The smell of fresh waffles, nutella and strawberries is dazzling to the senses. Watching chocolatiers handcraft bonbons in store front windows, with prideful precision, is a masterful display worthy of attention. And lifting a tulip shaped beer glass, of a delicious golden ale you’ve never heard of, in a square filled with stunning buildings, will instantly make your blood pressure drop. Brussels might be the capital of Europe, bustling with bureaucrats near parliament, but play the city right and it’s also one of Europe’s most enjoyable playgrounds.
The Grand Place (Grote Markt), is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the world’s most beautiful squares. A perfect day in Brussels definitely involves a stroll to appreciate the intricate neo-Gothic architecture of the town hall and guild houses. Because the restaurants and cafes of the Grand Place are very touristy, it isn’t necessarily the best lunch spot, but it’s worth overpaying for at least one drink, to sit outside and savor this unique square, because no matter how much you travel in your life, this is a memory that will stay with you forever. Visit again at night, when the buildings are lit up, for possibly an even more dazzling experience.
From the Grand Place stroll down Rue de l’Etuve Stoofstraat, past an array of pastry shops making fresh waffles. Buy one and have a quick stop at Mannequin Pis, a fountain statue of a little boy peeing, which is strangely the symbol of Brussels. Legend has it that when Brussels was ablaze centuries ago, a little boy extinguished the fire with his urine. On the side of many buildings you’ll find comic murals, as the city was the birthplace of cartoons like the Smurfs and Tin Tin. Brussels is an enigma, and the longer you spend here the more you’ll discover why surrealist artists like Rene Magritte were inspired by this city. Adding to the complexity, street signs are in both French and Flemish, making them extremely long and the city confusing to navigate at times.
For lunch, sit down for a delicious meal at Mokafe. This casual restaurant doesn’t offer a menu in English, which is rare, but also refreshing. Don’t be intimated. Have a look at what the locals are eating and ask questions. A favorite lunch among many is Filet Americain on a fresh baguette. Filet Americain is raw beef mixed with mayonnaise, spices and served with a side of diced onions. It’s not everyone, but I know I’m not the only American who’s come to appreciate this sandwich that’s named after us, especially when it’s served on a fresh, perfectly crusty baguette, possibly the best you’ve eaten in your life. If that doesn’t sound appealing, the Croque Monsieur is a great choice (basically an amazing ham and cheese sandwich).
If it interests you, a visit to the EU Parliament might be in order. And while I’ve visited in the past and found it to be a unique experience, it’s somehow hard to write EU parliament and perfect day in Brussels in the same sentence. But if you’re a political junkie, this is one of world’s most important destinations.
Like neighboring Netherlands, Belgium is a monarchy and a stroll past the lovely Royal Palace (Palais Royal de Bruxelles) and adjacent Brussels Park should definitely be part of a perfect day in Brussels. Parallel to the Grand Place, along Rue Marche aux Herbes Grasmarkt, there’s lots of chocolate and pastry shops to satisfy the most discerning sweet tooths of all budgets. If you have any issues with dairy, like myself (tragic in Belgium) seek out fresh meringue from one of many fantastic patiseries, it’s delicious and one of the few local treats that’s dairy free.
For dinner we love the bistro La Villete. It’s both lively and laid back, with white and red checker clothed tables and a rustic feel, it’s quintessential Belgium. You can’t go wrong with ordering mussels, steak, beef stew or rabbit simmered in lambic beer sauce. The Belgians love to cook with their delicious beers and the perfect day in Brussels should involve ordering one of these dishes.
For after dinner drinks, you could head to the Delirium Cafe, which holds the world record for largest beer selection, with over 2,000 choices. But for something that’s laid back, quirky and has a plenty large enough beer selection, check out Poechenellekelder, right across the street from Mannequin Pis (don’t sit outside here during the day though, as Mannequin Pis draws big crowds). We visited last September, on a pleasant Saturday night, and there were still plenty of tables on the outdoor terrace and inside, where the decor is a spectacle. Their beer list is fantastic and if you’ve never visited Belgium before, they’ll surely have lots of great options you’ve never tried before. Beer advocate gives them a score of 91 out of 100, ranking the establishment “outstanding.”
During the past year alone, I’ve had the opportunity to re-visit Brussels, Amsterdam, London and Berlin, 4 out of the 5 cities from the raucous college trip I enjoyed with my buddy. And since Bell and I previously lived in Amsterdam for 3 and 1/2 years, we had the opportunity to get to know this region pretty well. My opinion now is drastically different from my 22 year old self- I prefer spending time in Brussels over London and Berlin (albeit they’re all great to visit).
If you want to experience Brussels with a fun group, consider joining my guided tour of Belgium and the Netherlands this September!