You wouldn’t think that being Europe’s terrorist heartland would do much for a place’s tourism industry. However, an overhanging threat of being shot does tend to drastically reduce airfares, meaning that, for the penniless traveller, Brussels has become a very attractive destination over the last 12 months. Of course, the city boasts many other pulls; such as an excess of beer, mussels and chocolate, which have long been drawing visitors from all over the globe.
Dig a little deeper and you will also discover that this small, often overlooked capital, is actually one of Europe’s most interesting cities. Always on the boundary of larger, more powerful nations, Belgium has struggled to find its own identity, something which is woven in to the fabric of its capital city. East of the city centre stands the gleaming facades of the European Parliament, home of democracy and order, and yet Brussels is playful and tongue in cheek; cartoon characters leap out at you from behind corners of smart townhouses. Furthermore, as well as housing a UNESCO world heritage site stuffed with opulent seventeenth century architecture, Brussels is home to some of the worlds “ugliest” buildings, the grotesque, fascinating works of designer Victor Horta. And all of this contradiction exists in a city where everything is within a thirty minute walk away.
24 Hours in Brussels:
Breakfast: Belgian Waffles at Maison Dandoy
Nestled just behind the main square between shops stuffed with tourist junk, Maison Dandoy offers a refreshing alternative to the mass produced, fast-food style waffles that pervade the city. Both their signature soft and crisp recipes are made fresh to order and served in the traditional way, with a sprinkling of brown sugar, or with more elaborate toppings if you so choose. A perfect way to start the day and a great opportunity to walk through the Grande Place when it is not inhabited by scores of tourists. http://www.maisondandoy.com/en/home/
AM: Antiques shopping in Marolles
Everyday from 6am, the Place de Jeu Balle is transformed into a treasure trove of bric-a-brac. Pick your way through towers of vintage crockery, antique jewelry, second-hand clothing and broken machinery and, if you spend long enough or look hard enough, you might just find yourself a gem. The locals say that Thursdays and Fridays are the best but honestly it is worth going on any day of the week, more for the spectacle than anything else. The market can be a little overwhelming though so make your escape into the quieter, neighbouring streets all of which are crammed full of fantastic second-hand and antique furniture shops. One of the most impressive of these is Via Antica, a three floor emporium of retro design classics. http://www.belgium-tourism.be/informations/events-bruxelles-marolles-flea-market-on-place-du-jeu-de-balle/en/E/20774.html ; http://viaantica.be/
Lunch: Pin Pon
Overlooking the flea market, this trendy cafe, popular with locals, serves up Belgian classics like Moules and Fish and Chips, but in a brighter and more interesting atmosphere than the busy tourist hotspots in the town centre. If you get there a little earlier, go for the brunch menu and try the eggs cocotte, their signature dish. The layout of the restaurant is a little confusing but the food is fresh, simple and delicious. https://www.facebook.com/apero.pinpon/
PM: Get some culture at the Belgian Comic Strip Centre
If I only have a short time in a city I never choose to spend much time in museums or galleries, I prefer to walk around and really soak in the atmosphere. We were in brussels for 3 days so visited a few places but the Comic Strip Centre definitely stood out. The museum is housed in the old Waucquez warehouse, a masterpiece of art-nouveau design and one Victor Horta’s only surviving industrial buildings. As such, as well as exhibiting the city’s link with comics, the museum highlights Brussels’ place in the history of art-nouveau architecture. The Comic Strip Centre uncovers the history of comics, from ancient cave paintings until the present day and houses some of the earliest ever recordings of animated cartoons. Furthermore it delves into the life of Brussels’ most famous inhabitant Hergé and his creations as well as showcasing the work of new, up and coming cartoonists. If you do have a little more time, the Magritte museum is also worth a visit. https://www.comicscenter.net/en/home
This tiny gem of a restaurant was recommended to us by our airbnb hosts and although it popularity means you may very probably have to wait for a table, you will not regret the wait. The menu is traditional Belgian fare, big hearty meat dishes with rich sauces and simple accompaniments. When we ate here, the rain was coming down in sheets outside and my bratwurst with creamy leek sauce and root vegetable mash was just what I needed. Aside from the food, the atmosphere is convivial, in part because it is such a small place, and the service was excellent. If you can’t get in here for food in the evening it is worth going just for a beer earlier on in the day. This is firstly to enjoy the beautiful building, it has its original art-nouveau facade and this design theme continues to the inside. Also, their beer menu was one of the most interesting I encountered, rather than merely the classic old favourites, they choose to showcase a new generation of Belgian brewers combining Belgium’s brewing legacy with more modern styles and flavours of beer.
After dinner beers at Fin-de-Siecle
Most of the tourist contingent will head straight to Delirium Cafe to drink themselves into a stupor on 8% beers. Not to say that this Brussels stalwart is not worth a visit but if you fancy a slightly different scene, Fin-de-Siecle provides an antidote to the hoards of lads-on-tour found in most of Brussels’ beer houses. The clientele is mostly made up of the city’s frustratingly cool 20-30s population sipping local beers and enjoying the bar’s delicious and well-priced food. We just went for beers and some nibbles but it is worth remembering that the kitchen is open until 1am if you fancy a midnight snack. The interior is, as the name suggests, shabby, parisian, turn-of-the-century style with mis-matched wooden furniture and vintage posters pasted to the bar. Another bonus is that this bar is just around the corner from the Place Saint-Géry, home some of the city’s best late-night bars, including the former Saint-Géry market hall which now houses an art gallery that becomes a club at night. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Fin-de-Siecle/156879724358527