When it comes to selecting urban European destinations, Brussels is often overlooked by its more famous neighbors – Amsterdam and Paris – or added to an itinerary as an afterthought. And, I’ll confess, I didn’t know what to expect when visiting Brussels for the first time last spring. I knew of the famed Grand Place, Brussels’ magnificent main square, and Mannekin Pis, the small statue of a urinating boy that somehow came to symbolize the city, but what museums are in Brussels? What about the architecture? Is it easy to explore on foot, like Paris? What language do Belgians speak? What could I truly accomplish in just one day in Brussels?
I’m happy to report Brussels is extremely easy to navigate as a first-time visitor. Kevin and I didn’t have to take public transit once, and we easily managed to soak in all of the city’s major sites. Thankfully, since Brussels is the capital of not just Belgium but all of Europe, English, French, and German are all widely spoken. Brussels is immediately foreign to the American eye but still approachable; a Paris Lite, if you will.
I started off my one day in Brussels with a stop at the Grand Place (also known as the Grote Markt), Brussels’ top attraction. What’s so spectacular about the main square, you ask? Well, the Grand Place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and became a prominent focal point in the city starting in the fourteenth century, when wealthy merchants set up shop downtown; the City Hall soon followed in the mid-1400’s.
Now, as touristy as it may seem, I spent my one day in Brussels devouring the two foods the nation is famous for: chocolate and waffles. In a fit of excitement, I dropped a few Euros on the first bag of dark chocolates I found, and when I went to photograph them for this article, I discovered they were shaped in the likeness of Mannekin Pis (see below). Of course, I thought this was hilarious – only I would accidentally purchase PG-13 chocolates – but I do my best to keep this blog family-friendly.
When we visited, Mannekin Pis happened to dressed in one of his many costumes sent to Brussels from people from all over the world. Now, I know what you’re wondering…how did a statue of a urinating boy become an emblem of this European capital? London has Big Ben, Paris the Eiffel Tower, Berlin the Brandenburg Gate…and Brussels is represented by a peeing naked boy? How did this happen?
Centuries ago, legend has it, a massive fire broke out near City Hall, thus threatening the beloved structure. A young boy from the city bravely approached the fire and started peeing on it, and in doing so, stopped the fire and saved City Hall from becoming nothing more than a pile of ashes.
This is what Mannekin Pis looks like without a costume on:
You can’t visit a European city and not tour at least one church, right? My favorite offering in Brussels is the St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral, easily reminiscent of Paris’ iconic Notre Dame. Not too far from Mannekin Pis and the Grand Place, St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral is easy to add to any walking tour of downtown Brussels.
Brussels has a number of arts and culture museums – including one celebrating the history of comic books – but Kevin and I decided to take a respite from the traditional retinue of paintings and sculptures to visit the Museum of Natural Sciences. This family-friendly museum, conveniently located in downtown, boasts an extensive and world-renowned dinosaur gallery, perfect for the Ross Geller in every travel group. There’s also an impressive evolution gallery and mineral hall. To learn more about the museum’s opening hours and admission prices, check out the museum’s official website here.
The Parc du Cinquantenaire, located in the EU District, is a must for lovers of all things traditionally European. The Triumphal Arch, pictured above, is one of the classic symbols of the lovely city of Brussels and borders the EU District, which effectively functions as the capital of Europe.
I visited Brussels in the spring of 2016, before Brexit and the rise of populist leaders threatening to take control of European countries. My visit also happened to be forty-eight hours before the ISIS-backed terrorist attacks on the Brussels airport and one of the metro stations downtown paralyzed all of Western Europe. I’ll never forget walking through the EU District, Brussels on the brink of disaster although I didn’t know it yet, thinking to myself: this is the future of global politics. Although Brussels sits in the heart of Belgium – a relatively new nation by European standards; Belgium formed in 1830 – the city truly belongs to all of Europe.
And the title fits Brussels beautifully. Having traveled to London, Paris, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Berlin, Bergen, and a number of other Western European cities, Brussels feels quintessentially European both in architecture and in culture. We enjoyed crepes at a stand run by a Frenchman, and ate dinner at an authentic Italian pizzeria where our waiter spoke with an unmistakable Italian accent.
When we were in Brussels, we knew disaster was about to strike. Roads were randomly closed, with heavily armed police officers patrolling otherwise calm and quiet streets during the middle of the day. Machine guns hinted at what was about to come, although we convinced ourselves the militarized police forces were more preventative than anything else. Even with potential for terror on high alert, the EU District was lively, busy, and energetic. Threats both abroad and domestic did not slow this political region down.
As you can see from the two photos above, the EU District isn’t particularly glamorous or even classically lovely. The utilitarian, modern structures that define the neighborhood look almost Soviet-esque, but they remind visitors Brussels is the epicenter of all European politics and economics. Modern-day Brussels is, above all, a working city – this isn’t a museum-like metropolis where its most important days lie centuries in the past.
Or, at least it looked that way at the time. Back in March 2016, Britain seemed poised to stay in the European Union and the United States was expected to elect Hillary Clinton as its president. The populist uprisings in Britain, the Netherlands, and France since early 2016 are an ideological assault on everything Brussels and the EU stand for. The EU is supposed to discourage nationalism; after all, nationalism led to the Holocaust and World War II. In this way, visiting Brussels felt revolutionary, and there’s a tangible sense that something unprecedented is occurring here – making the EU District a must for anyone touring Brussels.
We ended our day in Brussels with a final walk through the splendid Grand Place. I do recommend visiting both during daylight hours and after dusk; it truly is the most ornate and amazing slice of European architecture I’ve seen yet. Look at those grand facades with awe-inspiring gold detail!
Confession: it’s been terribly hard to pen this piece without pricing out flights back to Brussels. I loved the history and politics of the city; what it represents in the face of increasing nationalism and populism all throughout the west. Brussels serves as a symbol for those of us who see a more globalized, peaceful, cooperative society as the right side of history. If the EU could come together mere decades after World War II and just a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, American visitors may feel inspired by visiting Brussels in the face of our political situation at home today.
My top Brussels travel tip? Either purchase a detailed city map before arriving or ask the front desk clerk at your hotel for a complimentary map of downtown. Like most European metropolises, Brussels is not laid out in a grid or block format, and most of the street signs are in French and Flemish, the city’s premier two languages. Trust me – you’ll need a map, even if, like myself, you’re just spending one day in Brussels.
End note: If you want to read more about the populist uprisings in Western Europe, please read this article.