Unless you were living in a cave during 2016, you’ll be aware that it was a particularly traumatic time for the country of Belgium. After the truly horrendous events occurring in the capital of Brussels, I was more than apprehensive about the prospect of visiting Belgium during such a dangerous period. Flights to the capital are unsurprisingly cheap these days, and with such a tight budget to stick to, I found myself throwing caution to the wind, and embarking upon my next venture.
Boasting prestigious historical and bureaucratic credentials, Brussels is a mix of the decadent, the shabby and the downright bizarre. Unpretentious and raw in its approach to life, the capital imbibes a self-aware confidence that is encapsulated by its multicultural inhabitants. The cityscape is dramatic in its contrast from exaggerated art nouveau to seedy downtown apartments; take a wrong turn from your way back from the Grand Place, and you may suddenly find yourself in a seedier, more secretive part of Brussels. Having said that, there are some truly beautiful aspects to this fascinating city, but exploration must be exercised with caution.
Once again opting to find an apartment on Airbnb, we found ourselves at home with the lovely Elias, who vacated a roomy apartment in the area of Forest, a short drive from the city centre. Elias was a welcoming and attentive host, which somewhat compensated for the slightly suspect characters found within our neighbourhood. While we felt safe in our apartment, we found it quite difficult to walk around after dark; several individuals appeared to have followed us as we made our way home, and often felt like we were potential targets. Make sure to use public transport when possible, or even a taxi if you get stuck. I know this eats into the budget slightly, but your safety really isn’t worth compromising.
If hotels are more your thing, stick with those found in the heart of the city centre. There’s a warmer, less hostile environment here, as well as plenty of bars to help you ease through any teething problems during your stay. I’d highly recommend the sprawling funhouse of Delirium Cafe, a fantastically ramshackle bar that offers over a whopping 3000 beers. Spanning across three floors, it’s suitably unruly from morning to night- here you can find a hedonistic mix of tourists and locals alike, as well as some fantastic live music and entertainment. Things can quickly descend into chaos (we ended up playing a very messy game of minesweeper with some students) so make sure you’re prepared for a sore head in the morning.
For sightseeing destinations, you’ll be somewhat spoilt for choice. While an obvious option, it would be foolish not to mention the stunning Grand Place, the central square of the city centre. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s an aesthetical feast of 14th-17th century buildings, featuring an array of architecture ranging from classic Gothic to glamourous Baroque. Highlights include the town hall and the oh-so-opulent Bread House, containing the Museum of the City of Brussels. Here you can explore the history of Brussels through its preservation of artefacts and paintings, as well as examining the city’s archaeological collections. I’d also suggest visiting the beautiful Brussels cathedral, as well as the Atomium, a unique piece of architecture located on the edge of Parc d’Osseghem Laeken, a five-minute walk from Heysel station.
As you begin to wind your way through the back alleys of the Grand Place, you’ll begin to come across a hip, diverse community in the form of the capital’s understated café/bar scene. A collection of independent eateries and coffee houses, also known as ‘estaminets’, there’s an echo of Parisian cool in each of these quarters. Specialising in a blend of French and Belgian cuisine, these independent bars are a sanctuary from the busy streets; soak up the atmosphere in the cosy A la Becasse, hidden at the end of a narrow passage behind the Grand Place, or take up residence in the lively A’lImaige Nostre-Dame, a favourite amongst the colourful locals. Estasminets are a great way to get to know the city and its people, as well a chance to sample the finest authentic food and drink at a decent price.
For those looking to splash the cash when it comes to dining, head down to Rue des Bouchers, a short distance from the upmarket shopping centre of Galeries St. Hubert. Although this street is often crammed with tourists and pushy restaurant owners, it’s worth taking a look at what’s on offer, especially if you’re into seafood. The best of these eateries is undoubtedly The Lobster House, a popular choice for tourists and locals alike. Although pricey, the food is simply stunning. We tucked into a perfectly smooth, rich lobster bisque to start with, before demolishing a huge portion of seafood pasta. Topped with excellent service and complimentary wine, it’s an absolute gem.
As our stay was short, we decided to cram in as much as possible by taking a day trip to neighbouring Bruges. Only an hour or so away from the capital, Bruges perhaps offers a more tranquil ambiance to its visitors; spend an afternoon enjoying the markets and canal side restaurants and bars, or brush up on your cultural prowess by visiting the Salman Rushdie museum. Here the atmosphere is less tense, and I found myself more able to relax and enjoy my time pottering through the quaint cobbled streets. Bruges also offers regular boat rides around its labyrinth of canals, with a half an hour trip costing a mere eight euros.
I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy my trip to Belgium. Holding both cultural and culinary merit, it’s a great place to visit for a weekend break. However, I have to admit that the general atmosphere in the capital can be difficult to deal with. Perhaps I expected too much from a city that’s experienced so much disruption in the past year, but I didn’t feel particularly safe when out and about in Brussels, especially compared to the easy-going nature of Bruges. There’s an extreme, mercurial nature to the capital that I’ve never found in another city- it constantly shifts from opulence and sophistication to its brazen poverty and crime. While the pretty pastel palaces and delicious food certainly function as a distraction to the constant political unrest, it doesn’t quite mask the darker underbelly of the capital.