Brussels through my eyes

For three years now in spring or summer, my friends and I have randomly picked a city in Europe to travel together.  First it was Paris, followed by Amsterdam, and this year we chose Brussels.  Two of my travel-mates couldn’t make it this time but no worries, Lillian and I were still very much set for an adventure.

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DAY 1- Friday, June 28, 2013:

We arrived at the airport around 2 pm.  From there we took a train, which was located at level -1, to Bruxelles Zuid or Brussels South station. You can get a ticket from vending machines right across the elevator stop.  Ticket costs €15.60 one way for two persons.  We learned later that you can also just hop on the train and buy the ticket from the inspectors.

The train has three stops:  Brussels North, Grand Central and Brussels South.  These three stops have metro lines that connect you to the rest of the city.  We bought our 24-hour metro pass at Brussels South for €6.50/ person.

Right after finding our accommodation and unpacking a bit, we immediately hit the streets.  We walked to the busy Avenue Louise where you can find a lot of both high-end and affordable stores and boutiques.  Close to Louise metro station is a street full of restaurants.  I forgot its name but if you walk past the Longchamp outlet going down the avenue you’ll find it to your right.  We had our dinner there in a good Japanese restaurant.  For soup and starters, prices range from €6-10, main courses from €15 up.

Avenue Louise late at night.

Avenue Louise late at night.

One thing I noticed was that Brussels in general isn’t tourist-friendly.  For one, we couldn’t find an open information center even at the very busy Grand Central station.   We just had to figure things out ourselves, which in the end is a good way to get to know the city fast.

It’s definitely a city you will not love at first sight.  In fact my first thought when we got out of the metro was “What in the world are we doing here?”  It was cold, gloomy, rainy, and the streets were littered with tons of garbage for pick up.  Homeless people as well as beggars seemed to be everywhere.  Already on our first few minutes out we were approached by a man with two grown up and well-dressed children asking for €5 to buy a sandwich.  The city seemed to give out a shady vibe that was hard for me to shake off.

DAY 2 – Saturday, June 29, 2013:

  • Hop on/Hop off bus tour – This is the fastest way to see the sights especially if you’re in Brussels only for a couple of days.  You can find these red double-decker buses near the entrance of the Grand Central station.  Tickets are bought online or from the bus drivers.  Buses leave every 15 minutes on weekends.  Click here for more details.

We first took the Line 1 bus that went through Grand Central – Atomium route.  It was another cold and gloomy day with the temperature seemed to be barely reaching 15°C.

The Atomium.  This photo describes how it was like that day: chilly and gloomy.

The Atomium. This photo describes how it was like that day: chilly and gloomy.

Lillian and I first got off at the Atomium.  We took several photos and walked around the area.  Then it started to drizzle so we hopped on the next bus.  Our second and last stop was the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.  The drizzle turned into rain we had to run up the stairs to the massive arch of the church’s entrance for cover.  From there we just rode the bus and skipped all the stops till it brought us back to the Grand Central Station.  There went half of our fare, ladies and gentlemen.

The colorful and mouthwatering window displays inside the Hubert Gallery.

The colorful and mouthwatering window displays inside the Hubert Gallery.

Very near the Grand Central station is Grass Market.  The area has a lot of cafes and restaurants scattered here and thereHubert Gallery, the world’s oldest shopping mall, can also be found there.  The gallery has a lot of mouth-watering chocolates on display and is also home of haute couture retailers.  The glass dome just screams masterpiece I couldn’t help staring at it.

From Hubert Gallery we turned left towards Rue des BouchersIt’s a nice, colorful street that offers a lot to look at like sea foods on display or the beautifully decorated restaurants but I don’t think I would dare to eat there.  Though the whole area is pretty to the eyes, it didn’t look hygienic to me.  It stopped raining an hour ago and there were little puddles left on the ground.  Puddles and food  should not be together in one sentence.

ruedebouchers2

Top left: Restaurants line the narrow Rue de Boucher. Top right: A tourist photographing Janneken Pis.

Somewhere in the area is Janneken Pis.  It’s the female version of the famed Manneken Pis.  It is said that “the coins thrown by passers-by into the fountain bears witness to the tenderness, virtue and admiration of the loved one with the wish to remain faithful to one another.”  I wonder how many people threw a coin in there and how many of them are still faithful, hehe.

I have read or heard a lot about the Grand Palace being true to its name – grand.  But when we got there Lillian and I stared at one another and simultaneously said “This is it?”   I won’t go into details except to say that I have been to other squares that have more grandeur than this one.

