I have always told anybody, whether they asked me or not, that Brussels is a city which doesn’t merit being visited for its own sake. My last trip to Belgium’s capital didn’t change my mind regarding that assertion, but I’ve discovered, that the city does have its rightful attractions. I’m talking about food and drink, or to be precise, beer.
Which leads me to the conclusion, that to best enjoy Brussels, one should combine a valid purpose for making the journey – business for example – or make it a station on one’s trip between cities which are in fact worth a visit just for their own sake.
It was my second trip to Brussels, which as explained above, occurred because I had something else to do in the city. This time it was a „blogger’s excursion“ to learn more about the institutions of the European Union. I was in a group of about 20 people and we all had a rather tight schedule, luckily though there was still plenty of time to do some sight-seeing, eating and drinking.
When it comes to sights in Brussels, a day suffices to see most of the things that guide-books usually sell you as a „must see“. Since I have cultivated my own traveling philosophy, which can be described as a mixture of 19th century „to travel for traveling’s sake“ and taoistic tranquility („the path is the goal“), I usually care little for what guide-books tell me I must see, so even on the second time around I haven’t managed to go and look at the famed Atomium. Maybe next time.
I did walk around the historic parts of Brussels, which are well worth the time. The city has a beautifully restored center, which gravitates around the Grand Place, the heart of historic Brussels and in itself a piece of architectural art. Rebuilt after its destruction in 1695 it is, in my opinion, one of the most harmoniously styled places in Europe, with a perfect assembly of baroque and neo-gothic buildings.
When wandering around the lanes which surround the Grand Place, you will sooner or later stumble over Brussel’s symbol, the very tiny statue of a peeing boy. Or I should say, you’ll stumble over a crowd of tourists looking at the very tiny statue of a peeing boy. He’s called Maneken Pis and whether you like watching someone relieve himself endlessly is up to you, I always found it quite amusing to watch those who gather around to do just that.
When you’re done with sight-seeing I suggest you turn your mind to what’s really worth the time in Brussels. As mentioned above, that would be food and beer. Foodwise there’s lots to be enjoyed in the city, they unarguably have the best chocolate in the world – my favorite turned out to be Neuhaus – some very fine cheeses and if you care for sea-food, there’s outstanding mussels. Those are usually served with fries, the dish is called „Moules Frites“.
The best place to eat Moules Frites is a restaurant called „Chez Léon“. They’re specialized in all kinds of dishes with mussels in them and through lunch time you can get a nice combo, which includes the usual pot of steamed mussels in a very tasty broth, a small dish with fries and a beer.
In case one gets tired of mussels and fries, there’s a worthy alternative. Just fries. After all, the Belgians invented them, and neither the French, who have branded them in the American-English version, nor the Americans, who tried to „liberate“ them a few years back (remember freedom fries…), can ever take that away from them. So when you happen to be in the capital of potatoe-fries, I advise you to eat them at „Friterie chez Antoine“, which is a sort of hut right in the center of Place Jourdan.
To best enjoy the best fries of Brussels, it’s sensible to avoid the usually very crowded lunch or after-work times, when you will find yourself in a long, long line with hungry EU folk. One last piece of fry-related information: have them with mayonnaise, because that’s what you do in Brussels and you won’t regret it.
After having taken care of solid foods, it’s best to turn one’s mind to the liquid intake of calories. Belgium is famous for its great variety of beers. If ever there was a beer one never thought could possibly be brewed, it will most likely be found here. There’s white beer, dark beer, Lager, Ale and fruit beer. The latter can be found in a variety of tastes such as Banana, Mango, Cherry or Rasperry. Personally I found the first two apalling, Cherry was quite alright – I recommend Kriek in that category – Raspberry would be my favorite of the fruit beers.
Of all the other types I’ve tasted my top choice was a beer called „La Chouffe“, which is smooth, not too bitter and very, very pleasant. And what’s really important in this business of Belgian beer tasting, it’s easy to pronounce („shoof“) which facilitates ordering the right beer, even when you’ve had one too many.
What remains after my second journey to Brussels? Well, I still won’t visit the city for its own sake, but this time around I’m far from saying I wouldn’t go back. Quite the opposite actually, I would argue that Brussels grows on you, and who knows, next time that additional reason necessary to visit might not be business, but simply good food and drink.
Getting to Brussels: With Brussels being not only the capital of Belgium but also of the European Union, there are plenty of flights going to the city from wherever one may choose to travel. The train from the airport into the city center costs around 5 Euros, a three day pass for public transportation is currently 9,50 Euros.
Accommodation: I stayed in a hotel near the train-station, which is a decent hotel, but I wouldn’t advise to stay in that particular area. It’s not the best one in the city, staying somewhere near the historic center is probably the better choice.
Food: Chez Léon: 18, Rue de Boucher, Friterie chez Antoine: 1, Place Jourdan. Beer pubs are easily found all over the center of Brussels, I don’t have any particular recommendations, just follow your taste. The same goes for Chocolate.
Susanne, July 11, 2010