BRUSSELS, BELGIUM: Brussels is more like our home sweet home for now as we live only a few miles away in Tervuren. This is a gorgeous city and home of some overwhelming past and present, art & culture, famous mouth-watering treats, and bold architectures. You need at least 2-3 days just to visit the basics/famous touristic places. Brussels is known as the capital of Europe, since the parliament of European Union (along with many other European Union’s offices) is located in the heart of the city.
I never get bored of Brussels. Every time we are in the city center, there are some festivals or events going on. I love going to my favorite chocolate store to buy some hand-made chocolates and then have a fresh hot waffle with ice-cream and strawberry or banana to finish off our day.
TIME OF TRAVELLING: First time we came to Brussels was in April, 2009. That was our first Europe tour. I remember it was a bit chilly but pleasant at that time. Who knew at that time that we would actually move to beautiful Belgium one day?
OUR HOTEL: First time we were here in 2009, we stayed in a small hotel named, Hotel Barry, about 7-8 minutes’ walk from Grand Place. But I wouldn’t really recommend anyone traveling with family and kids to stay there. The neighborhood is a ghetto area and not a safe place if you have a car.
WHAT TO EAT AND BUY IN BELGIUM: Without any doubt Belgian chocolates are the number one item to eat and take back home as souvenirs from Belgium. They melt slowly on your tongue penetrating all the taste buds and hit your brain with an awakening call “what the hell have you been eating in the name of chocolate all these times?” Try the hand-made dark, milk, and white chocolates that come with different fillings and toppings. Some of the most popular chocolate stores are Neuhaus, Leonidas, La Gourmand Belgique, Godiva, and some other expensive gourmet stores in St. Hubert Gallery. Neuhaus is the store who came up with the original recipe of chocolate praline. Even the cheapest chocolate in Belgium tastes much better than Hershey’s chocolates in USA…I swear.
Another sweat treat that all must try in Belgium is the Belgian waffles. Don’t go for the cheap ones, you won’t get that “wow” effect in those. A good waffle with some toppings costs around 8 euros or more in Grand Place and buy them from a store called “The Waffle Factory” which is one block away from Mannekin Pis towards Grand Place…they are the best.
For souvenirs, Belgium is best known for its hand-made lace and tapestry. Historically, most of the Royal families in Europe decorated their palaces and castles with Belgian tapestry. They are VERY expensive but you won’t see better quality anywhere else in the world. Also if you are a big comic fan, the famous comic character Tintin from the early 20th century was originally from Belgium and he has a souvenir store of its readers called “La Boutique Tintin” in between Grand Place and St. Hubert Gallery right opposite of Agora, which is another big shopping mall sells cheap stuff to very expensive leather boots and jackets.
PLACES WE VISITED: There are so many things to explore in Brussels than the following ones I’ve mentioned. We haven’t visited the chocolate museum, Royal Art Museum, Chinese Garden, and many other interesting places here yet. I will keep adding new places as we go around the city more.
1. GRAND PLACE or GROTE MARKT: This is THE place to visit when you are in Brussels. It is the old market place, the central square of Brussels, and the place where most of the fun things are happening. It was voted the most beautiful square in Europe in 2012. This place has been used as a market place from as early as the 12th century. The famous writer of “Les Miserables” Victor Hugo resided in the one of the houses right opposite of the old town hall. Check out the typical Flemish-styled guildhalls that surround the Gothic edifice Hotel de Ville.
The eye-catching Hotel de Ville, built in the early 15th century, is the old Town Hall of Brussels, is the most memorable landmark in Brussels, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Town Hall stands 315 feet (96 meters) tall and is topped with a statue of Saint Michael slaying a demon. The building left of the town hall, when you are facing it, used to be the home/office of Duke of Brabant. The Baroque architecture of guildhalls, that enclose Grand Place, were kind of like heard-quarters of different merchants; you can still see their symbols related to its trade on top of each building, like the guild house for butchers has a swan on it. There are many guildhalls outside and adjacent to Grand Place, but only the wealthy and powerful merchants had their guildhalls right beside city’s Town Hall.
Winter lighting and Christmas decorations are way too beautiful in Grand Place. There is a musical light show on the old city hall which takes places every hour. It seemed to me that Brussels city center attracts more tourists and locals in winter than the summer time. Everyone is in a party mood with their heavy jackets and hats on with beer bottles in their hands.
Flower carpet in Grand Place is another famous attraction of the city. It takes place in the month of August of every 2 years and lasts only for 5 days. Many designers, artists, horticulturists, technicians, landscape architects, and volunteers work together to make this masterpiece. This big and colorful carpet occupies a big chunk of space of Grand Place. In 1971, Brussels Grand-Place hosted this first ephemeral works. It requires about 300 flowers (mostly begonias) per square meter and each piece of floral carpet requires more than 12 months’ work by hundreds of volunteer weavers. Each carpet uses a palette of colors to pick out the design, incorporating a huge number of freshly-picked flowers, all within an extremely tight time scale. Visitors can walk around the carpet for free but they are also allowed to get a panoramic aerial view of this unique creation from the balcony of the Hotel de Ville by paying 5 euros. The sound and light show also takes place every evening after dark. Every year the carpet is made up with different theme. The recent one took place in August, 2012 and the theme was Africa.
