Forty-Eight Hours in Brussels
Brussels, Belgium, is an underrated city. Beyond the Eurocrats is a city with beautiful architecture and some of the best food and beer in the world. I had the privilege of living in Brussels for six years and experiencing it from a local perspective. It has been 18 months since I repatriated back to the United States, but I still find every chance to return. Just recently, I made a short trip to Brussels on my way to Barcelona and spent 48 hours in the city. Since I was traveling with a friend who had never been there, I got to see it both as a tourist and with a local know-how.
Ideally, it takes more than two days to discover Brussels, but there is quite a bit you can do on a short itinerary. For the full experience, bring an empty stomach and good walking shoes. I always like to begin the tour of the city center from the Place du Sablon, a beautiful square anchored by the Notre Dame Church of Brussels. In front is the garden of the Petit Sablon, which is a beautiful, quiet sanctuary in the middle of the madness of the city.
On the weekends, there is an antique market where you can find rare maps of Brussels and African carvings, remnants of the Belgium colonization of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo). During the week, you can still wander through galleries with exhibitions of Belgian artists and explore antiques from all over the world.
I also always make a special visit to my favorite chocolatier, Pierre Marcolini. I love the mango-filled chocolates and the macarons. The shop is a beautiful decadence.
One of my favorite places in Brussels is the Grand-Place, the center of the city. Brussels’ city hall is located here, nestled between other amazing medieval buildings. If you are a resident of the commune of Brussels, you can actually get married here, as several of my friends have done. However, as inviting as it might seem to have a drink on the terrace of the Grand-Place, don’t. It’s overpriced, and you’ll be surrounded by tourists. Instead walk two blocks to Place Saint-Géry. My favorite place to have a drink is Halles Saint-Géry, a former market turned bar, art gallery, and at times vintage market.
Our whirlwind tour of Brussels included dinner with my closest friends at Brasserie Merode, located in front of one of the often-overlooked landmarks in Brussels, Parc du Cinquantenaire. We started with an aperitif designed for our dinner party. Ana, the owner, was kind enough to share the recipe: equal parts white rum (or Cointreau) and Moscato wine with a dash of cassis cream, some lemon or orange juice, and sugar around the rim. Other highlights of the dinner were the locally sourced asparagus and the beef carpaccio.
Beyond the must-go places of Brussels, such as the Atomium or the many museums, are the places (the squares) that give Brussels so much character. During our trip, I got to revisit some of the places of which I have so many great memories. We had drinks at Café Belga at Place Flagey, which is where, in my opinion, old and new Brussels converge. This is where you’ll see an elderly Bruxellois lady with her fur coat walking her poodle, a Eurocrat with his blackberry, and a young university student with his dreads having a beer in the middle of the square.
Walk off the buzz of Duvel (a strong Belgian beer) and admire the Art Nouveau homes that surround the Etangs de Ixelles (Lakes of Ixelles). And no trip to Brussels would be complete without frites, fries in a cone, preferably washed down with beer. The best place to have those is Place Jourdan at Maison Antoine. Don’t be intimidated by the long lines; they go by pretty fast. You are welcome to bring your frites to most of the bars that surround Maison Antoine.
If you find yourself in the capital of Europe, bring an open mind and palate. I was fortunate to have lived there for years, and in my short visits I still discover places that make me fall in love with the city over and over again.