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Home of the European Union, Brussels has become a bustling centre for bureaucrats and businessmen and is a thriving cosmopolitan metropolis. The buildings in the city are a fascinating mix of architectural styles, and there are numerous museums of interest throughout. Within the 14th-century city walls is the compact centre of the old city with the beautiful Grand Place at its heart. Visitors rarely stray beyond the walls of the 'petit ring' of the city centre, clearly defined from the newer glitzy quarters by its narrow maze of streets. This is where the key sights can be enjoyed, together with the best bars and restaurants.
Visitors can experience the beauty of the art and architecture, marvel at the bizarre sight of the Mannekin-Pis statue, and spend time shopping for traditional souvenirs such as Belgian chocolate and lace. The National Opera House and many other theatres host a variety of events and concerts for those wanting some high culture, and there are plenty of restaurants offering gastronomic delights. These outings can be rounded off by a drink or two in any one of the lively bars located near the Grand Place.
Vibrant and energetic, Brussels is a city of museums and architecture among Europe's finest, a shopper's fantasy and a diner's capital.
The Grand Place is the beating heart of Brussels and has been since the Middle Ages. One of Europe's more beautiful squares, it lies at the centre of a maze of small cobbled streets and is surrounded by richly decorated 17th century Baroque Guildhouses, various Neo-Gothic buildings and museums. But it is the town hall, a magnificent Gothic building, that dominates the square. Markets, flower stalls, and various events are held here and this is the place to get to grips with the essence of Brussels, perhaps over a local delicacy at a pavement café.
This distinctive statue of a naked boy urinating is thought to represent Brussels's irreverent spirit. History has many tales about its beginnings, with one especially whimsical story having a witch curse a boy to pee for eternity after seeing him pee on her front door. The local tradition is to dress the tiny bronze statue at special occasions, and his wardrobe contains more than 800 costumes. The most expensive of them was a gift from Louis XV of France, though the statue has some modern outfits, too, such as a Mickey Mouse costume. As the cheeky fountain is one of the most popular attractions in Brussels, visitors can expect large crowds at most times of day, particularly during tourist season.
Brussels's town hall is rated as one of the most splendid civic buildings in Europe. The foundations were laid in 1402 and survived the bombing during World War II when most of the other buildings on the Grand Place were destroyed. The façade is embellished with gargoyles and images of nobility, while atop the intricate 100 metre-high tower stands a fine statue of St Michael, patron saint of Brussels. Guided tours are available for a small fee and are well worth it to see the fine tapestries and miscellaneous works of art inside.
Mall lovers everywhere should make a pilgrimage to the Galeries Royales Saint Hubert, the very first shopping arcade in Europe. Opened in 1847, the arcade became a drawcard for the elite of 19th century society and today continues to inspire shoppers and browsers alike. People from across the globe, young and old, enjoy perusing here and everyone will find something to their taste.
The architectural marvel has arcaded shop fronts across two floors that are separated by pilasters, conceived in the Cinquecento style of the 16th century Italian Renaissance. The roof above is made of arched glass panes, connected by a delicate cast-iron framework. Visitors will find cafes, restaurants, a theatre and a cinema between the various shops. With so much to see and do here, this attraction is family friendly and one the kids will enjoy too.
Belgium's magnificent Royal Palace was finished in the 19th century and is the official residence of the Belgian Royal family. Today, the king and his family live at the Royal Palace of Laeken on the outskirts of Brussels, with the city-based property hosting official functions and serving other ceremonial purposes. The palace is positioned in front of Brussels Park (itself well worth exploring) and directly opposite the modern Parliament building, as if symbolically representing the country's system of government: a constitutional monarchy. Tours are only possible in summer and commence after the National Holiday on 21 July. Inside are a multitude of historical artefacts and some impressive contemporary art, commissioned by Queen Paola of Belgium in 2002.
