Top ten things to do in Brussels, Belgium

BrusselsA couple of weeks ago I was chatting with some fellow travel writers and the conversation turned to Brussels. The general consensus seemed to be that Belgium’s capital isn’t worth visiting.

I disagree. While it can’t compete with London or Paris, it has its own charm and can easily fill up three or four days of a European tour. The mixture of Flemish and Walloon culture makes for a distinct city with an interesting history. A large immigrant population is livening things up too, with Ethiopian cafes, Asian restaurants, and a string of Congolese shops in the Matonge area.

Here are ten reasons not to skip Brussels.

Beer!
Belgian beer is justly famous for its variety and flavor. From the rich Trappist and Abbey beers to the more secular but equally tasty Lambics and Saisons, Belgium is a beer snob’s paradise. There are plenty of fine bars in Brussels serving up this lovely brew. A Gadling favorite is the centrally located Delerium Cafe, which sells more than 2000 varieties from around the world, and of course a huge selection of Belgian labels.

Chocolate!
Like Belgian beer, Belgian chocolate needs no introduction. Hey, it’s so good you can even snort it. Chocolate shops abound in Brussels and most cafes will serve you a piece along with your coffee.

Peeing statues!
Ah yes, the famous Manneken Pis. Has anyone gone to Brussels and not seen this? There are several stories about how this little guy came into being. The one I heard was that a sculptor’s son went missing back in the seventeenth century. A frantic search ensued and the sculptor swore he’d make a statue showing his son exactly as he found him. Take a look at this photo courtesy Jim Linwood to see what the kid was doing when he finally turned up. In the spirit of affirmative action, a female counterpart was erected in 1987 in Impasse de la Fidélité/Getrouwheidsgang (Fidelity Alley) showing a little girl squatting and doing her business. She’s called Jeanneke Pis.

Art Nouveau!
Brussels is justly famous for its many Art Nouveau buildings dating to the early part of the last century. The best way to savor the scene is to go to one of Brussels’ many Art Nouveau cafes where you can enjoy a coffee and a piece of Belgian chocolate while admiring the architecture. One of the greatest of Art Nouveau architects was Victor Horta whose house museum is a classic of the style.

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Classic Films!
Belgium was an early innovator of film back during cinema’s infancy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The best place to learn about this is the Musée du Cinéma/Filmmuseum, where you can see artifacts from the birth of motion pictures. The museum’s two cinemas show arthouse classics and silent films with live piano accompaniment.

Tanks and Swords!
The Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and of Military History is one of the best war museums I’ve ever visited, and I’ve probably visited too many. The land that now comprises Belgium has been fought over for centuries and this museum’s collection reflects that bloody past. It has an excellent tank collection from both world wars as well as an extensive armory of medieval weapons to slice, dice, chop, hack, and crush your enemies. Why is this cool? It just is.

Fine Art!
Museums are the best way to stay dry when the Belgian weather gets wet, which it does frequently. Brussels has several art galleries and museums. The most prominent are the Royal Museums of Fine Arts. Together they boast some twenty thousand paintings, sculptures and drawings. They include the Ancient Art Museum, the Modern Art Museum, the Wiertz Museum, the Meunier Museum, and the Museé Magritte Museum.

The Historic Center!
Much of medieval Brussels was leveled to make way for new construction in the nineteenth century. Luckily, a classic core survives around La Grand Place/Grote Markt, where centuries-old mansions and churches still survive. This is the most photogenic part of Brussels and while it can get overrun with tourists, it’s still worth a look. A little further out, visit the Basilique du Sacré Coeur/Basiliek van het Heilig Hart, an Art Deco basilica that’s the fifth biggest church in the world, and La Cambre Abbey, a 12th century abbey.

Comics!
Besides film, beer, and chocolate, the Belgians have always been big into comics. At the Belgian Comic Strip Center you can learn all about this with a variety of comics on display and a big gift shop if you want to bring some home. Belgium’s most famous comic artist was Hergé, creator of Tintin, who of course has his own museum.

Day trips!
Belgium is a small country with a good rail system. This makes it a good base for day trips. The lovely countryside is dotted with several castles and rustic villages. Regular trains go to several historic cities such as Antwerp (one hour), Ghent (30 minutes), Bruges (one hour), and Liege (one hour). For more information on day trips, click here.

