A Culture Bug's Guide to Brussels
Saturday, 15 February 2014
Firstly I've got to apologise for this post being a little late. It's such a chunky one, blogger and I had a bit of difficulty processing it. I've now decided to split my Brussels posts into two. Today we have the Culture Bug's guide and the next post will be a foodie's guide to Brussels. It's all going on here.
Now lets get on with the show.
The picture heading this post sums Brussels up pretty well - old architecture encased in a rapidly modernising city. Full of bustling business men and women, polite locals and tourists it is a strange little city. I've been (luckily) used to exploring big ol' cities including New York, Barcelona and London of course. Brussels is dissimilar to these cities in the fact that you can explore all the hotspots in about a day and a half. As J and I were there for 3 days, we felt a bit restless by our last day. I like to cram as much as I can into trips to cities so felt a bit lost in this situation. I can definitely recommend looking into a Bruge day trip (as you can venture there by train from Brussels for the day) to bulk out your trip, if you plan to go for a whole weekend. If you can manage to drop into Brussels just for a day or two that would also be a great way to do it. I am in no way saying don't visit Brussels, there are some beautiful areas and very interesting food (sometimes a bit damn addictive too!) but you definitely don't need to overdo this city.
So I'm going to give you a summary of the do's and don't's in Brussels. What to hit up and what to avoid. I've found that the internet is a bit of a liar sometimes, so I'm going to be giving you some straight up, no nonsense advice on how to spend your time in Brussels wisely.
What to do:
- Museum of Natural Sciences, Dinosaur Exhibit
This museum is a must for any museum fans. If you like the Natural History in London you're probably going to like this one too. The Dinosaur Exhibit is especially good.
It kept one guy I know particularly happy...
They house the largest dinosaur collection in Europe, and whilst this may not sound like a rip-roaring good time, it is actually incredibly interesting.
The exhibition is thoughtfully set out and offers translations into four languages for free! One is happily English, hurrah.
Lots of cool photo opportunities.
And of course best dino poses must be busted out at all opportunities.
Besides the dinosaur exhibit the rest of the museum is very interesting. There is an incredible amount of information and most of it is really well presented. However, you can tell that the dinosaur exhibit is the jewel of their museum crown.
Definitely worth a visit if you're a museum bug.
€7 for adults, €6 for students.
- Wander through antique markets
If you're a fan of antiques then you should hit up the antique markets that pops up on the Place du Grand Sablon. It's not an extensive market but full of trinkets and interesting bits.
The market is also incredibly tourist friendly and in a great location - one of my favourites in Brussels. You feel completely comfortable browsing and taking pictures. However it is worth noting that if you're looking for wander through a big market and waste an hour this is not the place for you. If you're not too interested in antiques you'll zip through this market in 10 minutes. But it is right next to a lovely church and little park that make for interesting explorations.
Open Saturday 9 - 5 and Sunday 9 - 2.
- European Parliament
I think you've got to check this out whilst in Brussels. I think it is probably one of its most famous landmarks (can I call it a landmark? I'm doing it) so well worth a wander through. Not only is this a really cool part of Brussels it also has a free museum (that we unfortunately didn't have time for) and is near a great foodie hot spot. More on that soon!
- The Grand Place
Another famous Brussels landmark. The Grand Place. A beautiful square that is home to the Town Hall, King's House and many Guild Houses. It's a great place to take touristy photos, sit down and grab a waffle. This was central to most of our explorations in Brussels, most sights to see are around this area.
The architecture is also very beautiful. Everyone has got their camera out, even in the rain!
Whilst we were there, the locals also started dancing in a huge circle that enclosed the whole square to the beat of a drum. It was an incredibly giddy atmosphere and I was bopping along to the beat with everyone else. I've no idea if this is a regular thing, but it definitely was a great demonstration of how jolly the people are. Smiles all round.
- Jardin du Mont des Arts and the view!
Just off The Grand Place is Jardin du Mont des Arts. You've got to check out the view of Brussels from the top of the steps, it is one of the best.
The garden itself is incredibly organised and not really my taste, but it is lovely to walk through trees in a city, however strictly organised they might stand.
This is also a great spot for attempting a selfie - as you can see below...
- Gallerie Royales Saint-Hubert
The Saint Hubert Gallery is also well worth a wander down. Brussels' most famous shopping gallery houses a variety of shops, but not the kind of shop I'd ever buy anything in. However it is great for a window shop and to appreciate the architecture. Brussels has got beautiful buildings down.
If the weather is playing up, it's also a wonderful place to shelter and with a pastry shop across the way it is a great place to keep dry and have a snack.
- Free (!!) walking tour
Tripadvisor told me that the best walking tour in Brussels was Sandeman's free walking tour. I'm not one to say no to free activities and I think a walking tour is one of the best ways to get to know a city, whilst learning. I'm a nut for some factoids. If you get the chance, definitely do this. It was one of my favourite things in Brussels. We also had a great guide, PJ, who you can see below. He was ever so enthusiastic and really bought Brussels to life. It's always great when a tour guide loves their city. This company also does an excursion to Bruge plus a beer tour, both of which we would've done if we had the time and didn't mind being a little bleary eyed the following day.