Unmissable for art lovers, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts are Brussels's premier art museums and comprise the Musée Old Masters Museum, Musée Modern Museum, Musée Wiertz Museum, Musée Meunier Museum, Musée Magritte Museum and the new Musée Fin-de-Siècle Museum. The largest of them is the Old Masters Museum. Opened in 1887, it features the best collection of Flemish art in the world, with highlights including works by Van Dyck and over 20 paintings by Rubens. The Museum of Modern Art was opened in 1984 and includes fine examples from Belgium's best artists over the past century, plus modern legends such as Francis Bacon. The Magritte Museum is devoted to works of famous Belgian Surrealist René Magritte, and houses more than 200 of his works, while the new Musée Fin-de-Siècle Museum is dedicated to the 1900s when Brussels was the capital of Art Nouveau.
Belgium's love of wacky humour and comic book art come together in this wonderful museum, housed in a fabulous Art Nouveau building designed by one of the pioneers of modern Belgium architecture, Victor Horta. Permanent exhibitions detail the history of European comic strips, while ever-changing temporary exhibitions focus on specific artists, time periods and political contexts. Visitors can see plenty of its most famous subject, Hergé's Tintin, as well as the Smurfs and art from over 670 cartoonists. As cartooning is now considered an art form worthy of serious consideration, the museum aims to trace the history and development of the discipline rather than simply to entertain. Guided tours are available for larger groups.
Under the direction of King Leopold, the Belgian Congo returned fantastic riches to Belgium in the 19th century. Yet the people of that colony paid a terrible price. This museum was founded to explore the relationship between European colonial powers and the people they subjugated.
Recent exhibits have broadened the museum's focus to include environmental issues and ethnography in Africa, Asia, and South America. The museum is situated on beautiful grounds in the Flemish commune of Tervuren, just outside of Brussels.
Brussels is a great destination for kids of all ages. Families strolling through the city's streets should remember to check out the Mannekin-Pis, which the kids will have a good chuckle at. A highlight for cartoon enthusiasts is a visit to the Belgian Centre of Comic Strip Art, featuring displays of favourites such as Tintin and the Smurfs â€' a real treat for the kids.
During the summer months, a trip to one of Brussels's water parks is a must. An outing to Bruparck is not to be forgotten either, where attractions such as the Oceadium water park, Mini Europe and the Atomium guarantee a fun-filled day.
When the weather is miserable and taking the children outdoors isn't an option, families can head to one of Brussels' fabulous museums, such as the Brussels Children's Museum, or the Museum of Natural Sciences of Belgium for slightly older kids, where the dinosaur exhibit is sure to thrill even the most discerning of aspiring young paleontologists. Children will also enjoy a play or film at the Galeries Royales Saint Hubert.
Brussels has a maritime temperate climate, characterised by warm summers and mild winters. The city has a high average annual rainfall, and visitors can expect a downpour any time of year. Temperatures range from highs of around 73°F (23°C) in summer (June to August) to 34°F (1°C) during winter (December to February). Snow is possible, but not frequent, in winter.
Dining is serious business in Belgium, where both the French and Flemish consider themselves serious gourmands. Besides enjoying the national dish â€' beer! â€' which, in Belgium, is often dense enough to qualify as a full meal, eating out in Brussels leaves food snobs licking their lips, and famished travellers patting their bellies after a full day of sightseeing.
For quick eats, visitors should embrace humble street-side cafés, where Belgium waffles, chocolate, French fries and beer all make great snacks. The city's fine dining usually revolves around French cuisine, though mussels with chips, and the Flemish stew waterzooi, which translates to 'watery mess', are not to be missed (the latter certainly tastes better than it sounds).
Restaurants are generously sprinkled throughout the city's districts, but several fine dining clusters can be found close to de Broukére, and many options surround the Grand Place as well. A service charge is included in the bill, but great service is often rewarded.
Located in the fashion district of Brussels, this trendy restaurant offers diners a selection of both traditional and international cuisine. The menu features a variety of Belgian, Italian, and Asian dishes including cold pea soup, fish lasagne, roast lamb, and cod carpaccio. Open Monday to Friday for lunch and dinner, and for dinner on weekends. Reservations recommended.
Once frequented by the likes of Karl Marx and the Belgian Socialist Party, this 17th century house now offers diners a traditional ambience, enhanced by richly coloured décor and polished walnut walls. Their cellars include a collection of some 20,000 bottles of some of the finest vintages.
