When I told a good friend of mine that my wife and I were going for a long weekend in Brussels, he told me how much he disliked the place and that it was “horrid”. I was a little bit taken aback by this and spent a week or so worrying about it after I booked the trip!
I am glad to say that after spending a great weekend there I don’t entirely agree with this sentiment, however some aspects are indeed “horrid” but here is the good news – a lot of it is also very good and in my opinion Brussels is a place worth visiting for its variety.
Lets get the “horrid” bits out of the way. Brussels has a dire homeless and begging problem, far worse than any other place I’ve visited in neighbouring Europe. It seems that its a melting pot of cultures and wealth extremes, turn a corner and you are rubbing shoulders with the elite businessmen and bureaucrats of our Europe and then you see a beggar repeatedly saying “s’il vous plait” holding an old starbucks cup to your waist. One of them actually followed us a short distance and was rather persistent. You either cave in to their plight or coldly ignore them, we opted for the latter especially after we saw one homeless person on a mobile phone – makes you wonder.
Brussels most famous landmark isn’t a grand cathedral, beautiful square, grand town hall or a museum – yes the city does have plenty of these and they are all wonderful – but no, most tourists make a bee-line for something much smaller. He is none other than “Manneken Pis” a tiny little statue of a peeing boy. His name is dutch for “Pissing little boy” and I am not winding you up! Manneken has an exciting rock and roll history of a life that would make some of our biggest celebrities jealous. He has been stolen umpteen times and in fact we were (as in the English) responsible on one of these occasions. He is one of the oldest treasures of the city and has been around for around 400 years.
Just around the corner is the best part of Brussels and it does really take your breath away (even when its partly covered by scaffolding) and that’s the Grand Place or Grote Markt in Dutch. Its showpiece is the magnificent Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) with a spire that can be seen from all corners of Brussels. If you are prepared to climb the 400 steps to the top you are sure to have a wonderful view. We didn’t try this but will do on a future visit hopefully!
Brussels is a bi-lingual city with road signs in both languages. It can be confusing as in some travel literature roads may either be referred to by their Dutch or French names that aren’t always at all similar. Look at Google maps for example and its all in Dutch, you are better off getting a French street map as these names are given prominence.
Food in Brussels is a mixed bag of the gastronomic (read prohibitively expensive), the good (still a bit expensive) and the very average (keep on walking). One particular street just around the corner from St Hubert is rammed with restaurants offering Belgian, Italian and all other genres of cuisine imaginable vut beware of the zealous sales tactics of the eager waiters. We were sadly conned on our first night, food was very good, really went down well but the bill did not! We were promised a 3 course meal for 10 euros per head, seemed good. We were given an aperitif “on the house”, ordered a lovely Leffe beer and our main courses with side salad. The drinks were twice as expensive as anywhere else and we were even charged for our salad!
The areas we particularly liked were the areas off the tourist map such as St Gery where we discovered a wonderful old former covered market, now a very smart exhibition space. The building looked fairly normal from the outside but was fascinating inside with its industrial iron and glass roof. We also love Le Sablon, very smart but a little on the chic side of expensive in terms of places to eat and shopping.
Brussels is often compared with Paris which is quite understandable considering that the two cities do have some similarities and both can easily be reached via Eurostar. I found Brussels to be quite different and considerably more understated than Paris. Brussels isn’t as pretty as Paris but that doesn’t make it by any means a worse place to visit, it has more character, some of it quite quirky and unlike Paris doesn’t take itself quite so seriously. We felt quite comfortable in Brussels and found it an easy city to get to know, quickly learning which roads led where and how to get back to the centre if we got lost and we soon abandoned the tourist map, preferring to explore its streets in a random fashion.
Getting to Brussels is really easy. We took a Eurostar train from the new St Pancras International in London and were utterly impressed by the service. It seemed like no time between leaving home and taking our first glimpse of the beautiful Grand Place (even under its scaffolding!).
I would highly recommend it.
- The Grand Place
- Our Hotel – The Hilton
- Manneken Pis
- St Gery
- Maison Antoine – A great “Friekot”, thats chips by the way which the Belgians are great at making
- Le Sablon
- The Cathedral and churches
- Le Cinquantenaire – Amazing museum buildings and the Arc de Triomphe is worth seeing for its sheer scale
- Rip off waiters