48 Hours in Brussels – What to Do in Brussels, Belgium

City Travel, Cultural Travel — By on January 17, 2011 at 9:51 pm

By Sarah Brown
LG Correspondant

Nestled in northern Belgium, not far from either France or the Netherlands, Brussels is a city with many cultural influences. While not as big as many other European capitals, it has charm and sophistication, and draws millions of tourists each year. As the capital of the European Union, it’s a center for international politics, and home to many global institutions. Gastronomically, Brussels is known for many mouth-watering specialties—waffles, anyone?Whether you have a whole week or just one day to explore this dynamic city, rest assured that there is plenty to do! If you’re armed with a few helpful tips and a solid itinerary, a quick weekend jaunt can be a great intro to Brussels that will have you wading through a sea of delicious gourmet foods and visiting various must-see cultural and political landmarks.

Tackling the itinerary: Generally, I find it easiest to make two—one “culinary,” one “cultural.” For my whirlwind tour of the city, the Culinary list included mussels (moules frites); French fries (frites); waffles (gaufres); chocolate; and Belgian beer. My Cultural list included the Grand Place; Manneken Pis; St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral; and Atomium.

Friday, 8 p.m.

At dinner, cross the first item off that culinary to-do list and experience the dish that Brussels is most known for: moules frites. The moules (French for mussels) are generally served in a heaping pile with a generous portion of fries on the side. Fun fact about fries: They are actually a Belgian invention. The misnomer “French fries” came about because of American soldiers during World War I, who saw Belgian soldiers eating fries while speaking French, which is one of the two official languages of Belgium. Assuming the soldiers, and the dish they were eating, were French, the American name stuck.

10 p.m.

After a long and leisurely European-style dinner, go for a stroll about downtown Brussels. If you go during the Christmas season, most of the streets and stores will be covered with lights, creating a fun and festive atmosphere. Walk to the Grand Place, the heart of Brussels, and you might be lucky enough to catch one of the nightly light shows on the façade of the city hall.

Saturday, 8 a.m.

As with any short trip, it is important to wake up early and get a good start to the day. In the morning, head back to the Grand Place to experience the magnificence of the buildings in the light of day. The city’s central square is surrounded by guildhalls, the city hall, and the King’s Palace (although no king ever lived there).

In the 10th century, the area was designated as the market center for the city. The three most important markets that took place here were the meat, bread, and cloth markets. The city hall, built on the south side of the square, was erected in the 15th century, and made the Grand Place the seat of municipal power. To counter this, the Duke of Brabant constructed the King’s Palace on the north side of the square in the 16 century as the seat of ducal power. The eastern and western sides of the square were lined with guildhalls and the homes of wealthy merchants.

During the Christmas season a life-size nativity scene and a big Christmas tree are set up in the center of the square. In August, a giant “flower carpet”” covers the square, with over a million multicolored begonias set up in various patterns.

While walking around, stop at any one of the numerous waffle stands and pick up a freshly made, hot waffle topped with powdered sugar, chocolate, or caramel. Contrary to the popular American belief that there is only one kind of “Belgian waffle,” you can find two types in Brussels: the Liège waffle and the Brussels waffle. The Brussels waffle, or what we know as the traditional Belgian waffle, is light, thick, and crispy. The Liège waffle is much denser and sweeter, as it has chunks of sugar baked onto the outside of the waffle.

10 a.m.

After spending some time in and around the Grand Place, take a five-minute walk down a side street in the direction of Manneken Pis, one of Brussel’s most famous landmarks. It is a small bronze fountain topped by a sculpture of a little naked boy peeing into the basin below.

There are several legends as to its origins. The one most often told to tourists says that when a wealthy merchant came to the city, his young son went missing. He organized a citywide search party until the boy was finally found peeing in a small garden.

The city has a tradition of dressing the boy in costume as often as a few times each week, according to a publicly published scheduled. He has about 1,000 different outfits, which, when they are not in use, are housed in the Brussels Museum.

Noon

On the way back from Manneken Pis, stop at a small “friterie” and pick up some of item No. 2 on your culinary to-do list: French fries. Top off a cone of fries with any one of the numerous sauces they offer, including ketchup, mayonnaise, tartar sauce, Diablo, Brazilian, béarnaise, etc.

1 p.m.

When you get hungry for lunch, wander over to the northern side of the city and visit Delirium, one of Brussels’ most famous pubs. Not only can you sample over 800 different types of Belgian-brewed beers, but also you can order huge platters of different cheeses and dried sausage. Ask the bartenders for their advice on which beers to order. They are generally very helpful, and can give an explanation of almost any beer on the menu. But be careful! More often than not they recommend beers with a 9.5% or more alcohol content.

4 p.m.

Following an afternoon spent sampling beers and filling up on sausage and cheese, you’ll need to satisfy your sweet tooth. Duck into one of the thousands of chocolatiers in Brussels, and pick out boxes of dark chocolates, biscuits, or truffles from a dizzying array of deliciousness. Dip fresh fruit into the chocolate fountains and experience a little taste of heaven. Be sure to check out the stores of three of the city’s major chocolate companies: Leonidas, Neuhaus, and Godiva. At this point, give yourself a pat on the back. You will have just completed the culinary portion of your itinerary!

5 p.m.

Before night falls, stroll over to St. Michael and St. Gudula cathedral, on the eastern side of town. Founded upon a 9th century chapel that was dedicated to St. Michael, this Gothic cathedral is actually dedicated to two saints, the archangel St. Michael and the martyr St. Gudula, whose relics were transferred here in the 11th century. In fact, they are not only the patron saints of this cathedral, but also of the city of Brussels itself. Completed in the 15th century, the cathedral has been the site of many weddings, funerals, and baptisms for the Belgian royal family, including the wedding of Crown Prince Philippe to Princess Mathilda in December 1999.

6 p.m.

In order to visit the last place on the list, the Atomium, you will need to hop on the metro, since it’s a bit outside of center city. Originally built for the 1958 Brussels World Fair, the giant steel structure is the model of an iron crystal atom, magnified more than a billion times. In each one of the nine spheres that make up the structure, all connected by tubes, there is an exhibit hall or public space. To go between each sphere, simply take one of the escalators within the tubes. The central vertical portion of the monument contains an elevator.

8 p.m.

After a long day of sightseeing, find a cozy restaurant and settle in for a long, multi-course, European-style dinner. Due to the vibrant immigrant population in Brussels, you can enjoy authentic Italian, German, Spanish, Moroccan, Turkish, French, or Dutch cuisine. With practically all of Brussels under your belt, you can relax and grab a goodnight’s sleep before departing early on Sunday.

Photos courtesy of Sarah Brown

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