Brussels – It’s not all about the Waffles
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear “Brussels”?
For most this answer would be simple, Waffles, chocolates, and the famed Mannequin Pis. Some of you might even talk about Brussel sprouts and completely miss the spot.
A few of my closest friends had traveled to Brussels before me and warned me of getting bored in the city as there is not much to do. I listened to them and cut my trip short to just 1.5 days in the city. Man, do I regret it!
I reached Brussels after a grueling journey from Amsterdam. One that was supposed to be effortless and short, ended up being a long 5-hour ordeal with 4 train changes due to a fire on one of the routes which halted all direct trains from Amsterdam to Brussels…. indefinitely! The journey takes you through the Dutch countryside and if you are lucky, you will get to see a few old fashioned windmills on the way.
I had a reservation at a hostel near St. Catherine which is just a few stops away from Brussels Central station by the subway. Being quite used to hostels by now I expected this one to be quite the same. To my surprise, the hostel was more of a guest house than a youth hostel. No bunk beds, no overcrowded rooms, no tiny washrooms.
The Captaincy Guesthouse (also called Sleephere) in the St. Catherine area is an old house that has been converted and therefore consists a few large rooms with 4-5 beds each and a couple of private rooms for couples. The interiors are absolutely breathtaking for a “Hostel” and you wouldn’t mind whiling away your time on one of the many couches or open areas. I would recommend this guesthouse to anyone traveling to Brussels.
The 9.5 rating on Hostelworld is definitely justified. Check it out here
Stay Centrally at St. Catherine
St. Catherine (Sainte-Catherine) is the perfect location to stay in Brussels. The main roads in this area are Quai du Commerce, Quai aux Briques, Quai du Bois a Brûler, Quai aux Pierre de Tailles. Quai literally translates to dock or wharf as this area used to at one point be one of the main ports in Belgium. The entire square is centered around the church and surrounded by fountains and an open plaza.
During the summer, the plaza comes alive with tons of events, ranging from painting, live music, art, pop-up bars and restaurants to almost anything you would want. I spent an entire afternoon walking around the plaza and basking in the energy of the city.
On Sunday mornings, there is a small farmer’s market that is set up near the fountain. Perfect for you to interact with the locals and get an understanding of the local produce. The plaza also hosts various events throughout the year; with the Christmas market being a much-awaited time of the year.
Brussels is primarily bilingual and you will find a majority of the people speaking French. A lot of the live music played during the end of summer was in French and was absolutely lovely.
Pictured above: A group of 4 musicians who came out of nowhere and started to jam. The crowd really got into it and soon you could find people dancing on the streets. Yes, that actually happens!
Pop-up bars are a common sight across the city on summer weekends. Don’t forget to ask the bartender for their specials. Most would have a few signature cocktails which may not be on the menu. I had a great passion fruit mojito which went perfectly with the music in the square.
My top pick for a summer afternoon in Brussels – grab a couple of beers, pick up some grub from the farmers market or from the many stalls near St. Catherine and spend the day next to the fountains. Amazing conversation is a given in such circumstances.
While walking back to my hostel, I was busy clicking a few photos of the fountain when I noticed a young lady with her bright handbag creating a perfect contrast to the water and sculptures. Getting the perfect angle was tough, also considering we both did not speak the same language. But this remains one of my favorite images from the city. It frames my ideal afternoon in a way that I would not be able to pen down.
Don’t miss out on the Seafood
Speaking of food; the area is also referred to as Vismet which means fish market. The area used to be a busy fish market where local fishermen would sell their catch. Although no fisherman sell their catch here anymore, the area still maintains its relationship with seafood and you can find a multitude of seafood options in many of the restaurants around the area.
I decided to skip the restaurants and head to one of the roadside stalls to savor the famed Mussels (called Moules) that I had been hearing so much about. I decided on trying the Mussels from the ABC Poissonnerie as many of the locals seemed to prefer it over the more famous and much bigger Noordzee Mer du Nord right across the street. After a quick chat with the chef, I decided to try the mussels in white wine along with a pint of Jupiler.
The stall although really small, gets a good crowd going. As it just off the road, it was a great place to take in the city and people watch.
Pictured above: You can see the chef preparing the veggies that form the base for the mussels. The veggies are sautéed in olive oil, herbs, and wine before the mussels are added and steamed with some more wine till they open. Watching the chef at work was a delight as he also doubled up as the server and the bartender, making conversation with everyone as he went around finishing everyone’s orders.
After a short wait, I got served my plate of mussels and do they look yummy. I couldn’t wait to dig into them. The Mussels were delicious and fresh, and the beer complimented them really well. Don’t forget to soak up all the juice and gravy with the bread, that for me was the best part of this meal.
At first, I was a little conscious about how to eat the mussels, it would get really messy. Seeing others doing the same made it much easier 😛
Other things to try include the fried calamari, Oysters, Lobster rolls and the Salmon.
Lunch was great to look around and observe all the people around, you could find people of all age groups and from various countries enjoying the afternoon sun. Roadside cafes have always been a personal favorite but the energy in Brussels just made this so much better.
Pictured above: A young couple take some time off to enjoy the music and beer at the end of summer.
Pictured above: Enjoying the music and the summer energy at St. Catherine
Explore the alleys around Grand Place
Anyone who has been to Brussels or is planning a trip there would have heard of Grand Place and its grandeur. Unfortunately, I was not able to see the square properly as both the nights I spent in Brussels had Grand Place converted into a large concert ground. This, on the other hand, meant I got to enjoy some really amazing French music (which I did not understand) and explore the other alleys around Grand Place.
