Updated: Feb 24, 2020
Full transparency, I have restarted this rumination on my time in Brussels more than once. I am not entirely sure why I am so challenged in placing finishing touches to a narrative around a place I found so easily engrossing? Perhaps it is out of some allegiance to the city and residents who made the visit memorable? Possibly some desire to paint her in a light that sells the average traveler on what makes this city of two-million people a not-so-average destination.
When I listed off upcoming places awaiting an itinerary of European destinations, the Belgian capital would inevitably elicit either a non-verbal reaction of confusion from acquaintances or a more direct:
At the heart of this ill-conceived perception is a rooted assumption of a city mired in poor weather, populated by people devoid of social complexity and a culture that is boring at best. After spending a week in the heart of Brussels, I am convinced these characterizations are all part of a plot perpetuated by the tourism boards of bordering countries to keep the delights of Belgium a competitive secret.
Arriving at Brussels Airport is a stark reminder of the resiliency and importance the city plays as a geopolitical hub of Europe. In 2016, terrorist suicide bombers targeted the departures terminal of the main airport and one of the city’s most crowded train stations. The result was a loss of thirty-five lives (including the three perpetrators) and an ensuing period of fear and anxiety at the thought of additional targeting.
The terminal is now setup to restrict drive-up proximity and up-armored guards stand sentry alongside travelers grabbing their lattes at busy coffee kiosks. Thankfully, the efforts of local law enforcement and alert citizens has resulted in no further conflict on this scale.
The city’s status as home of the European Union (EU) headquarters likely plays into the misguided reputation as a bureaucratic hub of a destination with less-than-interesting offerings. More often, one can safely apply a global view that suited government officials are not the best casual “hang.” However, one should recall that Brussels has a history and heritage that far predates the selection as EU HQ. A distinction Brussels never wanted in the first place (more on that interesting process later).
A result is that many see Brussels as a “stopover” destination. More likely to garner a night’s stay at the adjoining hotels at the airport rather than venturing into the city. That would be a big mistake.
The Belgian train system goes straight from the airport to the city center via the Airport-Zaventem line, and it offers comfort and the affordable cost of 10-12 Euro. My feelings on this are clear - a straightforward public transit option lacking complexity should be the first infrastructure requirement of any city that wishes to be taken seriously as a destination. A clean, safe and direct line from the airport creates a first impression that indelibly stays with any visitor. The comfortable ride takes only fifteen minutes to go from throwing elbows at baggage-claim to sipping a strong Belgian beer.
I rode one stop south of the Brussel-Centraal station to the somehow more energized Bruxelles-Midi station - buzzing like an anthill that just got kicked over. Having frequented many cavernous train station hubs, I can attest the Midi station is right up there with more boggling ones. For all the blessings (and negative side effects) Google Maps has bestowed on our culture, two key directional features elude it: guiding a new arrival on which surface exit to take out of a transit station and how to navigate above, or below, street level. I’m still sore about not finding that killer ramen shop on the sixth floor of a Tokyo high-rise. I nitpick.
Orienting my bearings, I emerged from the station to…rain. Faced with the decision to hail a ride or brave the drops to my Airbnb roughly a 10-minute walk away, I chose the latter. Perhaps my years of living in the Pacific Northwest have desensitized me to anything less than a vision reducing downpour, but this strategy worked to my advantage as shortly after escaping the shelter of the station the rain subsided. This would be a recurring pattern of my time in Brussels. Don’t like the weather, wait fifteen minutes.
I setup in a great little artist walk-up in the Anneessens neighborhood of the city. The energy pulsing through the neighborhood and the grungy realness immediately appealed to me. The area caters to an ethnically diverse group and seems more socioeconomically approachable than perhaps more affluent areas of the city. While one can rabbit-hole online to find flashlight-under-the-covers horror stories about any part of town, I never felt uncomfortable in the area and it served as a great jumping off point to walk the city. (note that I am a single male with a lot of solo travel under my belt, so please conduct your own research and determine your own comfort-level before selecting a home base for your visit).