The menu features mainly Belgian and French cuisine, including lobster salad with apples and a curry sauce, beef fillet with a three-pepper sauce, and lemon-scented codfish. Open Monday to Friday for lunch and dinner, and for dinner on Saturday. Reservations recommended.
Founded in 1921, this is a true Brussels legend that serves the freshest of mussels and finest of French fries. Approach the moules et frite Bruxelles-style by eating the first mussel with your fingers and then use the shell to eat the rest.
The entire menu is excellent, especially the beef stewed in beer and the delicious waterzooï. The front room's vintage Art Nouveau interior is delightful. Open for lunch and dinner daily, reservations recommended.
This gourmet pilgrimage site never fails to impress, with exceptional quality, refined flavours, and an ambient Art Nouveau design. The restaurant boasts both a warmly welcoming atmosphere and truly memorable dishes, such as red mullet fillet with karides or beef fillet with black truffles. For dessert, try the chocolate cake with almonds and hazelnuts. Advanced booking is essential. Closed on Sunday and Monday, and on Wednesday for lunch.
For those with a passion for truffles, pay a visit to this shrine created by Italian chef Luigi Ciciriello. It is a friendly establishment renowned for serving superb truffle-focused dishes in its warm and relaxed environment.
Don't miss the carpaccio truffles with olive oil and parmesan for starters and the roast duck with Canary Island bananas for mains. Open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner, only open Monday and Sunday for reservations of 30 or more guests.
Housed in a former hardware store, La Quincaillerie has all the raw materials for a fabulous dining experience. The staff is friendly if slightly frenetic. The interior's Horta-inspired industrial qualities are striking and the food is quite simply fantastic, especially the impeccably fresh seafood. Open for dinner all week and lunch Monday to Friday. Bookings are essential and they need to be made well in advance.
Belgian brasseries are scattered throughout Brussels so it's hard to tell which are truly outstanding and worth seeking out. But there are consistently good reports about this local secret, tucked away at the end of a back street in Ixelles.
Enjoy tasting some of the 50 local brews while tucking into hearty dishes like rabbit cooked in cherry beer, or the meatloaf with mustard sauce. Open daily for lunch and dinner, reservations recommended.
Travellers should not be put off by the picture menu and touristy look of Chez Leon, as it is the real deal. For celebrated mussel dishes, as well as local fare such as rabbit stewed in kriek (cherry) beer or stoemp (bubble and squeak), the original Chez Leon is the perfect place to dine. Found near the Grand Place, it is open daily for lunch and dinner, reservations recommended.
La Porteuse d'Eau is a beautiful art deco restaurant that not only stuns with amazing décor, but keeps locals coming back for more with classic Belgian cuisine and a selection of over 70 Belgian beers. This wonderful brasserie in Brussels operates from 11am until 3pm and 6 until 10.30 pm from Tuesday through Thursday. On Friday and Saturday, it's open from 11am until 11.30pm, while on Sunday it closes at 10.30pm.
The magnificent and unique Groot-Bijgaarden is the venue for this beautiful annual flower show. Every year, the grounds of this estate are transformed into an Eden, spread with flowers, water features, and plants arranged by many expert florists.
Visitors can delight in the flower show in addition to marvelling at the castle itself, designed in the style of the Flemish Renaissance. The first stones were laid as early as the 12th century, with a four-story tower rising from beside the gatehouse of the moat.
Tens of thousands of art experts and art lovers from all over the world eagerly await ArtBrussels, Belgium's premier art festival, renowned for its high standard. The Belgian Association of Contemporary Art Galleries instituted ArtBrussels in 1968 and today the work on view, selected by an international committee, represents more than 150 international galleries.
Not just a beach but a real seaside resort in the heart of Brussels on the edge of the canal, Brussels Beach, or Bruxelles Les Bains, offers half a mile (1km) of fine sand, coconut palms, and waterfalls.
There is also plenty of sport, relaxation, and cultural activities. Sports like beach volleyball, pétanque, and ultimate Frisbee are available, or for the less actively inclined, a Thai pagoda houses several professional masseurs for complete relaxation.
Two stages provide entertainment in the form of live music, DJs, and shows, while food stalls and beach bars afford the chance to savour flavours from around the world. Children are well catered for with activities and entertainment that includes sandcastles, clowns, and water games.