The alleys leading up into Grand place, which is the central square of the city and is a UNESCO world heritage site. The square is host to multiple events during the year out of which the flower carpet which is set up every 2 years in the month of August is one of the biggest attractions. The next Flower carpet will be set up in 2018 and I plan to be there to check it out.
The square is also home to the Godiva chocolate store where you can stock up on your supply of chocolates for the year. 🙂 Don’t forget to try the waffles right across the street from here. The area is covered with chocolatiers and bakeries.
The alleys around Grand Place are covered with small restaurants serving everything from Italian to Indian to Gourmet Steaks. Pro tip – moving away from the square gets you better quality and cheaper rates.
Next, it was time to grab a drink and what better place than the Delirium Cafe. For all you beer lovers out there, you are in for a treat. With over 2000 different beers being served, you will always find the perfect beer for yourself or go on trying till you can’t have anymore.
Find the cafe can be a little tricky as there are a couple of fakes around the city. Look for the pink elephant symbols at the entrance and if you can spot it, the, Jeanneke Pis statue.
The bartenders here are extremely knowledgeable and will be able to help you find the perfect beer for you. Though, if it’s crowded (which it always is), please be patient. I tried the Delirium Tremens which lends its name and logo to the cafe. The name comes from a condition in which after consuming too much alcohol, a person starts hallucinating and sees Pink Elephants (sounds a lot like the green fairy story). The beer resembles a strong blonde ale and not exactly to my taste. My favorite from the night – WestMalle Tripel.
I was too busy trying beers and striking up conversations with people that I forgot to click any photos here… which is really rare for me.
Get a panoramic view of Brussels from the Basilica of the Sacred Heart
I had a lot more to cover in the city and not enough time, after a bit of reading I decided to spend my day at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. The church is located in the northwestern part of the city and is a dominating structure by all means. The weather was nice and therefore I ended up walking to the Basilica, which took close to an hour from St. Catherine.
Built between 1905 and 1969, the Basilica was originally supposed to be constructed with a neo-gothic design in mind but the plans were later changed to the current Art deco style making it the largest Art deco building in the world. Entry to the Basilica is free and must do.
The Basicila has 8 stained glass windows that depict the life of Jesus.
Pictured above: One of the stained glass windows that can be found on the first floor of the Basilica.
Once you have taken in the beauty of the interiors, it is time to move on to the upper floors and reach the Cupola platform. Platform entry is charged at 5 euros and open only till 6 in the evening during the summer. A couple of elevators later, I step out onto the platform and was completely taken aback by the view.
The platform offers the best panoramic views of the entire city with important buildings marked out on boards across the platform.
The orange rooftops of the buildings against the green of the parks surrounding Basilica make for a great contrast and also show how beautiful this city is.
Pictured above: Sunlight streaks into the main cupola of the Basilica, casting shadows and highlights across the entire facade.
Be awed by the architecture at the Cinquantenaire
After a great day spent at the Basilica, I still had one more place to check off my list. The Parc du Cinquanternaire or the “Park of the Fiftieth Anniversary” is a large public park situated to the east of the city. I had seen a couple of photos of the arch at the park and knew I had to click it. The park can be reached by a quick subway ride on the 1 or 5 lines from St. Catherine
The size of the arch is really not apparent from the photographs and you will be amazed by both the size and the architecture.
The park consists of various museums, a sports ground and the grand mosque of Brussels. If you are visiting the city during the months of April – June, make sure you visit the park during sunset. From what I hear, the setting sun can be captured perfectly in between the arch during this period and makes for a great photograph. The central part of the arch houses a large Belgian flag which again makes for a great photograph if the wind is right.
After a few quick beers with some friends, I made my way to the park to click some photos. Not sure of what I would get, I was hoping it would be worth giving up a night out in the city with friends. They were heading to St. Catherine for drinks and some great seafood and mentioned a couple of dishes that I was very eager to try. None the less, I moved on and decided to try getting the shot I was after.
Pictured above: The Cinquantenaire (View High Res version on 500px)
After waiting for nearly an hour to get the perfect wind, light and traffic conditions, I think the night was worthwhile after all. And so, my time in Brussels came to an end. Need to go back soon.
My top 10 picks from Brussels:
- Find a nice cozy guesthouse and don’t settle for a cheap hostel. The city is not expensive and you can definitely find a great deal.
- Explore St. Catherine and spend a few hours chilling by the fountains with some beer/wine.
- Try the mussels!! Try them at a local roadside stall or at a restaurant, but don’t leave till you try them.
- Walk around. The city is not very large and most of the places to visit can easily be covered on foot. This also gives you the opportunity to see a lot more of the city.
- Visit the Basilica and go up to the platform. Pay the extra 5-6 Euros, it’s more than worth it. Try getting there in time for sunset.
- People watch. The city is truly global and very energetic. You are sure to see a lot of interesting people around.
- Stay for longer than 2 days and see the rest of the city.
- Do not go looking for the Mannequin Pis. It’s a waste of time.
- Grab a few beers at the Delirium Cafe and find your perfect Pint.
- Check out the Cinquantenaire and other parks around the city.
P.S – Yes, you should also get some waffles, fries, and chocolates while at this. But the city is so much more.
Also published on Medium.