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A CITY GUIDE TO BRUSSELS
Brussels, or Bruxelles, is perhaps best known for beer, chocolate, Art Nouveau architecture and, of course, the Mannequin Pis (peeing boy). As the unofficial capital of the European Union, you can get some political insight by visiting the Parlamentarium, the European Parliament Visitor's Centre. In fact, being at the heart of the EU has made Brussels all the more cosmopolitan. Grand Place, home to the Town Hall and various guild houses, is the city's central square and every two years it’s covered in a carpet of flowers. The Atomium, comprising of nine connected stainless steel spheres (five of which are open to the public) was constructed for the Expo Fair in 1958 and is always a popular attraction. Top museums include the Comic Strip Centre and the Magritte Museum, where you can see works by the famous Belgian artist.
In the past Belgium has been part of Spain, Austria, France and the Netherlands and only became an independent country in 1830, with Brussels as its capital. Due to its history, Brussels is a bilingual city, speaking both French and Dutch. The city's name is derived from Old Dutch for 'home in the marsh'. Brussels was occupied by the Germans during both World Wars. In 1948 the Treaty of Brussels was signed, which laid the foundations for the European Union (EU). The following year, the North Atlantic Treaty (setting up the NATO collective defence agreement between the US and several western European countries) was signed and NATO's headquarters were established in Brussels. The city was spruced up as the year 2000’s European City of Culture.
- Go on a comic strip route tour to see murals of Tin Tin and Nero, the Flemish comic strip hero.
- Close to the Atomium is Mini Europe, a recreation of Europe in miniature, including Big Ben in London and gondolas in Venice.
- The Mannequin Pis , the must-see statue of that offensive child and his myriad of different costumes at the City Museum
- The Horta Museum was formerly the home of the Belgian Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta. The Museum of Musical Instruments is housed in another famous Art Nouveau building.
- There are several markets; Sablon at the weekends for antiques and Gare du Midi for food and clothes on Sundays. St Catherine's Christmas Market, with its range of distinctive foods and gifts, is a special treat for the festive season.
- Sample some of the 2,000+ beers for sale at the Delirium Cafe.
The Galerie Royales Saint-Hubert, a beautiful covered arcade near the Grand Place, is one of the largest and most varied shopping locations in the Belgian capital. It is home to all kinds of stores, with famous chocolate shops like Neuhaus among them! Elsewhere in the city centre, Rue Neuve has all the high street shops you can imagine, as well as a large shopping centre. A bit further afield, Ixelles is famous for its great fashion boutiques and weekend market in Place Flagey. If you’re in the mood to splurge (or just press your nose to the glass), don’t miss the luxury shopping in the Grand Sablon.
Brussels has no shortage of entertainment, both during the day and at night. There’s a wealth of Art Nouveau cafes and bars, including famous examples like Falstaff and A La Morte Subite, the latter serving an enviable range of Gueuze and Lambic beers.
The most famous landmark in Brussels is the Grand Place, a historic square lined with stunning Baroque, Gothic, and Louis XIV buildings. The city also has a wealth of museums, including the Brussels Comic Book Museum and the amazing Musical Instruments Museum. Nearby is the Magritte Museum, for dedicatees of the famous artist. Quirkier sights include the Manneken Pis—a fountain of a boy urinating—and its female counterpart, the Jeanneke Pis. The latter is located just off the famous Rue des Bouchers, a pedestrian alley lined with restaurants and cafes that’s well worth a visit in its own right.
- Brussels has an extensive public transport system that consists of a metro, trams, and buses. It’s inexpensive and efficient and a great way to get around the city.
- Belgium is known for chocolate, beer, waffles, mussels, and fries with mayonnaise, so make sure to try some of each while you’re in town!
Off the Beaten Track
Brussels has a lot to offer beyond just the obvious attractions. For those that like Art Nouveau architecture, the Horta Museum is a great showcase of the work of Victor Horta, the world’s most famous Art Nouveau architect.
Bois de la Cambre is a beautiful and grand park in the south is of the city. Or try the twin ponds—or etangs—in Ixelles, which are also a much-loved local hangout when the weather’s warm.
Throughout the city are great comic strip graffiti artworks, too, so keep your eyes peeled for Tintin and other famous Belgian comic heroes while you’re walking around.
For those with an eye for the extravagant and unusual, the Atomium is a must. The space-age structure was voted Europe's most bizarre building by CNN, and looks like a giant atomic model. Each of its spheres holds an exhibition space.
Also on the edges of the city is the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren. Packed with exhibitions from the era of King Leopold II’s colonization of the Congo, the collection grants a fascinating insight into in Belgium’s colonial past.
Julie Falconer is a London-based travel writer and consultant. She writes an award-winning travel and lifestyle blog, A Lady in London, for which she has travelled to 97 countries. She is also an online strategy and social media consultant, public speaker, and freelance writer and photographer. Originally from San Francisco, Julie attended Brown University and came to the UK in 2007 after leaving a career in finance, during which time she worked for Goldman Sachs and a hedge fund.