Top 10: Brussels, Belgium

In the 5th installment of our Top 10 series, guest blogger extraordinaire Anna Weber offers up her top 10 (plus a few extra) favorite spots in Brussels. Check out the rest of the top 10 posts in our series here.

I haven’t traveled that much outside of Belgium during my stay, or even that much outside of Brussels, which causes most people to look at me a little aghast. “But you should take advantage of being in Europe as much as possible!” I am. The weekends and free days I have, I devote to exploring Brussels’ nooks and crannies. “C’est une ville qui bouge,” we say in French, meaning literally, “a city that moves.” These aren’t things a Brussels resident will openly share with you unless you ask, and without them, many tourists walk away with the impression that Brussels is ugly and boring. But all you have to do is ask, and a Bruxellois is delighted to share.

Most of these are at least a little insolite (out of the ordinary) for your average tourist. Almost none are your average tourist attractions–you’ll find those on any website or in any guidebook. And all are solidly within a student’s budget! Brussels is divided into eighteen communes, which are like districts, and I’ve noted in which commune and neighborhood each of my choices are.

Belgian food (n° 1, n° 2)

Lapin à la Kriek at Volle Gas

Lapin à la Kriek at Volle Gas, devoured in a matter of minutes.

There is nothing light about Belgian fare. I maintain that it’s the best comfort food in the world. You think Americans know mac ‘n cheese? Have some in Belgium and you’ll change your mind after the first forkful. For those looking for a typical Belgian meal, two of my favorite restaurants are (1) Volle Gas (commune of Ixelles, near the square Fernand Cocq) and (2) Nuetnigenough (Center). Volle Gas has a classic feel with an Art Deco interior, the servers friendly and attentive, the jazz in the background soft and inviting. Nuetnigenough, whose name is a Brussels word meaning someone who can literally never have enough, is a favorite among locals; its small size gives it a crowded, friendly feel. Both menus cover classic cuisine as well as some of my favorite Belgian dishes: stoemp et saucisse (mash and sausage), chicons au gratin (endives baked with Emmental and ham), lapin à la Kriek (rabbit thigh in a cherry beer sauce), carbonnades flamandes (beer stew) in Rochefort sauce. Drink a half-and-half (champagne and white wine) or a Belgian Gueuze beer on the side.

Bar culture (n° 3, n° 4)

In Belgium, going to a bar is often a way of relaxing as well as partying. Many bars have terraces of tables and chairs that are packed on sunny afternoons. The à l’aise attitude of Belgians means they don’t enjoy barhopping, either, and prefer to find one good bar and stay there for several hours. For bars that transition well from the summer afternoons into the evenings, visit any of (3) Frédéric Nicolay’s popular locations. He is known in Brussels for his magic touch–he’ll take a bar in a mediocre neighborhood, renovate it, make it popular, and reignite the area. Potemkine (commune of St. Gilles, near the Porte de Hal), Flamingo (Center, on the Rue de Laeken) and famously, Café Belga (commune of Ixelles, near the square Flagey) are the three I’ve visited several times. The interiors are particularly characterized by wood decor, the weekend nights by live music, and the crowd by a healthy mixture of young and old clientele. They also serve breakfast and lunch! (4) La Bizon is also one of my favorites in the center due to its cozy antique interior, open balconies and benches upstairs, walls plastered with old concert tickets, and the massive bison head on the wall behind the bar.

Langhorne Slim & The Law opening for the Lumineers at the Botanique in the Orangerie.

Langhorne Slim & The Law opening for the Lumineers at the Botanique in the Orangerie.

Concert going (n° 5, n° 6)

Because of its status as Europe’s capital and its proximity to Paris and London, Brussels attracts all the same bands and artists, but hosts them in much cozier venues. (5) L’Ancienne Belgique (Center) is a heavy favorite among my friends, featuring a large stage and a three-tiered balcony above the general admission pit. (6) Botanique (Center), located in the botanical garden, is the other major concert hall and my personal favorite, as the garden theme is prevalent in the whole building and its biggest room, l’Orangerie, is still quite small by American standards.

Sightseeing (n° 7, n° 8)

I find it difficult to tell my visitors certain things that you must see before you leave–I myself have never been to the Atomium, the iconic building constructed for 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Brussels is one of those cities that just becomes what you make of it. That being said, were you to visit me, there are a few places to which I’d insist on taking you. (7) La Grand-Place is located in the heart of the center, just down the hill from the central train station, and is worth a long moment to take it all in and to take pictures. The Gothic Hôtel de Ville is the iconic building of the Grand-Place, its steeple topped by St. Michael slaying the dragon. Fun urban legend: notice how it’s asymmetrical? We like to tell tourists that the architect made a mistake and when he realized it, he hung himself off the building. It’s not true–the two sides were built separately.

The Spire of the Hôtel de Ville

When you are in the center of Brussels, the spire of the Hôtel de Ville is practically ubiquitous.

