Visiting Belgium is like experiencing France—without an attitude. In restaurants and bars, chocolate shops and boutiques—even the railway stations, the service is refreshingly friendly. Although the country is divided into two linguistic regions (French in the south and Dutch in the north), most of the locals speak very good English. This certainly helps with communication—but it’s more than the language. The Belgium people have a friendly and relaxed attitude that makes you feel welcome in their country.
Our first stop was Brussels, the capital and largest city in Belgium with a population of 1.2 million people. We found a good deal at an Ibis Hotel in the city center. The Ibis Hotels are usually a good choice for larger cities when you want a central location at a good price. They even have an Ibis Budget variety that offers tiny rooms with no frills, but good wifi and some great prices. Our hotel was located behind St. Catherine’s Church by the St. Catherine Metro Station—a short metro ride from the Central Train Station. It’s even walkable if you don’t have a lot of luggage to drag along.
We were very happy with our hotel’s location because there were two lovely squares nearby with lots of fun restaurants, shops and more locals than tourists. However, it was an easy walk to Brussels’ main square and other important sites near the city center. Although Brussels is a large city, the old town is easy to navigate and full of fun niches to explore.
Besides the Royal Museums of Fine Art, with a fine collection of art and antiquities, there are many other interesting museums in town. We enjoyed the Magritte Museum and the Comic Strip Center. We’ve admired René Magritte’s surrealist paintings for quite awhile and it was an excellent opportunity to see such a large collection of his work.
The Comic Strip Center has a permanent collection of art as well as a huge book store with everything from the classic Tin Tin books to current graphic novels.
The art of Comic strips is taken seriously in Belgium. Besides the impressive museum, aficionados of this art form can find excellent artwork throughout the city.
There’s plenty to do in Brussels, but to experience this city, one needs to visit the Grand Place-Grote Markt first. This large square has an impressive array of beautiful historic buildings, including the Town Hall. Although it’s a busy and popular spot, the space is so large that it doesn’t feel that crowded. There are plenty of interesting shops and restaurants sprinkled among the official buildings. In the evenings, there are often music groups and street performances.
Pick a restaurant with a good view and enjoy the scene. In the morning, most bistros serve coffee, croissants, waffles and other tasty Belgian cakes. If it’s time for lunch, everyone seems to have a pot of fresh mussels and a big goblet of beer. By late afternoon, the crowds are back for more Belgian beer. By dinner time, it’s more seafood or amazing burgers and frites. In between meals there are fancy chocolate shops offering samples of the amazing Belgium chocolates.
The only thing we found lacking in Brussels was a good gelato shop. But who has room for ice-cream, anyway?
After tackling the crowds in the Grote Markt, it’s fun to wander around the side streets. We found the old market building on Place Saint-Géry, a few blocks away. The site was originally a church on an island surrounded by the Senne river. After the original church was destroyed, a new public square was created, and in 1881, the market place was built. The beautiful covered market served the city until 1977. Now a cultural center, there is always a new exhibit in the basement. There’s also a restaurant for a light lunch.
We also enjoyed the two squares near Saint Catherine’s Church. One big square is near the metro stop and another, smaller square faces the front of the church. Both squares have lots of cafes, bars and bistros with outdoor seating when the weather is nice. In early September, Brussels was having a week of warm weather, so everyone was eating al fresco. The favorite spot for seafood seemed to be Nordzee, which was packed the day we walked by.
We used Rick Steve’s Belgium book for some great guided walks in the center city. But we know we just scratched the surface. To visit some of the wonderful parks and sites further away, it’s easy to use the efficient bus and metro system. Another option is to rent a bike from the city bike system called Villo.
For such a large city, Brussels is quite casual and friendly. When you visit a shop, the locals seem to have time to talk to you. When you enter a bake shop, they take the time to explain each delicacy. Even the waiters are nice.
We came here not knowing much about Belgium, but now we know we’ll be coming back.