A couple weekends ago I made my first journey out of France and spent the weekend in Brussels, Belgium. It’s one of those places that’s never really been on my list of things I had to see, but after over a month of being in Paris, I needed to experience something else. Brussels was a short, cheap bus ride away. Not to mention, I’d heard the food (and beer) were delectable. So we made last minute bookings and away we went!
We arrived late morning in Brussels after a four hour bus ride. A word to the wise, when you have to be well outside of the city at the bus port at 7am (and don’t really know where you’re going at that), don’t stay out until well past midnight the night before and drink copious amounts of wine. Just saying. We barely made it to our bus and crashed as soon as we were on it. However, it did not help that there were tens of buses that looked exactly the same and NONE of them had signs as to where they were going. We ran around to each one, because why wouldn’t we check the one we actually needed until last.
After dropping our bags off at the hostel, we made our way to the city center, which was about a 15 minute walk from where we were staying. We were so hungry, but all we could focus on where the endless chocolate shops that we kept passing by. Our mission was something sustainable, but we knew we’d be stopping by one (more than one) of those shops afterwards. As promised, we did and they were the best chocolate covered strawberries I’d ever had.
We joined the free walking tour group, which I always love because I learn a lot about the city’s history while enjoying fresh air and seeing cool sites along the way. To my surprise, Brussels is actually quite renowned in its own simple way, it just doesn’t ever get the credit that perhaps it so rightly deserves. Belgium has been the creator of numerous things, while everyone else has taken the credit.
The central marketplace where we began our tour (Grand Place) was once a swamp. It was the center of trade for Germany, France, and England. This is where Brussels gets its name, as “Brussels” means “swamp.” Settlers of this region were German, Dutch, and French.
It was such a hot commodity and prime location that Louis XIV wanted to have it for his own. Since he couldn’t get into the city because of it’s walls, he bombed it. The tower in the center of the square was his aim, and he destroyed everything in the center of town, except for that tower, in 1695. In just five short years the lobbies were all rebuilt and today it is the only well preserved medieval square in Brussels.
What is very interesting about the Town Hall in Grand Place is that it had two different architects and was built in three stages, which is why it is in no way symmetrical or equivalent.
In medieval times, there was one duty and one county. The duty was the Flanders region, with Bruges as its capital and controlled by the King of France. The county was the Brussels of Germany and was part of the first reich. It was in Brussels that Karl Marx wrote Communist Manifesto.
The first thing we learned that began in Belgium that is not as well-known today as the Belgians would like is that the first stock exchange in history occurred in Bruges. Bruges and Venice were the most wealthy nations in the Middle Ages.
A running joke about Belgium is that it is the ‘prostitute of Europe’ because they’ve pretty much belonged to everyone in Europe at one point or another. This, however, makes them the perfect country to be the capital of the EU. It is also fitting because I learned that Brussels is the second most international city in the world, behind New York City.
A few other things like the stock exchange that are original to Belgium but no one seems to know (or care) are fries, cookies, waffles, chocolate, and comic books. Belgian chocolate was created in the Queen’s Gallery (shopping arcades) in a pharmacy. And fries only got the nickname ‘French Fries’ because G.I.s from the United States had fries while they were in Belgium and they thought they were in France at the time because everyone was speaking French. Therefore the US messed this one up for Belgium. (Our bad!) I can say firsthand that Belgium knows what they are doing in the area of the food. As far as comic books, I’m not a huge follower of them but throughout the city there are numerous street art displays of comics and a huge museum as well.
Brussels is also known for having the third most popular statue in the world behind the Statue of Liberty in NYC and Christ the Redeemer in Rio. It’s called Hannequin Piss and is literally a two-year-old boy peeing. That’s it. Sometimes it’s dressed up in costume, but it’s pretty underwhelming. It’s like when you come to Paris and see the Mona Lisa. It’s just sort of there, but gets way more accolade than you maybe think it should.
Most of the original city has been ‘destroyed’ by what the locals have coined as “Brusselization” in the 1960s and 1970s. I think this is true for a lot of places though, as ancient architecture is being destroyed to make way for modern buildings. Brussels is serious about stopping this though, as the city center is being renovated to be pedestrian only and it should be complete by 2018. They aim to set an example for the rest of the EU.
Belgium became a country during the revolution in 1830. What is fascinating about this revolution is that it didn’t start with military men or people of higher status, but began with an audience of the opera. Essentially the revolution began with art, which is perhaps why it is so esteemed throughout the city.
After the walking tour, which conveniently ended at the best waffle truck in town, we enjoyed hot waffles that were every bit as good as they were hyped up to be. And, hence the title, after that we made a trek to experience the best fries in the whole city. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t a huge restaurant with fancy signs, but rather a tiny stand in the corner of a busy plaza. We waited in line about 25 minutes, but it was worth it. Definitely the best BELGIAN fries I’ve ever had! (Yes, even better than McDonald’s).
We had planned for it to be a tame night, but had planned to go to Delirium Cafe to experience the place that served over 3200 different kinds of beer in all its glory. In true fashion, we broke our vow of only having one or two casual drinks, and sampled a few more than that. Belgian beer is amazing to say the least. There is no purity law in Belgium, unlike in Germany, so they can essentially add any ingredient to their beer to make it taste good. That’s why there are thousands of different options for Belgian beer, because they’ve got an endless amount of ingredients they can use. Not only was the beer totally worth it–it was cheap at a high alcohol percentage so you definitely got your money’s worth–but the atmosphere was incredible. It is a very touristy place, but worth it in every sense.
Since we had every intention of starting early to make it back early, we did make it back before midnight. We slept in a bit the next morning, since we didn’t really have an agenda and didn’t leave until later in the afternoon. We spent the day wandering the city center, filling up on delicious waffles that are often imitated but never duplicated, and enjoying the sunlight and warm weather.
Overall, I had a pleasant weekend in Brussels. I will say that it is not my favorite city, and perhaps I would have found more joy in the smaller cities such as Bruges and Ghent (which I have been highly recommended and vow to make it to eventually), but it was still exciting to experience a new place, a new culture, and get out of town for a bit. Plus, as my title says, we came for the food and beer and did not leave disappointed in that aspect.