The other well-known monument on the Grand-Place is the Maison du Roi, the administrative center for the Duke of Brabant (and later the King of Spain). Many of the other buildings were administrative centers for different professions–beer brewers, tailors, boatmen, and the like. Another fun legend is that all the statues topping the buildings are pointing at each other, starting with the gilded horseman on top of the Maison de l’Arbre d’Or. He happens to be Charles-Alexandre de Lorraine, one of Leopold I’s children, and he is hunting for the man who flirted dangerously with his wife. If you follow the pointed fingers, they crisscross all over the square until they land at… a statue of a priest, eyes down, hands on his stomach.

(8) Mannekin Pis is the famous statue of the urinating boy just down the street from the Grand-Place. The legends concerning its origins are numerous, but all that matters is that the statue, in place since the 15th century (though the original is in the city museum) represents Brussels’ independence and spirit. I can’t tell you how, but it certainly says a lot about a city, that they have chosen their symbol of independence to be a small peeing boy. They frequently dress him up for different holidays, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see one of his outfits!

Museums (n° 9, n° 10)

Exhibits at the Royal Army Museum

An example of how the pre-WWI exhibits at the Royal Army Museum are arranged.

I’m a museum geek and set aside at least four hours for a visit. Consequently, I’ve visited many of Brussels’ best museums, and some more than once. Though it’s hard to choose, my two favorites are the (9) Musée Belvue and the (10) Musée royal de l’armée. Belvue is devoted to the intricacies of Belgium’s history–how the territory was divided among different countries for centuries until her independence in 1830, how the Industrial Revolution and the era of colonization affected daily life and the country’s international presence, the impacts of the two World Wars, and all kinds of fascinating details about each of her kings. The Royal Museum of the Army (located in Parc Cinquantenaire) is free and crammed with artifacts from the Belgian’s military history, dating from the Middle Ages, straight through her independence, her colonization expeditions, the two World Wars, and more. It also houses one of the most famous and most impressive collections of military planes and aircrafts.

But it’s so nice out! What about all these parks?

Parc Cinquantenaire's Arc de Triomphe

Parc Cinquantenaire’s Arc de Triomphe on a breezy fall day.

Brussels is one of the greenest cities in the E.U., due to the fact that the old Brussels’ houses still have their gardens in the back, and the fact that around almost every corner is a square, a garden, a pond, or a park. They are perfect havens and retreats from Brussels’ constant international bustle. I’m lucky enough to see les étangs d’Ixelles (the Ixelles ponds) from my skylights. Cinquantenaire is possibly the largest park in Brussels and my personal favorite, housing Brussels’ own Arc de Triomphe, three museums (Army, Autoworld and Art & History), gorgeous trees, tasteful landscaping, happy families and amorous couples, and an overall feeling of joy.

Hang on! You didn’t eat enough!

You can’t leave Brussels without sampling all of Belgium’s four food groups–fries, beer, chocolate, and waffles. For the waffles, make sure you order a Liège waffle and know it’s better made fresh. For the chocolate, just go to a grocery store and pick out a bar of Cote d’Or–I promise you won’t regret what seems like a cheap purchase. For the fries, I recommend you venture out of the center to get an authentic frites stand taste–either Frites Flagey (commune of Ixelles, on the square Flagey) or Frites Antoine (commune of Etterbeek, on the square Jourdan) are your best bets. Be prepared to wait a long time, but know that it’s worth the wait when you receive your cone of perfectly double-fried potatoes covered generously in mayonnaise. For the beer, why not try visiting one of the breweries located within the Brussels city limits? Cantillon (commune of Anderlecht) is the only Gueuze brewery left in Brussels and hosts tours every day. Gueuze is special because it is made from the wild yeast unique to Brussels, which gives it what some call a sour or a bitter flavor. After the first few sips, however, it grows on you. Personally, I find it refreshing. Brasserie de la Senne (commune of Molenbeek) is a newer brewery developed by one of the men who used to work at Cantillon, and is devoted to making pure, unfiltered, unpasteurized beer in the old-fashioned style. The craftsmanship is apparent in their wildly varying beers: Taras Boulba, Zinnebir, Jambe-de-bois, and more. (If you can’t make it to the brewery itself, Nuetnigenough offers many of Brasserie de la Senne’s brews!)

PS: Where you’ll find me

I don’t study well at home and I study even worse in the library at ULB, so I dedicated myself to finding the best cafés in Brussels. Parlor Café (commune of St. Gilles) is my new favorite café in the world, home to the best coffee and tea I’ve ever tasted, the most authentic bagels in Belgium, the freshest ingredients, and the nicest staff. Additionally, I’m a book freak, and could spend hours in bookstores just touching and reading all the books I wish I could buy. Passaporta, in the center, is my bookstore of choice, housing books in Brussels’ three languages (English, French, and Dutch) and taking particular pride in veering from what’s popular to focus on stocking what is quality literature.

So, I’ll meet you in Flamingo for a Gueuze after a day of book browsing in Passaporta and before a night of live music at the Botanique?

Anna Weber Anna Weber is an English and French double major at the University of Vermont and is spending her junior year in Brussels, Belgium with the CIEE Advanced Liberal Arts program at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. She has traveled to Greece, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Germany, but will always call Belgium home. Read her Spotlight to find out more about her time in Belgium!
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