My arrival was at dusk, so I trekked down the street to a local market stall and fruit stand to pick up basic provisions. The flat was simply decorated but expansive and delightful. Large street side windows that stretched floor to ceiling, letting in an abundance of natural light. The host was a local artist, and several eccentric modern pieces dotted the room. During an initial chat upon check-in, they recruited me to help load a heavy new piece into the second level they called home. The welcome interaction that only a homestay can drop into your lap. Fine with me, an exertion to serve as an excuse for rewarding with a dense Trappist beer I grabbed while slipping down the aisles of the corner store.
The first morning met with my first goal, finding a reliable source of quality roasted coffee. While I love exploring a variety of unique coffee stops in any new city, I also like to have a go-to that is open early in the mornings to satiate my all-too-often jet lagged cravings. OR Coffee was that go-to.
Two people deep in line, I was preparing myself for my time to order. The initial service industry interaction in any unfamiliar city is both awesomely anxious and energizing. My mind raced through those four years of high school French, only polished off during my last trip through Paris a few years before. The area in and around Brussels is an island of primarily French-speaking residents amongst the northern Dutch-Flemish speaking, so I was fully expecting a somewhat surly interaction allowing me to nail some attempt at parler Français.
“Un cappuccino s’il vous plaît.” Was I audibly muttering? Was I frightening the person in line behind me? Who can be sure, but it was a worthwhile sacrifice for this important sign of statesmanship I was about to kick-off. I was ready.
“How may I help you?” the barista inquired.
Saved once again by another country’s willingness to do the heavy lifting as it relates to accomplished bilingualism.
Grabbing a seat at one of the street-facing windows, I tucked into a well-pulled cappuccino. The flawless balance of creamy foam topping an undercurrent of darkly tanned espresso that jettisoned any hint of bitterness. A square of 72% dark chocolate accompanied cutting board serving as a place setting for my beverage. This was a theme during my entire stay in Brussels, and one that really needs to catch on elsewhere - the coffee accoutrements. Over the course of a week I enjoyed gratis chocolate, mini-stroopwafels and scented Speculoos bites. Each paired intentionally based on the roast or drink type.
While waiting in line to order my drink, the homemade pastel de nata tempted me and beckoned from the display case. Exploring Portugal has instilled a permanent soft spot the traditional egg tart, but on this day it would better serve my carb allocation to await the delicacies of Belgium - namely, the waffle.
Gathering up my gear, I stepped out to…rain. Brussels, work with me here. Faced with an increasingly vocal stomach ready for some breakfast, I had to decide if I should brave the elements and march on? Do they close waffle shops when it rains? Two questions I already knew the answer too. Carry on to hot-pressed heaven!
It may seem cliche, but waffles are unavoidable in the city. The smell drifts from shops on roughly every other block, threatening to lift you off your feet and float you into the storefront in cartoonish style. The treat is an accepted and proud culinary institution. This runs counter to some destinations where popular “tourist fare” is not local in any way - looking at you damn delicious “Czech” chimney cakes!
The ubiquity of waffle-slinging storefronts results in a need to practice scrupulousness when picking your spot. I am the first to question those “highly recommended” must-try lists and well-trodden spots of guidebook fame. However, Maison Dondoy always frequents these lists, and is mandatory for a fix.
Attention please, valuable navigation tips for the waffle grid incoming. There are two types of waffles found in the city: the Liege and the Brussels styles. While the Brussels variation is light and yeast-based, the Liege is more dense with miraculously embedded large sugar crystals that survive the heat just long enough to offer a perfectly grainy reward in each bite. Both have their place in the Belgian waffle landscape.
Maison Dondoy excels at the Brussels style. Light as a cloud and snowcap dusted with powdered sugar, the airy grid will leave you wanting a bit more. Because Maison Dondoy offers more than just waffles, this is good news. While standing at the old wooden bar awaiting your order, plant a firm left heel and turn around one hundred-eighty degrees. Feast your eyes upon the glass-encased bake goods that count among their residents the Sablé and the Speculoos cookie. The former is a crumbly shortbread that coats the mouth with the distinct essence of freshly churned butter. The latter is a crunchy brown sugar cookie with “came-to-play” infusions of cloves and cinnamon. Forget what you think you know about Speculoos from airline snack offerings or Trader Joe’s wizardry. This is gourmet. This is high art.