So head on over to Brussels. You won’t be sorry!

The oldest printing press in the world

oldest printing press in the worldAntwerp has been an important port and center of commerce for centuries. Because of this it has a long history of printing and the elegant mansion/workshop of one of its early printing companies has been turned into a museum

The Museum Plantin-Moretus houses a huge collection, including the oldest printing press in the world. Actually there are two of them, both from about 1600 and complete with all their parts and movable type. The first printing press with movable type in Europe was built by Gutenberg around 1440 and it revolutionized culture by allowing books to be printed en masse instead of handwritten one by one. The Chinese had printing presses more than a thousand years before this, but they used the more cumbersome block printing method.

The invention of movable type had a huge effect on just about everything. Printing presses could soon be found in every major city. They were made of wood, however, and subject to decay, so the two examples from c. 1600 are rare treasures.
The museum has a lot more too. There’s a collection of 25,000 early books and engravings, as well as sumptuous rooms from the original owners, Christoffel Plantin (1520 – 1589) and Jan I Moretus (1543 – 1610). Some of the walls are decorated in gilded leather, using a layer of gold so thin that you can see the texture of the leather underneath. There’s also a beautiful Renaissance courtyard built in the 1620s. The workshops date to about the same time. If you’re interested in books or the history of technology, this museum is well worth a visit.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Luxury accommodation in the heart of Antwerp!

This trip was partially funded by Tourism Antwerp and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

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Luxury accommodation in the heart of Antwerp


Antwerp is a compact city with bad weather, so while it’s walkable, it pays to be in the center of town. During my visit I stayed at the Hotel Julien, a recently renovated and expanded hotel within sight of the cathedral. In fact, I could see it from my bathroom window!

The Hotel Julien is firmly in the luxury hotel bracket with prices from 195€ ($268) and up, breakfast included. The decor is chic and modern, as you can see from this shot of the lounge. Next to it is a bar and then the breakfast room. There’s also a leafy patio and a rooftop viewing deck that the rain stopped me from ever using. There’s a spa on site as well as a helpful front desk with lots of information about the city and umbrellas to borrow when a nasty wind tears up the one you brought. Tip for the traveler: don’t bring a Spanish umbrella to a North Sea port. It’s like bringing a knife to a gunfight.AntwerpThere’s lots to do within five minute’s walk, including the cathedral, several fine restaurants, a jazz bar, a rock bar, and a vibrant shopping district on Koepoort Straat, with its antique shops, bookshops, music stores, and vintage clothing stores. The walk to the central train station only took me 15 minutes.

To be honest, I don’t really care all that much what my hotel is like. The custom-made linen and trendy photography were a bit lost on me after a long day of sightseeing. If my hotel is convenient and comfortable, that’s all I need, and the Hotel Julien was both of these. If you’re looking for a luxury hotel with a great location, this is a good bet.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Amsterdam!

This trip was partially funded by Tourism Antwerp and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

Masterpieces of silver in Antwerp

silverBelgium is famous for its silver. Belgian silversmiths have a history stretching back hundreds of years. Their work has always been sought after for its high degree of craftsmanship and so it’s no surprise there’s a Silver Museum in Antwerp dedicated to the craftsmen that make these works of art.

Besides talent, they have a sense of humor too. This wine cup, shown here in a photo copyright Hugo Maertens of Bruges, is actually an early drinking game. It’s shown upside down so you can get a good view of the clockwork mill. When it’s wound up, the mill begins to turn and the people climb up the stairs. After a few seconds the clock strikes 11, and if you haven’t drained the cup you have to drink 11 more times. The fact that this was made back in 1688 or 1689 shows just how good the Belgian silversmiths were, and what people liked to get up to on their off hours.

Antwerp has been a center for silversmithing for 500 years and the Silver Museum is in the castle of Sterckshof. Different sections explain how silver is mined, processed, and worked. Sumptuous displays of silver items from all times fill the many rooms.

Until 9 April 2012 there’s a special exhibition called Esthétique Moderne focusing on Belgian silversmiths of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This covers the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements. It’s an impressive collection of works of art. For images from the exhibition, check out the gallery, and if you like seeing beautiful works of art, check out the Silver Museum.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: The oldest printing press in the world!

