After 12 days in Germany, it was time for me to head somewhere new. I had no plan after Berlin until a few days before when I was checking out cheap flights to wherever I could go without changing planes. I saw one pop up on Easy Jet (low cost European airline) to Brussels, Belgium so I thought, why not?!
Brussels Airport is pretty massive and I’ve flown through it a couple of times in the past. This was the first time I’ve actually passed all the way through to the baggage claim, but I have to say, it’s a pretty impressive, ultra-modern airport complete with free Wi-Fi (something the big ones often cheap out on). You can take a train into the main station of Brussels for only a few Euro which takes about 15 minutes.
On my way into town, An 18 year old Belgian kid chatted me up on the train and gave me a little insight into the city. If you didn’t know, Belgium, located in western Europe in between France and the Netherlands actually has 3 official languages, Dutch, French and German.
Basically, the northern half of the country speaks Flemish which is pretty close to Dutch, the southern half speaks French, and a few small areas in the east speak German (the parts on the German border). Brussels is surrounded by the Flemish speaking area of Belgium, but being the capital city, you hear just as much French as Flemish. The Flemish native speakers often speak French, but the French native speakers often speak little Flemish, so it’s pretty common for a Flemish person to respond to French native speaker in English just to keep things Kosher (can you imagine this sort of thing happening in your own country?!).
Besides being a nationally “international” city, Brussels is in fact very diverse which came as kind of a shock coming from Germany where it was much more homogenous. The Belgians got around during the colonial era, and you’ll see many people from the former colonies, notably The Congo and Rwanda. Belgium is also the capital of Europe (ahemm a continent) so you’ll find the headquarters for the European Union as well as NATO in Brussels.
The vibe you feel coming out of the main station is, business. I arrived on a Monday evening and things were pretty desolate, but if you walk west down the hill, you’ll arrive at the old historic center which is full of very impressive architecture, countless restaurants, cafes, etc so don’t fret.
If you only have 1 or 2 days in Brussels, I’d highly recommend taking the Sandeman’s Free Walking Tour of Brussels (just Google “free walking tour Brussels”) to get a nice overview of the city. It really is free and you basically just tip on what you think the tour was worth at the end. I had a great guide who made things interesting, so when that is the case, I usually give about 10 Euro for a 3 hour tour.
The tour guide explained Belgium’s history from before the Romans came until modern day which was pretty fraught with war and invasion (why they speak so many languages) a dark colonial past (read a book called King Leopold’s Ghost if you want to see how ruthless the Belgians were in the Congo) and later, the almost unfathomable wealth which is pretty evident just strolling around the historic center until the World Wars which were pretty rough on the tiny country.
The main square, Grand Place (Grote Markt) is one of the most impressive European plazas I’ve ever seen. The majority of the beautifully gilded buildings were in fact…guilds, i.e. the headquarters for different trade unions like the Baker’s Guild, Fisherman’s Guild, etc. The majority of the historic city center was re-built at the end of the 17th century as the French heavily bombed Brussels and a subsequent fire wiped out 1/3 of the city.
One of the most popular tourist attractions in Brussels has in fact been voted, “one of the world’s most disappointing touristic attractions”, Manneken Pis. Well, what did you expect from a life-size statue of a toddler urinating? What’s more interesting about the little icon of Brussels is the countless number of times it has been stolen and the real story of why its even famous.
You’ll certainly hear a hundred old-wives tales about why the statue came about, but the truth is, back in the day, leather tanners needed more piss than they could muster themselves to help cure their leather goods (urine is a good (and cheap) source of uric acid which is what they wanted) and they would pay a few cents per bucket of mellow yellow. The statue marked the location where pisspreneurs could peddle their tinkle to the local leathersmiths.
As you walk around the historic center of Belgium, you’ll start to notice some pretty unique murals. They aren’t graffiti and they aren’t your standard hipster masterpiece, they are in fact an homage to Belgium’s substantial contribution to the world of comics. Believe it or not, The Smurfs are from Belgium as well as Tin Tin. There are plenty more famous ones that I have never heard of which are supposedly pretty famous, but I was more into playing Magic The Gathering and Pogs in my youth rather than reading comics. Nevertheless, they are pretty fun to check out. Notice the first one below of the two men walking together which is in the heart of the gay neighborhood (Belgium was the 2nd country in the world to pass same-sex marriage in 2003 after The Netherlands), pretty progressive.
*Image of Brussels, Belgium via Shutterstock