Picking up a delicately packaged set of each for a week’s worth of morning coffee enhancements, I set back out on the cobblestone streets a happy man. Still early in the day, my goal was to check-off one of the most referenced attractions in the city that I fully expected to underwhelm - Manneken Pis. Sound it out, take it literally and it removes any double of what will present itself when you round the corner to its home at the intersection of Rue de l’Etuve and Rue du Chêne. A two-foot high statue of a wee lad, well….taking a wee. The diminutive statue has a storied history of theft that any local Belgian will be more than happy to regale you with over a beer. Stolen by countries in manners that would make fraternities proud, hundreds of costume changes to match holidays and even variations of the fluids that sprinkle the basin below. I can add not much else to the description. It is the Mona Lisa of peeing statues in that hoards of people surround a centerpiece that is smaller than the hype would have suggested. (Note: in this writer’s opinion, da Vinci beats pissing boy)
Advise worth heeding, if you pass a shop with a replica Manneken Pis showering chocolate into a basin of Belgian waffles adorned with more toppings than dough…this is not the waffle shop you are looking for. Crushed Oreos do not belong on a well-crafted Brussels waffle.
One of Belgium’s key creative contributions of the twentieth Century are comic series like The Adventures of Tintin and The Smurfs. So, my goal on many days was to set out on foot across the city to uncover as many cartoon murals as possible. The murals are a nod to that history and are slyly positioned across building facades in the city. Believed to number around fifty, these playful recreations of iconic scenes make for a great way to see the city and scratch that proverbial human desire to build a list and “check off” items.
Each visitor will have their personal favorites, but some of mine included the Frank Pé inspired Broussaille in the city’s LGBTQ neighborhood, the western-themed Lucky Luke mural and perfectly blended-in Ric Hochet scene on the Rue des Bons Secours. The meticulous manner in which each mural integrates into the surrounding landscape and fits to a particular neighborhood inspires a wistful hope that other cities will embrace a similar handshake with local creative communities rather a closed fist that breeds underground, and unrecognized, art.
Each day in Brussels ended in the same manner, the only manner, that a self-respecting visitor should entertain. A stop into one of the many beer bars that dot the city. Belgians have been brewing beer longer than most other regions, and they take great pride in the product. Trappist style beers that dominate bucket lists of craft beer enthusiasts in the US are readily available for a few Euros everywhere one looks. Skip the dedicated “bottle shops” aimed at tourists and rather head to the nearest Carrefour, or corner supermarket. One can find the same bottle that would cost you six Euro in the heavily touristed areas for around two Euro where residents shop.
Better yet, duck into a dedicated beer bar like Moeder Lambic or Café Mort Subite. Each exemplifies the best of what I found in modern and classical approaches to the Belgian tradition. Saddle up to a table with friends and enjoy the conversation and the nuance and excellence of the craft. A more enjoyable evening versus chugging watered down product on the path to a forgetful morning.
Moeder Lambic is a modern variation that legitimately delivers on the recreated promise many new beer gardens stateside work overtime to replicate. Exposed brick walls, black and white photography gracing the walls and a front-porch patio overlooking the Place Fontainas square all invite you to stay awhile. The beer menu is extensive and the knowledge of the staff is just as vast. Unscientifically put words to the profile you are in the mood for and, voila, before you appears a precisely tuned pour that hits all the right notes of hops, sourness, or floral that you did not even know you sought when walking in.
