As home seat of the European Commission, Brussels is unofficially the capital of Europe. Although the European Union does not have an official capital and the European parliament meets in Strasbourg, many of the EU’s primary functions take place in Brussels. The effect of locating so much business here has had a tremendous impact on Brussels; with the EU has come prosperity with a cosmopolitan air.
One of the highlights of a visit to Brussels is food; indeed, it is a little-known gastronomic destination. Some dishes specific to the region are the famous “mussels from Brussels” (moules), French fries (frites), and waffles (gauffre). It is wise to do some research and check out a few recommendations before your visit; the Rue des Bouchers (Beenhouwerstraat) is a tempting lane full of restaurant upon restaurant. However, the quality is poor and restaurants have been known to harass passers-by or offer inflated prices from those posted on the street. The street is worth having a look just to admire the craziness of it all, but then try one of these suggestions for a great meal:
• Au Vieux Bruxelles, Rue Saint Boniface 35 $$
This is an old-world style brasserie with great food, delicious beer, and tons of ambience.
•Chez Leon, Rue des Bouchers 18 $
Despite the warnings about the location, this is the best place for cheap, high quality moules.
• Taverne du Passage, Galerie de la Reine 30 $$
A good balance between budget and Michelin-stars, this restaurant is in a chic location and serves up Belgian classics.
Sightseeing is also a grand activity in Brussels. The first stop on any tour should be the Grand Place, one of the most beautiful and moving squares in any European capital. Flanked on four sides by over 300 year old architecture, this is a tourist favorite – be sure to visit both during the day and at night. And, just a short walk from the Grand Place is another famous landmark: Manneken Pis. The small bronze statue, of a young boy answering the call of nature, symbolizes the “irreverent spirit” of Brussels and is quite a sight, juxtaposed with the old grandeur of the Grand Place and the modernity of the EU buildings. It is worth noting that there are a number of tasty waffle shops on the street between the Manneken Pis and the Grand Place.
Museums are also in plentiful supply in Brussels. The quirky and fun Atomium, out on the edge of town, is a 335 foot tall representation of an atomic cell. The entire structure can be explored via the hidden tubes and elevators. The Museum of Modern Art and Museum of Historical Art are together in a massive complex of buildings, including many floors underground, located on the Royale-Koningsplein. While the historical art museum hosts some of Belgium’s most influential art (Hans Memling, Rubens, Van Dyck), the modern art museum has eight floors of masterpieces (van Gogh, Dali, Matisse). Art Noveau fans should check out the Horta Museum (25 Rue Américaine), former home to the influential Belgian architect Victor Horta.
One last must-see in the city center includes strolling through the Galeries Saint Hubert, which was the world’s first shopping mall. This is a great place to pick up a box of those famous Belgian chocolates, either as a gift or for a snack. Or maybe you would just enjoy sitting down at a café, sipping a wine or coffee and watching the traffic shuffle by.
It was not by mistake that Brussels was chosen to be the European Union’s headquarters. It might not be as elegant as some European capitals or as easy to navigate, but with a little effort, the rewards are superb.