This trip was partially funded by Tourism Antwerp and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

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Fine dining in Antwerp

fine dining in AntwerpFor such a small country, Belgium certainly has contributed to world cuisine. French fries, for example, are actually Belgian, making that whole “freedom fries” movement back in 2003 even stupider than it appeared. They also gave us Belgian waffles, although over here they’re called “Brussels waffles” after the capital. And let’s not forget about Belgian chocolate!

I’ve been exploring Antwerp, a wealthy city with hardworking inhabitants who like to splash out on fine food. Here are four restaurants worth a visit. Office casual attire is the rule here. Entrees range from about 15-25 euros ($20-28) except at Flamant Dining, where they’re a bit more.

My first night I dined at Brasserie Appelmans. This restaurant and absinthe bar only a few steps from the cathedral in the heart of historic Antwerp is popular with both tourists and locals. It’s strange to go from the Gothic spires and 17th century facades outside to modern minimalism inside. Through dim lighting you see a split-level plan with little décor besides mirrors, exposed brick and woodwork, and candlelit black tables.

For a starter I had an incredibly rich tomato soup with fresh cream and meatballs. It was almost filling enough for a main, but I managed a big bowl of Antwerp stew with veal prepared with Grimbergen Dubbel beer and served with thick-cut Belgian fries and salad of white cabbage, celery, and cherry tomatoes. After a long day’s walking and with the winter chill setting in for the evening, it certainly hit the spot.In keeping with the décor of the restaurant, the absinthe bar is dim and chic. It looks very popular and they had a large variety of absinthes but I didn’t partake. I can get absinthe at home in Spain and it’s not the thing to drink alone, certainly not alone in public. Both the restaurant and bar are busy by 7pm, as are many places here. Living in Spain I find Belgians to be early eaters!

Another fine restaurant is Felixpakhuis. Located next to the redeveloped docklands and the famous Mas Museum, it has a spacious and bright interior that gets quite loud as it fills up. Again bare wood and minimal decoration is the rule, although this time the colors are light instead of dark. For starters I ordered pumpkin soup with scallops followed by the Coc au vin. Both were well done and I appreciated the more casual atmosphere than you get in many high-end Belgian restaurants. While service was good at all the places in this post, the waitstaff at Felixpakhuis were the friendliest and quickest of them all. Make this your stop after seeing the Mas.

For those seeking the high end, try Flamant Dining, a restaurant on the first floor of the equally exclusive Les Nuits hotel. This is not a place you’ll stumble upon; locals have to tell you about it. It has a more intimate feel than the others, with a roaring fireplace and fine but minimal décor. I started with crispy goat cheese in a pig’s cheek spring roll with sweet red onion cream. For the main I had Australian filet pur grain fed with a pepper sauce, green salad, and Pont Neuf potatoes. Both were cooked to perfection, the pig’s cheek dissolving sweetly in my mouth. I found the pepper sauce a bit strong and overbearing on the excellent filet, but scraping a bit off solved this.

Another well-known and popular place is the Dome, which is a restaurant, a bistro, and bakery all within sight of each other. I had lunch at the bistro, a less formal and quicker option than the actual restaurant. A long aquarium took up one wall and windows took up much of the rest of the space, so between the fish and the Art Nouveau mansions outside I had plenty to look at during my meal. The chef brought out a series of small portions, including mackerel with mustard vinegar, scallops with pumpkin sauce and salad, spicy calamari (perhaps too spicy for some), and swordfish a la plancha with butter sauce. I’m a land lubber and rarely order seafood, yet I thoroughly enjoyed and finished everything. The restaurant, where you eat under a large neoclassical dome, is more formal and is hugely popular with the locals. The bread from the bakery is excellent.

The only criticism I have of Belgian cuisine from my limited experience on two trips to the country is that it’s too heavy. My appetizers were always too filling, yet too tasty not to finish. I saw very few small or light appetizers listed on menus, and when the hearty main course was set before me, all thoughts of dessert disappeared. Considering that many desserts included Belgian chocolate, this shows just how stuffed I was!

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Masterpieces in Silver!

This trip was partially funded by Tourism Antwerp and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.