According to travel guru Rick Steves, Brussels, Belgium is a city one can technically visit when on their way to places like Paris or Amsterdam. Because a city of one million residents whose origins date back to the 10th century, not to mention it being the headquarters of numerous global organizations including the European Union and NATO has only enough to keep tourists busy while waiting for their trains to depart. Yes, I firmly believe there are small cities (and certainly small towns) one could see enough of to do them justice in the span of a morning or afternoon. However, to say that one could see and experience Brussels, a major European capital, in just a couple of hours is ridiculous. The fact that it’s located almost in the middle between Paris and Amsterdam does not mean that you shouldn’t spend equal amounts of time in Brussels as well. While I certainly have used Steves’ books before, I read other travel guidebooks as well because I feel relying solely on one guidebook is somewhat narrow indeed. Too many American travelers to Europe regard Steves as the Messiah of traveling, and I’m sure countless Americans pay heed to his words where Brussels is concerned.
Brussels was the first stop on a trip that also included the fairytale city of Brugge and Paris. My parents had visited Brussels back in the 1970s and just loved it as had my grandparents, and since I share many similar thoughts and opinions with them where travel is concerned, I was pretty sure I would love it too.
While the train ride in from the airport traversed through some less than desirable sections of the city, I had certainly seen worse before (driving through shanty towns in cities including San Jose and Buenos Aires). After getting off at the Station, I proceeded to exit not knowing for certain which way to go except that I needed to pass under the “arch.” Shortly after I wandered through the type of outdoor area Europe is so famous for, cafes with ample outdoor seating and droves of people just milling about. I proceeded down a short street that emptied out into none other than the famed Grand Place. Seeing the incredible architecture before me, the glimmering gold from the buildings reflecting from the sun, I didn’t know how anyone could ever feel that Brussels is a stopover city. Although for most of the train ride in from the airport and certainly while carting my suitcase around, I had felt exhausted from my overnight transatlantic flight. However, standing in the Grand Place, doing a complete 360 as I twirled around to take it all in, my jet lag had evaporated. For me, it was one of those moments that all travelers experience when they know that the flights, the connections, the lack of sleep were all worth it for what awaited them at the end of the usually difficult journey (mentally and physically).
I didn’t do a ton of touring in Brussels simply because I felt it was more a city where one should experience its ambiance and its culture. (In that regard no, it doesn’t have nearly as many famous attractions as a city like Paris, but trying to compare the two would be like comparing apples and oranges.) Of course I paid a visit to Manneken Pis, a fountain containing a bronze sculpture of a urinating youth which, while an extremely popular tourist attraction, is also a folkloric symbol of the city. When I stopped to take pictures there were hordes of tourists around and it made me think of Rome, a city that is home to dozens of fountains scattered throughout. Had the Mannekein Pis not become such a popular tourist attraction that everyone just wants to take a picture of (myself included), it too would be just another ordinary fountain.
Waffles (gaufres), fries (frites), and beer (biere) were of course an integral part of my time in Brussels. Waffles in Belgium, I discovered, were delectable treats and nothing like those found in your grocer’s freezer aisle. We visited many cafes including two historically famous ones, A La Morte Subite (Sudden Death) and Cirrio Cafe. I had my first ever Lambic beer at the former but much preferred the delicious chocolat chaud I had at the latter.
One of the favorite things that I did in Brussels was visit the BELvue Museum which documents the national history of Belgium. Prior to traveling there I knew very little about the country save for it being the site of horrific battles during both world wars and the infamous destruction one of its kings heaped about the Belgian Congo (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) during the colonial era. To say I learned a lot about the country would be an understatement. The information is in-depth and extensive without being overwhelming. My favorite parts were seeing the personal effects of the royal family, especially the older photographs, and also the artifacts from World War I since I am immensely interested in that historical conflict. The museum is also near to the Royal Palace and while it wasn’t open for touring, it was ever opulent and ever grand from the outside, especially since it is located right in the midst of the city.
And what would a European city be without a striking cathedral? St. Micahel and St. Gudula Cathedral (patron saints of the city) was a structure we came across by chance (not that one can exactly miss it when walking in Brussels) and decided to go inside. Although some may say that all cathedrals tend to look the same after a point, to me each and every one still has something that sets it apart from the rest.
Many people may not know (well, non-Belgians) but the famous little blue people, the Smurfs, were originally known as Les Schtroumpfs and were created by a Belgian cartoonist named Peyo in 1958. The city’s Comic Strip Center chronicles the immense history of Belgian comics; in addition to Les Schtroumpfs Belgium can also boast that it gave the world the beloved character Tintin created by the comic writer and artist known as Herge. It definitely offers a more funny and quirkier side to Brussels, when one tires of gazing at the majesty of the Grand place and other stunning buildings.
No Brussels is not Paris or London. It does not have any landmarks that most people in the world would automatically know. However, it is a city with a vast array of terrific food and beverage options, friendly people (many of whom speak impeccable English) and historically rich sights. Moreover, I don’t know if there is any capital in Europe that should be dubbed a stop over. Travel where you want to go and make the decision for yourself whether a city is indeed only worth a couple of hours or a couple of days.