Created | Updated Aug 20, 2006
Brussels, as befits its position at the centre of European political bickering, is either a wonderful place, or a dreary and pompous city that suffers from an overdose of considering itself 'the capital of Europe'. It just depends who you ask.
This bipolarity is perhaps best summed up by the fact that the most popular tourist attraction is the Manneken Pis, on the corner of Stoofstraat/Rue de L'Etuve and the Eikstraat/Rue du Chêne (The streets have two names each, as Brussels is a bilingual city. You would probably only realise this if you go into a Dutch speaking area, like Molenbeek). This diminutive fountain of a boy answering the call of nature confuses the hell out of visitors, eliciting such responses as:
The Manneken Pis is the only real disappointment in Brussels. It's only about a foot high, so you'll be lucky to see it over the heads of the coachloads of tourists, and it's down a horrid little street otherwise filled with souvenir shops selling overpriced replicas of the little brat. Don't bother.
What's so great about a statue of a little boy urinating anyway? It doesn't even urinate real urine (I think I can see a logical reason for this, but still... it's a fake!). The souvenir shops are much the same as those found in Blackpool, UK, except they don't sell seaside rubbish, and instead sell postcards of the Manneken Pis in all its different costumes1. I mean come on! Even London's Millennium Dome was better than this.
I liked it. Please don't hit me...
However, there is a lot more to see in Brussels than this little chap. There's his female equivalent for a start - buried down one of the alleys with the nasty tourist restaurants on, is the Janneken Pis, a squatting, clothed girl. She doesn't urinate as such though. If you've seen enough mictatory humour, you might prefer to go and see something else instead:
In fact if you only see one thing in Brussels, give the little chap a miss and go to the Grand' Place. It is extremely impressive, a harmonious collection of buildings constructed mainly by the Guilds and the only place in Brussels where you can look round 360° and not see an ugly building. The reason why it forms an architectural whole is that most of it apart from the town hall2was destroyed by the artillery of Louis XIV in 16953. The burghers of Brussels rebuilt it again in three years.
Check out the Atomium, a huge building that's built in the shape of an Iron molecule. You can wander round inside and marvel at the mind that first thought: 'Hey! Let's build a huge model of an iron molecule! That'd be cool!' Astounding...It actually dates from the Universal Exhibition of 1958. There is normally some sort of exhibition going on inside, and it's next to the fabulously tacky Little Europe, a kind of Europe in miniature, with a mini Eiffel Tower, Colosseum etc. Some argue that the Atomium is best seen from the viewing gallery next to the Court of Justice4.
Indeed the Court of Justice itself is worth a look. It's a massive, imposing structure, built by Léopold II on top5 of hill above the traditionally working class area of the Marolles, in order to keep the hoi polloi cowed by the majesty of justice... It was apparently one of Adolf Hitler's favourite buildings, perhaps not surprisingly.
The European area is not really that interesting. You might want to have a quick look round though - the European Parliament is probably the most interesting bit of architecture, best seen from the Place du Luxembourg for the way that the architect has reflected the shape of the old station in the contours of the much bigger Parliament building. If you contact your MEP beforehand, you might be able to go in and follow a debate.
The cemeteries come highly recommended, and contain innumerable famous and infamous persons. You can see pictures of them at Find-A-Grave site, which also has information about graves just about everywhere else in the world.
The Hotel Metropole was the birthplace of the Art Deco movement - the best rooms are the air-conditioned ones facing the inside courtyard.
There are some good museums in Brussels. The national art museum next to the King's palace has a good range of Belgian and other paintings, everything from the Flemish primitives (Breughel, Van Eyck) through Rubens to the surrealists such as Magritte and Delvaux. All nice and compact in the same building as well. It costs about four Euro per person to get in. The left luggage staff are infamously surly. Take them a nice heavy case if you want a laugh.
Another good choice in the same area would be the Musical Instrument Museum. Interesting building as well.
The Africa museum in Tervuren and the historical museums are a bit dusty and probably not worth it. The Museum of the Comic Book is certainly worth a look if you have some spare time, and is in a Horta designed building. There are many others, a chocolate museum and several beer museums of course, but lots of other strange stuff as well.
Shops and markets
As well as chocolate and lace shops, Brussels has an excellent concentration of antique, second hand and interior decoration shops. You could do a circuit of the lot in a few hours if you don't go into every shop, and you've a good chance of finding something you won't see in the UK6. The best place to start and finish is on the Place du Grand Sablon, which is worth a visit in its own right and is also a good place to have a meal or a drink. The best time to come is in the morning - the markets and many of the shops shut in the afternoons, especially at the weekend.
On the Sablons itself is an antiques market on weekend mornings. This is more for the collector than the bargain hunter, as are most of the shops around the square. If you go downhill off the square you can turn into Rue Haute - along this are a number of interior decoration places, including De Wolf, full of amazingly tacky objects - a plastic mushroom for your table or fake pink fur for your lounge anyone? When you get to Rue des Renards turn right - there's an excellent second hand bookshop on this street7 and at the end of the street is the Place du jeu de balle, with its flea market. Here you can find one plate, or an old typewriter or even maybe one army boot (left foot). Complete the circuit by returning along Rue Bleu and its second hand shops. There are some excellent value purchases to be made if you know what you're looking for.
Clothes shopping is best done in Antwerp, but you can find posh clothes on the town end of Avenue Louise and standard Continental high street fair on the Rue Neuve (near the Gare du Nord).