Note that beer drinking in Belgium is serious business, mainly related to two considerations. First, these are not the heavily regulated alcohol-by-volume (ABV) equivalents of their American brethren. Many of these brews pack a real punch but are crafted so well that palate pleasing elevates. So, leave the keg-party mindset back at home and elect to savor. They put much effort and attention to detail into the beers that bear the Belgian distinction. Show them due respect in exchange. Second, glassware is king here. Goblets, chalices, flutes - each ensures a patron’s ultimate enjoyment of a specific style. Place yourself in the capable hands of the bar steward and trust the process. Like I stated, beer drinking is serious business here.
I fell in love instantaneously with Café Mort Subite. A beer hall so pervasive with old-world charm that a romantic must work to temper expectations stepping inside - flooded with thoughts of “never let this place change.” Classy black and white clad waiters float effortlessly around the amber-lit columns ensuring not the slightest drop of treasured cargo splashes out of a purposeful glass.
On the fourth generation of family ownership, the bar seems little changed since that time. The name, translated as “cafe sudden death,” resulted from a moniker given to the loser of a game played by patrons from the nearby National Bank of Belgium during lunch breaks. Long, imperfect, mirrors create a space size the belies the true width and old wood has soaked up ages of sloshed hops and barley that it mustily now gives back to the aether, creating the perfect beer drinking environment.
The city offers much more than waffles and beer, and I was determined to explore that on the subsequent days. Fear not foodie, more delectable descriptors to come.
I always recommend a walking tour in a new city, and I remain a vocal advocate for the “free” tours that are gratuity based. My only gripe is that these tours brand themselves as “free” and then force the dedicated and supremely knowledgeable guides to awkwardly pitch for a contribution at the end. Please tour companies, just switch your branding to “gratuity-based tours.”
Let us pause here to discuss the meeting point for the aforementioned tour: the Grand-Place. Perhaps the most impressive city square I have had the pleasure to make a 360 turn in from its center point. Relatively compact when compared to rival showstopper squares in Kraków and Prague, the opulence and mastery of the surrounding exteriors within such proximity is stunning.
Our guide Fraser, an expat Scot passionate about his adopted home, began with a point-by-point education on each of the guild houses dedicated to crafts that served as a foundation to the growth of Belgium. These guilds make up the majority of the movie set worthy facades. Blacksmiths, butchers, tailors and more each represented with grandiose crests and gold plated archways that leave one conflicted for where to direct attention.
Facing off on either side of the square are the equally remarkable stonework of the Maison du Roi (the King’s House) and Town Hall. Each is a soaring example of Gothic architecture adorned with detailed etchings and posing statues that matches any found in elsewhere in Europe.
Our guide retold the story of the French bombardment of the city in the 1600s. With the ultimate goal of destroying the tallest and most symbolic building, the Town Hall, what resulted was the near complete destruction of every building in the vicinity but the allusive structure - only adding to its lore.
From the main square, we set off on foot for a walking tour that ran just beyond four hours and resulted in an eye-popping step count on the trusty old smartwatch at day’s end. Wide-ranging topics covered the dark side of Belgian colonialism, the importance the city places on beautiful green spaces seemingly every few blocks and talks on both the opportunities and challenges of the EU calling the city home. On this point, our guide informed us Brussels enjoyed being first alphabetically on an intended list of rotating European cities, only to never end up rotating at all.
Once I caught on to our guide’s shared passion for all things beer, I took every opportunity to pester him for the best recommendations while we maneuvered between sites. Equipped with the usual strong opinions of a brew enthusiast, he put invaluable knowledge in my hands that I reciprocated by putting to good use - including the aforementioned Café Mort Subite.
As our group settled at the foot of the long staircase of Mont des Arts, everyone thanked our wonderfully engaging chaperone and paid (hopefully) fair value for a highly informative four hour walkabout.
With a full day behind me and thousands of accumulated steps, it was time to reward with one of Belgium’s low-brow culinary masterpieces - the twice fried frites. Numerous walk-up windows satiate the masses throughout the city, but I posted up with the all-hours crowd at Fritland. Years spent perfecting the tightrope of crispy exterior against soft starch interior, the name of the game for fry mastery here is the accompanying dipping sauces.