- Places of worship
Like many cities, Brussels is home to a few stunning places of worship. One of my favourite spots in Paris is Notre Dame and the Sacre Coeur so I had to check out some of Brussels cathedrals and churches. These shots come from the St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral - a must see if you're visiting.
- Parc de Bruxelles
If you want to breathe in some fresh Belgian air, then a stroll around Parc de Bruxelles will sort you out. The perfect spot to eat your breakfast on the go and watch the city wake up.
There is enough space and privacy to try a cheeky jumping picture too.
J wasn't too impressed with this idea, as you can see...
On a clear day this is a great place to waste some time. Don't be fooled though, it's not a huge park and nowhere near on the scale of Hyde Park or Central Park. You can cover the perimeter in about 30 minutes, if that. But it's nice to be amongst the trees and I bet it makes a great place to hang out during the summer.
Also makes a great place to fill up your SD card.
J, the subject of my incessant shutterbug ways.
In front of the lens for once - and larking about.
- Royal Palace of Brussels
Just outside Parc de Bruxelles is the quite stunning Royal Palace of Brussels (aka, another great selfie opportunity). Sadly the Palace only opens its doors to the public in the summer (July - September) so we only got to admire it from the outside. However if you visit Brussels in the summer I'd love to know what it's like - and the admission is free!
- Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
We checked out the Magritte Museum and the Old Master Museum. I'm a sucker for a wander around an art museum so these were on my list for sure. Brussels has quite a selection of museums (including a comic book art museum, if you're into it) so I can't speak for all of them unfortunately.
The Magritte Museum was pretty cool. Modern art isn't really J's cup of tea and if you're not a fan either I can't recommend this museum for you.
On the other hand, I loved it. I do regret not buying an audio guide though, as there are no English translations in the museum. At €4 though, I felt it was a little overpriced as the museum itself is fairly small.
The Old Master museum was far more classical and very easy to mooch around and enjoy.
It is not as nearly demanding or dramatic as the Magritte museum. Personally I like a bit of drama but there you go. A lovely way to pass the afternoon.
There is also a tiny bit of free museum that you can explore. But it will take you about 20 minutes. If you want to spend some time in the museums you're going to have to pay admission. Each museum is €2 each, but handily both in the same location!
In any city I advocate a good explore. You tend to stumble across hidden gems that range from coffee shops, to markets to little parks. On the left you can see Jardin du Petit Sablon, one of my favourite parks in the city, which is home to statues of revolutionaries, academics and scientists. It is also beautiful at night when it lights up. On the right you can see the view up a typical street in Brussels. Cobbled and quite lovely.
What NOT to do:
So now we've covered the to do's in Brussels I want to quickly give you a list of what not to do and what to expect from the city on the cons side.
- Avoid tourist traps
I know this might seem obvious but avoid restaurants that have pictures of their food on a peeling board out the front. I would recommend avoiding the streets directly off the Grand Place all together, as they are full of touristy restaurants that are not going to be serving authentic, good quality food. Also, PJ the guide said never pay more than €4 for a waffle - you're getting ripped off.
- Don't visit without a little research
Try and make your plans as tight as possible before you go. We found ourselves on our final day at a loose end and I wish I'd known where the best place to go was.
- Don't spend money willy nilly
I apologise for saying willy nilly, but I couldn't think of a better word. I say this because it feels like a bit of an injustice to spend €6 on a museum admission and then realise you're not actually interested in the museum. Again, do your research and consider what you find interesting. We're so spoiled in London having most of our museums for free, it is hard to get used to paying admission.
- Not all markets are for tourists, remember this!
Don't assume that every event in the city is for tourists. I'm a bit of a sucker for markets, I love finding cool little bits and checking out local produce. With this in mind we checked out some markets that the internet recommended. Curse you internet.
The first was the flea market on Place du Jeu de Balle. It was a sprawling mass of cardboard boxes and pitches laid out on the floor. I was hoping to find treasures and witness an idealised Sunday morning haggle in Brussels. Sadly I found that most of the items were junk and I didn't feel very safe in the market. Whilst the bustle adds atmosphere it also made me feel wary of my possessions. As a tall, blonde lady I also stick out. Not ideal when you're trying to blend into the local scene. I have to say, this was a disappointment.
Another let down was the Brussels-Midi station market. Sold to me as 'one of Brussels’ main multicultural markets' selling food, clothes and plants, I was disappointed to find a claustrophobic fruit and veg market that lead onto a market selling (what looked to me like) cheap clothing. Perhaps I should blame myself for idealising these markets and expecting more, but again I didn't feel safe and this place didn't feel special. Not worth the walk down to the station.
Besides what I've mentioned above, there was little that let Brussels down. Granted, it is a small city and doesn't take long to explore but that can be remedied by a short stay. I'd recommend visiting mid-week if possible as the city is much more alive during the week. A Sunday in Brussels is exceptionally quiet.
I hope this post was helpful for anyone thinking of visiting and I'll have another post for you soon on where to eat in Brussels. I undertook some extensive research (for you guys, of course) so it needs its own post!