Bruxelles Ma Belle
Updated: Dec 16, 2019
For the second article of my new Travel series, I had to bring you close to home. I had to bring you to Brussels.
Brussels has a little of a reputation worldwide. It is usually known as the capital of Europe, as it hosts most political institutions of the European Union. It is also and foremost the capital of Belgium, my dear tiny country.
I lived and worked in Brussels for less than two years, but I remember the city fondly. Not everyone will agree. Brussels is notoriously known to be a hit or miss. I know plenty of people that hate the city.
There are negative sides, as everywhere. People tend to rely on their car a little bit too much. Traffic is often terrible. A lot of Belgians live in smaller cities and commute every day to the capital. Many will take the train to go to work. More will use their car. Parking is expensive too. I could not park for more than four hours at a time in front of my house. Granted, I could have applied for a resident permit, but I was too lazy - and I did not have the car that often anyway.
Brussels is also known to be a dirty city. Now, if I have learned one thing from living in different countries and with different people, it’s that cleanliness is relative. Brussels is not dirtier than your average European city. But it is not consistently clean like Toronto or London either. You will have lovely neighborhoods next to, well, less lovely ones. You can clearly see where the city thought it would be good to invest in infrastructure and where it deemed it was unnecessary.
There are also a whole bunch of different people that live in the city. It is well known that you will not find a lot of Belgians living in the core. Most of them live in the suburbs around the capital and commute everyday. Instead, Brussels bursts with multiculturalism. Different languages are being spoken at every corner. You will see every skin tone, every shape of eyes, noses and smiles. But Brussels is not as segregated as North American cities. There, people share and exchange, laugh and get to know one another - they fall in love. I rarely felt out of place in Brussels.
Funny enough, the only place I would feel self-conscious was within the realm of my work. I used to work in the EU Bubble, as we like to call it. The EU Bubble is a vague term that describes the workforce that in some way, shape or form works with the European Union institutions. Brussels is the second most lobbied city in the world, right after Washington, and is host to a huge number of companies, associations and other charities. Most of that jolly workforce is predominantly white and male, thus creating a very distinct vibe. That’s not Brussels though. No, Brussels is so much more.
Wanna know what to see and do in the capital of Europe? Read along.
As I mentioned, travelling through Brussels by car can be frustrating. The truth is that you do not need a car to visit the city. Brussels has an extensive public transport system that includes a subway, trams and buses.
Most importantly, Brussels is meant to be discovered on foot. Most of downtown is pedestrian only. Streets are like a maze, they turn and twist, they shrink and open up. For instance, everyone knows the Manneken Pis, our national symbol and perfect portray of the auto-derision that characterizes Belgian people - what other country would have a statue of a little boy peeing as one of their main tourist attractions? Less will know that Jeanneke Pis, a female counterpoint to Manneken Pis, was erected in 1987. You will find her down a narrow cul-de-sac, on the east side of Impasse de la Fidélité.
You might get lost, but do not panic. Brussels is tourist-friendly and most people will speak English, as well as French and Flemish (the Belgian version of Dutch).
For traditional Belgian food - and Belgian fries, we used to love to go to Café Georgette. It is a bit pricey but they have good samples and great fries. The Delirium Cafe is a must for anyone that visits the city: the traditional Belgian pub offers a wide variety of Belgian beers. Bia Mara is well known for its Fish & Chips, which means you will often see a long line at the front.
Brussels’ multiculturalism allows for a wide variety of world food. One of my favorite restaurants of all time is KoKoB, an Ethiopian restaurant a short walk away from the Grand Place. For a less formal and inexpensive meal, our go-to weekend spot was Au Bon Bol, which offers freshly made Chinese noodle dish.
Waffles are a national institution. In reality, there are two types of Belgian waffles: Brussels waffles and Liege waffles. I am biased and will tell you Liege waffles are obviously the best. They are thicker, usually with a vanilla or cinnamon taste. You will also find them covered with melted chocolate. Brussels waffles are thinner and more airy. They will usually be topped with lots of fruits, chocolate and whipped cream.
Now chocolate - ahhh chocolate. There could be dissertations written about Belgian chocolate. It is all a question of preference - but if I should share a couple of suggestions, I would tell you not to buy Godiva chocolate. That’s our export brand, the one you will be able to find in every corner of the world, but that no Belgian would actually eat. Go and buy chocolate in supermarkets or directly from the factory - you will always pay a premium if you go to one of those fancy chocolate stores. I personally visited Corné Port-Royal Brussels and literally fell in love with their chocolate cake - but I never bought their chocolate.
Everyone that goes to Brussels will have to go through the Grand Place. You will then walk a little bit further to take a picture with the Manneken Pis. You should keep walking around the twisted streets and take a break at the Halles Saint-Géry.
Brussels also boasts outstanding museums. I would personally recommend the Magritte Museum, dedicated to the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte. My partner also truly enjoyed the Musical Instruments Museum, which is hosted in a breathtaking Art Nouveau building. On your way up there, take the time to appreciate the view from Mont des Arts and the architecture of Notre Dame du Sablon.
You will find the Royal Palace right next to the museums. On the other side of the Brussels Park is our Parliament. Keep walking east to reach the European neighborhood. Place du Luxembourg, where the European Parliament is located, is notorious for its Thursdays gatherings. On sunny days, the whole square will be closed to traffic and filled with interns and young professionals that work in the EU Bubble.
La Rue Neuve will be a traditional stop for shopping. I prefer Avenue Louise and its surroundings. It also brings you closer to Chatelain and Saint-Gilles, both areas known for their nice cafes and restaurants. If you have the time, keep walking until you reach the Bois de la Cambre - once you have entered the trees, you will forget you were ever in a city.
Finally, take the time to leave the city to visit another famous landmark, and a more respectable one as well: the Atomium. This monumental structure was originally constructed for the 1958 Brussels World Expo. It has now become a museum and is a great activity to do with children.
Anecdotes and Last Tips
You cannot experience Brussels without slowing down. Belgians love to chill - you should to. Come and join them on cafes’ terraces. When the sun shines, that’s where you will find everyone. A glass of beer in front of them, nothing planned if not to spend the next several hours doing just that. Service is slow, but you can stay there for as long as you want, so sit back, relax and enjoy!
At last, to all the francophones out there - Bruxelles is pronounced /bʁysɛl/. The 'X' is an 'S' sound! It hurts our ears to hear you say BruXelles, so please, share the word!