As you join us for this post, we are away from our home in Cambridgeshire and enjoying the Belgian capital, Brussels. This is fast-becoming an annual tradition for us, as Ms Lust comes here to attend an EU translation conference and I tag along for the frites! So while we’re tucking into a few too many waffles than is good for us, read on to find out about our highlights from our first trip together to Brussels last year.
Before I get into Brussels itself, I wanted to add a short section about getting there in the first place. We travelled by Eurostar and, as I had always preferred to cross the channel by ferry, this was my first time using the service. I have to say that in one journey it completely changed my view on Eurostar, although I haven’t entirely abandoned the faithful ferries that chug relentlessly back and forth across the English Channel. If you are travelling to Brussels, Paris, Lille, or any other of the multitude of cities served by connecting trains, then Eurostar is hard to beat. It is quicker than the ferries and subsequent road travel, and much more comfortable and effortless than air travel (unless you’re lucky enough to have your own private jet of course!). Before you know it, after leaving the hustle and bustle of St Pancras station in London, you’ll be sipping on French wine in Paris or digging into a portion of frites in Brussels. I think I would still use the ferries for trips to northern France or if we were taking our car, but other than that I’ll be taking the train from now on.
Now onto the real purpose of this post, Brussels. I have to be honest and say that Belgium had never been very far up the wish list of countries to visit, and Brussels most certainly wouldn’t have been my natural first choice. Yet due to the conference that Ms Lust was attending being held by the EU, Brussels was where we were heading and it was up to me to make the most of it. Well I was definitely surprised and the city greatly exceeded my low expectations, which is why this year I am looking forward to our return visit a lot more than I was 12 months previously. I learnt a great deal about the city and the country during those few days, and it is my pleasure now to bring you my favourite places to visit in Brussels.
Wall mural city walk
I came upon this self-guided city walk online prior to our trip, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. With the first day and a half to myself while the conference was running, I had to find a way to discover the city and the main sights which Ms Lust had already seen in previous visits. This walking route seemed like the perfect way to do it, while discovering some of the more hidden sights as well.
The walk is a circular route around the city centre, which can be started and finished at any point along it. Brussels is famous for its comic strip industry, amongst other things, and there are many comic-inspired murals that can be found on buildings all over the city. This walk leads you to the best examples of these, with murals depicting Tintin and the Manneken-Pis statue among them. The murals really are fantastic and well-conceived, with many of them using features of the buildings as props for the created scenes. The instructions for finding the murals are good, however some are easier to spot than others, just don’t forget to look behind you every now and then!
Not only a great walk for comic strip lovers, the circular route around the city also provides an excellent chance to see and familiarise yourself with the main sights. The route includes the Grand Place, Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, the Manneken-Pis statue, the Place Sainte Catherine, and many more less famous yet no less impressive attractions. The walk is not too long, but with a few stops along the way for photos, sightseeing, and lunch, it can soon take up most of a day.
The statue of a little boy relieving himself has become world famous and a Brussels icon, as you soon find out when you see images of him everywhere you look in the city! He is found on the corner of Rue du Chêne and Rue de l’Etuve, and as you would expect the area can get quite crowded so you may have to fight your way through the crowds to get a decent look. The statue is everything you would expect a statue of a boy having a wee to be and not really anything more, so you won’t need to factor in too much time spent here. However if you are lucky enough to go on a special occasion, you may get to see him dressed in one of his many costumes. The costumes are themed to be relevant with the day in question, and true Manneken-Pis fans can find the full collection on display at the GardeRobe museum nearby. If you have trouble finding it, it’s in the building with the huge Manneken-Pis mural painted on one of its side walls. Just one note, be careful of traffic as you take your photos of the statue, as the crowds often overflow from the pavement into the road.
The Grand Place is the huge market square situated in the centre of Brussels, and the perfect place to get yourself acquainted with the city. The square is surrounded on all sides by the most wonderful buildings, with so many gothic façades and their gold decorations lighting up the whole area. This is a pedestrian only area, so it really keeps its traditional feel and it’s easy to imagine how it would have been throughout the many centuries that it has been Brussels’ centrepiece. It is usually a hive of activity with people coming and going, and there is always something going on. If you want to relax and little and watch the world go by, then the numerous cafes and restaurants that encircle the square make a great place for a quick meal or coffee. The prices may be a little bit higher than in less touristy parts of the city, but the quality still seemed good and the view more than made up for it. A few of the buildings can be visited as well, such as the town hall, and on some days the square is still used for its designed purpose of holding a market. Just one word of warning, during the busier periods there are groups of women begging and pestering tourists for money, usually by thrusting young children in your face to try and make you feel guilty. They’re harmless and are not too pushy, it can just be a bit annoying and uncomfortable for some people.
Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert
This is a wonderful shopping arcade in the middle of the city, just to one side of the Grand Place. It is a superb example of a nineteenth century arcade, with tall glass ceilings and beautiful architecture. All of the shopfronts are the same design, with only the most modest branding, making it an incredibly pleasurable environment compared to the glaringly bright and noisy shopping centres that we are forced to endure nowadays. The shopping available mostly consists of art, fashion, and chocolate, which is exactly what I had been expecting as soon as I walked into the arcade. There are a few cafes at either end of the arcade as well, and in my opinion this location is second only to the Grand Place for enjoying a coffee or lunch. Even if you’re not interested in shopping, it really is worth taking the time for just a stroll through this magnificent building and marvelling at how life used to be.
