Brussels is surreal and serious by turns: a hip Belgium friend who dresses well and enjoys the odd pint, but also plays the stock exchange and has a encyclopedic knowledge of European history. Pretty much what you’d expect from the capital of the EU: a historic city that’s got a finger on the global pulse. Beneath the facades of art nouveau houses and drab 60s concrete, medieval sculptures and skyscrapers of shining glass, you’ll find a burgeoning bar scene, waffles to die for, comic book, peeing fountains and a people who have kept their sense of humour, even through the darkness and troubled times of the last year. Brussels is still a city that deserves a place on your Euro Bucket List.
While most of the tourists are still sleeping off their Belgium beer-induced hangovers (don’t worry, this will be you tomorrow) hit the pavement early to take a look at three of Brussels’ most iconic tourist attractions: peeing sculptures. Oh, we are not kidding.
Manneken Pis – very close to the Grand Place – is a small bronze sculpture that depicts a little naked boy peeing into a basin. How did this artwork get built at all, let alone become one of Brussels’ most iconic sights? Ask a local to tell you the legends – there are at least four variations. Throughout the year, the city dresses Mannaken Pis in different outfits, based on celebratory events or traditional costumes gifted by visiting dignitaries. Depending on when you visit, you may get to see Manneken Pis dressed as a sailor, a santa, or in an Oktoberfest get-up. Brussels is a city with a sense of humour.
Noticing the popularity of Mannekin Pis, an enterprising proprietor in the 1980s saw an opportunity to attract more attention for his restaurant, and installed Jeanneke Pis – a sculpture of a naked little girl, squatting and urinating onto a limestone base. When this writer visited the fountain had been turned off due to a “urinary tract infection”, according to a nearby sign. You can find Jeanneke on Impasse de la Fidélité, leading off the restaurant street Rue des Bouchers.
If you haven’t had your fill of urinating sculptures yet, then head to the corner of Rue des Chartreaux and Rue de Vieux-Marche to find Zinneke Pis. This sculpture of a peeing dog – Zinneke being dialect for both ‘stray dog’ and ‘person from Brussels’ – completes your artistic education for the morning. Make sure to take some hilarious selfies before going in search of breakfast.
Make your way back from Zinneke Pis to the Grand Place – the central square of Brussels – and wander down Rue de l’Etuve. On this street you will find a number of hole in the wall Be Waffles shopfronts, advertising waffles for only ONE EURO. A word to the wise: the waffles are only one euro if you have them plain with or with a light dusting of sugar, which is the classic Belgium variant. There’s nothing quite like freshly pressed waffles, still chewy and warm, with sugar melting into the crispy outside.
Once you’ve got breakfast in hand, wander around the Grand Place admiring morning sunlight glinting off the gold-gilded Guild Houses, and then pop into the Museum of the City of Brussels. There are plenty of crumbling stone sculptures and detailed tapestries to admire in this museum, but for the real highlight head straight to the top floor where you will find a permanent exhibition of all the costumes belonging to Manneken Pis. Yep, the little peeing boy again. The sheer number of variety of costumes belonging to this city icon is impressive (and a little bit hilarious, no disrespect intended).
As well as being capital of waffles, Brussels is the capital of comic books, with many beloved characters – like Tin Tin, Marsupilami and Gaston – originating from the city. Before lunch, make your way to the Belgian Comic Strip Centre at Rue des Sables 20 for an art gallery experience you are unlikely to encounter anywhere else in Europe. Visit the museum from 12pm to 5pm most days – entry is €10 – and learn everything there is to know about Tin Tin and the Smurfs.
Next, walk the 15 mins to the Music Instrument Museum at Rue Montagne de la Cour 2. If you’d like to spend some time wandering around this eye-catching museum, the audio guide plays beautiful recordings of the many unusual and antique instruments inside – but the reason we’ve brought you here is actually for lunch. Climb the stairs to the top floor of the building and to see the stunning Art Deco design of the museum’s restaurant – and the picturesque view of Brussels from the café’s ornate, wrought iron-edged terrace.
This location also puts you close to the Sablon neighbourhood, where all of the most famous chocolate makers in Brussels have a shopfront – so this is as good a time as any to fill your pockets. Take this intrepid reporter’s advice and first stop by Laurent Gerbaud’s store (Rue Ravenstein 2D) for an espresso and chocolates flavoured with spices, nuts and fresh fruits; then head to Wittamer Chocolates (6-12-13 Place du Grand Sablon), where rumour has it the royal family of Belgium purchase their confectionary.
From Place du Grand Sablon you can wander back to the centre of the city along the Brussels’ ‘Comic Strip Walk’, a pathway through the city featuring over 50 colourful murals on once-empty walls, showcasing iconic comic book characters from Europe. You can find out more about the route here.
By now, it should be time for an early evening tipple. Make your way to Cirio on Rue de la Bourse, a classy bar decorated in the belle époque style of the early 20th century. Think dark varnished chairs, gilded columns and grand mirrors. Here you can order a “half en half” – a beverage that mixes white wine and sparkling – which was invented at this brasserie and is now a favourite all around Brussels. It will be delivered to your table full to the brim of the glass, and sloshing over the silver tray it’s carried on.
For dinner, you won’t have to walk far to make it to Chez Leon, a family-owned restaurant on Rue des Bouchers 18. Chez Leon is not only conveniently located, but serves up some of the most delicious moules et frites in town – and you can’t leave Brussels without sampling their mussels. Finish your night with a beverage at the nearby Delirium Café (Impasse de la Fidélité 4), which made it into the Guinness Book of Records for serving 2004 kinds of beer. You read that right. Two thousand and four. Santé!