The capital of a tiny country, Brussels often draws the short end of the stick when it comes to city trips and quick getaways. All the while, this multicultural underdog is alive with historic highlights, buzzing flea markets, and indulgent cuisine.
Marvel at the steel ball oddity that is the Atomium
Ever since the World Fair came to town in ’58, the Brussels skyline has been defined by a bizarre 102-meter-tall creature hovering over its horizon. Quite the feat of balance and technical prowess, the Atomium was modeled after an elementary iron crystal. Its nine steel-clad balls are all held together by tubes that house the elevators and staircases that allow visitors to get around in this massive oddity. Five of the spheres are open to the public as they house the permanent exhibition on Expo ’58, other temporary exhibits, and a panorama restaurant with an unequaled view of Brussels by night.
Sample local brewskis at Moeder Lambic
The mother hen of all Brussels beer cafés, Moeder Lambic has over 400 beers on offer that range from the most obscure Belgian draughts to international bottled specialties. The Saint-Gilles establishment has been an institution among local and international beer lovers since 2006 thanks to its highly knowledgeable and helpful staff and has even opened a second venue on the Place Fontainas due to popular demanded. With 40 Belgian beers on tap in an authentic red brick décor, Moeder Lambic is the ideal place to discover what your favorite Belgian beer is by sampling the night away.
Bargain your way to antique treasures at the Place du Jeu de Balle Flea Market
To immerse yourself in the local atmosphere of the Marolles, head to the Place du Jeu de Balle at the heart of this authentic neighborhood. Turning the corner, you’ll face a glorious chaos where bric-a-brac is king, and haggling your way to a good deal is mandatory. A sea of old silverware, used clothing piles, skis, coffee grinders, old posters, jewelry, and just about everything else presents you with the challenge of finding the treasures buried within. The market is open every day of the week, and while the early bird might uncover a hidden gem during the quieter weekdays, weekends are bustling with locals as it’s the better time to hunt down antique treasures.
Munch on a delicious gaufre
Walking around the city center, you’re bound to catch a full-on whiff of Belgian – or Brussels – waffles. Their sweet fragrance makes it impossible to resist, and most visitors end up caving when they bump into one of the signature yellow waffle trucks. Crunchy on the outside and doughy on the inside, this street treat often comes with a snowy layer of sugar or even strawberries and cream on top.
Discover the city’s comic book riches
Brussels has no qualms about calling itself the comic book capital of the world, and when paying a visit to the Belgian Comic Strip Center, it’s hard to disagree. Housed inside of the last semi-industrial building designed by Belgium’s Victor Horta, of Art Nouveau fame, the museum honors the small country’s paper heroes with fervor. And not only are the Smurfs, Tintin, Lucky Luke, Marsupilami, and many others hailed in the BCSC, they are painted proudly on the streets of Brussels in a project the museum launched only two years after opening its doors. Today over 50 cartoon murals can be discovered all over the city, and the Comic Strip Route has become a whimsical game of a treasure hunt ideal for discovering the lesser-known nooks and crannies of the capital, even for locals.
Become a flâneur at the Galeries Royales
A relaxing stroll underneath the 200-meter-long glass-paned Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert – it’s the 19th-century flâneur’s ideal pastime. Currently waiting to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage list, the luxurious Italian-style arcade from 1847 was one of the first of its kind. The historical passage is still home to clothing boutiques, watchmakers, a cinema, and the Théâtre du Vaudeville.
Experience the best of the melting pot at Matonge
Brussels is about as multicultural a capital as they come. Case in point is Matonge, an eclectic meeting point alive with varying tastes, flavors, and fragrances. The bombastic neighborhood – in between the European Quarter with its suited men and women and the posh Avenue Louise – originated in the ’60s, when Congolese students moved to Belgium in the wake of their country’s independence. To wander around in Matonge is to discover fruits you never knew in exotic grocers, to hear laughter drift out of African barbershops, and to treat your taste buds to unknown delights at Indian, Japanese, and Vietnamese restaurants.
See the craftsmanship of Art Nouveau pioneers
Belgium conquered a prominent place on the early Art Nouveau scene, and this is mostly due to innovators Victor Horta and Paul Hankar. Horta’s town mansions in which he pioneered the architectural movement’s rounded lines, floral patterns, and cast iron embellishments are still spread throughout Brussels, and most of them can be visited. Among them is the artist’s former atelier, and the flamboyant Maison Saint-Cyr by his apprentice Gustave Strauven is more than worth a visit. Other Art Nouveau gems include the MIM, Maison Cauchie, and Villa Empain.
Travel back in time at the Grand Place
There’s a reason the Grand Place often overflows with tourists. Much like with Bruges‘ Grote Markt, following the cobbled paths up to the medieval market is like stepping into a time machine set to Belgium’s merchant heyday. Think away the flashlights, and the Gothic City Hall, Broodhuis (the Museum of the City of Brussels), and gold-adorned guild houses create the impression that Charles V and entourage could come parading through at any second (a 16th-century event that’s still commemorated annually by the folkloric parade De Ommegang).
Treat your ears to smooth jazz
Sounds Jazz Club, Jazz Station, The Music Village, and L’Archiduc – don’t ever say the hometown of Toots Thielemans is short on great jazz bars. One to count itself amongst the best in the world is L’Archiduc, an Art Deco rendezvous point for businessmen and their assistants that pianist Stan Brenders turned into a jazz temple when taking over the reigns in the ’60s. Miles Davis jammed here with local musicians when in town, and the old school jazz tunes still linger during its Jazz after Shopping sessions.