Where and what to eat and drink
There is one thing that visitors agree on. Brussels - and Belgium in general - has fantastic beer, a fact that could explain the activities of the city's favourite statue. The variety is mind-bending, from the trappist ales that are still made in monasteries, to the cherry-flavoured Kriek, or the raspberry Framboise.
Among some of the best beers in the world are the Belgian Geuze or Lambics which are only made around Brussels. You can visit one of the breweries concerned (it is near the Gare du Midi) but don't expect to get hammered on the cheap - the tour is designed for those interested in how this unique beer is made. The beers are fermented using yeast and microbes which are present in the local air: they're rather an acquired taste, but you never know unless you try. Beware though: Belgian beers can be quite deceptive, and it's not uncommon for visitors to check the label after a few light and easy beers, only to discover that they've been drinking the sort of stuff that's normally reserved for stag nights8.
In general, a good place to go for a drink is the St Géry area, near the stock exchange. There are some trendy places next to the gnarly old cafés where Matisse used to play chess. You can still play chess at The Greenwich if you want.
You could eat in the Rue des Bouchers, or if you want to be adventurous, the Petit Rue des Bouchers. Either will be an interesting experience. There are a few buts though - if you order steak be aware that it may have been the last one home in the 2.15 at Newmarket - the Belgians are unsentimental about horses. The seafood is the local delicacy, and especially Moules Frites (mussels and fries). None of the locals would eat fish or seafood here though - they would go to one of the specialised fish restaurants in Place St Catherine, ten minutes walk away instead. In fact Belgians wouldn't generally eat here at all.
Especially as Brussels has possibly the best choice of restaurants of any city of its size in the world. Québeco-Breton pancake places, 'English style' curry houses, fancy French cuisine, even traditional Belgian chips, beer and a dish bistros. Good options for traditional Belgian food include The Falstaff, The Drug Opera9 and Cirio - all close to the stock exchange. You can pick one in advance on this Belgian restaurant site if you like.
The Time Out site for Brussels is good for shopping, eating and drinking.
Getting to Brussels
From the UK, especially London, visit by Eurostar - it's really quick and comfortable, with much more room than on a flight. Heartily recommended. Thalys from France is also the business. In fact flights from Paris to Brussels have more or less bitten the dust. The gullible might like to note that although the Ryanair flights arrive at a place that is identified as 'Brussels South' this is in fact Charleroi, a good hour away from Brussels. Do not take a cab to the Grand' place from this airport unless you have more money than sense.10
Other places in Belgium
All explained here, along with traditional Belgian food and lots of other stuff. Belgium is compact and very varied - it's worth exploring.
Why are there so many ugly buildings in Brussels?
A complex and sad story. Most of the damage was done in the 1950s through to the 1970s. One of the first causes was the Grande Jonction project, an ambitious piece of civil engineering in the shape of a massive tunnel linking up the three main railway stations in Brussels. 11 Whilst this was a pretty good idea in terms of an integrated transport system, it involved a considerable amount of disruption to the urban landscape, and the new buildings it generated were not pretty.
Secondly, Brussels had no real political representation in the Belgian governmental system at that time, and was in turns ignored and fought over by the two existing regions. Unemployment and poverty climbed, the middle classes deserted for the suburbs and unscrupulous promoters were allowed to build what they wanted, where they wanted, unhampered by planning laws or the fact that an historic building might have to be knocked down to accommodate their monstrosity. Possibly the nadir of this policy was the destruction of the Maison du Peuple, the masterpiece of Belgian architect Victor Horta, despite fierce local opposition. In fact the rest of the Sablons nearly went the same way; only the regain in interest in Brussels architecture saving it in the early eighties.
Thirdly, the siting of many of the EU institutions in Brussels further encouraged those self-same property magnates to demolish residential buildings and turn them into much more profitable office blocks. Hence the massacre of the Quartier Léopold. You can still see the last vestiges of this approach in the crumbling eyesores around the European area - once they have been left until they become dangerous, they can then be knocked down and lo and behold, more office space is created. It's supposed to be impossible for this to happen now, but some of the ruins are still there...
Incidentally, Brussels used to have a river, the Senne which would have gone right through the centre of town. In the nineteenth century it had become intolerably malodorous, so they put it in a pipe and built over it.
Living in Brussels
Brussels has a lot going for it as a place to live. It is more compact and cheaper than Paris or London, but still has an extensive cultural and social life. You can be in the Ardennes in an hour and in Paris, London, Amsterdam or Cologne in a few hours. Bordering the south of the city is an extensive forest, the Forêt de Soignes and there is a beach of sorts about an hour or so away. Public transport is reasonable and will improve with the planned new rapid suburban trains.
For the expat, life is easy - flats are easy to find, you can speak English in the shops, you can play cricket or see Czech films.
None of this should disguise some of the real social problems in Brussels. Near the Gare du Midi there are some desperately poor sink estates, people living in atrocious housing and with very high rates of unemployment. House prices have gone up a lot recently, meaning that people on low salaries are finding it difficult to get on the housing ladder. Commuters coming in from Flanders and Wallonia create bad rush hour traffic, made worse by the creation of a new business area near the airport which is very poorly covered by public transport. Rumours of a London-style congestion charge are in the air.
A 'well I never' fact about Brussels: Brussels sprouts are so called because they were first cultivated in Brussels in the 18th Century. Use this piece of trivia to dazzle the guests at your next dinner party.
For some information on the history of Brussels, you could look at this informative site. For more general information, the Brussels.org site is a good alternative.
Just remember: Brussels is famous for beer, chocolate, chips and lace. Can you think of a better recipe for an enjoyable stay?