggecitycard.be.
For more information on travel to Brussels and Bruges visit www.brusselsinternational.be, and www.visitflanders.com
A Side Trip to Bruges
Either before or after spending a few days in Brussels, a trip to the oh-so-charming medieval city of Bruges is a requisite. After all, it takes only an hour to get there by train (and is a very pleasant train ride), and is small and compact enough to get to know the city. It’s absolutely beautiful, and offers a window into the Middle Ages of Europe, and the history of Belgium.
First and foremost, do yourself a favor, and book a room at Hotel de Tuilerieën (Dijver 7, www.hoteltuilerieen.com), which just oozes charm, sophistication, and boutique hotel warmth and hospitality. It is in the perfect location in the small city of Bruges, directly across the street from perhaps its most beautiful and centrally located canal. The hotel features a champagne breakfast, swimming pool, sauna, hamman, and garden, a cozy and handsome bar and lounge with a fireplace, original Venetian crystal windows, and 45 exceptionally, meticulously designed rooms and suites that feature antiques, four poster beds, and hands-down the most comfortable mattress I’ve ever slept on in a hotel. Juxtaposed with the antique, old-world furnishings are large, modern bathrooms with separate shower and tub and his and hers sinks. You’ll have trouble leaving the room, but Bruges will be calling.
Bruges dates back to the year 845, and the architecture you’ll see as you stroll along its cobblestone streets, watching as horse-drawn carriages roll by, is from the 10th through 13th centuries, with some exceptions. It’s old, historical, and downright awesome. It’s a canal city, and as you walk along the various legs of the main canal that wind their way around, you might just feel like you’ve wandered back in time. Spend some time in the Market Square, and feel the living history as you take in the sights of the Belfry (twice struck by lightning), the Holy Blood Chapel, and the town hall. They often hold operas and other events in the square. A visit to the Church of Our Lady is a must—here you’ll find Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child statue. Be sure to visit the historical and lovely Beguinages, then wander over to the aptly named Lake of Love, and it is here you’ll realize that you are in love—with Bruges.
In Bruges, like in Brussels, you’ll be tempted to buy chocolate, and I suggest you do. Chocolate stores, both chains and individual, are aplenty; one of my favorites was Chocoholic, where they sell locally made treats in a beautiful boutique. You’ll also find many lace shops (lace making has been and still is a big part of Bruges’ tradition and commerce), souvenir and antiques shops, and plenty of restaurants, cafes, and bars. You can dine at Le Menu Belge in the Hotel de Tuilerieën, where you’ll be served excellent Belgian food prepared with local ingredients, in a lovely, romantic setting. For a casual bistro, head to Marieke van Brugghe (Mariastraat 17, www.mvb.be), where the atmosphere is warm and friendly and the food is delicious.
While Bruges is a major tourist attraction, and therefore pretty crowded during the day, something happens at night. All of the tourists go away (early to bed, I guess), the streets empty, and it becomes a quiet town in which you should wander and find the perfect spot for dessert, or, if you’re like me, a good Belgian beer. I was fond of ‘t Brugs Beertje (5 Kemelstraat) , because the atmosphere was just indescribably right; don’t leave without trying the local Brugse Zot beer.
Bruges, a UNESCO World Heritage city, should not be missed, as you won’t soon see anywhere else like it. Keep in mind: unlike in Brussels, in Bruges the locals speak Dutch. If you do speak French, don’t speak it in Bruges.
If you’re looking for a guided tour of Bruges, West-Vlaamse Gidsenkring is an excellent tour company: www.gidsenkringbrugge.com