Go to Brussels: I love Brussels. A beautiful, friendly, historic town within easy day-trip distance has everything that you could want from history and culture, to zoos and amusement parks, to delicious chocolates and waffles worth camping on the corner for.
The drive: Almost exactly 1.5 hours by car unless you hit traffic. Avoid the weekday morning and afternoon rush-hour times and you’ll be a much happier tourist.
Parking: Not horrible. This is where the GPS helps though. If you are touring around the city center, go toward the Grote Markt/Grand Place and find a nice little garage there with the same name. (Belgium is bilingual, so you’ll see a lot of things written both in Dutch/Flemish and French.) There, you’ll come out near a small square where they have a craft market on Sundays. There is a nice fountain in the center. A short walk down (look for the tall spires to find the Grand Place) will get you to the center.
Books: There is a lot to Brussels and even if you are just going to one place, you’ll get a bit more out of it with a little travel book. Like the Grand Place – the first place in Brussels that I ever went to. I loved it and enjoyed the extravagance of the square, but when I read about each building later and what it was, it meant even more when I went back the second time. This is really true anywhere in Europe. I like the DK Brussels book.
Walk it: Parking near the Grand Place, if you have the time to walk, you can easily walk not only that lower part of the city, but to the upper part near the palaces as well. In guide books, you’ll see the town divided into Upper and Lower, but both are close in proximity and an easy hike. I did it with a 2-year old and no stroller. Not horrible and there’s a lot of beauty along the way.
The Grand Place: If you park at the Grote Markt parking garage, you’ll walk through the small outdoor market nearby that they hold each Sunday. They have a lot of craft vendors and the paintings of the Markt are very nice and affordable.
The Grand Place is absolutely beautiful and so full of history. Each building is so full of detail, you could stand for hours and still miss things. The name of this square is certainly appropriate – stand in the center – it does feel “grand.” Hugo used to live in one of its buildings. Still, even among the rush of people, it’s comfortable and relaxing to walk around. People will sit right down in the middle of it on the cobblestones and read a book or lounge. Art and flowers will be sold on market days. Sometimes singing groups walk through.
Stand with the largest, cleaner, white building on your right – the one with the flags on it, and to your right just in front of that building, you’ll see a large group of people gathered around on most days waiting their turn to touch the lucky arm. The arm belongs to a man who was killed in battle defending Brussels. It is considered good luck to rub it, so huge throngs of people crowd around him waiting for their turn to touch/rub/massage this golden man and pose for the camera. Some passers by walked quickly by casually brushing his arm as if it was a daily ritual on the way to work and others, the touristy multi-camera’d kind stroke him as if giving him some elaborate Thai massage. Poor guy. His arm is supposed to be good luck, but his entire body is shiny from too much touching! Apparently Belgians love their statues as well. I haven’t touched it yet and am doing just fine, so should you not want to touch an arm that billions of others in assorted states of cleanliness have touched, you’ll probably be ok.
There is an ATM machine on the far side of the Place – directly behind you if the “lucky arm” is on your right. As most shopkeepers speak English, you won’t have a problem finding your way around.
Waffles: Do get a waffle. Don’t get one from a coffee shop right on the Grand Place. A coffee shop waffle will cost you up to 7 Euros and won’t taste as good as the ones from the small stands. Go around the corner to a small stand near what looks like a Subway between the Grand Place and the Galeries St-Hubert and you’ll find the best waffles for only 2-3 Euros depending on how many toppings you want.
Galeries St-Hubert: Built in 1847, the Galeries St-Huberit was the first “shopping arcade” in Europe. Complete with restaurants, beautiful shops, and chocolate, it’s just a beautiful place to walk through with its glass ceilings and stunning architecture and is only one short block down your 1100 ally (also where the best waffle stand is) when “lucky arm” is to your right.
The Galeries is where you can also find a Neuhaus chocolate shop – one of my favorites. Go to the shop early – it gets very crowded as the day goes on, but even a 30 minute line can be worth the wait – these chocolates are heavenly.
Chocolate isn’t hard to find in Brussels. With Neuhaus, Godiva, and many others, you could spend all day just sampling bonbons from different places.
