Brussels: A Cultural Feast

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It’s the centre of European culture, with nearly 100 museums, beautiful parks, trendy restaurants and bars, and is officially nicknamed ‘The European Village’. There’s also a lot to learn about the history, from the architecture to the art of chocolate and beer. So it’s no surprise that this city is the destination of choice for the culturally attuned visitor.

The Brussels region in Belgium is made up of 19 separate communes, and the city of Brussels is one of these. Dating back to the 13th century, the city has evolved countless times, but some of the original monuments, buildings and streets still exist, with the outline of the original city walls built into the modern cityscape. Brussels has been the home of kings and the hub of activity for trade and enterprise. It is now home to about 150,000 inhabitants and is known as one of the most international cities in the world, with 27% of the population made up of foreigners. Not surprising, considering Belgium’s centrality, bordered as it is by France, the Netherlands, Germany and Luxembourg, with a coast facing the North Sea across from the UK. In keeping with its status as the Capital of Europe (the seat of the European Union), the city is home to 40,000 EU employees, 4,000 NATO employees and hosts about 300 permanent representations – lobby groups, embassies and press corporations.

Brussels Curiosities

Brussels is also the namesake of several worldwide curiosities. Probably most famous is the Brussels sprout – one of the most nutritious vegetables in the world and a popular choice for parents, although not for children. The Brussels Griffon is a curious looking ‘toy’ dog, displayed in dog shows mainly in England and the US, while Brussels Lace and Velvet demonstrates the city inhabitants’ dexterity at creating beautiful and intricate tapestry and textiles.

Brussels Favourites

Belgium as a whole is famous for its waffles, which are dough-based cakes, cooked on a waffle iron with different shapes and indentations. Brussels waffles are rectangular in shape, with a salty dough texture, and are served dusted with icing sugar, chocolate syrup or strawberries and cream. They are sold on street corners and in metro stations, with the smell of freshly-baked goodness wafting around the city.

Belgian chocolate is just as indulgent and rated as some of the best in the world. There are thousands of varieties to choose from in Brussels, with many not being made anywhere else in the world. The best places to find the finest chocolate, include chocolateria (chocolate shops), where you can customise your own chocolate box, or outlets such as Neuhaus and Godiva, which ensure the best quality and freshest chocolate.

The only thing Belgian people take more seriously than making chocolate is beer, with over 400 varieties available and even a small beer museum at the Grand Place in the city. There are several bars and cafés in Brussels that serve a selection of top Belgian beer, including the popular Dukes, the traditional À la Mort Subite and the Delirium Café, which serves all 400 varieties of Belgian beer.

Eating Out in Brussels

Brussels inhabitants love good food, and the restaurants in the city offer some of the best food in Europe. There is a strong French and Italian influence in Brussels cuisine, although there is a wide variety to suit most tastes, with Filet Americaine (similar to steak tartar), Stoemp (traditional Flemish mashed potato), Cuisse de Canard (preserved duck thigh) and mussels, among the city’s delicacies.

The restaurant scene is lively, especially after 20h00 – in keeping with the European tradition of starting dinner later. For an authentic experience and good service, it’s best to stay away from major tourist spots and take your cue from the locals. Belgians have a preference for dining out on the street or in the garden, and tables and chairs are often carried out of restaurants onto the street, on warm summer evenings.

This idea is brought to life along Rue du Page and Rue du Chatelain on Wednesday evenings especially, when the afternoon street market attracts after work drinks crowds, while the roads around the St Boniface church make a triangular shape and are lined with more lively restaurants, teaming with activity from Thursday nights onwards. For a quieter dining experience, there is a treasure trove of restaurants hidden in the streets around Place Stephanie, which are worth a visit for their superb food and service.

Selected Attractions

The city’s history and architecture means that the tourist is met with an overabundance of fascinating things to see and do. The hop-on hop-off sightseeing Brussels bus is an ideal way to see the attractions that interest you, although all public transport is reliable and easy to use.

A good place to start is the Grand Place, a small but delicately sculpted 15th century town square and ancient market place located in Brussels city centre, erected over centuries to become a modern day representation of the city’s history.

A few alleyways from the Grand Place is the ‘Peeing Boy’ or Mannekin Pis – a fascinating little bronze statue and fountain, which is dressed up for the various events and festivals held in Brussels during the year.

The Palais de Justice is a more majestic structure that stands at the top of Brussels looking down on the city, offering one of the best evening cityscapes of Brussels. The building still serves its original purpose as the high court of the city and has a distinctive golden dome and many columns decorating its façade.

Another salute to the history and architecture of Brussels is the Atomium, an unmistakable symbol of and probably the most popular attraction in the city. It was originally part of the World Expo in 1958 and is a replica of an iron crystal enlarged 165 billion times. The people of Brussels so admired the structure that it has remained in position in the Heysel area ever since, offering a spectacular view of the city, as well as various art and science exhibitions.

Located near the Atomium in Brupark is Mini-Europe, a theme park with miniature versions of famous monuments such as the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Mount Vesuvius and, of course, the Grand Place.

The famous Brussels opera house, La Monnaie (the Mint), offers larger-than-life entertainment, thanks to its active agenda and location in one of the many historical buildings in the city. In fact, Brussels is the place to be when it comes to cultural entertainment, whether your preference is opera, orchestra, concerts or even cinema.

However, if your chosen form of entertainment is admiring historical architecture and wandering through museums, Brussels is the place to be, too. History meets modern day with monuments and buildings stretching all across the city to celebrate different eras. In the city centre, there is the Royal Palace, which is no longer resident to the King, but instead houses museums and churches. In the east side are the modern structures of the European Union. Each building and monument has its own unique story and historical significance, while each of the 89 museums offering a different insight into the history of Brussels and Belgium.

And, for those who enjoy a moment of tranquility between cultural fixes, Brussels boasts a number of ‘green spaces’, ranging from grand boulevards with statues and fountains, to quaint parks with lakes and flowers.

When to Visit

There’s certainly plenty to see, but in order to enjoy the experience, visitors are advised to have an umbrella or waterproof jacket on hand, as the city experiences rain all year round. The climate is temperate and mild, with winter lows of around 1°C (and snow almost never) and summer highs of around 23°C.

The best season to go walking or cycling around the city is mid-spring (April to May), when it is warm during the day but colder in the evenings. This is also just before peak season, making it easier to enjoy the attractions. Summer (June to July) is also a great time to visit Brussels, due to its mild temperatures, although rainfall is at its highest during summer and winter. For the visitor coming to enjoy the museums rather than the weather, autumn is a good time to visit, when the crowds have once again subsided.

Experience the European Village

No matter when you decide to visit Brussels, the city has something to satiate your cultural and culinary appetite. Add to that its central location and highly developed transport infrastructure, meaning it is easily reachable by air, train, bus, car or ferry, and there is little stopping the intrepid traveller from planning a trip to the Capital of Europe.

City Statistics

 

Country: Belgium
Location: Western Europe
Population: 150,000
Currency: Euro
Time Zone: GMT + 1
Website: visitbrussels.be

Speak the Language

It’s an interesting fact about Belgium that Belgians do not share one common language. There are three official languages in Belgium: French, Dutch (Flemish) and German. Language is such an important part of the political and cultural infrastructure that the country created an official language border between the Flemish north and French south, as well as a third region, which is Brussels. In Brussels, people mostly speak French, but it is officially bilingual, so all public signage and documents are in both French and Dutch. 

Kerryn Le Cordeur

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