Somewhere around mid-February, I was starting to be haunted. It wasn’t by a bad feeling, an old memory, or even a ghost (thank goodness, because we’ve been watching The X-files lately and given the way I handle those fake paranormal activities, I know I would not handle a real ghost well). No, I was being haunted by a cheap flight to Brussels.
Every day that I checked Skyscanner (yes, I check it every day, I’m curious, I have a problem…) there it was, at the top of the list. Basically, this flight was calling on me to book it.
It was a mere $66CAD (€46) for a return flight. A RETURN FLIGHT! As a Canadian, finding a flight this cheap is basically unheard of. At first, I thought it was too good to be true, but there it was, every day right at the top of the list. Haunting me.
But every day, I passed it up. I know, you’re probably thinking what is wrong with this girl?! Because I was too! But, we already had our EuroTrip from Prague to Budapest booked, a friend was potentially coming to visit, and I kind of felt like the month was going to be expensive and full enough. But yet, I couldn’t stop thinking about the flight to Brussels.
I went back and forth. I almost booked it several times but hesitated. Was this an irresponsible use of my dwindling money? Or, would I regret it later on when the prices had doubled? I don’t know why I was overthinking it so much. Past-Kate wouldn’t have thought twice about spending that much (or significantly more!) on a beautiful, but uncomfortable pair of shoes, so I why was I so hesitant to book something that I knew would bring me joy?!
After a week or so of agonising, I decided that this year isn’t about worrying or over thinking: it’s about doing, seeing and experiencing. So, I booked it.
And, it was pretty amazing!
Except for the 6 AM flight. That was pretty terrible, and I am convinced now more than ever that 6 AM flights shouldn’t exist. But that aside, my albeit short trip to Brussels was action-packed and pretty great!
Brussels is the largest city and capital of Belgium. The city itself is home to more than 175,000 people and hosts some of the country’s most iconic sites, including Manneken Pis and Atomium. Since the end of the Second World War, Brussels has been a major centre for international politics and is the de facto capital of the European Union.
It is a bilingual city where residents speak French and Flemish, with English being very widely spoken as well. All signage throughout the city is presented in both French and Flemish, which is why there are two names for most attractions listed in the post below.
I was in a French immersion programme throughout grade school so I was more than pleased to have an opportunity to use and practice my dwindling French language skills. Apparently, I hadn’t lost as much as I thought because I was able to speak and understand with ease. After all of my recent struggles with Spanish, it was nice to have a language win for once, and this trip actually ignited an interest to work on my French (more on that in due time).
The currency used in Brussels is the Euro. Compared to Spain, I found the prices of goods, services and consumables to be a bit expensive, but it was cheaper than Finland – so there’s that.
What to See
Because of my grossly early flight, I landed in Belgium around 9 AM. My flight was with RyanAir, so I actually arrived in Charleroi, which is a city located an hour south of Brussels. To get into the city there’s an expensive (between €5-€14 one-way, €10-€28 return if bought online; €17 one-way if purchased from the machines at the airport or from the driver) but convenient shuttle; there are also public transit options that take a bit longer, but I was tired so I hopped on the airport shuttle and an hour later I found myself in the city and ready to hit the ground running.
Unfortunately, it was pouring rain when I arrived in Brussels, so I had to abandon my well-thought out plans and opt for the Hop On Hop Off bus tour – one doesn’t stop touring just because of a little (or a lot of) rain. The bus provided the perfect introduction to the city whilst keeping me nice and dry. I had 36 Hours in Brussels, and dammit, I was going to make the most of it!
Grand Place-Grote Markt
My first stop was Grand Place-Grote Markt. Grand Place-Grote Markt is the central square in Brussels. It is surrounded by opulent guild houses and two larger buildings: the city’s Town Hall and the Breadhouse building, which now contains the Museum of the City of Brussels (Wikipedia). This UNESCO World Heritage site is the heart of the city, and so full of life, history and is definitely one of the most beautiful spots in Brussels (fun fact: it was also voted the most beautiful Square in Europe in 2010!).
Just a short walk from Grand Place-Grote Markt is one of the most famous landmarks in all of Belgium: Manneken Pis. This small bronze statue of a child peeing into a pool is thought to represent the “irreverent spirit” of Brussels.
The origin of the statue is unknown and the tales range from the seemingly realistic to the utmost fantastic. What is known is that Belgians love and are quite proud of their little statue. They’ve even created more than 800 outfits for Manneken Pis (which are kept at the Museum of the City of Brussels), and certain days throughout the year he can be found dressed to the nines to celebrate whatever the occasion.
