Normally when I start listing my favorite European cities, I can find a fair number of people to agree with my conclusions. I love London? Lots of people love London. J’adore Paris? Mais, bien sur, oui! I think Rome is swell? Everyone from Julius Caesar to Audrey Hepburn has felt the same way. But when I tell people that I <3 Brussels, they often react surprised. Brussels? Isn’t that where the sprouts come from? Why get so excited about such an ordinary city?
Well, let me tell you, Internet Stranger, Brussels has a lot more to offer than just green veggies and muscles. There’s delicious food, stunning architecture, cool street art, and hot jazz. Join me for 24 Hours in Brussels and my the end of the evening, you’ll be singing “Bruxelles, ma belle” right along with me!
Morning: Museum of the City of Belgium
Address: Grand Place
Hours: 10-5 Most Days, Closed Mondays
Price: 8 Euros
If you’re new to Belgium’s capital, why not get started with an overview of its fascinating history at the Museum of the City of Brussels? It’s located in a gingerbread house right on the famous Grand Place, which is kind of like the Times Square of Brussels except not completely hateful. Here you will be able to walk through all the major moments in Brussels history from medieval times up until the present.
What’s that you say? You don’t know anything about Brussels history at all? Then let me get you started with…
three fun facts about brussels
1) Brussels used to be an industrial center back when industry meant producing things like silverware, tapestry, and porcelain. The museum has many examples of the might of the Belgian porcelain industry, but my favorite was this giant porcelain cabbage. I would love to make a big pot of cabbage soup and then serve it to my guests inside a cabbage. It would be so meta!
2) Brussels started off as a fairly small medieval city, and like most medieval cities it was encased within a powerful wall to fend off enemy knights and wizards and whatnot. But eventually people stopped dying from plague and with all the money rolling in from the porcelain cabbage industry, the city expanded. Because the area around Brussels is rather on the bumpy side, this meant beginning to build the city uphill.
These models showing how the city of Brussels changed and developed over time really helped me understand the history of the place better. I think every city museum should have something like this!
3) The Grand Place square is famous throughout the world, but sadly the Grand Place today is not the original Grand Place from Medieval Times. This is because the stunning square was tragically burned to the ground in 1695 by the troops of Louis XIV, the Sun King of France. Did they call him the Sun King because he liked to burn things? I thought they called him the Sun King because he liked shiny gold palaces.
The burning of Brussels happened as part of a battle in the Nine Years’ War or, as I like to call it, “The War of France vs. Everyone Else in Europe”, and Brussels would be an even prettier city than it is today if the French hadn’t burned it down centuries ago. So remember that just because many Belgians speak French, it doesn’t mean the Belgians like the French.
Travelerette Tip: Hands down the delightfullest thing in the museum is the collection of the official costumes of the Mannekin Pis. This impudent boy-statue is probably the most famous tourist attraction in Brussels, even though he is nothing more than a small statue of a boy having a wee. The Belgians will take any opportunity to dress him up in all manner of insane costumes, as if he were Brussels’ own chubby, male, hairless Barbie doll.
They have some of the costumes on display being modeled by replica MPs, so you can see Beekeeper Mannekin Pis, Soccer Player Mannekin Pis, and Astronaut Mannekin Pis.
They also like to dress him up in garb for other countries. Here he is being England’s mascot, John Bull.
I wonder if they’ll take this down now that England is out of the EU. Don’t forget that Brussels is where EU headquarters is located…
Travelerette Tip: The price of admission to the museum will also get you into the Museum of Costume and Lace, which is very interesting, and the Sewer Museum, which I have never been to, but sounds fascinating! So if you’re on a budget, you might want to check out one of those museums in the afternoon.
Address: Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert
For lunch, we are going to stop in at one the most famous covered shopping arcades in the world, the Galeries Saint Hubert. And here, we will stop at a cafe named Mokafe to feast on one of the most famous of Belgian foods: the wondrous waffle!
It is important to remember that there are two main kinds of waffles in Belgium: the Brussels waffle and the Liege waffle. We will eat a Liege waffle later (along with a special secret type of third waffle), but for lunch we will stick to this sugary beauty: the Brussels waffle.
A Brussels waffle is light and big. It is properly crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, dusted with powdered sugar. You can also put toppings on it, unlike the Liege waffle which is best left nekked. I chose to have mine topped with whipped cream and sweet-tart cherries, which were in season at the time. It was a rectangle of sheer heaven!