- One narrow ally towards the left (1900 when the lucky arm is on your right) is filled with charming little fish restaurants. Every restaurant has waiters standing outside trying to beckon in any and all passers by. They set out their displays of shells over ice and menu cards displaying set meals – 12 Euro for a three course meal or in some places 20 Euro would get you 5 courses and dessert. Some even included wine. There is no a’ la-carte available and telling these waiters that you just want something small is all you need to say to decline the invitation. Small is not on the menu there, but if you have time, stop and enjoy it.
- Towards your 1400 and 1600 (with lucky arm on your right), you’ll find side streets off the Grand Place that lead you to the Italian and Greek restaurants.
- If walk all the way through the Galerie to the other side, you’ll find a nice little bistro cafe with absolutely delicious pastries and about 15 different kinds of quiche. It’s all good and with an a’ la carte menu, it suites the quick American appetite.
- The coffee shop at 1700 of the lucky arm directly on the GP has nice coffee in a clean environment – we usually stop there to grab a cup of coffee and take advantage of the bathrooms. It looks tiny, but go upstairs. There is quite a bit of comfortable seating there with a nice view of the GP.
French Fries: Belgium is the proud inventor of French Fries (Pommes Frites), and so, as readily available as waffles and chocolates, you can get fresh, hot, delicious fries held neatly in a paper cone all over the place. They are good, but served with mayonnaise. You can ask for the fries without though. Supposedly, they taste better due to a special twice cooking method. Either way, it’s one time as a tourist, that you can indulge in French Fries guilt free because it’s a “cultural experience.” (The fries are very good.)
Check out the first photo… that is a normal crowd gathered around a tiny statue that you can barely see from a distance. The second photo shows him up close.
The original statue was put at the site in 1617. In the 1700’s both the French and British armies tried to capture him. Finally he was stolen and smashed to bits by a thief, hence the replica that stands today. In 1698, the governor donated a suit to the original boy and now someone is paid to go every morning early and dress his replica in a different costume. Heads of states who come to Brussels on business now routinely bring fancy costumes from their own countries for the boy and the museum on the Markt has over 400 of these costumes on display.
You’ll know that you are there before you even see him because the crowds around this fountain are huge… but make your way the 5-6 blocks from the GP and you can also see a small statue no more than 12 inches high of a boy relieving himself into a pool.
For true culture, you can see a beautiful building just a few streets away adorned with statues by Rodin – Rodin and no crowds. (The building is near a lace shop just behind you and a couple streets down past a great beer shop when the arm is on your right.)
Notre-Dame de la Chapelle: From the back of the Galeries St-Huberit, you turn right and head slightly up a very low-grade hill towards this beautiful church with a large green space in front of it. Built in 1134, it’s a very beautiful cathedral and worth a look inside. Like many others it has beautiful arches and windows, but
the statues overlooking the columns in this one are beautifully detailed and quite striking with their size. The church has a lot of beautiful organs and old relics. Supposedly it contains 5 pieces of the true cross, but I didn’t see them. For a small fee, you can go into the crypt.
Parc De Bruxelles: If you follow the signs and keep walking past the church, you’ll come to the Parc De Bruxelles which spans a few blocks between the Palais Royal and the Palais de la Nation. The park has a very nice playground and puppet theater for the kids. This is a great place to take any walk-weary children in your group as they can run and play here while you sit on a bench and relax. The playground is fenced in, but can get crowded. If you’d like a nice walk, or the kids need a good run, keep walking towards the fountains. There’s one on each end of the several block long park. The park is more than just water and toys. It is very nicely planned with green areas and perfectly spaced trees. White marble sculptures are littered around the fountains and at various places in the park as well, so it does feel like a very stately place with the palaces situated on either end.
On one end you’ll find the Royal palace where the king of Belgium lives. The gardens in front of the palace are very beautiful and perfectly groomed with hedges in patterns like a maze. The street in front of the palace is very wide – enough for possibly 5 lanes of traffic or more, yet it has no lane markings at all and cars drive about very haphazardly. It’s easier to be on foot. The Royal art museums are all behind the palace and have some fabulous art displays inside.