Mannekin Pis is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Brussels, so finding a time to visit away from the crowds of tourists can be difficult. Try to visit early in the morning or later in the evening to beat the crowds.
Another iconic symbol of Brussels is the Atomium. Designed and built for Expo 58, the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, the Atomium stands 102m tall and can be seen from various points throughout the city.
When I was researching and planning my trip I knew I would regret not making the trek out to visit Atomium, climbing to the top and experiencing the bird’s eye views of Brussels. But, when the forecast predicted rain on both days I thought my dream was gone.
And, on that first day, it was. As the Hop On Hop Off bus pulled up to and around Atomium the skies were grey and covered in thick clouds, and the rain drops were almost the size of golf balls. There was no point getting off the bus. My heart sunk.
The next morning, I awoke in my hotel room to see a sliver of light peering past the curtains. I tried not to get my hopes up, but when I drew back the shades I was nearly blinded by the light (cue singing the Manfred Mann version of that song all day, you’re welcome). I knew the sunshine wouldn’t last long so I stuffed everything into my bag as fast as possible, and with just a few hours remaining on my 24-hour Hop On Hop Off ticket, I ran to the nearest stop and was on my way back to Atomium, finger’s crossed that the rain and clouds would hold off long enough for me to get to the top.
And they did.
When we arrived at Atomium the sun was still shining. I practically ran from the bus to the ticket station and handed over my €9 (I saved €2 by presenting my Hop On Hop Off ticket) and before I knew it I was in the upper sphere taking in the 360˚ views of Brussels.
The upper sphere offers spectacular views of the city, and it’s said that on a clear day you can see as far as Antwerp. I’m not sure I was able to see Antwerp, but what I did see was breathtaking, and I’m so glad the weather cooperated just a little bit so I could experience this icon and Brussels from above.
While the views were quite impressive, I do think the €11 price tag is a bit excessive. But, I’m glad I went.
Comic Book Murals
Did you know that Belgium has more comic book artists per capita than any other country in the world? It’s true, and a fact that is honoured throughout Brussels with the installation of giant comic book character inspired murals.
There are official routes and tours you can take that will allow you to experience as many murals as time permits, but I chose to simply wander throughout the city and see what I came across.
Palais de Justice-Justitiepaleis
The Palace of Justice or Law Courts of Brussels is the most important court building in Belgium and the biggest courthouse in the world. It was built between 1866 and 1883 in the eclectic style by the celebrated architect Joseph Poelaert (Wikipedia), and is larger than St. Peter’s basilica in Rome (Wikitravel).
As the clouds began to loom, I raced my way through the city to arrive at Palais de Justice-Justitiepaleis with just enough time to snap a few pictures of the cityscape view before the rains began.
Although I didn’t tour the courthouse, it is open and FREE for visitors.
Arc de Triomphe, Parc du Cinquantenaire-Triomfboog, Jubelpark
Located east of the city centre is Parc du Cinquantenaire-Jubelpark, which is marked by the magnificent Arc de Triomphe-Triomfboog. The arch was planned to celebrate the world exhibition in 1880 and to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the independence of Belgium, but it wasn’t completed in time. It took several architects and nearly 25 years, but the arch was finally completed in 1905, just in time for the 75th anniversary of the Belgian independence.
Today, the park is home to several museums and one mosque. Belgians make great use of the space hosting military parades and drive-in movies in the summer, as well as annual sporting evenings (i.e., 20km runs and races).
As per Wikitravel: It is possible to go up to the terrasse above the arch, from where you’ll have a good view of the city. Entry is through the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and of Military History and is FREE.
What to Eat
Waffles are ubiquitous with Brussels and for good reason–they are delicious! On nearly every street you will pass by at least one waffle stand offering a variety of waffles with a range of toppings.
Beware of the tourist waffle: Establishments charge per topping, so although the sign in the window may read €1, that’s the price for a plain ol‘waffle. Be prepared to pay at least €5 for any of the waffle topping towers pictured below.
It wasn’t until day two that I was actually able to sink my teeth into a delicious waffle. I had time to kill between visiting the Palais de Justice-Justitiepaleis, getting lost and taking part in the Sandeman’s Free Walking Tour, and the rain was starting to fall. I decided that there was no better time to indulge in a waffle, so I popped into the Waffle Factory, where my Hop On Hop Off ticket would save me €1 off this delicious treat (I was bound and determined to get the most from that ticket!). Initially, I was overwhelmed by the choices (and the prices, see info about the tourist waffle) but eventually settled on simplicity: a Liege waffle with Liege sauce.
