I remember Belgium being gray and dull when I first experienced it as a teenager. Last week I returned for the second time and now believe Brussels to be the coolest city in Europe. Either times have changed, or, more likely, I didn’t know what I was doing all those years ago.
With the Eurostar, it takes less than two hours to arrive in Brussels from London. On the outbound train, I felt a bit like a character in a BBC period drama.The train stopped for awhile supposedly because people were on the tracks. I guessed they were migrants or refugees trying to make it to London. It felt odd being served breakfast and doing work in my carriage while unseen people outside could be suffering.
Even though Brussels is incredibly international, with at least 30 percent of residents coming from another country, it has a neighborhood feel. A local described it as having an underground, ephemeral culture, in which art installations, cafes, clubs, etc pop up one day and disappear the next. News of these events spreads by word of mouth.
In addition to being the headquarters of the European Union, Brussels is probably most famous for the comic Tintin (and also Manneken Pis, a statue of a little boy who sometimes pees beer, which Belgians seem embarrassed about). In 1929, while working for a fascist newspaper, artist Georges Remi created Tintin as pro-colonialist/anti-Bolshevik propaganda for children. The character became more progressive over time and today images of him can be found amongst the 50 or so murals around Brussels, the capital of the comic strip. In July, The New York Times called Brussels “one of the most dynamic art cities in Europe…Unlike Berlin, where art is made but generally not bought, or Paris, where it’s often the opposite, Brussels is a city of both commerce and creation.”
For shopping, Ixelles offers trendier, more unique options compared to touristy Rue Neuve.
A local told me that you’ll never have a bad meal in Brussels. Maybe you’ll have one that’s just ok, but never bad—standards are high. I ate an amazing dinner at Lola, where my portion of ravioli was unexpectedly abundant and the chocolate dessert sufficiently decadent. Apparently a chocolate war has been raging in Europe for the last few decades. Purist Belgium believes in using only cocoa butter in recipes and not vegetable fat like some countries (UK). Someone also told me that In the European Union, something only has to contain 1% chocolate to be labeled ‘chocolate,’ while in Belgium, a confectionary labeled chocolate must contain at least 35% chocolate.
I happened to be in Brussels on Car-Free Sunday. Once a year they shut down the city to cars and everyone walks and bikes through the streets, or takes public transport, which is free that day. The sun shined. People celebrated a folklore festival with food and a parade. Couldn’t get any more magical!