Early Afternoon: Belgian Comics Art Museum
Address: 20 rue des Sables
Price: 10 Euros
I’m sure you’d heard of Belgian waffles before reading this post, but perhaps you had never heard of Belgian comics. Well, the Belgians are perhaps the foremost European practitioners of the comic arts. Ever heard of Tintin? Smurfing smurfed of the Smurfs? Then you are already familiar with Belgium’s two most famous comic strips. But just in case you’re eager to learn even more, allow me to share…
three fun facts about belgian comic strips
1) You may be thinking to yourself that the word Smurf doesn’t sound very French or Belgian and you would be correct. In fact, the original name of the Smurfs is “Les Schtroumpfs”, so if you ever meet a French speaker and want to talk about tiny magical blue creatures with him, you’d be smart to keep this in mind.
The Smurfs/Schtroumpfs were the brainchild of Belgian comic artist Peyo, who had only one name, like Cher from Clueless. Apparently he had trouble thinking of a word one day, and so he came up with the nonsense word Schtroumpf and liked how it sounded. And thus an incredibly irritating film franchise was born!
2) As popular as the Smurfs are, the largest exhibit in the museum was dedicated to another one-named Belgian Boy Wonder, Tintin (and his faithful dog Snowy). The author of these comics was a Belgian cartoonist named Georges Remi, but he took the pen name Herge because that is what you get if you reverse his initials GR and pronounce them–the French way, obvi.
I grew up reading the Tintin comics, so it was interesting for me to learn the original French names of all the characters. For example, in the original French, Snowy the dog is named Milou and Professor Calculus is Professor Tournesol.
3) Though Tintin is beloved by many, he’s not without controversy. In his stories, Tintin travels to many countries to solve adventures, but Herge himself had never been to any of these countries and sometimes resorted to stereotypes when writing about Asian or African countries. Herge did apologize for these errors and attempted to correct some of them in rereleases of his works later in his career, but protests and criticism of racism in Tintin comics remain to this day.
Travelerette Tip: If you’re traveling with kids, be aware that some sections of the museum are about comics for adults, so there might be depictions of guns or bare-breasted toon ladies and such like. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Travelerette Treasure: I love the elaborate models in the museum, but my favorite is this one of Snowy on the moon! The Belgians are not known for their achievements in the space race, but I definitely think they should be proud of getting the first cartoon dog on the moon!
Late Afternoon: River Tour
Address: Address of Departure Sometimes Changes, check here for details
Price: 4 Euros
Hours: Departures at 3 PM and 4 PM during Summer months, again check here for details
I think it is a cruel joke on the Belgians that their river is called the Senne when the most famous river in Paris is also called the Seine. It really sounds like their river is a knock-off version of the better river in Paris, like one of those Gooci or Versachi knock-off bags you find on Canal St. in NYC. But a 4 Euro river cruise is nothing to sneeze at on a fine summer day in Belgium, and it was nice to sit back and relax after a hard day of museum-hopping.
Travelerette Tip: There is a guide speaking on the boat, but in French and Flemish only, not English. But don’t worry about that because the audio quality is so poor that even though I speak French, I couldn’t actually hear much of anything the guide was saying. I suggest just peering out the window and enjoying the view. Plus after your trip to the Comics Museum, I’m sure you’ll enjoy noticing how much Belgian street art looks like comic strips.
Travelerette Treasure: Every day but Monday, from the beginning of July to mid August, there is a festival right by the dock for the river cruise called Bruxelles Les Bains. There’s lots of international food stalls, music, and cages into which you can throw your children so that they can run around with other little gremlins unless they pass out and you can finally get your drink on with a fine Belgian beer. And a good time was had by all!
Early Evening: Explore!
My favorite thing to do on any early evening when I am traveling is to just wander around and see what strikes my fancy. I recommend you do likewise! The only sights that you can’t leave out are the Grand Place and the Mannekin Pis because these are the two most popular tourist attractions in Brussels. If you leave Brussels without seeing both of them, it’s almost like you haven’t been to Brussels at all, and you will have a hard time convincing your friends you didn’t just imagine the whole thing in some sort of half-French half-Flemish fever dream.
the approximately top five best things to see and eat around brussels
1) The Grand Place is Brussels’ answer to Bruges’ Markt, and judging from the elaborate detailing on the architecture, that answer is YES MORE PLEASE! It’s hard to tell exactly when the Grand Place was built because so many buildings had to be rebuilt because of war, fire, and the many, many invasions Belgium has been subjected to, but most of the buildings in the Grand Place date back to the 17th century. In fact, they’re such stellar examples of 17th century architecture that UNESCO declared the GP a World Heritage Site.
BTW, in English the Grand Place would be called the Big Square. I think it sounds way better in French.
Travelerette Tip: I know the color in the pictures looks washed out, but I haven’t used any filter on my snaps of the Grand Place. The sky was just that grey that day. The weather in Brussels is highly mercurial, so always bring an umbrella and wear layers!
