Brussels, Brussel in Dutch and Bruxelles in French or as the real connoisseurs often refer to: BXL; is the living and breathing heart of modern Europe. The capital of both Belgium and the European Union itself, this city has become a centre of administration to one of the most recognizable political powers of our world. I know it also sounds like a capital of boredom and suited up zombies, but hear me out since I am supposed to belong to those. I fully understand that for most visitors it will not be love at first sight. Fact: especially on grey and rainy winter days the city with its endless out dated office buildings alongside busy boulevards with permanent traffic jams can show a very gloomy and depressive face. But don’t forget: Brussels is typically a city that has to grow on you. It will not enchant you instantly like charming Flemish cities such as Leuven, Ghent and Antwerp usually do with first-time visitors. Being one of the financial behemoths allowed Belgium to become a luxurious travel destination. It is also a great target for a city break or a quick rest in between intercontinental flights. Be it shopping along one of Brussels’ exclusive shops. Or having a Belgian beer in one of those charming pubs. Or maybe you will prefer dining at Michelin starred restaurants. Everyone will find something interesting and fun to do in this lovely city. If you only have one day to explore Brussels the Grande Place, or the Great Market is the place to be, it is basically a quintessence of the city with beer, Belgian fries, and stunning architecture to dabble in in one spot. It’s considered to be one of the most beautiful market squares in the entire world. Especially at night when the 15th Century City Hall in Flemish Gothic style, the Breadhouse (Broodhuis) and the guildhalls are illuminated it offers a truly magical spectacle.
Being a regular business traveller to Brussels myself I always make sure I have an apartment near the Grande Place or the nearby Bourse. From there I can be in no time on Place Saint-Géry (St. Goriksplein). No matter the season of the year, this square is always lively and busy. In the grand café inside the colonnaded market hall (dating from 1888) there are often live concerts & DJ sets and they serve excellent snacks to accompany your Belgian beer. When you are still hungry you should head to place Place Saint-Catherine (Sint-Katelijneplein), which is home to the best fish and see food restaurants in town. The whole area near the Rue Dansaert (Dansaertstraat) is lovely anyway with its Flemish cafes, outstanding restaurants and arts boutiques. A legend in Brussels nightlife is l’Archiduc, decorated in Art Deco style and serving great cocktails. Typically a place you should go with your girlfriend, at least I did that with some of my previous beloved ones. Occasionally you can here also meet a famous artist who just gave a concert in the nearby Ancienne Belgique (better known as AB), one of the leading concert halls for contemporary music in Belgium. There is also an old piano in l’Archiduc, so if you are really lucky you can witness a private concert.
Most first-time visitors to Brussels with empty stomachs will probably end up in Rue de Bouchers (Beenhouwersstraat). The narrow and joyfully illuminated streets look very intimate and cozy. I would not dare to say that they are all tourist traps but the typical set menus and pushy waiters and perky restaurant owners trying to talk you inside are not the best assets of the rich restaurant scene in Brussels. Local will usually not go there, except for a few renowned places such us Chez Leon, famous for its moules et frites (mussels and French fries). This family-owned restaurant was already established in 1893, but I can assure you the mussels are much fresher. Nearby you will find another Brussels nightlife icon: the Délirium Café. The basement bar is always filled to the brim with local youngsters and partygoers, expats and tourists. Its menu provides sports more than 2,000 beers and tasty cheeses, sausages and other snacks because you should never drink with an empty stomach. Also out of Brussels centre you will find areas with world-class restaurants and renowned cafes such as Cafe Belga at Place Flagey (Flageyplein), a cultural hotspot in the Ixelles district. On the same square is also Frit Flagey. Together with Maison Antoine on Place Jourdan (Jourdanplein) in the EU quarter it is supposed to belong to the best and for sure the most famous frites stands of the city and even the country. If you like clubbing in African style head over to Matonge district, near the metro station Port Namur, and packed with bars and clubs frequented by the large African, mostly Congolese, community of Brussels. From own experience I can assure you they know how to throw a party and the vibrant area has become increasingly popular with local youngsters, expats and even eurocrats who like it more exotic, edgy and wild.
