With a somewhat unfair reputation as a boring city full of Eurocrats and bureaucracy, Brussels is often overlooked as a city break destination. But the city is one of the most underrated destinations in Europe, and its diversity, color, and laid-back attitude may surprise you. Forget what you’ve heard about Brussels and discover our 5 favorite reasons to visit the capital of the EU - there’s much more to the city than chocolate, waffles, and frites, although this is certainly a good place to start!
Its diverse neighborhoods
As the nerve centre of all things European and bureaucratic, you wouldn't be wrong in thinking that the city is indeed home to a diverse melting pot of nationalities, with Europhiles and migrants arriving from all over the continent. But you may be surprised to learn that a literal stone’s throw from the EU Parliament, squeezed in between government offices and the luxurious boutiques of Avenue Louise is a vibrant quarter of the city which was established by Congolese migrants. Named Matongé after an equally lively neighbourhood in Kinshasa, this quarter has grown to be the epicentre of the city’s African communities, and is one of the most diverse in the city.
Photo credited: Spotted by locals
Stroll through the neighborhood and you’ll find batik shops, greengrocers with boxes of mangoes and plantains stacked outside their doors, and eateries serving authentic plates of mafé, a Senegalese peanut stew, and Congolese Pondu, a vegetarian dish made from cassava leaves. The neighborhood’s countless bars, restaurants, and nightclubs are testaments to the fact that this vibrant area is alive and kicking at all hours of the day, but you’ll find plenty to do here during the day too. The Kuumba cultural center offers guided tours of Matongé, runs courses and workshops, there are Congolese dance classes every Thursday and they also host cultural and artistic exhibitions of work from across the continent.
For its festivals
It may be a small city, but Brussels certainly knows how to throw a festival! Throughout the year there are more than two hundred arts, culture, music, dance, and food festivals, and many of them make use of the city’s beautiful green spaces and impressive parks. August is the best time to visit the city if you’d like to throw yourself into the festivities, as this is the month with the most taking place. From the Théâtres Nomades Festival which takes over the Royal Park with its caravans, circus tents, and pop-up theatres, turning the park into a wonderland of fairytales, music and street theatre to the 10 days long Summer Festival which sees the city’s outdoor spaces transformed into packed performance venues, there's always a party going on in August!
Food is by no means left out though; foodies rejoice in May when hundreds of food trucks congregate for the Food Truck Festival, and you can eat your way around the world while you listen to live music and get into the festive spirit, but there are plenty of other culinary offering throughout the year. There’s Eat! Brussels, Drink! Bordeaux which takes the gourmet Belgian cuisine and adds the best French wines into the mix - what’s not to love? And of course, the Belgium Beer Weekend celebrates the country’s beer heritage with 47 breweries brining over 350 delicious brews to the party!
You can indulge in being a flaneur
Anyone who says that Brussels’ slow pace of life makes for a boring city is missing the point entirely. A city which manages to strike the perfect balance between a laid-back, relaxed attitude at the same time as being the home of the EU Parliament has done pretty well. And really, who can honestly say that they want to spend their holiday dashing around the city like a maniac, trying to cram a hundred and one things into their itinerary when what they’d really like to do is relax with a glass, some good food and even better company? By a happy coincidence, you can do all of these things in Brussels, and it’s even regarded as a national sport of sorts. Being a ‘flaneur’ effectively means being a stroller, a lounger or saunterer; someone who indulges in wandering around the city and observing the minute details and interactions of city life.
So if you feel like taking an afternoon off from sightseeing, pulling up a pew on the terrace of a bustling cafe, and watching the world go by as you sip a delightful glass or two of the amber nectar, it’s perfectly acceptable. It’s more than acceptable in fact, and you certainly won’t be the one doing it! Whether alone or with company, there’s something delightful about having the time to do not a lot, and Brussels’ relaxed pace is the perfect spot to slow down yourself and just watch city life drift by. If you’re all for being a flaneur but you’d prefer to stroll rather than sit, head to one of the city’s many flea markets, where you can lazily peruse the stalls and experience the authentic flavor of the city. The whole of Brussels seems to visit the Marché du Midi each Sunday, and for gourmet treats, while you saunter nothing beats the market at Place Sainte Catherine.
Photo credit: OakOak
For the surprising street art
Amongst other unfair observations, Brussels has at time been painted as a bland city of grey faced exteriors, despite the sprinkling of red roofs which bring splashes of colour to sometimes cloudy skies. But a quick stroll through just a few neighbourhoods will prove this is indeed not the case, as street art is springing up all over town, brightening even the dullest facade and transforming the city into an open air museum. As well as local artists displaying some home grown talent with murals, paste ups and stencil work, look out for pieces by French artist OakOak, who gives banal urban features like manhole covers an artistic upgrade by incorporating them into his work. Mainly in the area of the old fish market, you’ll find humorous works of art like the video game icon Mario speeding down the rails of a staircase in his cart.
Photo credit: 203 Challenges
And in a city famed for its ‘bandes dessinées’, it’s not surprising that comic strip style art has leaped off the pages of comic books and onto the walls and gables of the city. Lest you forget the Brussel’s connection to the 9th art, you’ll find huge murals depicting some of its beloved characters on buildings all over the city. The Bruxellois are certainly proud of their comic book heritage, so keep an eye out for larger than life murals depicting Tintin, Snowy, and Captain Haddock fleeing down the fire escape that’s been painted onto the side of a building, or what appears to be most of the cast of Asterix and Obelix enthusiastically attacking a Roman camp. The best way to admire these playful pieces of art is to follow the Comic Strip Route, which takes you on an adventure through the city and past an impressive 55 murals paying homage to the city’s best-loved personalities.
For its quirky personality
You need only look at a few of Brussels’ iconic symbols to realize that the city and its locals don’t like to take life too seriously. In the land of Surrealism, where men in bowler hats can float and you can never be sure if a pipe really is a pipe (both Golconda and Ceci n’est pas une pipe are works by René Magritte, one of the influential artists of the Surrealist movement), Brussels tells us that it’s best to enjoy life’s quirks where you can and embrace the unconventional. To jump headfirst down the rabbit hole à la Alice in Wonderland and into the world of Surrealist art, start at the Magritte Museum where you can immerse yourself in his fascinating works, then head to the more intimate Magritte House Museum.
Living amongst lanyard-wearing Eurocrats certainly doesn't mean the Bruxellois don’t enjoy a little self-mockery and rebelliousness when it comes to art. Nothing shows this more than the city’s rebellious mascot, the Manneken Pis, who’s cheekily doing exactly what his name suggests. And since art imitates life (or is it that life imitates art?), on another unassuming square you’ll find the lifelike statue of Zinneke, Manneken Pis’ four-legged friend who’s also happily peeing in the street. But it’s not only in its Surrealist works of art where dreams collide with reality. No trip to Brussels would be complete without paying homage to its second symbol, the bizarre yet fascinating structure that is the Atomium; a futuristic building made up of nine giant steel balls which mimic the structure of a single iron molecule.
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