On the Wednesday of our first week in Europe, we woke up early to snap a photo of the iamsterdam sign before it got swarmed then took the Thalys train from Amsterdam Central Station to Brussels-South Station. Two hours later, we found ourselves in Brussels. I read in another travel blog that Brussels was a bit of an enigma. And we understood exactly what the author meant when we found ourselves in Belgium’s capital. In fact, we couldn’t quite form an opinion about it while we were there. Did we like Brussels as much as Amsterdam? Did we even like Brussels at all? The vibe is completely different than the Dutch city we left behind. Gone were the bicycles and canals, to be replaced by the hustle and bustle of the de facto capital of the European Union. It was bigger and busier, more diverse. There were soldiers patrolling and vagrants sitting on the ground with signs. It reminded us a little of Toronto. Sure the architecture was nice, as in most of the cities in Europe, but what set Brussels apart? We hoped at the end of our stay, we would figure it out.
We were staying three nights at a fourth-floor apartment in the center of Brussels through Airbnb. Admittedly, I was a little nervous since this was my first experience with Airbnb and I had visions of somehow not ending up with a place to stay but luckily, the host was super responsive and arranged for her neighbour who lives in the same building to greet us and give us the key. Since I had always stayed in hotels or hostels with lifts, the narrow, steep, winding staircase took some getting used to. So did the no air conditioning. And we had just arrived during a heat wave. It was brutal at night, even with a fan. Other than those two things, the apartment was very spacious and I loved the bathtub. There was a kitchen and dining room that we did not really take advantage of and a living room with a pull-out couch. Another bonus was being near a church whose bells rang so you didn’t need to set your alarm. All in all, I would recommend staying here, but only during the cooler months.
Our only experience with Brussels’ transit system was when we took the tram to get to our Airbnb when we first arrived. Being fluent in French, it was easy to navigate for me since the signs were in both French and Dutch. But aside from that, we once again relied on our feet. Our apartment was so close to all the attractions that we didn’t really need to take public transport. All of the street signs in Brussels are both in French and Dutch as well. I suggest picking one language and sticking with it when following directions. For some reason, I found it easier to navigate the winding streets of Amsterdam, but luckily Keith picked up the slack. The whole “everything is much closer together” rule still applies here. We would sometimes have to double back because the street we were looking for was really more of an alleyway or a short strip that was an offshoot of another street that you wouldn’t really consider a separate one in North America. Some streets, especially the ones that were around the tourist attractions are pedestrian only.
Our first day there, we headed straight to the main event: the Grand Place, the central square of Brussels. It was breathtaking, without being hyperbolic. When we rounded the corner coming into the square, we were both just taken aback and stopped breathing for a little bit. It was just like nothing we had ever seen. I had seen major monuments before but the Grand Place just surrounds you in amazing architecture and stupefying splendour. There was the King’s House on the north side then the City Hall on the south side and then guildhalls on the east and west sides. Tourists just sit down or stand in the middle of the square for hours, just admiring and taking photos.
After gawking for I’m not even sure how long, we explored all the little side streets and shops around the Grand Place. There were so many pubs, bars, restaurants, chocolatiers and souvenir shops. Then we went down a street where we saw a crowd of people was gathered and it turned out to be the site of the Mannekin Pis, a small bronze sculpture of a naked little boy peeing. It was smaller than I imagined and I honestly don’t get what the fuss was all about. Keith liked it though. He said it helped him understand Brussels more. He said it meant the city didn’t take itself too seriously.
The next day, we were supposed to go to Bruges but due to unforeseen circumstances (I wasn’t feeling so well, I was starting to get the travel cold), we decided to switch Thursday and Friday’s itineraries. We stayed in Brussels and crossed off number two on Keith’s list: The Belgian Comic Strip Center. As soon as we found out there was a museum dedicated to comic books in Brussels, we knew, being the nerds that we are, we needed to pay a visit. Luckily this was also just a 10-minute walk from the apartment. The museum was fascinating for both of us, as someone who works in comics (Keith) and someone who is a big fan of the medium (me). It goes through the history of the comic book, the process, and highlights some of the pioneers and current creators. Belgium has a rich history with comic books. You may have heard about Hergé’s Tintin or Peyo’s The Smurfs. Much like the Rijksmuseum, the museum itself is a work of art with its Art Nouveau design. Needless to say, we were both glad we could make the pilgrimage.
The rest of our stay in Brussels consisted of just exploring the streets near our apartment. There were two smaller squares near us, the Place de la Monnaie and the Place des Martyrs. We also tried to find as many of the comic book murals that grace the side of the buildings in the city. If we had more time, we would’ve done the Comic Book Route to see all of them. Another thing on my list that I didn’t get to do was visit the Mont des Arts, apparently the best view of the city.
As a lover of beer and chocolate, Brussels did not disappoint. I don’t have specific recommendations when it comes to beer since I have come to the conclusion that you cannot get bad beer in Brussels. As for chocolate, there are so many stores but my co-worker recommended the chocolatier that invented the praline, Neuhaus, which I loved and even non-chocolate aficionado Keith enjoyed.
As for the famous waffles, just pick a stand and they should all be comparable. I got mine from Vitalgaufre and devoured it. Definitely get fries with mayo from a frites stand. Keith does not like mayo but for some reason, he didn’t mind Belgian mayo and he almost didn’t need my help to finish a whole cone by himself. We had moules et frites from a place I forgot the name of beside the Grand Place. It was ok but it didn’t really impress. I prefer the Thai mussels I make at home.
The one restaurant I absolutely recommend is Peck 47. Our Airbnb host suggested it. They’re located near the Grand Place and their food is fresh and so yummy. It may seem a little hipster at first but all of that won’t matter after you try their homemade lemonade and their delicious brunch. The bacon is probably the best bacon we have ever tasted. Ever.
If you can ensure that they won’t melt, then chocolate from Neuhaus is a good souvenir to take back. We only had carry-on though so we opted for Speculoos cookies from Maison Dandoy. They come in the cutest packages so they don’t need to be gift-wrapped. We also taste tested them first, obviously.
By the end of the second day, we were starting to get what Brussels was all about. They had incredible monuments but their most beloved statue was a naked child peeing. They were the headquarters of the EU but they also had comic book murals on the side of their buildings. It seemed like anything goes in Brussels. This is probably just an ignorant tourist’s observation but the city seemed to be dealing fine with the aftermath of the terrorist attack. Then again, we don’t live there so the reality could be very different. When everything was said and done though, we realized we actually really liked Brussels.
Next post is all about the time we were In Bruges!