Before you start to think that Brussels is only about food and drinks it should be noted that there are also several cultural hotspots that will impress even the most experienced travellers. What to think of the Old England Building with it stunning art-nouveau façade? You can easily arrive there when you will walk up from the central railway station to the Mont des Arts (Kunstberg). It not only houses a three-store museum of more than 2000 music instruments but the roof-top café offers also great panoramic views over the city. Next to it is the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, which in fact is an ensemble of six museums under one roof. I especially like the Modern Museum and the Magritte Museum dedicated to the surrealist painter René Magritte who made Ceci n'est pas une pipe, which has become an icon of modern art. In the other museums you can also admire works of internationally acclaimed artists such like Salvador Dali, Francis Bacon, James Ensor, Paul Delvaux, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and old masters like Rembrandt, Pieter Paul Rubens and Jan Breughel.
Nearby you can take a stroll in Brussels’ main city park. The park, which for centuries was notorious for it street prostitutes and other late night birds lies between the Royal Palace at one side and the National Parliament at the other side. Although the royal family of Belgium now permanently lives at Laeken, the Palace Royale (Koninklijk Paleis) in Brussels remains as their official residence. In summer season the palace is open for the public. By far its most popular tourist attraction inside is the Mirror Room with a shiny green ceiling that consists of 1.6 million beetle shells. The Thai jewel beetle wings are all glued to the ceiling, according to an idea of the artist Jan Fabre, which creates a magnificent mosaic. Especially Russian tourist in Brussels might also want to see the statue of Peter the Great in the park dedicated to his visit of the city. The legend says that it is exactly on the spot where the great Tsar had to vomit during a stroll in the park on April 16, 1717 after a hard night drinking. Another great park popular with locals to have some fresh air and relax is the Parc du Cinquantenaire (Jubelpark) with its Arc de Triumph. It is not far from the European quarter of Brussels around Schuman Square. Brussels is famous for its Art Deco and Art Nouveau architecture designed by architects such as Victor Horta and Paul Hankar. You might be surprised to find out that amongst all these sleek new and grey out-dated office buildings there is also a beautiful square (Square Ambiorix) that is home to the most beautiful Art Nouveau houses.
Located in the Heysel Park in the Western part you will find the Atomium, a 100 meters tall model of an atom blown up 165 billion times. It was built in 1958 for the Brussels World’s Fair. Although it was meant as a temporary construction, just as the Eiffel Tower in Paris it was there to stay and became one of the most eye-catching and famous landmarks of the city. Nearby the Atomium is Mini-Europe, a theme park with miniature versions of the most famous European monuments. Another iconic symbol of Brussels is much more tinier than the Atomium: the little peeing man Manneken Pis. The 58 cm high boy is peeing in a fountain already for a more than 5 centuries on the corner of Rue de l’Étuve/Stoofstraat and Rue du Chêne/Eikstraat. You will end up at him if you just walk straight from the Town Hall but usually just follow the big groups of tourists heading to him will do the trick. This little fellow is dressed in different clothes every day and has a larger wardrobe than most women could dream of. Much less well known is his female equivalent Jeanneke Pis, a much newer statue from 1987 and depicting a little girl with pigtails and judging on the smile on her face she really enjoys it. She can be found near the Délirium Café and the Rue des Bouchers on the east side of the narrow dead-end street Impasse de la Fidélité (Getrouwheidsgang). And nowadays Brussels is even proud host to a peeing dog statue called Zinneke Pis, situated since 1998 on the corner of Rue des Chartreux and Rue du Vieux Marché aux Grains. Strange, as a frequent Brussels traveller I realize only now that Brussels is not only about eating and drinking but also about peeing. So when you are one of those rare peeing statute fetishists, Brussels is definitely the place to be. As long as you promise you will not pee in those lovely local beers everyone will be fine with it.