In the heart of Europe, Brussels is a city often mistakenly overlooked. Easy to reach by air- several main carriers fly to Brussels Airport non-stop from all major European cities, including Brussels Airlines, for under $200- Brussels proper is also accessible through the Eurostar system linking all of Europe. From the airport it is a quick train ride into Gare du Nord and the heart of the city.
Belgians are quirky bunch who enjoy a leisurely lifestyle I was happy to partake in. From cafe, to bar, to street stall, and back to cafe my 12 hours spent here were a filling few.
Breakfast was served cafe style, a chocolate croissant to start the morning with a bang. After getting in the obligatory sugar high, off to the sights. The Grand Place- Grote Markt stands at the center of it all. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the biennial flower carpet, laid out every other August and compromising of a million plus begonias. The Grand Place is also the place for Belgian chocolate. Renowned the world over, the district is loaded with chocolatiers at the top of their field creating the most intricate in chocolate designs. Neuhaus (Galerie de la Reine 25) is the original shop of the inventor of the praline. The pralines on offer as well as the other chocolate delights will not dissatisfy.
After taking in the majestic building and some chocolate treats, it was time to find manneken pis. The statue of a little boy peeing has become the unofficial mascot of the city, his outfits changing regularly according to the weather or the local mood. Note the regulatory tourist shot of group in front of manneken. We are in Europe after all. A heavy sight filled morning of croissant and peeing boy, it was clearly time for the national beverage: beer.
Belgium is known for its’ beer. The locals take their brews seriously and thousands of varieties are created and served here daily. Each beer is served in its’ own specialty glass which are not to be mixed. My favorite: frambose, a raspberry flavored local brew. Don’t come to Brussels and order the Bud.
Luckily I was in town on a Saturday when the Sablon Antiques Market fills the Place du Grand Sablon. making our way there we wandered through Mont Des Arts which provided an aristocratic backdrop to the city. The home of many of the city’s finest museums, it is well worth a detour if you have the time. Making the right at the end of the museum row following all the signs pointing towards Sablon, I thought I reached the antiques market. Along a quiet street 50 or so vendors set up shop, to a largely Belgian crowd, selling everything from jewelery, to housewares, to books. It was a chilly morning for a June morning and I noticed all the vendors were holding styrofoam cups filled with delicious looking soups. A variety of soups, but nonetheless all looked yum. Obviously, I needed to find out where they all got said soup. A lovely older lady pointed me around the corner (it’s the first street to the left heading down to the sablon from the market. If you find the market, ask a vendor, they will surely point you in the right direction) to a lovely little shop. I sampled both the goulash and the mushroom soup. Both home made and both sublime. The shop (in the pic above) sold a range of goodies I wish I could have fit into my belly. I will go back and one day sample them all :)
Alas, it was off to the antiques market, our intended destination. The Belgians love their mussels and this easily noted by the numerous street stalls selling the beloved crustacean along the way. My major disappointment rest only in my allergy to the suckers, which I would have loved to try.
By the time my mother and I finished eating and got to the market it was all but closing. A few tables remained set, one selling eccentric oddties like the lobster lady above. Teh garbage men are far more jolly in Brussels than in NYC. These guys sang their way through the market, picking up trash and handing out portable ash trays. Talk about convenience! A truly great bunch.
With the market being closed and I now in search of seafood I could eat, my mom and I found our way to Mer du Nord (Rue Ste-Catherine 45). Located in the Ste-Catherine area of the city, this stand is a favorite of those who are in the know. Serving the freshest of seafood treats, locals line up the get their plate fulls. The tuna was some of the best I’ve ever had. With a glass of white wine and a glimmer of sun I couldn’t think of a better way to round out the afternoon.
The one thing that became clear during my short but sweet stay in the city was that Belgians lead a life of leisure. The cafes, bars, and streets of the city were brimming with locals relaxing, laughing, and enjoying their day off. Musicians play in the streets and artists perform. I could have spent the day in museums (more on that to come later) and running around from sight to sight. Instead, I chose to live like a local, albeit a very full local, and wander with loose direction taking a bite of the local flavors as I went. If I could do it all again, I would do it all the same.
If you are lucky enough to have more time in the city than I….
Atomium Unofficial icon of Brussels and Belgium. Vestige from the Worlds Fair from 1958. Alternate spheres are dedicated to rotating exhibitions and open to the public. Metro line 6 direction Roi Baudouin-Koning Boudewijn and get off at Heysel-Heizel – approximately 5 mins easy walk from the station, open daily 10AM- 6PM
Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts de Belgique Historical and modern art of mostly Belgian origin. The museum houses a large amount of works by Pieter Brueghel, including his Adoration of the Magi. Don’t miss his unusual Fall of the Rebel Angels, with grotesque faces and beasts. David’s “Death of Marat” is also here. Definitely worth a stop. Rue de la Régence-Regentschapstraat 3, at Place Royale-Koningsplein. Museum of Historical Art: Tues-Sun 10AM-noon and 1-5PM; Museum of Modern Art: Tue-Sun 10AM-1PM and 2-5PM
Royal Museum for Central Africa The museums collection of ethnographic objects from Africa is the only of its kind. It also contains the entire archives of Henry Morton Stanley which are of great historical value. Leuvensesteenweg 13, 3080 Tervuren, Tue- Fri 10 AM- 5PM, Sat-Sun 10 AM- 6PM
Musical Instruments Museum Housing more the 700 instruments, from all times and all over the world. An infrared headphone system allows each visitor to enjoy the sound and melodies played by the instruments presented. Montagne de la Cour-Hofberg 2, Tue – Fri 9:30 AM – 4:45 PM, Sat – Sun 10 AM- 4:45 PM
Cantillon Brewery The last traditional gueuze/lambic brewery in Brussels, Cantillon still uses natural yeast fermentation (not injected like almost every other beer). The lambics and gueuzes are made in original style with no sweetners or syrups added. Only organic and natural fruits are used creating a distinctly sour drink. The tour includes two small glasses of lambic and gueuze, and if you’ve never had a natural beer before, then you will be pleasantly surprised by the taste. Rue Gheude – Gheudestraat 56, Mon- Fri 8:30 AM- 5 PM, Sat 10 AM- 5PM, closed Sundays