Parc de Bruxelles
There are a number of parks in and around Brussels, and this is the largest of those in the city centre. The park is a perfect rectangle with large fountains at either end, and a network of paths criss-cross its entirety. The park itself is fairly plain, mainly made up of open grass areas and wooded paths. There’s none of the ornate landscaping that can be found in some city parks, this one has been built for function rather than form. It is still a great place for a picnic or a stroll, and to escape the noise and commotion of the city. And with the Royal Palace at one end and the Cathedral of Saint Michael and Saint Gudula at the other, there’s plenty of beautiful architecture around to provide that ‘wow factor’.
Parc du Cinquantenaire
As the main purpose of our visit was the EU conference that Ms Lust was attending, we spent a lot of time in and around the EU quarter. I have to be honest here and say that I didn’t find the area very interesting at all, and the buildings are what you would expect from any governmental institution. Most of them are not accessible either, the only notable exception to this is the European Parliament building, however you need to time it right to catch a session as they are mostly held in Luxembourg. I’d just like to point out now, what with Brexit being the hot topic at the moment, that I’m not against the EU in any way, I just don’t find that government buildings make for interesting viewing.
So the discovery of a large park holding a number of museums in the area was a sight for sore eyes, and a much needed break from the surrounding environment. The park is about the same size as the Parc de Bruxelles, but it has had to provide the architecture itself. The centrepiece of the park is a huge colonnade with a grand arch in the middle of it, which now serves as the entrance to the main museums in the park. These are the Museum of Cinquantenaire and Autoworld, which are housed in two almost identical buildings facing each other. I didn’t have time to visit either of them, but they are at the top of the list for our visit this year. Behind the museums is a large fountain, much bigger than those found in the Parc de Bruxelles, and the seats dotted all the way around the perimeter of it serve as ideal places to stop and relax.
Museum of Musical Instruments
Brussels is home to many museums, with an eclectic array of subject matters ranging from antiquities to beer, and fine art to modern-day comics. We only had to time to visit one unfortunately, and after reading leaflets and reviews we decided on visiting the Museum of Musical Instruments. Housed in the quirky ‘Old England’ building, which looks like it was lifted straight from a Jules Verne novel, this museum has a vast and wonderful collection of instruments from all over the world. The collection spans across many centuries of musical history as well, including some of the more unusual modern instruments. The museum is spread across a number of floors, with each floor dedicated to a particular group of instruments (woodwind, percussion, etc.). The museum isn’t too big, but the exhibits are very interesting and well-presented that we must have spent at least a couple of hours making our way around. On reaching the top of the building you will find a rooftop restaurant, famed for its wonderful views of the city. As is too often the case in places like this, they seem to think they can get by on this reputation alone, as the staff were so rude that we decided not to hang around to find out how bad the service must be. It seems to be just a buffet restaurant, so I wouldn’t hold high hopes for the quality of the good either. Thankfully you can still walk out onto the rooftop to enjoy the view even without staying to eat, and I would thoroughly recommend this option instead. Don’t let this put you off however, we still had a great time in the museum itself and would recommend it to everyone.
So that about covers what we managed to visit last year, but stay tuned because as you read this we’re already exploring more parts of the city. Now that we’ve seen the usual tourist sights, we’re planning to get off of the beaten track a bit to bring you some of the lesser known places to visit in this wonderful city.
If you are planning a city break for a long weekend, Brussels should be one of your top choices. I know, I am biased because I have good friends there and because I always go for nice events, but there’s more to it than that.
From London, Brussels is incredibly easy to reach while avoiding the hassle of flying, and you also have extremely cheap options. I am a big fan of Eurostar as it leaves from St Pancras, a station that is easy to reach on the day and surrounded by cheap accommodation if you want to spend the night there before travelling. The tickets are very cheap outbound early in the morning and inbound late in the evening, which is perfect even to do just a day trip. Their punctuality is impeccable and, if not, their compensation is also fast and easy, and you have one year to use your discount. If you are not in a rush but really want to save money, you can go by bus. The trip takes about 7 h but you can find a return ticket for about £20-30.
As I have visited several times for a couple of days, and I am back right now as we publish the post, I will try and offer you a little itinerary that is a mix of my first three visits.
Brussels is one of the capitals of Europe as it hosts several of the EU institutions, and I would suggest you visit the European quarter, maybe take a couple of hours to do that if this is not the main focus of your trip. The Parliament can be visited and it is quite interesting as it gives you a good insight on the European history. Near the Parliament you can also see some of the segments of the Berlin Wall that are now scattered around Europe.