2) BRUSSELS CITY MUSEUM: This is the bold building standing right opposite of the old town hall in Grand Place or Grote Markt of Brussels. The architecture, known as Maison du Roi, once served as the bread house of the area. This is a great place to get a brief history of the cool city, Brussels. Many sculptures from as early as the 13th century, silverware & porcelain, altarpieces and wooden statues are just some of the things on display. You can also see how tapestry has become an integral part of Belgian economy and culture here along with how the whole city developed over many centuries. The most important attraction of this museum to me was to see the wardrobe collection of Manneken-Pis (see below). The boy has more than 800 outfits, mainly gifts from many countries, organizations, and teams, and they are all displayed in this museum. My girls had great joy looking at those clothes and reading who gave him what.
There are few levels to explore in this building and took us about hour and half to visit. The museum is open from 10 – 5 everyday except Monday when it’s closed for the whole day. Ticket is 4 euros per adult and below 6 years is free.
3) MUSEUM of COCOA and CHOCOLATE:You can’t leave Brussels without knowing the actual history of Belgian chocolates and this is the best place to increase your knowledge on this sweet treat. This is a must-visit for all the fans of Belgian chocolates. The building that houses this museum is from 1697 and is known as “De Valk”The history of chocolates goes back to the Mayas and Aztecs. You can find information how it traveled to Europe and why Belgian chocolates are appreciated throughout the whole world. Audience of any age would love to see here how cocoa beans are processed and many tools that once were used in processing those beans. At the beginning a man demonstrated us how chocolates are made in different shapes and with different fillings on the first floor. But the best part was when he offered each of us a piece of freshly hand-made chocolate…that was probably the BEST tasted chocolate I’ve ever had in my life and believe me I’ve tried chocolates from all ranges and places. Another sweet part of this tour that I should mention is that you get a speculoos (a type of ginger cookie very popular in Belgium) dipped in a chocolate fountain as soon as you buy your ticket and enter the museum…very yummy too.
The museum has few level and is located near Grand Place (if you are facing the old town hall, take right alley and it’s on your right side…takes only 10 seconds to reach). It took us about an hour to visit all the floors. It’s open from 10 – 4:30 everyday and Monday is closed. Ticket is 3.50 euros per adult.
4) MANNEKIN PIS: Only 5 minutes of walk from Grand-Place is the city’s most famous statue. Believe it or not this little peeing boy is the emblem of the city. It’s a small bronze fountain sculpture built in around 1618. There are many stories why and how it became so popular here. One of my favorite stories is that there once was a big fire in the city and there was a little boy who was peeing on the fire to save the city and its people. Don’t be disappointed by its tiny size. The boy has more than 800 different outfits to celebrate different occasions. Different embassies, tourist offices, sportsmen, artists, associations like honoring Mannekin-Pis with a suit or costume and this collection of suits is kept at the Museum of the City of Brussels in Grand Place.
The sister of this little boy, Jeanneke Pis (a little peeing girl), is located on the east side of the Impasse de la Fidelite, which is in the mid-way of St. Hubert Gallery in one of the small alleys surrounded by many restaurants.
5) ROYAL GALLERIES of ST. HUBERT: This is also about 2-3 minutes’ walk from Grand Place, but on the other side. It is a dazzling shopping arcade covered by glass arches on the top. The gallery mainly features high-end chocolate shops. The way they decorated these shops that they look more like diamond jewelry shops than chocolate boutiques. It’s fun to look around and appreciate Belgian’s passion for chocolate. Other than that there are shops selling pretty lace items, cutleries, furniture, and other interesting gift items. There are couple restaurants and a movie theatre inside the plaza as well. In the mid-point of this arcade there is a narrow street which is packed with restaurants mainly selling mussels and other Belgian dishes (but you can get other dishes too).
6)ST. MICHAEL & ST. GUDULA CATHEDRAL: This is a beautiful Gothic cathedral few hundred meters away from Royal Galleries of St. Hubert (on the other side of Grand Place). The original foundation of this Roman church was built somewhere around 1047. Overall length of this cathedral is 114 meters. The church is often used for royal marriages, state funerals, and other Catholic ceremonies. Inside of this cathedral is as impressive as the outside Gothic façade with beautiful statues and gigantic stone pillars. This is probably one of the cathedrals where I saw the most beautiful stained-glass windows. There is no entry-fee to go inside and is open every day. There is also a small park in front of the cathedral, a nice place to relax in hot summer days.
7) EGLISE NOTRE DAME du SUBLON (CHURCH of OUR LADY of SABLON): This is another Roman Catholic Church with late Gothic style architecture in the heart of Brussels. It has been standing there since the 15th century. The church is very beautiful and prominent from outside, but unfortunately, we tried to go inside twice and failed. There is also a small park, Petit Sablon, opposite of this church featuring small gardens, some statues, and a big fountain…a little romantic place with nice surroundings. You can also see Palais de Justice at one end of the street with the golden Dom.
