By Geoff Dennis
“But Brussels is so boring, isn’t it?”
That always seems to be a response when I talk about my backpacking trip through Europe last fall. “Yeah, of course you went to peerless Paris and historic Seville, but Brussels?”
Before I began the planning phase of my trip, I had a similar impression of the Belgian capital—that the city was a straight-laced haven for bustling, suit-clad businessmen, a perfect storm of Germanic industriousness and Scandinavian-esque solemnity. What my research revealed was markedly different from that, and I decided that I couldn’t miss a stop in Brussels.
The city’s personality, it turned out, was right in line with mine. The perennially gray late-September skies were comfortably familiar to this native Seattleite, and the Belgians’ feisty irreverence for almost everything was a refreshing contrast to the almost too stately Parisian mindset. An aimless wander on my first afternoon gave me a good feel for the city’s quirky temperament: comic strip characters cavorted on the sides of buildings, heavenly scents of caramelized sugar wafted out of waffle stands, and weird public sculptures surveyed the scene. The Belgian veneration of my favorite beverage (good beer) and one of my favorite types of cuisine (food cooked with good beer) was the icing on the cake.
Despite an aesthetically ill-advised attempt at ultra-modernization during the 20th century (the term Brusselization now refers to any ham-handed replacement of historical parts of an urban area with functionalist modern structures), much of the city still retains an old-fashioned charm. Standing and gawking in the center of the Grand-Place, Brussels’ most famous attraction and one of Europe’s very best plazas, is alone worth the trip to Belgium. Elaborate guildhalls overlook the square, and the imposing yet elegant spire of the Town Hall is like a lighthouse under the stormy skies.
The Bruxellois people are a veritable bunch of cultures and lifestyles. In one part of town, Eurocrats ruffled up their sleek haircuts as they streamed out of glass towers, grabbing cones of mayonnaised frites on the way to their preferred watering holes. In another, Central African immigrants browsed through a bustling flea market, looking for the coolest mantelpiece treasures.
After decades of being maligned by international travelers, Brussels is finally getting noticed. Grand-Place draws the biggest crowds—and for good reason—but much of the city’s allure lies beyond the center. I fell in love with the winding streets and hilltop vistas, the cozy brewpubs and off-the-wall artwork. There’s something for everyone in this dynamic melting pot, so go see (and taste!) what it’s all about.