Brussels was the first place I really knew nothing about.
Back in the first weeks of our stay in Italy, three roommates and I booked a cheap flight on a far off open weekend. And then, quite frankly, we forgot about it.
Life flies by – study abroad is no exception. With a busy schedule penciled full of weekend trips, school events, spring break, and a visitor from home, it was equal parts shocking and understandable when Brussels Trip showed up two days away in my iCal and I knew little more than what airport we departed out of and the name of our hostel.
And yet by Thursday night, I was checking in canal side in Brussels, Belgium.
And like I said, none of us really knew much about Belgium at all. I hold tight to it because my best friend and roommate, Christine, lived there for a substantial amount of her childhood. But do I know what to do in Brussels? Not really.
I know there is a lot of beer there. And those famous Belgian waffles. So what more is really important?
But there was so much to absorb in just a weekend. We started off our first morning with a walking tour suggested by our hostel, and it was the best way to kick-start the weekend, learn about Brussels, and get a lay of the land.
And because I doubt you know either, here are some of the many things I learned about Brussels. They may just come in handy some day, right?
1. Beer is more than a way to get drunk:
Ok, maybe it isn’t. But it hasn’t always been this way. Back in the less sanitary times of greater Europe, the Seine was contaminated with just about everything Belgians did not want to be drinking. Because this was there water source, they had to find a way to make it work. Beer was the solution. Its fermenting and distilling meant a huge percentage of toxins were removed. Today the water in Brussels is safe to drink, but beer is still cheaper than bottles of h2o. So bottoms up, in the name of health!
2. Brussels is tiny.
It’s easy to get a feel for the layout of the city, which centers around the Grand Place – a beautiful gothic square that lays residences to past Guild houses and the king’s home. Once you walk it about half day, you’ve seen mostly every corner of the city. But that doesn’t mean it’s all over. Every single shop in Brussels seems to be a beer bar, vintage clothing store, museum, waffle stand, or chocolatier. There’s more than enough to keep you busy, and you’ll probably want to allot time for a carb-induced afternoon snooze.
3. It’s bilingual.
Belgium has many regions that strictly speak a language, but Brussels is an exception to that. It’s easy to experience French, Flemish, and Dutch in just a few minutes! Luckily, English is a widely available option as well. I’ll have that, please!
3. Brussels is the capital of Europe.
Given it’s size, this seems funny. But it does make perfect sense. As headquarters to the EU and NATO, there’s a lot going on in Brussels that affects all of Europe, and the world. Our tour guide cited the reason for its polical centricizm for more than just location alone. Brussels, and Belgium as a whole, is diverse in every way. With many different languages and cultures that come along with them, the people of Brussels don’t really have a definite sense of nationalism – much lesser so than Munich, or Paris, for example. There’s less likely to be that feared overthrowing of the political realm/WW3 kind of stuff with Brussels holding down the fort. Because who can’t get along over waffles and beer?
4. The waffles really are better.
Or at least the Liege waffle is. The most famous, its thick dough is rolled in to balls before hitting the press, where its thick sugar crystals dissolve and form a caramelization around the outside of the golden, gooey inside. It tastes more Cinnabon than waffle, and that’s totally ok.
5. It’s the Comic Capital
Which doesn’t mean a lot to me, but it makes for some funky street art. Unlike the unsightly graffiti that makes most of Europe pretty ghetto, Brussel’s street murals are humourous and lighthearted illustrations of Tim Tim and the Smurfs, both Belgian! Fun fact about the picture below: Everyone initially thought that those were two dudes, and even though they later widened the girls hips and added an earring (girly, I know), it still didn’t stop this from becoming the gay quarter of Brussels.
6. The French Fry really came from Belgium.
And boy, are they bitter about it. Rumor is that tourists thought that the french-speaking people serving them delicious, double-fried potato wedges meant they were in France. They were wrong, but French Fries rolls off the tongue better than Belgian Fries anyways. No matter where you’re from, everyone loves a good alliteration.
7. The saxophone was also invented there.
Sure enough, Antoine-Joseph “Adolphe” Sax was a Belgian musician who played the flute and clarinet, one fine day in Brussels decided he would invent a piece of twisted metal that would give birth to an entire genre of music, later dubbed the Saxophone. Near and dear to my heart as I was known to belt out a tune on the alto sax in middle school. Less embarrassingly, my grandfather has been playing a beautiful old alto saxophone for his entire life. He puts me to shame, though in my defense I may have had more success sans braces.
8. There are a million chocolate shops, and every single one gives out free samples.
And it’s the good stuff, people. They practically force it upon you, except you gladly accept it until you’re so full you might explode. And then you have a little bit more. Some of you might get a little taste of this Heaven too, because I shamelessly bought 14 bars of chocolate there. Ok, maybe with a little shame.
And so you may have figured this out already, but lastly….
9. There isn’t a terrible amount to do except eat.
And if you’re going for the weekend, that’s totally ok. See the few sights, enjoy the diversity, and get yourself a waffle, some beer, a cone of fries, and a piece of chocolate. You won’t regret it – even after you step on the scale Monday morning.
That being said, some of you know I have some serious issues with gluten and we broke up for the last two years. Of course, I’ve toed the waters with a bit of pasta and pizza here and there in Italy with no major repercussions. But a solo diet of waffles and beer? I may have gone too far this time. Needless to say, I’ll be taking it easy and taking lots of Tums.
Still worth it.
There weren’t any must-see, must-dos in Brussels, and that turned out to be the best part. Without an agenda nor expectations, we were all free to soak in the city and let ourselves be happily surprised by the sweetness of a place we hadn’t even dreamed of. I loved the flavor of the city, it’s funky and fun residents, and the way it opened it’s doors to four American girls on a spontaneous weekend trip.
Ciao, for now.