A postcard from Brussels
Published: 31 May 2017
Our very own intrepid explorer Shilpa Ganatra has been all over the world but here she gives us her own take on a recent visit to Brussels. Read on to hear her insights and top tips…
While there are pros and cons to the EU, for travel fiends like myself the Union is a blessing, cutting out the red tape when taking a European trip. So partly because the Eurostar is always a joy, but mostly because of its chocolate offerings, I recently went to Brussels for an extended weekend break.
Let's be honest: it still has a reputation for being a bit on the dull side, which is a shame, because the many quirks of the city nicely unfurl over the course of a long weekend. And of the many aspects I encountered, these are the nuggets of semi-wisdom I'd like to impart.
Weekends are cheaper
As it's a professional destination for Europe-wide institutions, hotel and travel prices shoot up during the week and return to off-peak at the weekends. That means it's ideal for the thrifty leisure traveller, especially as there's an abundance of hotels to compete for your business. Most hotels offer neutrally-decored, business-friendly stays but the odd one appeals to the more adventurous. I stayed at the Radisson Red (£81 a night) which is their 'youth brand' - in other words, it feels like a Berlin youth hostel, but with the luxury touches of a high-end hotel chain.
Pick when to go wisely
While there's plenty to do in Brussels (like checking out its comic book history, touring the EU buildings, or taking a walking tour of the old town), coinciding your trip with an event notably adds to the choice of activities over a weekend. If you choose to visit during the Christmas markets, you’ll be there at the busiest time of the year but it’s worth it for the Grand-Place sound and light show alone. There's also an antiques fair and film festival in January, a cartoon festival in February and an arts festival in May. July is a good time too - the first Thursday of the month is reserved for a traditional pageant and their National Day on the 21st is marked with a fireworks display.
It's harder to find mussels and fries than you might think
Most cities associated with a certain trait does everything in their power to capitalise on it: in New Orleans you can't move for shops selling parade-style beads, and Mozart follows you everywhere in Vienna. But in Brussels, restaurants which specialise in moules-frites are few and far between. I made a special effort to go to La Boussole, recommended to me by a local friend, but in the end the rest of the delicious menu overshadowed its speciality. So stay open minded when it comes to cuisine - Brussels offers much more than its prized dish.
Be brave with the beers
One aspect that Brussels does capitalise on is its excellent beer. From heavy stouts to amber-coloured IPAs, expect to find lengthy drinks menus that show off Belgium's speciality. I'm not much of a drinker, but even I couldn't resist trying a cherry beer, which tasted dangerously delicious. My favourite bar ended up being the most obvious: Poechenellekelder is right by the town's mascot of the Manneken Pis and its internationally known for its 150-strong beer menu, but its charmingly abrupt service and creepy puppet collection makes it far from the usual tourist trap.
Beware the chocolate shop
Brussels has the highest density of chocolate shops of any city in the world, so quite frankly, I was in heaven. The problem is that walking past them proves to be difficult, especially when sample pieces are laid out to tempt you in. I visited nearly every one of these shops - Leondias, Neuhaus, Passion Chocolat, Laurent Gerbaud, Godiva - with the constant insistence that "they're a present" (they weren't). With fascinating flavours plus chocolate museums and cafes too, it's truly a chocoholic's playground.