Fritland offers the traditional and the exotic. Always opt for two sauces and my recommendation is the mayonnaise and curry ketchup selections. The mayonnaise is not the traditional plastic-tubs many Americans are familiar with (Duke’s being the most exceptional of those options), but a refined and thicker yolked version that calls on its abundance of fats that directly balances the oils of the fries.
However, the curry ketchup steals the show and plants its flag atop sauce mountain when done right. Lightly sweet with notes of honey and a late arriving kick of spice leave you fumbling for that next fried wedge. It will have you questioning what the proportionate balance of sauce to fry should really resemble. Go ahead, have a little fry with your sauce!
I found a Pavlovian experiment outside any frites stand in Brussels to be a fun people-watching game. How many repeated attempts to shovel piping hot potatoes into your mouth does it take for a human to realize the singed tastebud payoff renders further enjoyment impossible? It will leave you subscribing to the Darwinian theory if you did not before.
A few other notable must-try dining experiences while visiting:
Slip into Pistolet for a taste of French-influenced Belgian dishes. The casual dine-in/takeaway spot served me well on multiple visits with grab-n-go options like the masterful maneuvered beef tartare Américain cressonnette sandwich with garden cress. Include some sweet finishers like Melocakes (think elevated Moonpies) or the cone-shaped confection Cuberdon (think elevated Gushers children of the 90s). Pair it all with a bottle of gueuze-style lambic Cantillon Chouke. The dry acidity and sour notes play particularly well with the tartare.
Carve out time one afternoon for a Liege waffle at Vitalgaufre. These guys were doing it better than the others I auditioned. However, freshness and temperature is critical to this denser style. Do not settle for a pre-made square pulled from the display case. Politely request a freshly pressed creation and be rewarded with a hand-warming envelope with the pop of suspended sugar crystals. Skip the exorbitant topping options. Please do not allow your new found waffle friend to drown in attention seeking Nutella!
Waffles are worthy, but should not claim a monopoly on all things sweet while in town. Belgium knows chocolate. So save room in your day, and your luggage, for some of the finest offered in the city. I am all in on Marcolini. This master chocolatier creates truffles and squares that can be mistaken for art. While not the least expensive option one will find in the city, you came all the way to Belgium. Some things in life are worth sacrificing quality for the pocketbook…chocolate is not one of those things.
If you need a break from the litany of fried options and want to get some green into your life, swing by Tonton Darby. The proprietor is crafting delectably simple sandwiches that combine freshly sliced meats, cheeses and fresh vegetables. Straight flavor, no fillers.
I wrapped up my time in Brussels in a manner custom for this traveler, in quiet reflection of my time in the city. For this, I chose St. Michael Cathedral and the nearby neighborhood that also includes the Royal Castle.
One could easily mistake the skyward reaching Gothic exterior of St. Michael’s being an imitation set piece for Paris’ Notre Dame, minus the rose window. The side-by-side twin Gothic towers rising to the heavens in unison are a precursor to the exemplary interior that includes one of the more awe-inspiring organs designed by noted master, Gerhard Grenzing. It occupies the rare placement of midway down the left side of the nave. This is intentional and produces a superior acoustic experience for the interior Gothic style. Comprising roughly 4,300 pipes, there is not an inadequate seat in the house when the organ master slides to the keys.
A final afternoon leisurely strolling the wide pebbled paths of Parc de Bruxelles and making frequent stops to consider tree-framed statues and blooming fountains topped off my stay. Despite its distinction as a political and economic hub for continental Europe, the daily pacing of the city communicates an affability and security in its identity. Others may find it less captivating when narrowing down their selections for a European holiday and, perhaps, that is for the best.
Hard-pressed to identify a final takeaway from time spent here, I would say let the doubters do as they will. Much like the beers that originate in this region, Brussels feels finely balanced as-is and comfortable with herself. She welcomes exploration at the travelers own pace. That is refreshing in this age of “cram it all in” travel that requires more consideration of “what’s next” than in-the-moment gratification.
What’s next in Brussels? Another expected visit from this wanderer to engage and explore all over again.