I recently took a mini-break to Brussels, one of those cheap Ryanair flights that you book on a spur of the moment Saturday, or in my case as a surprise birthday trip for the chap. I've visited Bruges previously and loved it, I expected Brussels to be a bigger more modern version... this wasn't quite accurate.
Here's my introduction to Brussels hopefully it will provide an insight in to the city from my eye's view. I will refer back to this post in each restaurant review post, to avoid you having to read the same introduction over and over again with each new place I visited.
Brussels is a mix of old and new. There are old buildings which are amazing and there are some old buildings that have been left to ruin.
|Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula - a picture of splendour amongst bang average buildings.|
Palais de Justice - covered in scaffolding it's taking so long to restore the scaffolding now needs to be restored. It's a strange place, almost deserted, there is graffiti all over it, the statues are damaged, there is pigeon poo everywhere. It's such a grand building it just feels a little odd.
Then in amongst the old you find the new. Great big glass buildings dotted all around the city and the business district is condensed with the modern buildings of the European Union. Then there are, again, deserted modern buildings. Buildings that don't look too old but are dotted with smashed windows. It's all just a little strange for the centre of a capital city, I expected things to be a little more cared for.
Brussels is a painted city, there is street art and graffiti everywhere. For me street art is something that has meaning, is nice to look at, isn't an eyesore (granted this is different with each person's preference of what constitutes art) and is generally artistic in nature. Graffiti to me is 'tagging' scrawling your name all over everything and ruining street art and walls with lines of nonsensical words.
The Manneken Pis is the most famous statue in Brussels. It's a small boy having a wee. It's become a national symbol for the city and there are many legends about why he is there and what he represents. You can find this little guy just off of Grand-Place on the corner of Rue de L'Etuve.
|Manneken Pis dressed up|
Carrying on with the peeing statue theme, Brussels also has two more that we visited, the Jeanneke Pis a modern (1985) girl version statue having a pee, and a dog having a pee against a lamppost.
Another interesting statue to see whilst in Brussels is the Policeman on Boulevard Leopold II in Sint-Jans-Molenbeek (nearest Metro station is Ribaucourt).
The statues are dotted around the city and it can become quite and adventure trying to find them all.
Flea-markets, Junk Shops and Antiques
Brussels loves its flea markets, there is a large one every day in Place du Jeu de Balle and we stumbled in to one on a Sunday along the streets of Ixelles whilst all the fashion shops were closed. The shear range of things is hard to take in and you will struggle to get a good deal if you appear to be a tourist.
|Place du Jeu de Balle|
Alongside the flea markets you can also find 'junk' shops and antique shops. These shops are full of treasures, it's like being inside Drew Pritchard's wet dream. It's not cheap but the finds are unique and I could imagine decorating more than one house with the restored and unrestored pieces for sales in these shops.
Belgium is famous for it's beer, but I probably don't need to tell you that, it has approximately 180 breweries from the likes of Stella Artois to microbreweries.
|Me sampling the local selection|
Brussels has a large variety of beer stores around the local areas where you can buy bottles of Belgian brews and the amusing varieties of drinking instruments, such as glass boots. As we were hand luggage only (remember the budget airline) we sadly couldn't buy any to take home. So instead we decided to drink our weight whilst we were there instead. Problem solved.
One of the most famous bars in Brussels is Delirium. Delirium boasts holding the world record (in 2004) of serving the most amount of beers in... well the world. I think at the last count that was 2000 beers. Plenty of choice then.
The drink below became known as the black drink of death, we meant to buy a blonde. What we got was some sort of black ale... at 9%. We were wasted. God knows how we got home and then back out again for dinner.
You'll find a few more authentic bars away from Grand-Place, they might not have as big a selection as Delirium but they're definitely worth a visit. Think old wooden bars with stained glass chic.
Most bars serve a selection of meat and cheese boards, great accompaniments for your mid afternoon tipple.
The most important part, for this blog at least, the food. The Belgian's love their food. I read many times over that they have some of the world's best food and it's often boasted that it is better than their French neighbours, although I suspect it might be the Belgian's that wrote that...
The food Belgium is primarily famous for is:
Chocolate - Belgian chocolate to be precise, sold the world over as a luxury chocolate. We did the tourist thing and bought a Manneken Pis chocolate, it was almost compulsory.
Waffles - the sweetest thing I have ever eaten, I could feel my teeth screaming.
|Belgian waffle with strawberries cream and chocolate|
French fries with mayo - cooked twice in animal fat, often debated that the Belgian's created them before the French did, although this might just be the Belgian's hacking Wikipedia again.
|Day three I'm starting to look a little tired by this point|
Steak Frites - according to wikipedia this is Belgium's national dish, we had a rather good steak (pictured below) which I'll go in to more detail about on the upcoming blog post for Jack O'Shea Chophouse.
Moules Frite - Mussels and French fries cluttered the tourist traps and I avoided them on this trip not wanting food poisoning.
If you're looking for good food in Brussels my tip to you is to steer clear of Grand-Place, the streets which surround it are a heaven of tourist traps. The tourist traps all look the same apart from maybe different coloured table cloths, they all sell Moules Frites and oddly paella and pizza too. You can often spot confused looking Chinese tourists in them as well as naive looking 18-year-old interailing kids.
In Ixelles, where all the high fashion and high street stores are located you'll find a lot of foreign inspired restaurants. The sort of popular/fashionable establishments I can find in Leeds, such as Ramen bars, burger joints and organic food stores.
A good tip is to use local bloggers, you can peruse through their posts and discover some great finds away from the main tourist streets, and some sneakily little places that have made it quite close to them too.
One thing you don't necessarily discover with local food blogs is old treasures, food blogs (as I know) tend to focus on the new and fashionable. Old favourites are often overlooked. A mental note I'm making for the future.
It's always nice to find a little treasure on your own too.
Be warned that a lot of places in Brussels close on a Sunday and a Monday, this includes restaurants. We struggled to find some of the popular places, especially in Ixelles, open on the Sunday evening we were in Brussels.
Additional tips for your visit
Transport - you can buy a ticket that works on the Metro, the Tram and the bus. A day ticket costs 7.50 Euro and is a relatively quick way to get around the city although you'll miss out on seeing some of the architecture and street art. The metro can be a pretty scary place at night too, there are a lot of homeless people and pick pockets are rife at all times of the day. We saw some not so very discrete ones checking out my bag a few times.
Most people speak English but they will appreciate it more if you try to speak in French (or Dutch), although they might respond back to you in English once they hear your bad pronunciation... Yorkshire French is not very understandable apparently.
Make a plan B for rain. It rains a lot in Belgium and you don't want to be wandering around in the streets getting soaked, pick a museum or two that you'd like to visit and watch the weather reports.
Charleroi airport is not close to the city centre, it costs 16 euro per person on the city shuttle bus that takes an hour each way. That's 64 euros in total for two people on one trip, there is an airport closer to the city centre although more expensive take the time to work out whether that additional bus cost is worth it.
GPS works on your phone without using data. If you've got the google maps app on your phone use it whilst you're on wifi to look at the nearby streets, the app has already downloaded the information and doesn't feel the need to do it again in a rush, in a way saving the map to your phone. Therefore you can zoom back in and follow yourself using your phone's GPS. No data charges and it's harder to get lost! (If you're not useless at reading maps like me).