Brussels advertises itself as the best place for five things: Waffles, Fries, Mussels, Chocolate and, of course, Beer. Though I saw many places selling all conceptions of lace (why?) and some postcards displaying diamonds as a “Belgian” thing (tax free!), and of course there’s the peeing boy (again, why?), these are the five things for which students like myself travel here to enjoy. And they’re all edible!
Mussels: I could not tell you why this is a big Belgian thing. As far as I know, there isn’t a body of water or an Ocean close to Brussels (which is kind of in the middle of the country) and the nearest ocean does not boast some special type of the sea creature. But you wouldn’t know that if you walked down Rue des Bouchers and looked at all of the wonderful pictures of their food (google images) on the menus of the tiny cafes that spill out onto the sidewalk and beckon you inside with promises of a free drink with your meal. Everywhere has mussels. My best friend, a pretty strict vegetarian, actually had mussels when we were there just because they were advertised at literally every single cafe.
Vlaamse Frites (fries): Speaking of being served at every single cafe everywhere, frites were another ubiquitous food in Brussels. If they could, they did, and they were served with most every entree to varying degrees of success. The Flemish Frite is actually a famous way of doing fries, and it truly does a better fried potato make. The secret is that they flash fry the cut up potatoes once and then keep them on hand, frying them a second time for longer when you order them. Fun fact- in a weird and not nearly as fresh way, McDonald’s employs the same technique, making those 2am fries from the walk up window at the Regent St. location truly amazing. Best fries hands down were the fries from Fritland. Sounds like a tourist trap, is busy like a tourist trap, is not a tourist trap. And they have brats! Tastes like home.
Chocolate: Alright so I’ve been to two chocolate stores (three if you count the quite literally hot chocolate I had in the Gallerie de la Reine) both of which were famous and lived up to the name. Mary, which I learned about through Facebook stalking, I’m in love with because I’m pretty sure I’ve never tasted caramel that tasted more like butter in my life. Also they have the most beautiful boxes (including one that I own which is blue and has a cat on it). I also went to Leonidas. Sound familiar? That’s cause it’s a chain. I would have never gone there (Leonidas and Godiva are the most famous but also the most looked down on to visit in Brussels) had it not been 11PM and it was the only one open and the boy and I needed chocolate. Better than the chocolate was enjoying them in Grand Place (center square- could stare for hours) at night. What’s more Belgian than that?
Beer: I’ll tell you what’s more Belgian- beer in Delirium, the beer temple of the country (/the world). Every person I have talked to who has visited Brussels has gone here at least once… every day of their trip. With three floors to the main complex plus a bunch of smaller bars within the block (including one in a former monastery) and more than 2,000 beers (yes they have a book not a menu for you to choose from) you kind of understand the hype about Belgian beer. And also why so many people spend so much time here. Littered with beer signs, lights, trays and other brewing paraphernalia, each floor had different beers on tap from different regions of the world (but mostly the Netherlands and Belgium). Each time I visited I tried new types. Famous Belgian Wit Bier (white), Ambree (amber), Blond (blonde), Tripel (triple- three types of grains or something). So I’m not the beer expert (but I might be after my next visit!).
Waffles: For one euro, you can enjoy Belgium’s most precious creation, the wafel. Forget what you’re thinking of. The giant fluffy waffle with a W on it from Gordon Commons is not in fact a Belgian Waffle. Think smaller and denser with little pearls of sugar inside hot off of the waffle iron. And all for one euro. Of course you can get whatever topping you want in addition but honestly I think that just distracts from the caramelized goodness that is the plain waffle from a place hopefully working an image of the peeing boy into their advertising.
Beyond the food, Brussels was an amazing city. While Paris is large and to me feels unmanageable, Brussels is compact and understandable. And I really respond to metro systems. Dealing with all other types of transportation in other countries just never seems to work out. I was able to lead two parties of people all over Brussels with my trusty map that included a metro stop diagram (and a little bit of my high school French).
Though everything is translated (and I mean everything) from French to Dutch to English, it is mostly a French speaking town. Perfectly fine with me. I still understand French and it was nice to get rid of the hocking sounds that come along with Dutch for a couple weekends. Plus that also ended up meaning that Brussels had some other French goods, done extremely well. I think I had the second best baguette of my life (first best was of course in Paris) and I had some damn good macarons. The mini croissants and pain au chocolats were actually the best I have ever had. It was like traveling to Paris without the distance, cost, or unmanageable scale.
Forgive me while I nerd out like the Art History major that I am. Now I knew that Brussels would have plenty of beautiful architecture as it is a medieval city complete with a palace and a working monarchy. That makes for a nice Facebook album (“Chillin at the King’s Crib #Brussels”) but I did not expect the abundance of Art Nouveau architecture that also dotted the city. Perhaps the most beautiful example of this was the Music Museum, which was housed in a former department store building built at the turn of the century. I was nerding out over that thing. I had champagne and tea on the roof and then we were allowed to walk down through the building on our way out. Just a beautifully made building. And it’s not the only one! The Art Nouveau style was all over the place. Random cafes here and there would just be beautifully preserved Art Deco (American version of the style). Then there were the art museums. All housed in one building, you could pay three euros and visit about five museums. It was overwhelming and I was honestly lost the entire time. However they had an amazing Fin de Siècle (Turn of the Century, Art Nouveau) museum with an exhibit of house goods which was just spectacular. I also was able to see a painting by the Master of Flemalle in the Old Masters Museum, who is the artist who interested me in Flemish Northern Renaissance paintings, which is now my favorite period. Those museums were an unexpected treat.
Also, the Atomium, the loved/hated giant iron atom on the Brussels skyline, the central pavilion for the 1958 world’s fair, is an amazing mid-century modern… thing. It was really cool to go to the top and see the view, but the way it was designed was just an amazing display of the 50’s view of the future. I’m a sucker for mid-century modern. I’m awful, I literally love everything Brussels has to offer.
Not saying I would live in Brussels…. but yeah I would live in Brussels if I could. I’m still hoping my dream of randomly working for a company that randomly has to transfer me to Europe so I randomly end up on House Hunters International (on HGTV) complaining about the lack of room on European terraces for my BBQ grill will come true. If so, please let my hypothetical company be forced to transfer me to Brussels. I want to eat euro wafels forever.