Brussels was our first stop on our Belgium beercation. Steve visited Belgium years ago and we had been looking forward to doing Belgium together for a while now and we were so kicked to finally visit Belgium over the Christmas holidays last year.
My first impression of Brussels, just seeing what was in plain sight, was like.. Whoa, wait, why do some of the buildings look so rundown and covered with soot!? Why do the metros and the metro stations look so ancient? Why is that guy peeing in the street, that too in the centre of the town!? [And, no, I don’t refer to the infamous statue of the little boy peeing]. It took me a while to warm up to Brussels and appreciate the city for what it is. The beer (uh… beers) helped. Brussels has tons of breweries, brew-pubs, bars, beer stores — there’s just loads of good beer everywhere. In Belgium, beer is not just a drink, it is a culture.. and, it has sacred origins!
[More on our beer pilgrimage in Belgium coming soon in a separate post but here’s a peek!]
There’s a lot to do in Brussels. A good place to start is definitely the city’s main square – la Grand Place (French) or de Grote Markt (Dutch). Yep, they have two names for everything including street names. And this can get confusing and you’ll wonder if it’s two different places as they are usually totally different. The city is bilingual and both French and Dutch are official languages. French though is the dominant language and you will hear it everywhere. It’s interesting to note that the city’s origins were that of Dutch and it has been more of a French speaking nation only since the 19th century (the French revolution of course).
The Grand Place was packed with lots of people, every time we passed thru. This picture was taken at 2 AM. Well, it was Christmas time and there were tons of tourists, like us. And, through the evening, they had this light and music show happening which had the crowd flocked to it like bees. The light show was alright, a bit too bright and way too colorful for our liking. And the music, well, may be some Belgian folk music or Christmas carols or anything other than electronica might have made the whole experience (being in a historic city, watching a light show on historic buildings etc.) more relatable.
The Grand Place is surrounded by ornate guildhalls, the Stadthuis (the Town Hall), and the Broodhuis (Breadhouse or the Museum of the city of Brussels). Most of these buildings including the town hall date back to the 15th century although the Grand Place itself dates back to early 12th century. The buildings here an architectural delight with their gothic and baroque styles. The ornamental guildhalls are especially remarkable and at night, even more so with a beautiful glow. There’s always something or the other happening at the Grand Place. It seems like the bi-annual flower carpet show that takes place in the Grand Place is one of their most popular events.
Just a few blocks away from the Grand Place is the infamous Manneken Pis (translates to Little Man Pee), popularly known as Peeing Boy. This small bronze sculpture of the naked peeing boy is a huge deal in Brussels and is a national symbol.
He is apparently seen in a variety of outfits from Santa suits to Elvis Presley to Tibetan monks to national costumes of other countries. What amused us the most though was that for some special occasions, he would be hooked up to beer kegs and you can have a sip of Belgian’s famous brews from his truly. 😀 There are many stories around the origins of the statue – check these out here. And, the boy has a sister and a dog doing exactly what he seems to enjoy doing. We didn’t check out the Jeanneke Pis and Zinneke Pis – decided to save some of this amusement for another trip to Brussels.
Brussels as well had a Christmas Market, just a few meters away from the Grand Place – nothing nearly as beautiful and festive as the German Christmas Markets but nice nonetheless.
They had a whole bunch of stalls selling handcrafted wares, woolen wear, Glühwein, and local Belgian food (loads of waffles and fries of course). And, surprisingly also had stalls selling other cuisines like Mediterranean, Turkish, and Asian. Definitely catering to the multi-cultural city that Brussels is. What we liked more about the Brussels and the other Belgian Christmas markets we saw were the beer stalls – we were especially thrilled to see a craft beer stall with a great collection of craft beers and some of the traditional Belgian beers.
The best way to discover Brussels is to just walk around the city. You will see sections with historic buildings and sections with high-rise offices. It’s a big city that looks so different at almost every turn in the road. AND, it has some super cool comic strip murals on a lot of its walls. The Comic Strip Route features over 50 paintings and is such a unique, fun way to discover Brussels. Check out this link for a map of the spots to hit.
Belgium is not just known for its beer, chocolates, waffles and fries. It’s also revered around the world for being the pioneers in the world of comics. Some of the world’s most beloved comics Herge’s Tintin and Peyo’s Smurfs have hailed from this beautiful country.
Our next stop was the Comic Book Museum. The museum features a permanent exhibition on the history and the making of comics. And of course there is separate section reserved for Belgium’s much-loved hero Tintin. Not only does the museum feature a whole bunch of Belgian comics but also comics in other languages. You can also read some of these comics in the museum’s reading room. And if you cannot read them all, there are numerous comic book stores throughout Brussels and other parts of Belgium. We bought a bunch in Brussels and a few more in Bruges (the ‘De Striep’ store in Bruges has a great collection of comics including in English).
Brussels has quite a few lovely churches but we had time to visit just the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. This gothic cathedral’s history is believed to date back to as early as the 9th century.
We spent most of our time in Brussels just walking around, enjoying the street art and the wonderful street music, hopping from one beer bar to another, indulging in the local delicacies, and picking a few comic books along the way.
Brussels is lively, quirky, medieval yet hip, run-down yet rich with history … And, most impressively, standing tall and strong despite all the tough times the city has had to endure in the recent past. In the end, I fell in love with all of its uniqueness and rich culture and will surely go back for more.