Chances are, if you’re travelling to Belgium then you probably have Brussels in your sights. This complex city is not just the nation’s capital, but also a melting pot of all things Belgium. Finding things to see and do in this city shouldn’t be a challenge, given its long time popularity as a cultured European tourist destination. Even still, it’s worth seeking out tips and advice to maximise your enjoyment when visiting Brussels.
My time in Brussels earlier in the year was divided between my own independent sightseeing around its major attractions and then being shown a more local side to the city from friends who live there. It was fascinating to see how often these two approaches overlapped, but also where they differed. Hence, here is a mixed bag of tourist and local tips for visiting the Belgian capital.
1. Head Straight to the Grand Place
It may be one of the most popular tourist spots, but making your first stop the Grand Place or Grote Markt is a perfect way to start your visit. This main square in the heart of the Old Town is a feast for the eyes, even if you’re sharing it with plenty of other tourists. On each side of the square you’ll see elaborate buildings, from the Town Hall to the neighbouring gothic guild halls. It’s definitely one of the city’s greatest spots.
2. Indulge in some Tasty Frites
When in Belgium, there are some foods to which you just have to treat yourself. While waffles might be the obvious choice, I think getting some frites is equally important. Belgians love their frites/fries/chips and once you’ve tasted them you’ll know why. Now you can opt for the cone of frites smothered in the typical mayonnaise or you can another direction and have a
My friends assured me that Friterie Tabora is the best friture in Brussels, and it certainly does seem to have a good rep online. Now, my memory of the food may be alcohol-impaired, but it was tasty. On my friend’s recommendation I went with the Mitraillette, essentially a baguette with frites, meat and sauce. Said to hail from Brussels, it was an excellent choice, especially for soaking up alcohol.
3. Don’t Fear the Delirium
Speaking of alcohol, there’s a good chance you’ll be wanting to sample some Belgian beer whilst visiting Brussels and the Delirium Cafe is as good a place as any for that. Despite appearing to cater to the tourist market and as finishing point for walking tours, the cafe is surprisingly not just a tourist spot.
My friend’s recommended we go here and there were just as many locals inside as there were tourists. It was however incredibly busy, which made getting a table trickier, despite the fun atmosphere. Like everywhere in Belgium, the beer list is extensive, although I recommend going for a Delirium at least once. I have to say that Delirium Red was one of my favourites among the copious number of different beers I had during my two weeks in Belgium.
4. Find the Jeanneke Pis
Most tourists know of the Manneken Pis, a statue of a little boy urinating, and one of Brussel’s most oddly popular landmarks. But did you know that the statue also has a female counterpart? Indeed, and in the same alley as the Delirium Cafe no less. Whereas crowds throng to see the little boy statue, the Jeanneke Pis is half-concealed up an alley, basically out of sight. What a weird fascination for a city, right?
5. Expect a Bizarre Range of Architecture
As with other Belgian cities like Leuven or Ghent, Brussels is home to plenty of gothic architecture. However, the city is also home to some truly fascinating art nouveau buildings too. Many of these are related to the famed Belgian architect Victor Horta, who resided in Brussels. Architectural gems include the four town houses he designed and which are recognised on the UNESCO world heritage list, as well as his warehouse that now hosts the Brussels Comic Strip Centre. Unrelated to Victor Horta but equally as impressive is the Old England department store by the Mont des Arts.
Then there’s all the neoclassical buildings scattered around the city as well. From the Bourse Stock Exchange to the Triumphal Arch of the Cinquantenaire, these lend the city that grand imperial nature found throughout Europe. Of course then there’s all the modern aesthetic found in the buildings of the EU organisations. Brussels really does have an odd mix of styles that you can only find by exploring far and wide.
6. Get an Imperfect Shot of Palais de Justice
When visiting Brussels, the Palais de Justice – a colossal structure covered in scaffolding – really caught my attention. I happened to mention what a striking building it was to my friends and how I wished renovations weren’t happening so I could get the shot. Turns out, the scaffolding has been up for decades. My friends said they couldn’t recall a moment in their lifetime when the building was free from its shell of scaffolding. So don’t hold your breath to get that perfect shot.
7. Search for Comic-Inspired Street Art
The Belgian love for comics is certainly one of its more distinctive cultural elements. Beyond visiting a comic book store or the aforementioned Comic Strip Centre, tourists can find plenty of comic-styled street art when visiting Brussels. It’s such an admirably clever and Belgian approach to the growing trend of street art. Of course you can find the inevitable art like ones featuring Tintin, but you don’t need to know the characters to appreciate these artistic additions.
8. Blend in at a Truly Brussels Bar
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking Brussels is just a meeting point of Belgium’s two halves, Flanders and Wallonia. This, my friends assured me, was simply not true; that Brussels had its very own character outside of the regional hubbub. As an international city and home to the EU, that’s what I thought they meant. But no, they meant the city’s local character and they thought the best way for me to see it would be in a local Brussels bar.
The place we went to was understated and quite traditional in appearance. It reminded me somewhat of the reserved atmosphere of an Austrian Beisl. Like the Delirium Cafe, the beer list was gleefully long. Unlike Delirium’s loud and excited energy however, this local bar was subdued and casual. My friend asked me not to share the name of their favourite haunt but safe to say you’ll find plenty of them in the general vicinity of Place de la Bourse.
9. Admire the View from a Car Park?
Given my interest in photography, late in the evening my friends suggested we go to a good vantage point they knew. It was more than a little surprising when we arrived at a car park. They explained that the car park had long been a popular local haunt to bring drinks to and hang out. Speaking volumes about the local counter-culture, when someone tried to capitalise on the spot and actually build a pop-up bar there, it tanked miserably.
This explained why we found ourselves alone on the roof of the car park, except for the two wasted guys we passed at the elevator. Still, it was hard to argue with the view. We were able to look out over Brussels’ rooftops right across the city, including the spire of the Town Hall. It turned out to be a poor night for photography though as the wind was extremely powerful on the roof. I really struggled to keep my camera still. If you want to find it yourself, unfortunately it’s in the middle of being torn down. Still, it goes to show how useful local knowledge can be, right?
If you’ve been, what was your experience like visiting Brussels? What tips would you pass on to people travelling there? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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