Brussels is not the first Eurostar stop that springs to mind for a nice little break in Europe, but if you’ve already done Paris or, like me, know residents of the city, it is a worth a visit.
The city is quite an eclectic mix of parks, cobbled streets, market squares, graffiti covered bits of the Berlin Wall and huge, modern EU related buildings. This made it a very attractive place to explore, especially in autumn when all the parks were a blaze of golds and reds. There are much less attractive bits too, every metro station I encountered appeared to be a building site and the first time I was walking around one I was concerned that I had wondered into a shady derelict building.
Brussels is also fiendishly expensive. Make sure you have set aside a generous budget if you want to have a good time. And don’t buy any books in English while out here. Pretty much double the price and sometimes split up into separate volumes.
Anyhow if you have a chance to visit – here are a few highlights I recommend checking out from my own perusal of the country.
Officially the largest visitors’ centre for a parliament in Europe, the Parlamentarium opened its doors earlier this year and is free. It’s very swish and high-tech inside allowing plenty of interaction, no standing around looking at printed blurbs on the wall (although there are those too).
The audio-guides are iPods in disguise and you can wave them over key diagrams around the museum and they will start playing the appropriate videos for that exhibit. Touch screen tables allow you to discover the history and function of the EU. A room with screens tells you the biography of every MEP and has helpful little figurines in different colours to tell you what the political make-up of the parliament is and even puts skirts on some of them to show you if they are female. (Depressingly few skirted figurines).
My favourite room had to be the one with a map of Europe on the floor and you could commandeer podiums with screens on them and as you moved them over each country a video for that country would start playing.
Another great room had 360 screen showing a you a session in parliament, allowing you to eerily feel like you were actually present. And you could also make decisions as an MEP on the interactive screens. But be prepared to have all your proposals for a greener Europe rejected by the council. Not sure what message that was trying to get across about the working of the EP…
Le Grand Place
Before coming to Belgium I was confused as to what all the fuss was about the giant square – then I saw it, all gothic architecture and flicks of gold. It really will leave you a little breath-taken when you arrive in the square. The effect is helped by the narrow, winding cobbled streets lined with restaurants and chocolate shops that you have to navigate through to get to it – they really enhance the wide, grand space of the square. I avoided eating in the cafes in the square as the prices were a bit on the extortionate side.
The Manneken Pis (which is, as it sound, a peeing statue of a little boy) is a small walk from the Grand Place. A lot of hype surrounds it but I was greatly underwhelmed and almost walked by it because the fountain is smaller than I expected. Maybe one to only check out if it’s on your way to somewhere else.
Parc du Cinquantenaire
Built in the 19th century to celebrate 50 years of independence, this U-shaped complex of buildings makes for a stunning view at night when lit up. The triumphal arch is topped with a statue of a charioteer and a colonnade decorated with colourful mosaics branches off on either side. The trees lining the park make it a pretty stunning view during the day too.
The Royal Museum of the Army &Military is one of the museums within the complex (and is free for those looking for budget entertainment). It has a somewhat shabby, dated feel compared to the layout of the Imperial War Museum London. But quite an extensive collection of uniforms and an impressive hangar full of aircraft.
For those more arts inclined the Royal Museum of Art and History is also in the same complex. The museum makes good use of depth and different floors, being set out in such a way that you can look down onto an impressive giant mosaic of a hunting scene and a model recreation of ancient Rome. But it was a bit on the sparse side in comparison to the British Museum, which consider you have to pay to enter the Royal Museum seems a bit off. (Although go on the first Wednesday afternoon of the month and it is free).
For you animal-lovers, Antwerp is less than an hour away by train and has a large zoo right next to the station. Being quite an old zoo there are some nice architectural touches such as the lion pillars that great you at the entrance. It has all the usual suspects such as lions, tigers and elephants and some more unusual ones such as jaguars and emperor penguins. I was a bit distressed that while some animals had huge enclosures a few had smaller ones then I would have liked, for example the elephant and giraffe enclosure. But as they have recreated a giant canyon for the lions I hope they will be doing similar things for the others. And I would really recommend the sea lion show, you don’t need to understand a word of Dutch, just watch the sea lions doing their stuff.
Tip: The waffle stand in Antwerp station does amazing waffles! Not too sweet and you can have melted white chocolate dripped onto it.
Looking for some quality greasy food late at night? Maison Antoine, located in Place Jourdan, is the joint to head to. Not a sit-in place, but there are plenty of bars around the square you can sit at with your helping of chips and batter.