The Spa-Francorchamps track often makes for one of the most exciting races of the season as it has a reputation for rain on race-day. The track is two hours away from Brussels, with the beautiful and historic circuit being a regular favourite with drivers.
Like a jazz rhythm that defines so much of the city's music, Brussels's nightlife is impromptu, at times schizophrenic, alternately relaxing and cool, or hot and fast. Although there are a host of choices for eclectic nightlife, the city after dark is often outshone by brighter and more vibrant European cities.
Most locals anchor the afternoon to the night with a pint or two of the city's world-famous beer. This is best done in one of the many Old World-style pubs or cafés dotted about the city, such as in Place Brouckere. These are more after-work meeting places, popular with all ages, than party destinations. A mellow evening can continue with jazz concerts in the many jazz clubs, or with theatre and dance shows.
An edgier side of Brussels herds late-night bar flies and club goers into eccentric themed venues. Rue du Marché au Charbon is a lively strip of bright bars. Upper-town clubs tend to be more trendy and expensive than lower-town, where a more casual clientèle dances the night away to electronic beats. Renowned DJs frequent Brussels's clubs and a regular line-up of heavyweight bands play at the city's concert venues.
Shopping in Brussels can almost be termed a sport, as a lot of the wealthy residents spend an awful lot of their time and money competing with each other for the best buys and designer goods. Fashion-conscious visitors should head down to the Boulevard de Waterloo area, Avenue Louise, where all the designer shops and boutiques can be found. Here, travellers can expect to see names such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Versace, Chanel and Bvlgari, to name a few. Speciality shops can be found in Rue Haute and Rue Blaes.
The Rue Neuve is the main pedestrian shopping street in Brussels. Shoppers who venture that way will find mostly international chain stores, while more original independent stores are located between the Grand Place and the Rue Lemonnier. The Westland Shopping Mall boasts around 140 shops and has all the usual big department stores and trendy stores, great for clothing, jewellery, books and more.
Most shops close at approximately 6pm during the week and at 7pm or 8pm on weekends. The sales tax is 21 percent and can be refunded to non-EU citizens by any of the shops affiliated to Global Refund Belgium. Shops that participate will issue a global refund cheque, which can be stamped at customs and cashed upon leaving the country.
The modern and well-organised public transport system of Brussels consists of metro, tram and bus networks. The system is user-friendly with route diagrams and timetables posted at most stops, and there are free maps available from the tourist office. Trams provide an ideal way to get around and are faster than buses, especially when they travel underground in the city centre to become the prémétro. Both tram and bus stops are by request only. There is a separate system of local trains linking the inner city to the outskirts, although they are of minimal use to tourists, except for getting to and from the airport. Tickets are valid for any form of public transport except local trains, and once validated can be used for multiple transfers within an hour. Taxis can be hailed from any of the taxi stands around the city; they are metered and expensive, and taxes and tips are included in the price. The city is relatively easy to negotiate by car, though renting a vehicle is generally unnecessary.
Brussels is packed tight with historic buildings, monuments and museums that constitute a seemingly endless list of worthwhile attractions. The best way to sightsee in Brussels is to pick several personal niche interests and follow a tourist map accordingly. Comic book fans and chocolate connoisseurs, for instance, will find institutions that cater exclusively to their interests among the city's roughly 75 museums, which alternate between explaining Belgium's long history, showcasing its art and architecture, and just plain fun.
Of course, the city has several landmarks that can't be passed up, the most important of which is a visit to Manneken-Pis: the famous centuries-old statue of a boy peeing. After this rather irreverent and quirky highlight, visitors should make for Brussels's larger tourist attractions, most of which are within walking distance of what is considered the heart of Brussels, the Grand Place.
The 600-year-old Hotel de Ville is Brussels's best example of early architecture and is almost as grand a sight as the Royal Palace. Several of the world's best museums are within the city limits, including the Museum of Ancient Art and the Museum of Modern Art, both housing Brussels's best art treasures. Otherwise, the plan should be to relax, enjoy and take it all in between pints of the city's best export, Belgium beer.
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