Having visited other Belgian cities (well, mostly Bruges) several times over without having stopped to see Brussels, we decided to pay a visit to the capital city on our anniversary weekend. We booked our accommodations at the Hotel Metropole, a charming Art Noveau building that retains much of its pre-war styling, and signed up for both a bicycle tour of the city (the best way to site-see) and a chocolate tour, because Brussels lays claim to having the best chocolatiers in the world.
While Brussels has many of the same problems as other cities, like lack of cycling/pedestrian infrastructure, and many of the same problems as other European cities, small, winding cobblestone streets, they have put forth some effort into remedying this by creating car-free* pedestrian zones that span several city blocks. If you look close enough, you’ll notice these were once motor vehicle roads, but the city has installed creative seating, permanent recreational items like outdoor table tennis and Bocce courts, and an “open library” where people are encouraged to trade books amongst themselves. While there is no distinction between pedestrian and cycling portions of the promenade, it is wide enough that collisions didn’t seem to be a real problem.
*Taxis are permitted into the car-free zone during certain times to pick up hotel guests, but they need special permission from the business to whom they are catering.
Our first afternoon was pleasant, we got some fish and chips that were probably the best I’ve ever had (pending our visit to London in a couple months), and a Belgian waffle that had such a sheer amount of toppings that it was almost impossible to eat without embarrassing yourself and those around you.
The next day we set off to attend our tours. The forecast called for rain, and it did in fact rain. All day. Non-stop. While the Mrs. and I brought our water-repellant rain jackets, it was evident soon enough that they were inadequate in keeping us dry. Thankfully, the weather wasn’t especially chilly, so riding our bikes while completely soaked wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. The tour itself was a lot of fun; our tour guide was a Canadian who came to Belgium to study, and we met some people from the States who were in Europe on an extended business trip.
Our tour took us through several different parts of the city, starting in the Grand Place, which is the heart of historic Brussels and where many of the festivities take place, to the Mannequin Pis, more widely known as the fountain comprised of a little boy peeing, and to the headquarters of the European Parliament and the EU. We learned about the interesting history of Belgium and how its culture and architecture had been shaped by its various occupiers over the years, although France’s contribution seemed only to be the French language and destroying several beautiful buildings in the city center. C’est la vie.
Around the middle of the day, we stopped at what our tour guide described as “the best frites [french fries] in Brussels”, so the Mrs. got in line to buy some while I grabbed a table inside the pub across the street. Getting out of the rain was nice, but the frites weren’t anything special. The La Chouffe I ordered, however, was delicious as always.
As our tour wrapped up and the rain kept on, we returned our bikes and awaited the start of our chocolate tour. Interestingly, the tour guide for this tour was also from Canada, because it was in fact the same woman. She had a change of clothes, however, whereas we we did not. So the chocolate tour was a little chilly for the two of us, but we managed to do okay.
After a full day of touring the city, we dried off in our hotel room and relaxed a bit before an unsuccessful venture to an Indian Food Festival, which sounded promising but was pretty disappointing. We did eventually eat Indian however, securing a table at a restaurant nearby. After dinner, the rain had stopped so we took a walk around the lamp-lit city, listening to the sounds of the Brussels nightlife and looking for a place to sit and have a drink ourselves. Ultimately, we settled for the terrace of our own hotel.
On our final day in Brussels, we checked out the René Magritte museum, which we both really enjoyed. Another artist the city lays claim to is Hergé, the cartoonist behind The Adventures of Tintin. You can see several large paintings throughout the city done in the style of a classic comic like the one in the photo above, paying homage to the city’s cartooning heritage.
I would definitely recommend Brussels Bike Tours for anyone wanting to get the most out of their visit to the city, and the cost is only €25 (though as you’ve seen, it is rain-or-shine). More information is available at brusselsbiketours.com.
- Bicyclist Abroad