To find the most popular boy in town, just follow the throng of tourists exiting the Grand Palace square.  The Manneken Pis is what defines Brussels in two words.  When I asked everyone who had been in the city what they remember most about it, their first reply was always “Manneken Pis” or according to my husband, “that little boy peeing near the square.”

boy

Manneken Pis and the crowd around him. I have to admit he looked cute in his outfit. 🙂

Lucky us this boy bothered to get dressed when we came to see him.  Two days later he was back in his old ways – butt-naked and of course, still peeing nonstop while people crowded around to watch or document his usual antic.  There’s probably something voyeuristic about the whole experience that triggers people to come and do what they do  otherwise I just don’t get it.  I do admit he’s cute especially when dressed. 🙂

In the afternoon we took the Line 2 bus that took us to the heart of the European Union district. We didn’t have much time left to get off at any stop so we just admired the view from the top deck.

At night we watched the sunset at a lookout near Palace of Justice.  I love sunsets and I try to take photos of them in cities I visit.

sunset

Sunset at Palace of Justice lookout, Brussels, Belgium.

DAY 3:  Sunday, June 30, 2013

We went on a day trip to Brugge.  It’s a must-see place which is just an hour train ride from Brussels.  It’s so gorgeous it deserves a separate post.

DAY 4: Monday, July 1, 2013

It was our last day in the city before we were off to catch the 20:15 flight back to Prague. Last day usually means shopping day!  Coincidentally, July 1st is also the biggest summer sale in Brussels. They call it “Solde” where most stores give out a 30-50% discount.

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Wittamer in Grand Sablon area is home to premium Belgian chocolates.

For the chocolates, we went to Wittamer in the Grand Sablon area.  Lillian read it on Lonely Planet as the place for buying premium Belgian chocolates. It’s quite pricey but well, once you’re in Belgium you might as well spend euros for quality stuff they are famous for.  I bought two jars of dark and praline chocolate spread plus a bar of chocolate framboise while Lillian bought 250 grams of mixed chocolates.  You can choose what kind of chocolates you want in your box, of course.

From the Grand Sablon area we went back around the Grand Palace  for a taste of Belgian waffle.  I also bought more chocolates to take home to Prague.

chocolate

Our loot from Wittamer. Total pocket damage: €37.

Last stop was Longchamp back at Avenue Louise.  I always thought their nylon Le Pliage bag was ugly but after four days of carrying my bag made of not so light materials, I finally understood  its appeal.  It’s very light plus the fact that it has so much space you can easily put your entire life in there.  I bought a large one with long handles in gray while Lillian opted for one in old rose.  I immediately felt the difference in weight on my shoulders when I switched bags.  Unfortunately they were not on sale but they were still a lot cheaper there than here in Prague.

By 6pm, we were already at the airport waiting for our flight back home.

ACCOMMODATION:

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Our huge room pictured from the bathroom. It has an extra room to the right as well as a balcony that overlooks a square.

Le Lys d’Or was our home for four days and three nights.  We paid €78 for two per night with free breakfast. Our room was huge!  It actually had two bedrooms, a living room, balcony and a big bathroom with a tub.  Breakfast consisted of an egg, croissant, different bread and jams, cheese, yoghurt and your choice of tea or coffee.  The owners are friendly and helpful.  The place is very near metro station Munthof and is a few minute walk to the busy Avenue Louise. Yes, I would recommend this place to anyone who would visit Brussels.

FOOD:

salmon

My grilled salmon and Lillian’s pot of mussels served with fries at Le Char d’Or restaurant.

We tried Belgian, Japanese and Chinese cuisine.  Most restaurants offer a variety of seafood dishes.  If you’re in a Belgian restaurant, try their mussels with fries.  Lillian had it in a restaurant called Le Char d’Or right in Grassmarket and said it was delicious.  I had grilled salmon that tasted really fresh.

calamares

Spicy calamari and fresh vegetable salad. Drool, baby, drool.

We ate twice in a Chinese restaurant by that street near Longchamp at Avenue Louise.  It’s the first Chinese restaurant I’ve been to that didn’t taste Chinese-y at all — you know, salt and grease thrown in to make a dish.  This one had the best and freshest vegetable salad ever.  They also had spicy calamari that makes my mouth water as I write this.

For some Belgian waffle, head on to The Waffle Factory between the Grand Palace and Manneken Pis.  For €3 you can have a massive waffle with toppings of your own choice.

MORE COMMENTS:

I feel like Brussels is a city with three faces:  the tourist side, the everyday life and the EU super power. These three faces share nothing in common except belonging to the same body. The tourist side is of course right smack in the center where visitors flock to soak in the sights and sounds of the Grand Palace, wine and dine and just enjoy every minute in their own bubble.  The everyday life is the one that smacked me in the head when we came face to face with a lot of beggars or homeless in the streets, metro or train stations on our very first day.  Then there’s the different planet we call EU.  Massive steel buildings that spell P-O-W-E-R dominate one side of Brussels.  Riding the tour bus that took us around this unusual triangle in one day felt like I was having whiplash being yanked from one world to another.

All in all Brussels, just like any other city, has its share of the good, the bad and the ugly. The good is that the people are polite and customer service is apparent in the shops, restaurants, and stations.  I’ll just focus on that because at the end of the day, it’s the people who can make or break my view of a city.

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