Belgium was our first new country to visit this summer. We went over the last weekend in July and spent a little over three days exploring Brussels, Ghent, and Bruges. Before we left, I had this picture in my mind of us walking down quiet cobblestone streets, admiring the charming guild houses along the canals, and eating copious amounts of waffles, chocolate, and frites – pretty much the stereotypical tourist version of Belgium – but it still sounds pretty nice, right? And we did all of that, but…something just wasn’t there for me.
It’s not that I disliked Belgium, but it didn’t wow me like some of the other places we’ve been. I suppose if you travel often enough, that’s bound to happen at some point. In all fairness, I think my opinion of the trip was influenced by the fact that the weather was absolutely wretched the whole time we were there – nothing but heavy rain, and even hail the day we were in Ghent – and I can also chalk up some of our disappointments to poor planning on our part. (I’ll get to that on a future date.) That being said, don’t let my opinion, gathered only over one rainy long weekend, deter you from paying Belgium a visit, because there are many beautiful cities in this country to explore, one of which is on the agenda for today’s post!
Brussels, or Bruxelles as we saw it referred to most frequently in Belgium, is the country’s capital and the city we used as our homebase since it’s so well-located for day trips to other parts of the country. Brussels is also where one of my friends from South Africa is currently living, so that may have played a not-so-small part in our decision to stay there, too. The most popular tourist sights in the city are all centered around downtown, so if you stay close by, you should be able to reach all of Brussels’ top spots on foot. However, venturing a little further out isn’t difficult either since the city is well-covered by the metro.
We only had one full day to spend in Brussels, which if you do it right, I think is adequate if the point of your trip is simply to see the city, not necessarily spend time in museums and such. (Brussels is chock-full of museums and historic buildings, so if you’ve got more time, you won’t find yourself lacking in things to do and see.) If you’ve only got one day to explore, the following are 7 top spots you won’t want to miss in Brussels!
The Grand Place
The Grand Place – if you’re coming to Brussels, I’m sure you’ve already got this one marked on your to-see list. The Grand Place is the central square in Brussels, and the city’s most popular tourist sight. Surrounding the square are the characteristic Belgian guild houses, the Town Hall, and the Maison du Roi where the Museum of Brussels is now located. By day, the square is bustling with tourists, buskers, and people selling trinkets of all different kinds. But it’s at night, when the lights from the buildings softly illuminate the square, that I think it’s at its prettiest. This is also the site of the bi-annual Flower Carpet where one million begonias carpet the square over Assumption Day weekend. (We missed it by only two weekends!)
Galeries Royales St Hubert
The Galeries Royales St Hubert is one of the prettiest, most classy-looking shopping districts I’ve ever seen. The two long galleries that make up the arcade are filled with brightly lit shops, boutiques, and delicious-smelling chocolatiers, but unless you’ve got deep pockets, you probably won’t want to make your purchases here. There are much cheaper places to get your chocolate fix only steps away. However, the galleries are worth a visit even if only to do a little window shopping under that gorgeous glass-topped ceiling!
Parc du Cinquantenaire
The Parc du Cinquantenaire is located in the European Quarter of Brussels, near the European Parliament building where members of the EU meet. The park features a giant, U-shaped building with the city’s Triumphal Arch at the center, inside of which you’ll find the Royal Military Museum, an art gallery, and an automobile museum. Behind the crescent is a lovely little park and fountain where we sat munching on frites for an hour. The Cinquantenaire is the only place on this list that requires use of the metro to reach from downtown. We came out this way because I wanted to buy frites from the same frites stand that the Rolling Stones once queued at (priorities!), but if you’re looking for a park closer to downtown, just keep reading.
Royal Palace & Gardens
The Royal Palace is the official palace of the King and Queen of Belgium, but they do not actually live here – instead, this is where the King conducts all of his kingly business. From the end of July to early September, the doors of the Royal Palace are opened to the public and visitors can go inside for free and tour some of its rooms. I, unfortunately, didn’t realize this until we were already home, but we did take a walk through the gardens nearby which are open all the time.
Parc de Bruxelles
Brussels Park is the largest public park in the city. You’ll find it right across the street from the Royal Palace. This was my favorite spot in all of Brussels. It was quiet, even though it’s surrounded by major landmarks and popular tourist sites. The large pond and fountain at the end of the main avenue is probably the prettiest part of the park, and that’s where we sat for a good while enjoying our favorite traveling pastime, people-watching. (Who doesn’t love doing that?) If you don’t want to take the metro, but still want to find a green space to escape the city for a bit, this would be the perfect spot.
Brussels’ Quirky Side
You don’t have to go anywhere in particular to see Brussels’ quirky side, you simply have to keep your eyes peeled as you walk from place to place. The juxtaposition of classic European government buildings alongside statues immortalizing children’s comic book characters and off-the-wall street art is beyond unusual. I’ve never seen anything quite like that in any other city we’ve visited. It was this side of Brussels, the adoration of funky art and classic comics, that I found the most endearing. You’re bound to see quite a few of the murals as you head to other sights, but if you’re interested in something a bit more organized, check out the self-guided Belgian Comic Strip Walk.
The Infamous Pis Statues
Speaking of quirky – it definitely speaks volumes about a city when one of its most famous sights is a collection of peeing statues. We made a point to find all three – the Manneken Pis (the little boy), Jeanneke Pis (the little girl), and Zinneke Pis (the dog). Manneken can be found very close to Grand Place – I hear he’s often wearing costumes, but he was quite naked the day we paid him a visit. Jeanneke was semi-hidden down a small side street downtown and protected by an iron grate, so getting a photo without metal bars in the shot was more than a little tricky. Zinneke was the hardest of the three to find, requiring a bit of a hike to a different area of downtown, but totally worth it to complete the collection.
As far as capital cities go, Brussels is a modest one. Unlike some of the other major European cities where the attractions and sights seem endless, Brussels is a city that is perfect for a short break or long weekend getaway. If you’re anything like me, you’ll spend equal amounts of time eating as you do sight-seeing, so food will be the topic of discussion next time. I’m craving a Belgian waffle and some hot cocoa already!
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