“Brussels is like New York City, except there’s more green and modern art,” declared the recorded guide on my city sightseeing bus tour. Looking around at the sleek, glass buildings standing tall against the blue sky, he was right. It did remind me of Manhattan. However, architectural structure aside, there’s a charm to Brussels, Belgium that makes it well worth the eight-hour flight from the Big Apple.
My mother-in-law and travel aficionado Lisa and I landed after taking an all-nighter from NYC. A quick stop to Novotel Brussels (a centrally located hotel near Brussels Central Train Station), not to mention a short cab ride from the airport to freshen up, and we were off.
The best way to get a taste of Brussels when you’ve got a limited amount of time is a tour on an open-top bus. With 22 stops, riders get to see the entire city, and are able to get off and explore any of the landmarks should they desire a more in-depth look.
Many buildings—monuments really—stand tall, majestically representing their city. The detailing in each is quite spectacular. Some notables include:
· Grand-Place: It’s the central square of Brussels and is surrounded by the city’s Town Hall, guildhalls and Broodhuis (bread house), a stunning neo-gothic building once used by bakers to sell bread. (Now it’s the City Museum.)
· Art Nouveau Houses: Two architects, Victor Horta and Paul Hankar, launched this particular style in 1893. The ornate façades can be seen on buildings throughout the city still today. Popular motifs of this era include the arabesque, the floral or animal pattern, and the feminine silhouette.
· Atomium: This striking piece of architecture, representing an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times, was the main pavilion and icon of the 1958 World Fair of Brussels. “It symbolized the democratic will to maintain peace among all the nations, faith in progress, both technical and scientific and, finally, an optimistic vision of the future of a modern, new, super-technological world for a better life for mankind,” states the official website. Parts of the Atomium are open to the public, with a permanent exhibit dedicated to the birth of the Atomium and the 1958 World Fair.
· National Basilica: A beautiful Art Deco church founded in 1905 by King Leopold II, but not completed until decades later in 1970 as a result of World Wars I and II. It’s dedicated to the Sacred Heart, and is the fifth largest church in the world.
In between all of our exploring, there was, of course, eating. Your mind might naturally wander to waffles, chocolate and beer when you think of Brussels cuisine. Well, mine did. Verdict: it was all delicious! I’d also add Belgian frites: golden brown fries topped with a delicious mayo concoction, which you can find at an array of stands throughout the city. Mussels in a tomato and onion sauce (much more flavorful than the traditional white wine sauce!) from Restaurant L’Huitriere was a memorable meal, both because of the taste of the food and service from the waitstaff.
And I have to include good ol’ vanilla ice cream to that list. Seriously. The ice cream I had for dessert at a charming little restaurant in Bruges, La Dentellière, was so fresh and creamy, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone hand-churned it that morning. Yum.
Another insider tip: Los Churros had without a doubt the best waffles. During my first day, I tried three different places until I found Los Churros. The outside of my waffle had a light crunch to it, but the inside was slightly doughy. Topped with milk and dark chocolate, and you’ve got perfection.
While in Brussels, seeing the neighboring city of Bruges is a must. (That’s where we went on day two.) It’s a short train ride away, about an hour. The entrance to this beautiful city is reminiscent of a castle, the streets are paved in cobble, and the medieval brick houses steeped in history. I loved everything about it: the beautiful shops filled with lace (Belgian lace—the quality and intricate design is said to be unmatched); chocolate; the friendly people; and the museums.
Some Bruges notables include:
· Sint-Janshospitaal: St. John’s Hospital is one of the best preserved medieval hospitals still standing. It’s now home to the Memling Museum—the hospital museum and old pharmacy. There are six pieces of work by Flemish painter Hans Memling here, the most notable of which is the relic shrine of St. Ursula. You can also find some other amazing pieces that give you a real insight into how the hospital operated during this time period.
· Bruges Waterways: There’s something truly romantic about these beautiful canals meandering through the city. You can take a 30-minute boat tour and experience Bruges from a different viewpoint.
· The Minnewater (Lake of Love): This was one of my favorite spots in Bruges. Minnewater is a canalized lake that offers a stunning view of the town from its bridge. Legend has it that if you walk over the lake bridge with your partner, you will experience eternal love. The area also has an array of restaurants with outdoor seating to grab a bite or get a locally crafted beer, Brugse Zot, straight from the town brewery: De Halve Maan.