Brussels in a funny place because no one seems to have any idea where it is, so I’ll start by clarifying that it is a city in Belgium. And, yes, Belgium is a country, not just a brand of waffles and chocolate. Brussels is actually the capital of the European Union, which is a nifty little claim-to-fame for a city no one knows anything about. There’s no Belgian language, and most people speak French, though Flemish (which is a slight variation on Dutch) is commonly spoken there as well. I pretty much knew none of this before we booked our flight (which we booked mostly because we saw a cheap deal). I only knew of Belgian waffles and chocolate, and I later learned that Belgium is also the home of french fries (no, they aren’t French!) and is famous for its cherry and other fruity beer. So now that you’re an expert on Belgium, I’ll tell you about my trip there in December.
Unfortunately, Brussels didn’t really get a fair shot at impressing us because we were still exhausted from our Morocco/Andalucía trip, I still felt a little sick, and Jessica came down with some serious stomach flu that almost left me going alone. Plus, the weather was dreary, cold, and rainy and I had a lot on my mind. Because of these reasons, our Brussels trip is probably my least favorite one I’ve taken since coming to Spain, but I’m sure it’s a lovely city when the circumstances are right, and I’m still glad to have gone.
The Brussels airport greeted us with adorable Christmas decorations, and from there we took a bus into the city and then the metro to our hostel. Though there’s no denying that Madrid has the best metro ever, I was a fan of Brussels’ because it’s easy and cheap (it actually works on the honor system, aside from very occasional ticket checks, but we were honorable and bought day passes) and includes cute little trolleys. Brussels is a very, very small city that we could have easily navigated without the metro, but it was very useful since neither of us was feeling well.
Once we got checked into the hostel, we headed into the center of the city, where we used a handy guide for student travelers that tells you how to see Brussels like a true local (er, I’m pretty sure our trip was still very touristy, but no matter). We saw chocolate shops, the Bourse (Belgian Stock Exchange), various adorable Christmas fairs, and other buildings of Brussels. The bleak weather made the whole city seem very bleak (or perhaps it’s just always bleak, as our guide map claimed that Brussel-ians take pride in the ugliness of their city), so I wasn’t a huge fan, but it was interesting enough.
I believe we then headed back to the hostel for a nap (We aren’t always such boring travelers! Like I said, we were sick), and then we went back out at night and saw my favorite part of the trip, the Christmas light show at the Grand Place, where they project light animations onto the town hall set to Christmas music. We stayed and watched that for quite a while and then walked through “Eating Street” (at least that’s what our guide map called it), where we were attacked by a ton of waiters trying to make us promise we’d eat at their restaurant. We tried one place that was recommended for their fries, but the waiter was rude when he learned we only wanted fries and not an entire meal, so we left. It’s funny, everyone says the French are rude, but the only encounter I’ve had with a rude French-speaker was in Belgium, not France. In comparison, the Parisians, were wonderful. Anyway, we found a small burger shop where we tried some authentic Belgian french fries. Not amazing, but pretty good, and we accomplished our first Belgian culinary goal.
Grand Place Christmas tree and light show.
Belgian fries (and not-so-Belgian burger).
The next day involved more wandering around the small city of Brussels, seeing landmarks like the Royal Palace and some other fancy building we decided to call the Royal Palace II. One of Brussels’ main attractions is the Atomium, a big modern-looking metallic sculpture that I guess is supposed to resemble atoms or something. Our guide map suggested we avoid paying the entrance fee and instead climb to the top floor of a specific parking structure to see the Atomium in the distance as well as a view of the entire city. My favorite type of sight-seeing: free. So that was neat to see.
View of Brussels and the Atomium.
We bought some Belgian chocolate and fruity beer from a grocery store to enjoy later (much easier than going to a fancy shop or bar) and then followed the guide’s suggestion to take one of the trolleys to the end of the line in order to pass through one of Belgium’s last forests. At the end of the line was an African history museum and an African-influenced neighborhood, but we couldn’t find either, so instead we took a “hike” through the forest (a.k.a. we walked up the road a few feet) and then took the trolley back.
At night, we went back into the city center, bought waffles, which, not gonna lie, were kind of disappointing and flavorless. I suppose that’s what we get for buying waffles from the cheapest street vendor we could find. But we ate them while watching the Grand Place light show again and then headed back to the hostel to enjoy our chocolate and fruity (cherry and raspberry) beer, thereby checking Belgian fries, waffles, chocolate, and beer off our to-do list and accomplishing everything we wanted to do in Brussels. Haha, before going, we really had nothing we needed to do or see other than eat those stereotypically Belgian foods. And with our goals achieved, we returned to Madrid the next morning.
So, like I said, not the best trip ever, and circumstances could have been better, but I still enjoyed myself and am glad to have gone. And if this is the only trip among many I haven’t enthusiastically raved about, I’m pretty lucky. And one thing I loved about Brussels was that they really get into the Christmas spirit, much more than Madrid. Although Madrid has lots of lights around the city around Christmas time, you never hear Christmas music, unless you’re in Starbucks (since it’s American, of course), and Santa Claus isn’t big here, so it was nice seeing a more familiar side of Christmas in Brussels (and the following week in Paris).
See the rest of my pictures here.