8) ATOMIUM: This is one of the iconic monuments of Brussels and a symbol of Europe. This is like the Eiffel Tower of Brussels. It was built for the World Fair in Brussels in 1958. It stands 335 feet (102 meters) tall and forms the shape of a unit atomic cell magnified 165 billion times. Eight levels over 5 spheres are open to the public. Go all the way up to the upper sphere (92 meters) for a spectacular 360 degree view of the city (from 10 – 6 pm) or just indulge yourself in the Panoramic Restaurant for some gourmet dishes (open till 11 pm). There are enough paid parking spots if you are planning to drive there.
There are some other parks in this area for kids & adults to enjoy, like Mini-Europe or Oceanade. You can combine the tickets with Atomium for a cheaper-deal. There is also a small and cozy place called “The Village” right before entering Mini-Europe where you can find tons of restaurants with local and international tastes.
9) MINI-EUROPE PARK: This is an educational and fun place for the kids and adults as they make their journey thru the miniature version of all the countries of European Union. My 6 years old daughter loves going there again and again since there are so many hand-on activities for her to have fun while she is learning about different culture and places. It shows many famous landmarks, architectures, historical places, and much more of Europe in a smaller scale. The park was inaugurated in 1989 with His Royal Highness the Prince Phillippe and Mr. Brouhon, Mayor of Brussels. Since then they have added new countries as they joined the union in the later years. Visit all the countries of European Union in just couple hours…you sure can’t beat that.
The ticket to Mini-Europe is about 12.50 euros per adult and is open from 10 – 6 pm. There is a café and a souvenir shop at the end of the tour. Combine your ticket with Atomium for a lower price.
10) JUBILEE PARK or PARC du CINQUANTENAIRE: Jubilee Park is the green park of Brussels city center. Decorated with rows of trees and statues, this is a great getaway from busy city life, but good part is that you don’t have to leave the city to go to the park. The center-piece of this park, an Arc de Triumph from 1905, is one of the eye-catching landmarks of the city. The park houses few museums like Royal Military Museum, an art museum, and Autoworld Museum. Overall, Jubilee Park is a beautiful area for an afternoon stroll while enjoying the nature and history both in one place. It’s free to enter and is located in the heart of Brussels.
11) ROYAL PALACE of BRUSSELS (PALAIS ROYALE de BRUXELLES): The present palace was built in 1820. This is not the official palace of the royal family but their everyday administrative site. Belgian Royal family’s residence is Laken Palace in Brussels. It is worth a visit if anyone is in the city in August. We saw some beautiful large halls decorated with large crystal chandeliers, portraits of previous and present royalties, pretty ceilings, and nice decorations.
The palace opens to the visitors during summer only about for a month in August. Heard that Royal families are usually in vacation this time of the year and leave this palace to be visited and appreciated by the general public. There is no fee to enter the palace. It’s located in the heart of Brussels in Place de Palais very close to Petit du Sablon or Royal Art Museum of Brussels.
12) EGLISE SAINT NICOLAS or ST. NICHOLAS CHURCH: The origin of this church is closely connected with the gradual coming into existence of the city of Brussels in the 11th and 12th centuries. It was originally intended to be a “market” church, dedicated to St. Nicholas. Originally of Romanesque Architecture and style it was later enlarged and transformed into Gothic style. After many unfortunate events like bombardment in 1695 and collapsing of the tower, the church was restored many times. The present façade dates back to 1956 but the choir is still an old one from 1381.
St. Nicholas is a very small church but nice inside. It’s free to enter and is located about 5 minutes walk from Grand Place close to Bourse or Stock Exchange building.
13) CHOCOLATE WORKSHOP at ZAABAR: Few kms away from the city center, Zaabar chocolate factory is a fantastic place to experience chocolate up-close and personal. My 8-year old daughter wanted to go there as a part of her birthday’s special events. It was a very fun activity for our whole family. The class started with a brief description on the origin of chocolate and how to work with it. They talked about where it comes from, how to process it, correct temperatures, and chocolate culinary art.
Then we were taken to a different room where we actually put our hands to work. Our first assignment was to dip small chocolate balls in melted chocolate and then cover them with different toppings. Then we moved to a next table where each of us made a chocolate bar from liquid chocolate and topped it with crushed/whole nuts, raisins, dried papaya and banana, powder cinnamon and ginger and etc. Finally, we worked with some more liquid chocolate to design whatever we wanted to design and decorate them with anything. After we were done, they gave us some bags to put our freshly made treats so we could go home and enjoy them. It is one of the most exciting and interactive activities we did as a family.
It’s 20 euros per person (adults or kids) for the workshop and best thing is that whatever chocolates you make here you get to take them home with you. But make sure to reserve the space ahead of time. You can have kids’ birthday parties, adult workshops, or other chocolate classes here. We participated in their public workshop which only takes place twice a week, I think, Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2:30pm. The workshop was in English and French and lasted for an hour.