Of course, I must be talking about Belgium, in this case, Brussels. Though there is more to Brussels than just the food, so I’ll come back to that.
To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect from my first trip to Brussels and I hadn’t done any research about the city before I went. I had seen the gothic beauty of Bruges and experienced the sombre grace of Ypres but I expected Brussels to be just another bland, built-up European city. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
As I was travelling for business, I had to wait until the end of the working day before I could dip my toe into the local culture, so it was in the low afternoon sun that I got my first glimpses of the city centre. I could see straight away that Brussels had character. There is a dynamic amalgamation of the old and the new and within just a few steps from the grand central station I could see glass-fronted, high-rise office blocks standing sentinel above dilapidated city wall watchtowers.
Taking a walk down the cobbled streets to see the landmark bronze sculpture, the Manneken Pis, I found myself surrounded by chocolate and gift shops in what is definitely a tourist area of the city. I was engulfed by larger than life replicas of the famous sculpture, a naked little boy peeing into a fountain, in all the shop windows and gift shops, so I think I can be forgiven for expecting something bigger. But it’s actually rather small. The statue I mean. At only 61cm tall, blink and you’ll miss it.
Once I was done with fighting the crowds, it was only a stone’s throw away to the city square, the Grand Place. With imposing and majestic architecture on all sides, including the Gothic Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, this was another popular tourist spot, but there were also plenty of bars with outside seating to appreciate both the surroundings and the local beer.
The impressive architecture is not only visible above ground, it also extends below and can be seen by visiting one of the best restaurants in the area, ‘T Kelderke. Situated in a cellar under the Grand Place, it is a small restaurant with a cosy charm, serving local specialities, such as Stoemp (a mashed potato based dish not too dissimilar from colcannon), beef or rabbit stew and huge steaming bowls of mussels. If you’re after something a little simpler then there are plenty of traditional small chip shops or ‘friteries’ with anywhere up to 46 different sauces to choose from and you can always follow this up with a loaded waffle.
I was lucky enough to get a recommendation from a regular visitor to Brussels; a great bar to visit for a cheeky post-dinner drink. It’s called Mort Subite, which translates to ‘sudden death’, and I was sold on this place as soon as I learned about all the in-house brewed flavoured beers. Situated a few streets away from where the main bar scene seems to be, I probably wouldn’t have searched this far if I hadn’t been told to look for it, which in hindsight would have been a real shame. This lively and colourful bar has a friendly and relaxed atmosphere, partly attributed to the open, high ceilings and delicate décor. It is definitely worth walking straight past all the brightly neon-lit cocktail bars and heading here for a more authentic Belgian experience.
If you feel like exploring what’s on offer outside the city centre, then a visit to the Atomium is a must. Something between sculpture and architecture, it was originally constructed for the 1958 Brussels World Fair and has now become ‘The Symbol of Brussels’. Their words, not mine! This striking and futuristic looking structure provides panoramic views of the city from 90 metres up and hosts permanent and temporary exhibitions. It’s open late enough to squeeze in a visit after you’re done with work for the day.
The public transport around Brussels is reliable and easy to navigate, so it’s easy enough to hop on a tram when you’re finished taking your creative selfies, in order to head back into town to sample more of the local beer.
All in all, Brussels is a great city for business travellers, even those who have business interests that keep them in the office all day, as there is plenty to see and enjoy out-of-hours. For those lucky enough to conduct their business with a more casual attitude to office time, this just leaves more time for the beer, chocolate, waffles and chips.