The little country of Belgium has some pretty cool cities. Hip Antwerp. Historic Bruges. Friendly Ghent. Noticeably missing from this list is Brussels. The capital and the home of the European Union has a reputation for being boring and stuffy. It can be. At times. But it’s also a great place to eat, drink, and visit unique museums that could never be described as dull. So off to Brussels.
Grand Place—also known as Grote Markt—is the heart of the city. The central square is surrounded by guild houses, Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), and Maison du Roi (King’s House). The ground is cobbled. The architecture is a mixture of Gothic, Baroque, and Flemish. And light dances off the gold sculptures on the rooftops. You could people watch for hours here, but there are a few things you should do first.
The Museum of the City of Brussels, inside the Maison du Roi, is home to old paintings of the city and nearly 800 costumes that belong to the Manneken Pis. This bronze sculpture, of a little boy peeing into a fountain, is a few blocks away. The original sculpture was seized by the French in 1747; the copy is one of the most popular sights in the city. Back in Grand Place, find a table at Aux Armes de Bruxelles. Order “un complet,” and within minutes, you have a pan of steamed mussels, frites, and a beer in front of you. The accompanying mayonnaise is for the frites. Then you can people watch. Over another beer. Grab an outdoor table at Le Roy d’Espagne and order your first of many Chimays. Or wander down one of the side streets in search of freshly made waffles, drizzled with chocolate and powdered sugar, of course.
Once you have a taste of Belgian chocolate, your attention won’t be drawn elsewhere. You’re not alone. Brussels has nearly 500 chocolatiers; people who live here consume some of the highest amounts of chocolate in the world. Walk over to the Place du Grand Sablon, an area filled with gabled mansions, antique shops, and sidewalk cafes. You’re here to shop, but not for antiques. Your eye is on Wittamer, Marcolini, Passion, and Neuhaus. Jean Neuhaus invented the praline. Marcolini is arguably the best Belgian chocolate. Wittamer has a little cafe and the best hot chocolate you’ll ever taste. And Passion Chocolat offers samples to try before you buy. After stocking up on chocolate to take home, stop at Alex & Alex to sip champagne and eat truffles. Brussels feels like heaven right now.
When you’re ready to walk off the chocolate, the waffles, and the mussels, stroll through Parc de Bruxelles. The former hunting preserve is now a beautifully landscaped park. While you’re walking around, decide which museums to visit. See the history of comic art at the Belgian Comic Strip Center, where Tintin is the star. Browse Flemish masterpieces by Brueghel, Rubens, and van Dyck at the Royal Museums of Fine Art. Visit the home and the workshop of Victor Horta, the famous Art Nouveau architect. Or sample more beer after comparing traditional and modern brewing methods at the Brewery Museum.
See, Brussels is anything but boring.