BRUSSELS, Jan 18 — Lovers of windmills and canals flock to Amsterdam. Francophiles, with their love of croissants and macarons, make a beeline for Paris. Yet not far from either city (by rail or air) is an oft-neglected European capital with both French charm and Dutch kookiness: Brussels.
The Belgian capital is filled with quaint (and sometimes dangerously uneven) cobblestone roads and spirited residents. Both French and Dutch are spoken which means streets names are doubled (and doubling the confusion for tourists too, no doubt).
There’s no better way to start your day in Brussels than with breakfast... with some scenery. Le Café du Sablon on rue de la Régence serves up brews, brownies and a blessed view of Eglise Notre-Dame du Sablon across the road.
The 15th-century Catholic church, which is dedicated to Our Blessed Lady of Sablon, has a well-weathered Brabantine Gothic exterior and two Baroque-style chapels within.
Inside the colourful and cheerful café, you can enjoy your usual cappuccino or caffè latte. Why not go black and have a hand-brewed siphon coffee delivered to your table? Pouring your own cuppa feels like a science experiment. Ask the barista to recommend seasonal beans to suit your palate.
Next head to the Espace Léopold where the European Parliament may be in session (and when they are not, free guided tours are available). Though the
European Union has no official capital, Brussels has long been considered its de facto capital. The city hosts the European Commission, Council of the European Union, European Council, in addition to the European Parliament.
Up to 15,000 people a day visit this complex of parliament buildings. The oldest, the Paul-Henri Spaak building, houses the debating chamber and the President’s offices. However, the real star attraction is a bronze statue of Europa sculpted by Belgian artist May Claerhout. A symbol of unity, the figure holds up the euro currency symbol: where else does diplomacy also present an Instagram opportunity?
Join the attachés and ambassadors for lunch at the nearby De Noordzee (La Mer du Nord) fish bar. It’s standing room only but there’s a certain European charm about dining on your feet. The freshest seafood are cooked to order and served fuss-free.
Start with the tomato-based fish soup, served with toast topped with garlic mayonnaise and cheese. Have your mains tapas-style: razor clams à la plancha (cooked on a flattop grill), tuna tataki, salmon tartare, and croquettes aux crevettes (shrimp fritters) which are so addictive you’ll order another round or two. Wash it down with a glass of white wine (or champagne, for a more luxurious bubbly).
After filling your belly, enjoy a brisk walk to Place Poelaert to reflect on how hard-won peace is. Standing proud in front of the Palace of Justice is the Infantry Memorial of Brussels. Dedicated to Belgian foot soldiers who fought in both World Wars, the memorial overlooks the city centre. It’s a spectacular view, but also a sobering one when you ponder the memorial’s inscription. (Translated in English, it reads: To the infantrymen who died for their country.)
Stop next at what could well be the cheekiest city mascot. Located on the corner of rue de l’Etuve and rue des Grands Carmes, Manneken Pis is a statue of a small boy urinating into a pool. Legend has it the statue was modelled after a boy who “blessed” invading troops in this impudent manner. Built in 1619, Manneken Pis has had hundreds of outfits made for it over the years, each as colourful and irreverent as the locals who design them.
From the Manneken Pis, it’s an easy stroll to the Grand Place (also called Grote Markt), the historical centre of Brussels. The square is surrounded by striking old buildings including the Town Hall (which hails from the Middle Ages) and the 96-metre-high Brabantine Gothic style city tower. Try spotting the gilded statue of the Archangel Michael slaying a dragon upon its spire.
Little wonder the UNESCO World Heritage Site is also Brussels’ biggest tourist magnet. Be warned this means it’s also home to the Belgian capital’s biggest tourist traps — expect overpriced menus at restaurants facing the square directly.
Instead head into the sprawling alleys to sample some authentic Belgian fare — from gaufres de Liège (Belgian waffles with caramelised sugar) to the best frites in the world (just don’t call them French fries). The former may be “levelled up” with an assortment of toppings such as Nutella and fresh fruits; the latter are accompanied by unusual sauces such as Andalouse (onion, capsicum, tomato paste, and mayonnaise) and Samurai (chipotle chilli and mayonnaise).
While Manneken Pis is located southwest of the Grand Place, head northeast from the square and you will discover its female counterpart, a little girl squatting and urinating gleefully. Located east of Impasse de la Fidélité, Jeanneke Pis is a relatively newer statue built in 1987 though no less cheeky.
No day out in Brussels is complete without sampling of the city’s famous mussels. Located in a 17th-century building not far off from the Grand Place (but not too close, thankfully), local restaurant Les Chapeliers offers authentic Brussels cuisine. Burgundy-style mussels on the half shell are the perfect appetiser: cooked with cream and white wine, you’d be asking for extra bread to mop up the luscious gravy.
For mains, you can’t go wrong with rabbit stew casserole perfumed with Gueuze beer and plums. If rabbit’s too gamey for your taste, try the duck breast cooked in Kriek beer. You ought to notice a trend by now: the Belgians are famously proud of their beers and use them in every dish imaginable!
After dinner, return to the Grand Place, an entirely different space after sunset. The buildings around the square are illuminated by bright lights with buskers supplying music. Romantic, reverential and reflective: it’s the perfect way to end your day in beautiful Brussels.
Le Café du Sablon
26 rue de la Régence, Brussels, Belgium
Open daily 7:30am-8pm
Espace Léopold (European Parliament)
60 rue Wiertz, Brussels, Belgium
Free guided tours: Mon-Thu at 10am and 3pm; Fri 10am only; Sat & Sun closed
De Noordzee (La Mer du Nord)
62-64 rue de Luxembourg, Brussels, Belgium
Open Mon-Wed 10am-8pm; Thu 10am-10pm; Fri 10am-6pm; Sat & Sun closed
Corner of rue de l’Etuve and rue des Grands Carmes, Brussels, Belgium
Impasse de la Fidélité, off rue des Bouchers, Brussels, Belgium
3 rue des Chapeliers, Brussels, Belgium
Open daily 12pm-11pm