See! The Grand Place looked much better later when the sun came out:
This elaborately curlicued structure is known as the King’s House or the Breadhouse. I assume that’s because most kings like to keep all the bread for themselves and let their subjects eat cake? I don’t know much about this king except that he was obviously a big fan of arches.
Travelerette Treasure: My favorite thing to do in the Grand Place is wander around and take pictures of random things that amuse me. I love the gold detailing in this plaque honoring former mayor of Brussels, Charles Buls. I don’t know much about him except that he was popular for showing his bare tush to people and rubbing genies out of bottles. At least that’s what it looks like from this plaque.
2) Up next: the Mannekin Pis! I have absolutely no idea how this tiny peeing Belgian got so popular. Yet here the Mannekin Pis remains, the weird, vulgar symbol of a city so cosmopolitan that it was named the capital of Europe.
The MP is as wee in real life as he looks in my photo, so you’re not going to see to spend a lot of time here. Snap your photo and move on. The Belgians do like to dress the Waterboy here up in funny costumes, so if you’re lucky he’ll be dressed as the Mayor of Brussels or an organ builder or something. (Yes, both of those actually happened.)
3) When you’ve finished, if you haven’t had enough of watching statues pee, you can check out this dog! He’s on Rue des Chartreux 35.
I really want to know why there are so many statues of things taking a wee in Brussels and none of famed fictional Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. I know he was the brainchild of an Englishwoman, but surely he was the most famous Belgian that there is. I mean, the NY Times wrote him an obituary when he died, and he was never even born in the first place. I would like to start a petition to get Hercule Poirot a statue, but I’m afraid they would make him relieving himself and that would be beneath his dignity.
4) If you want a snack while looking at the Mannekin Pis, you simply must pick up a Liege waffle. (Although if looking at statues of peeing children makes you hungry, I have to admit I find that confusing, Internet Stranger!) The Liege waffle is much smaller, denser, and richer than the Brussels waffle, largely due to the fact that pearl sugar is used in the waffle to give it a delectable sugary crunchiness. Unlike the Brussels waffle, it’s best eaten without any toppings.
As long as you get the Liege waffle freshly made, all Liege waffles in Brussels are pretty much of the same quality because they use the same batter. So you don’t need to stress about getting your Liege waffle at any particular shop.
5) If it starts raining, head back to Galeries Saint Hubert for a cultural experience. There’s a free art gallery inside with regularly rotating exhibitions. Are you interested in seeing a portrait of Marilyn Monroe composed entirely out of tiny snapshots of women’s tuckuses clad only in panties? They have that.
Or perhaps you’d rather see an invading army of plastic penguins all decked out in the colors of the Belgian flag? They have that too. I feel like this work is probably an anti-war commentary of some sort, but all I can think when I look at these guys is, “AAAAH! PENGUINS SO CUTE!” Although, come to think of it, if everyone just looked at cute pictures of penguins all day, there would be no war. Problem solved!
6) Got room for a third waffle? Then it’s time for the Secret Waffle of the day: the French waffle. This waffle comes from a store called Meert, located in the Galeries Saint-Hubert, and Meert originated in the French city of Lille, hence the name “the French waffle”. This is an incredibly thin waffle stuffed with a variety of dense fillings. I chose speculoos, which is a kind of cinnamony Dutch shortbread cookie. It tasted exactly like eating a waffle stuffed with cookie batter, which is an experience I highly recommend.
Evening: Music Village
Address: Rue des Pierres 50
Tickets: Online here
When you think of smoove jazz, Brussels may not be the first city to spring to mind, but I promise you that the jazz club The Music Village is worth a shot. I’ve been here twice and I’ve had a wonderful time both evenings. Most of the performers will speak in English, even if some of their songs are in French, so you won’t have any lost in translation problems.
Travelerette Tip: Doors open at 7, so show up before the show starts so you can order dinner. I usually just get a salad Nicoise because after a full day of waffle eating, I need some lean protein and veggies.
OK, I maybe had a raspberry Belgian beer too. When you’re in Belgium, you need to eat three waffles and drink one beer every day. That is just Belgian law.
The most recent show I saw at The Music Village was performed by a dynamic singer named Loumen. She sang everything from her own originals to standards from the thirties to Alicia Keys. I didn’t film her performance, but if you’re interested in checking out her stuff, you can find her on YouTube. But it was more fun to hear her in the club because she got us all up and dancing–even me and dancing is my third least favorite thing in the world, after going to the dentist and being audited. So that makes her a pretty special lady in my book.
And That’s How to Have a Perfect Day in Brussels!
What would you do with one day in Brussels? Is three waffles the right amount for one day, or should I have had a fourth? And what will you do when the invading army of Belgian penguins comes for you? Please leave your thoughts below!
My next travel goal is to visit all 50 states (and DC) in five years! If you want to contact me, I am available at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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