Brussels’ reputation for dullness is quite unwarranted. Here’s why.
In this series, Lonely Planet’s team of writers and editors answers your travel problems and provides tips and hacks to help you plan a hassle-free trip. We tossed an inquiry on Brussels over to travel writer Luke Waterson, who spent six months living there, and – being a big fan of exquisite beer and chocolate – savors the memories.
Question: My friends and I (all in our 30s and single) are looking for a good European city break for October, and Brussels is looking to be good value for flights and accommodation. Yet I heard it can be boring on weekends, and most people who work there get out of town. Should we look elsewhere?
Delirium in central Brussels holds the world record for the most beers avaialble in one place (around 2000) © Radiokafka / Shutterstock
Luke Waterson: This is a great question, and it makes me smile for a number of reasons. Belgium’s own monarch, Leopold II, once famously remarked: “Je suis le souverain d’un petit pays et de petites gens” (I am the sovereign of a small country and a small people). What’s more, Brussels is the seat of the massive EU bureaucracy, and home to all the Eurocrats who oil its cogs during the week before hightailing it off – as you say – to somewhere more compelling for the weekend, and just sit around eating the rest of the time.
But hang on. Even if the first part of that last sentence were true (and, I know from experience, it might be), eating is one of the best things you could ever do on any kind of holiday, no? What’s not to love about moules frites (mussels with French fries), fall-apart-at-a-fork-touch Flanders tenderloin, waffles and probably the world’s best chocolates (head to Brussels’ Sablon neighborhood for some of the best), all washed down with beer brewed by Trappist monks? If nothing else happened during your entire break in Belgium besides consuming Belgium’s food and drink (think German-sized portions prepared with French-style va-va-voom), it would be far from a disaster.
But most capital cities have centers of government, right? And dull as such centers can be, we don’t tar those cities with the brush of boringness. Leaving Leopold II out of it, I honestly don’t get why Brussels gets its rep for mundanity.
Any visit to Brussels should begin in the magnificent Grand Place © Koverninska Olga / Shutterstock
Let’s begin in the middle of it all (at least where travelers are concerned): the Unesco-listed Grand Place, one of Europe’s most beautiful central squares. Fancy something less magnificently Baroque? The city’s number-one attraction and commanding excellent views from the top, the Atomium is the most impressive arrangement of nine spheres you’ll ever see (it’s based on what a single iron crystal would resemble if magnified 165 billion times). Like street art, comics or both? Belgium is the home of Tintin, one of the 20th century’s best-known comic strips, and many central buildings are brightly adorned in Tintin-inspired murals.
Sure, I know sightseeing isn’t the only thing on a 30-something’s agenda. You want decent nightlife, right? Delirium Café near the Grand Place holds the world record for the biggest number of beers available in any one spot (about 2000). Bozar is one of the best exhibition, concert and world cinema venues imaginable, housed in a 1929 art deco building in the city center. The up-and-coming (or really now just “up”) Brussels Canal district is a formerly edgy area that now abounds with cool new waterside bars, restaurants and galleries.
The clubs? You might not want a 40-something to tell you where to go here, but they’re pretty lively. Plus, Brussels is the capital of a country that fuses French and Flemish culture, as well as the seat of the EU – which ensures there are unfailingly representatives of every European nation present.
Murals featuring comic-book hero Tintin, a local creation, grace the streets of Brussels © Jean Nicolet / 500px
October isn’t the top month for city festivities, which is probably reflected in those cheaper accommodation deals. There are fantastic festivals throughout the year, though. The fabulous Christmas Market lasts from November to January. The striking Carnival of Binche, held just before Lent in nearby Hainaut, is one of Europe’s oldest and most distinctive street parties. May brings Jazz Weekend and the wacky Zinneke Parade, where people march through the streets in colorful costumes.
In truth, there are not many dull moments here.
And, just for argument’s sake…suppose you regret taking Lonely Planet’s advice, and Brussels falls short of expectations? (I’m obviously confident this won’t happen.) You’ll find that the city is a pretty good place for making sudden changes of plans. You’ve got medieval marvels Ghent and Bruges an hour and 1.5 hours northwest, respectively; fashion capital Antwerp an hour north; Amsterdam three hours northeast; and Paris four hours southwest (or under 90 minutes via the high-speed Thalys).
There’s got to be some entertainment somewhere in all those places.