Brussels is often described as the heart and capital of Europe, housing the European Commission, European Parliament and headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). On our recent trip to Warsaw it actually worked out cheaper to stopover in Brussels for a night on the way home and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t really know what to expect but after spending the day exploring it`s safe to say Brussels is one of the most underrated cities I have visited. The main sites were easy to access and within walking distance of the city centre so it was easy to explore a lot of the city in the short time that we had. Although we were only on a stopover, I wanted to share how we spent 12 hours in the heart of Europe.
The starting point for nearly everyone’s trip to Belgium has to be the Grand Place. We headed here for a free walking tour hosted by Sandeman’s Europe who offer the best tour by miles where the guides run free tours based on a tips only basis. I find these tours are better because the guides really work for their money and often you’ll find they are so passionate about their jobs and the city they live in. Walking tours are also a good way to get your bearings in a new city and tick a lot of places off your list in one go. The tour covers all of the main sighs in the city including the Town Hall, Maison Du Roi, The Stock Exchange, Mannekin Pis and the Royal Palace of Brussels. Starting at the Grand Place we discovered the rich history behind all the different guildhalls which surround the square. Housing the central market until 1959 every single building is beautifully designed and intricately decorated with gold highlights used throughout. Declared as a UNESCO world heritage site since 1998, the square truly is a sight to behold. Next up we headed to Belgium’s most famous landmark Mannekin Pis. I have to say this is very much a littler mermaid in Copenhagen experience, just be prepared for the crowds of people trying to get a selfie with this little guy.
Quinten talked us through the history of the city leading us through the winding streets on a journey of discovery. We strolled inside the Galeries Saint Hubert and gawped at some of the finish chocolatiers in the city. The first female chocolatier Mary still has its first store inside this gallery and pretty much opposite you will find Naerst which are up there as one of the best (along with one of the most expensive). An insider tip we picked up was to head to Godiva which you will find dotted all over the city, who still offer the authentic, quality chocolate we were after but for a much more affordable price. we then headed to the Parc de Bruxelles to learn more about the administrative centre of the European Union and a bit of background behind the capital of the EU before heading to the Royal Palace of Brussels for a whistle-stop tour (located at the South side of the park). Finally we headed to the Place Royale to finish off the tour and grab any last minute recommendations on how to spend the rest of the afternoon.
One place on the top of my list to see was the Mont Des Arts garden which happened to be a stones throw away from the Place Royale and offers up some of the most gorgeous views of the city. Make sure to keep an eye out for the Museum of Musical Instruments which showcases a mixture of Art Nouveau and neoclassical design with its striking facade. We wandered around the gardens before stopping to admire the beautiful scenery and have a little break from the sweltering sunshine.
We headed back towards the main square in search of a typical Belgian delicacy…fries! Its safe to say we were pretty shocked to find out despite their name, French fries origins have in fact been traced back to Belgium in the late 1600s. You will find stores all around offering up cone upon cone of these golden delights but we headed to a highly recommended little friterie called Tabour who offer freshly cut fries alongside over 30 different sauces. If you’re after something more adventurous than standard ketchup ask for a recommendation from the staff or try the giants sauce (our tour guide Quinten’s recommendation) which did not disappoint!
More sightseeing but this time on our list were some of the intricate churches in the city. First up we headed to the Cathedral of St Michael to study the intricately designed facade. The national church of Belgium houses royal weddings and funerals and was given Cathedral status in 1962. Next we headed to the vibrant Sainte-Catherine Square to marvel at the church of St Catherine and stop off for a very much needed caffeine hit at Frederic Blondeel. This vibrant area of the city is the perfect spot for people watching all year round and is home to some of the best restaurants in the city.
Our final stop of the day is the famous Atomium which is now firmly part of the Brussels landscape. Originally eradicated in 1958 for the Brussels World Fair, this is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. Out of the different levels, five of the spheres are open to the general public and include exhibitions devoted to architecture, design and society. The topmost sphere offers 360° panoramic views of the city alongside a gourmet restaurant which is open late into the evening. Entrance to the Atomium will set you back €12 but its the perfect way to spend an afternoon exploring the different exhibitions and studying this iconic structure.
A trip to Belgium wouldn’t be complete without an authentic Belgian waffle so we headed off in search of Maison Dandoy. A stones throw away from the Grand Place, this waffle house came highly recommended to us as one of the best in the city (alongside the Waffle factory which is firmly on the list for our next visit). You can tell the quality of the waffles from the divine smell that wafts out onto the street as you head towards the store! I can confirm these are the lightest, crispest waffles I have tasted to date and should be top of your list on a visit to the city.
We finished our day with a sample of Belgian beer while we reminisced about our time spent in the capital. I surprised myself at how much we managed to cram into the one day and how much I fell in love with the city. Its safe to say we will definitely be returning as there is so much more to see and I am hoping next time we can make it during the flower carpet which looks absolutely breathtaking!