Brussels: a surprising city

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Brussels took me completely by surprise.  I thought that it would be a really bureaucratic and dull city.  I was so wrong.  I loved Brussels, all the more for the fact that it kept taking me by surprise all over again throughout the time we were there.

Here are my highlights:-

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1. The Grand Place

This absolutely stunning medieval square is the tourist heart of Brussels.  The spire of the Town Hall towers over Brussels’ skyline, but the Grand Place itself stays well hidden until you come into it down little streets full of bars and chocolate shops (and the usual tacky souvenir shops too).

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The buildings are incredibly well preserved and ornate.  The ground floors are taken up with bars, restaurants and chocolate shops.

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It is lovely to sit and have a drink in the Grand Place in the evening when the buildings are all lit up, but I would only advise that if you have deep pockets.  Jim & I decided to do this as a treat on his birthday, however he ended up spending €4.50 on what turned out to be a non-alcoholic beer!

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The Grand Place is obviously very busy with tourists, however not overwhelmingly so.  There is not any seating in the square outside of the bars, unless you decide to sit on the kerb so the best way to enjoy it is to just walk around and take pictures from as many angles as you can!  Make sure you see it both by day and by night.  In the evening it is quieter and if anything, it is even more beautiful when it is lit up at night.

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2. Mannekin Pis

This is supposed to be some kind of national symbol for Belgium which apparently encapsulates their self-defeatist sense of humour.  Well, I’m not sure if Belgians actually believe that or if they just enjoy laughing at the crowd of tourists ten deep holding their cameras in the air and jostling for position to take a photo of a 60cm high naked pissing child.

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It felt a little like the emperor’s new clothes to me, but it does make me smile every time I think about it.  Mannekin pis is less than a 5 minute walk from the Grand Place (down a lovely street filled with waffle shops!) so I would definitely recommend making the visit.

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3. Drinking beer

There is a vast array of Belgian beers on offer, all of which are served in their own individual glasses.  I tried a lot of them, and discovered a preference for fruit beers.  Jim discovered he was a fan of the trappists.  To be classed as a trappist, the beer has to be brewed in a monsatery by the monks themselves .  Brussels is packed full of bars, but not rowdy bars full of binge drinkers.  Every one of them has several different beer options so you can’t go too far wrong.  Just remember the rule of thumb that the further you go from the Grand Place the cheaper the beer will be.

Outside the Cafe des Halles

Outside the Cafe des Halles

My personal favourite place for a beer was the Cafe Des Halles.  It has loads of outdoor seating in quite a buzzing little area with a couple of other bars and restaurants.  There is a good selection of beers on the menu.  There is also a huge indoor seating area in a converted old market, which housed a photographic exhibition of the history of Brussels and the “modernisation” which ripped out a lot of Brussel’s medieval architecture.

Delirium Nocturnum - one of the beers brewed by the Delirium Cafe

Delirium Nocturnum – one of the beers brewed by the Delirium Cafe

A popular choice is Delirium Cafe.  It is a little hard to find (we came upon it completely by accident) but it is worth the effort as it has a huge selection of beer, reasonable prices, late opening and a great atmosphere.

4. Taking day trips

Belgium is a small country and Brussels is extremely well-connected.  We used Brussels as a base for day trips to Ghent and Ypres, both of which can be easily reached on the train.

5. Taking random walks

Brussels feels like quite a compact city and it is easy to walk around.  It also feels very safe, in fact I would say it is one of the cities that I have felt safest in.   Jim & I really enjoyed just walking around without following a map or a guidebook.  We made some fantastic discoveries on our random walks, which the guidebook probably could have pointed us to, but it was nice to discover them on our own.

Check out this view of the Grand Place coming down the hill from the Royal Fine Art Museum and the Eglise Saint-Jaques.

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I absolutely love the coloured lights on the garden.  This was one of those perfect holiday moments for me, as the gardens were lit up so beautifully, it was really peaceful and a busker was playing really chilled out Saxophone music.  I could have sat there all night.

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We also went up to the Palais de Justice, where we happened upon one of the only hills in Brussels, to find that they had built a lift to get to the top!  As a matter of principle, Jim and I walked to the top to be rewarded with a fantastic view over the whole of Brussels.  It was astonishing just how big a city it really is as it does feel very small.

Contrasting Brussels - modern buildings, graffiti and the medieval centre all somehow fit together in this city

Contrasting Brussels – modern buildings, graffiti and the medieval centre all somehow fit together in this city

We stayed near the train station on the last night in Brussels.  The hotel was about 30 minutes walk from the main tourist areas, so we got to see a whole different side to Brussels.  It was noisier (traffic wise), edgier and more diverse.

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We passed through a busy fair on the way back to the hotel.  Instead of the burger van you would find at a UK fair, in Brussels, the equivalent can sold snails.  No, we didn’t try them.

I really fell for Brussels, a city I had expected to not to enjoy.  I loved it to the point that when the day came to move onto Bruges, I actually didn’t want to leave.  As much as I loved it, I’m don’t think I really got under the skin of Brussels.  It has the hugely touristy areas, the European Quarter (which we did not visit) which I presume if the heart of bureaucracy, and the edgier areas around the train station.  Somewhere in between these extremes lies the real Brussels and I don’t think I met her.  I’m intrigued though, and it is a city in which I can see myself spending more time in the future.

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One response to “Brussels: a surprising city

  1. I think britons (……is that a current term or have I made a faux pas and used the collective noun for Queen Bodicea and her contemporaries?….) in general, are as ignorant of Belgium, as southerners are of the Toon, Northumberland and Durham. Everyone stuggles to name a famous belgian. Of course in Newcastle the former Newcastle United player Phillipe Albert is revered. He is most famous for chipping the renowned Danish Goalkeeper Peter Smichael for Newcastle’s 5th Goal in the 5-0 victory over Manchester United. More than that there is a special glass cabinet named after the famous Belgian footballer at St James Park. Yes its the Albert trophy cabinet. For those of you who know your Geordie pronunciation Albert should be pronounced (Arl Bear).

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