The area is a bit dependant on the institutions for the rest, and you may have a bit of trouble to find a place open for breakfast, especially on weekends, but Exki is a good option, as this chain offers nice quality food on the go or to stay, and the staff seem nice, which is not a given in general in bars and restaurants in Brussels. Le Pain Quotidien is another quite famous chain that is also known around Europe and it is also a good option for breakfast, brunch or lunch in the city. Accomodation prices also depend on the work of the EU institutions and it is cheaper to book a room for the weekend than it is for weekdays, especially Mondays.
A place I really like in the area is Piola Libri, a bookshop and bar where you can have a nice Italian aperitivo while listening to music (there is a piano and sometimes live music) or a literary chat. Definitely a good place to enjoy a Spritz!
Brussels, and Belgium in general, are famous for some specialities that you should not miss. If we talk waffles, gaufres in French, you have two main recipes, the one from Liège (they are thicker and crispy as they are made with dough with a thin coating of caramelised sugar, their shape is irregular and they definitely are my favourite) or the one from Brussels (softer and spongy as they are made with batter, they usually have a perfect rectangular shape) . You can try both at Aux gaufres de Bruxelles and you won’t regret it. This place is quite famous and is not far from the city centre. You can either sit down and enjoy your treat there or get a take-away one from the side window.
Other famous dishes are chips and mussels with chips or, in French, frites and moules et frites. You may hear of many places to buy frites, but some don’t live up to their fame. You know I like British food, but sometimes I miss good, crispy chips and Brussels is your place if you can forget that what makes them so yummy and crispy is that they are cooked in pork fat! Maison Antoine is one of the best friteries, if not the best, and you find it surrounded by a few pubs that allow you to sit at their tables with your frites and just order drinks. Actually Maison Antoine’s website tells you which places accept frites, but in general it says in big letters on the canopies. Another famous place is Fritland but don’t be fooled by the reputation it has, it is now going down in several online rankings for a reason. Frit Flagey is also a famous friterie and it is in our list for this time!
The Grand Place is the touristic centre and definitely one of your main stops. The rectangular square is surrounded by beautiful buildings that have bars and restaurants on their ground level. Stopping for a coffee or a bite to enjoy in this beautiful place is tempting and you may do it if you are ready for a display of rude customer service. We had breakfast and lunch there on our last day and the food was not too bad but the service was up to Fawlty Towers’ standards!
One of the iconic sights of Brussels is Manneken-Pis, the bronze statue of a little boy urinating in the fountain. You will find it on a side street on the left of the Town Hall in the Grand Place, in the junction of Rue de l’Étuve/Stoofstraat and Rue du Chêne/Eikstraat. This statue is often dressed with different outfits depending on dates and special events. The Order of Friends of Manneken-Pis also takes a reproduction on a procession around the Grand Place and up to the fountain during the day and you may be lucky enough to see this procession or unlucky enough to be close to the boy and be reached by his blessing. We were having our moules et frites so we could enjoy the show from a safe spot. If you want to follow sort of a path on the same subject, you should also visit Jeanneke-Pis, the female counterpart, in Impasse de la Fidélité / Getrouwheidsgang. She is a lot more recent, just from last century, while Manneken-Pis dates back to the XVII century. Last but not least, Het Zinneke is the statue of a urinating dog wrongly called Zinneke Pis dating back to the end of last century.
If you are in the area, near to Het Zinneke, go for lunch or dinner to Fin de siècle. You cannot book but it is worth to wait if there is a queue. The décor has some reminiscence of Art Nouveau and the place is extremely busy. If you are not used to Belgian beers, put yourself in the barman’s hands and he will suggest something for your taste. The food menu is on the board behind the bar and you have a good choice, although the rabbit seems to be one of the most famous dishes. Despite it being extremely busy, the service is quite fast and the food is very good, you won’t be disappointed.
I know Mr Wander already took you around for a tour of Tintin’s graffitis, so I won’t repeat it as I have only done part due to my working commitments. If you are up for a walk away from the usual touristy places, get lost in the little streets in Ixelles until you reach Rue Keyenveld 48. The place is not open for visits but a plaque outside informs you that it is Audrey Hepburn’s birthplace and a big fan of the baroness as I am, I could not miss this spot after three visits!
Together with Mr Wander we visited the Musical Instruments Museum and we enjoyed the visit quite a lot. The building is beautiful from outside and it is quite big, with several floors that host musical instruments from around the world, modern and ancient. The beauty of the objects will leave you speechless. After that, you can try your luck for a drink or a bite at the rooftop restaurant but the staff didn’t seem too happy about us being there. We were one among three couples who left after a rude waiter refused to let us sit, we heard him saying to one of the couple that they were closed although they clearly were not! The views were nice but it didn’t seem worth the effort.
Bruxelles has a few lovely big parks if you enjoy a long walk, mainly Parc de Bruxelles and Parc du Cinquantenaire, and many smaller ones, you can find a pretty exhaustive list of green areas here. Something I have always missed is the Royal Palace as it only opens during the summer, see times here.
As I said, I am always there for trips that are a mix of pleasure and business and I always make the most of the little time I have to visit, so I guess we will discover more this time as well, and we will get to the wrong platform on the metro, another tradition that I seem to respect religiously every time I am in Brussels. So, what can I say? Stay tuned for more!