Make the most of your time in this city, where Gothic architectural marvels co-exist with bustling market stalls and the best beer, chocolate and fries can be found at every corner.
Even if you aren’t big on art, the Magritte Museum — housing over 200 original paintings, drawings and is a must-visit. Don’t forget to pick up an audio guide, which helps you delve deep into each of his key works. A genius of his time, Magritte’s paintings usually had several layers to them, with hidden context and elements that challenged preconceived perceptions of reality. A stone’s throw away is the stunning building of the Musical Instruments Museum, which has the world’s largest collection of instruments — but only around 1,200 out of the entire lot of 12,000 are on display. Train World — an important archive of railway history — and the Museum of Original Figurines (MOOF) are high on tourist itineraries too, but more exciting is the Musée Hergé, dedicated to Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, who created The Adventures of Tintin under the pen name Hergé. The museum’s location — mentioned as Rue Labrador 26 in the town of Louvain-la-Neuve — is incidentally Tintin’s first home in the books. A short drive from Brussels, the foundation for the structure — three floors in all, with nine exhibition rooms, a mini cinema and more — was laid in May 2007, marking Hergé’s birth centenary. It was completed two years later.
A couple of lanes away, check in to The Dominican for a good night’s sleep. The name is a nod to the location’s history — it was a Dominican abbey in the 15th century, and later served as the home and workplace of neo-classicist painter Jacques-Louis David. The contemporary-style boutique hotel is located close to all the must-see destinations and has 150 stylishly designed rooms with luxury fittings. There’s usually a church in every market square around the world, but Brussels is an exception. Its City Hall, though, makes up for it with a stunning Gothic style façade. In 1402, only one wing existed — minus a tower and spire. It expanded with a second wing in 1444 only when the city became the Capital of the region. Three generations of architects worked on its structure. The buildings surrounding City Hall at the Grand Place occupy their place in history as well. The Brussels City Museum is home to the entire wardrobe of the Manneken Pis statue. In another balcony, facing the City Hall, Karl Marx is said to have written Das Kapital, back when Brussels was a neutral territory that welcomed politicians who were expelled from their respective countries. The same was the case with Victor Hugo, who wrote parts of Les Misérables in the city.
For those that aren’t willing to make the trek to an entire museum dedicated to Tintin, there isn’t reason to fret. Memorabilia is available across the city, and there’s even wall art that pays tribute to the series. In fact, there are some 50 walls scattered all over Brussels that feature as many comic strip families. These were commissioned by the Belgian Comic Strip Museum to 50 different artists, who were asked to depict their comic strips on the walls by creating a link between them and the city. If you’re going to set off on a mission to spot all of them (there are maps available online), you will end up covering a fair bit of Brussels along the way. Don’t be surprised if you walk past the famed Manneken Pis post 5 PM and don’t even notice him – he’s that tiny. In the day, it’s the hordes of tourists surrounding him that will tell you there’s something noteworthy there. In the day, the little naked, urinating boy – considered a lucky charm for the Belgians – dons clothing picked out from a wardrobe of 937 costumes that have been donated to him by various institutions, to bring luck to their village or town. Not so popular, but also part of the now-trilogy are the peeing girl (Jeanneke Pis) and dog (Het Zinneke) that were created a good three centuries later as a counterpoint to the boy.
Belgians appreciate you knowing beforehand that they invented the French fry, not their neighbours. They’re quite proud of what they insist is a fact. In my book, another fact is that throughout my trip, I didn’t have a single bad portion of fries served to me — not off a ‘frites’ stall (where they are traditionally served with a dollop of mayonnaise), and not as the accompaniment of choice with a typically Belgian meal of beef stew. Waffles are the other street food of choice here. The biggest concentration of shops selling them is perhaps lined up next to the tiny-butfamed Manneken Pis statue. You might be lured by chocolate, whipped cream, strawberries and a myriad of other toppings, but if you’re going to eat like a local, just a sprinkling of powdered sugar is all you should ask for. If fine dining is what appeals to you, the Victor Bozar Café is an elegant, upscale eatery that serves pretty plates of carpaccio, croquettes and the catch of the day cooked with minimal fuss. More charming is Le Selecto, where ingredients are king — think Iberico pork burgers with minimal condiments, or local stew with a bounty of seasonal vegetables instead of fries. Fresh, local seafood is highly recommended. If razor clams, crab cakes or panko fried mussels appeal to you, look no further than Mer du Nord. But for the best fish and chips in the city, maybe even in the country, pay a visit to Bia Mara and pick between salmon, haddock, coalfish and more. Or do what I did — get them all, along with a side of salted seaweed chips to wash down with chilled pint of Belgium’s most famed beers —Stella Artois, Duvel and more.
Let’s face it – all of Belgium is a beer lover’s paradise, and ensuring that each pint or glass that you consume is amazing is quite a task. You might do a tonne of research and ask all your friends for their recommendations, but the brew may just not be as good as the previous one you tried, or another you shunned in favour of it. If you’re the sort to want to put aside a not-so-impressive beer and order a new one, Tastethis.beer — located just off the Grand Place — should perhaps be your first stop in the city. The concept is clever. There are over 40 taps that carry a mix of popular as well as some lesser known beers. Each tap has an adjacent screen with relevant information and tasting notes that help you decide which ones you want to try. A refill card (starting at 15 euros) gives you access to all these taps, and if you manage to master the art of filling the bare minimum quantity into your glass, you’ll get to try a few sips of at least 15 beers. Also available here are some of the just-average brews from tourist trap Delirium Café, which might convince you not to visit the overcrowded venue for full pints, and hit some lesser-known spots instead.
I might sound blasphemous when I say this, but Belgian chocolate is not the best I’ve had. I enjoy my bar dark, and I struggled to find anything over 72 per cent at various stores. However, since general consensus trumps my opinion, I had to bring back a fair amount of chocolate, and the reactions to it were only of pure ecstasy. Truth be told, it might be hard to find bad chocolate in Belgium. If only the best will do, take a walk across the elegant, long corridor of the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. Home to all the big brands to be found in the city, the gallery also houses a Le Pain Quotidien (again, LPQ is Belgian, not French; the first-ever outlet was opened by Alain Coumont in front of the Brussels Stock Exchange in 1990). Neuhaus is a one-stop for chocolate lovers. Its founder, Jean Neuhaus, opened an apothecary at the gallery in 1857, and began business by coating medicines with chocolate to make them easier to take. His grandson, Jean Neuhaus II, is credited with the invention of the praline – which he crafted in 1912. His wife, in the meantime, earned her own fame by crafting a box for the pralines (after realising that the paper cornet bags of the time were crushing them), which was later patented, and companies are known to still pay Neuhaus for its use. Across the Neuhaus store, Mary is a famed location for chocolate shopping, as well as the internationally.