The Liege waffle is just one of the forms of Belgian waffles (others include the Flemish and Brussels waffles). It is a richer, denser, sweeter and chewier waffle, who’s dough is an adaptation of brioche bread dough. It features chunks of pearl sugar, which caramelise on the outside as the waffle is cooked. Trust me, it’s as delicious as it sounds!
In trying to avoid the tourist waffle (and that mountain of whipped cream), but not wanting to eat it plain (I was on vacation after all) I settled on topping my Liege waffle with Liege sauce: A sweet, sticky brown jelly made from the juices of evaporated fruits such as dates, apples, or pears. It was amazing, and the perfect treat on a rainy day.
To say Belgians like beer is an understatement. As per Wikipedia: On average, Belgians drink 84L of beer each year (this is down from the 200L/year average in 1900).
There are over 180 breweries throughout the country brewing all types – from pale lambic beer to Flemish red – and with so many choices, it would be almost rude to visit Brussels and not sample a brew.
So I did.
As I waited at the airport and jotted down my memories of this whirlwind trip, I sipped on a glass of Leffe Blond. The perfect end to a pretty great trip!
What to Do
Hop on hop off bus tour
As I mentioned above, I had big plans for these two days in Brussels, and then it poured rain. I didn’t want to give up an entire day of sightseeing, nor did I want to be soaking wet by the end of it, so I opted for a Hop On Hop Off bus tour operated by City Sightseeing.
I purchased a 24-hour ticket for €25 and spent the afternoon zooming around the city, seeing sights in the centre, north and south – all while staying perfectly dry. From Atomium through the European Zone and passed Manneken Pis, the bus showcased all of the must-sees in Brussels.
Although I thought the price of the ticket was a bit high, I did my best to make the most of it by taking advantage of the various discounts offered on food and attractions throughout the city.
I also made sure I got my 24 hours worth by riding the bus until the very last minute. By taking advantage of the time left on my ticket I was able to get out to and back from Atomium without having to navigate public transit (although I’ve heard it’s remarkably easy).
Free walking tour
To accompany the Hop On Hop Off bus tour, and get a more in-depth, intimate and up-close view of the city and its attractions, I took part in a Sandeman’s Free Walking Tour of Brussels.
I’ve taken part in these tours in other European cities (including, Berlin, Hamburg, Madrid, and Prague) and I am a big fan of them and their model, which is you decide how much you think the tour is worth. It’s a nice model, especially when there are so many overpriced and underwhelming attractions out there.
After enjoying my delicious waffle, and recovering from the mini-food-coma, I was back in Grand Place-Grote Markt ready to join the tour. For nearly three hours, our fantastic guide Dee took us around the city, sharing facts, folk tales, and giving us an in-depth history of Brussels and Belgium in general. It was a wonderful tour, and one I didn’t mind handing over my euros for.
As we neared the end of the tour, I knew rain as imminent. The sky was covered with charcoal clouds, the winds were picking up, and I could feel the familiar chills of rain in the air. As Dee wrapped up, I focused all of my attention on willing the rains to hold off until I could make it to the train station, which I could see across the gardens of Mont des Arts-Kunstberg.
No such luck.
Before I could thank Dee for the wonderful tour, the skies opened up and I found myself in the middle of a torrential downpour. I was left with two choices, wait it out, or just suck it up and run.
Having grown up in Victoria, British Columbia I’ve had my fair share of experience with clouds and rain, and it didn’t look like it was going to let up for a while. So, I opted to run; the train station was just around the corner, how wet could I really get in less than 500m?!
I skidded into the train station soaked. Water pooled around me on the floor as I bought my metro ticket and found the train that would take me from Bruxelles-Central/Brussel-Centraal station back to Bruxelles-Midi/Brussel-Zuid where the bus to Charleroi would be waiting for me.
Although my trip was plagued with rain, wind and clouds, I’m so happy I stopped overthinking and just bought the damn ticket. Even shrouded in clouds, Brussels is a beautiful city. I enjoyed learning all about the history of both Brussels and Belgium, seeing all of the iconic sights, and exploring the streets of the city at the centre of the European Union.
Just three weeks after my trip, tragedy struck Brussels. It was surreal to watch the footage on the news as not long before I had been there, exploring the very spots that were now gathering places for mourning.
When I visited Brussels it was happy, vibrant and full of life despite a few clouds. And I know that, despite a few clouds, it will be happy, vibrant and full of life again soon.
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