Photo Courtesy of Neil Girling
Brussels is often overlooked on the "Grand Tour" of Europe. It’s true, the city may have more Eurocrats than you can shake a Security Policy at, but scratch the surface and you’ll find a vibrant international city with plenty to offer the experiential traveler. Art lovers can spend weeks browsing th…e galleries, and architecture buffs stroll Art Nouveau–lined streets. Comic book fans spend hours flipping through the city’s "strip" shops, and fashionistas lose themselves (and their wallets) inside cutting-edge boutiques. Add to this the city's incredible food scene, and you have Europe’s best-kept secret.
With hundreds of summer festivals and the stunning Christmas Market in December, Brussels is happening year-round. To avoid the heaviest tour-bus crowds and still catch some nice weather, visit in late spring or early autumn. Belgium’s weather is unpredictable, though, so don’t forget your umbrella.
Brussels International Airport, known locally as Zaventem, is a bustling hub, with direct flights from many U.S. cities. A cab ride from the airport to the city center will set you back upwards of €40 (about $50). To save euros, and time wasted in traffic, head to the train station in the airport’s basement. Direct trains to Brussels' three main stations leave every 20-40 minutes and cost about €8.
Brussels’ historic center is easily walkable, but to explore its other neighborhoods (something you really should do) you need to brave public transportation. The metro, trams, and buses all use the same ticketing system. You can ride anywhere within the system (including transfers) within an hour, for about €2. Buy a 10 "jump" ticket for €13.50 to save time and money.
Visiting Brussels without standing in line for the perfectly double-fried french fry is unthinkable. The best friterie is hotly contested among locals, but the length of the line is directly proportional to the quality of the frites. Good bets are Maison Antoine on Place Jourdan, Friterie de la Chapel, or Place Flagey. Choose from one of the dozens of sauces ("samurai sauce"—mayonnaise with harissa—is a favorite), and enjoy them at a nearby cafe, as long as you've purchased a beverage.
Belgians love to eat and are discerning when it comes to food. This is great news for foodies visiting Brussels. Whether you’re after a Michelin-starred experience or simply the perfect crispy french fry, you’ll find it here. The vibrant international community influences the city’s food scene, resulting in flavors from around the world. The secret to picking the perfect Brussels restaurant: If you almost walk by it because it looks a bit shabby outside, but it's jam-packed with locals inside, you’ve found a winner. Avoid the tourist traps around Grand Place and Rue des Bouchers, and you’re bound to have a great meal.
The heart of Brussels is its UNESCO-listed Grand Place, but there’s plenty to experience after you’ve gotten a crick in your neck from looking up at the magnificent guildhalls. Brussels is also home to the Art Nouveau movement, and some stunning examples by local architects like Victor Horta still dot the city streets. The city’s art galleries cover the entire spectrum. See Flemish masters at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, modern art at Bozar, or up-and-coming contemporary works at tiny galleries throughout the city. Belgium’s surrealist hero, René Magritte, has his own interactive museum, and just around the corner is the whimsical Musical Instrument Museum. Every weekend, concerts, festivals, exhibitions, and performances take place around the city. The only drawback is the impossibility of experiencing them all.
Belgium has thousands of festivals covering food and drink, all styles of music, centuries-old cultural events, and the downright quirky. Brussels makes a great base for festival-hopping around the country but is also home to some of its own. Winter Wonders is Brussels' festive Christmas Market and includes food, rides, a nightly light show, international pavilions, and musical guests. The Brussels Summer Festival and Bruxelles les Bains (the city beach) keep the summer months hot, with international bands and plenty of umbrella drinks. Foodies shouldn’t miss EAT! Brussels in early September, the Megavino wine festival in mid-October, or Belgian Beer Weekend in September. Movie buffs can enjoy a week of international films in June at the Brussels Film Festival. Or transport yourself back in time at the Ommegang Festival, taking place in Grand Place since medieval times. Don’t forget the world-renowned Grand Place Flower Carpet, which happens for a week every other August.
Brussels is a city of closely guarded secrets. It can take newcomers ages to find the city’s heart. That’s because Brussels is actually a series of cities within a city. The Brussels capital region is made up of 19 communes, or neighborhoods, each with its own town hall, shopping area, restaurants, and personality. It’s worth venturing into some of the less visited communes to experience a completely different atmosphere. Explore St. Gilles for its quirky ethnic restaurants, Ixelles for its posh shopping, or Woluwe-Saint-Pierre for its vast green spaces. Contact the Brussels Greeters for free tours of Brussels by local volunteers who will show you the best their neighborhood has to offer.
Alison is a Brussels-based Canadian journalist and photographer specializing in travel and food. She lives to explore Europe’s hidden corners and travel the back roads of the world. She can be spotted toting a Nikon, tasting local cuisine, and wandering hidden alleyways, trailing a parade of cats. Read more of her work at CheeseWeb.