We had been planning to go to Brussels for a while, but it kept falling through. My friend Ryan from our program studied there last spring, and he was excited to show us around the city. He claims to like it better than Paris, and even though I would never even compare the two (Paris is just the best), I could see how a smaller, weirder city like Brussels might feel a little bit more like home.
We left Friday and stayed at his friend’s house, where we experienced some genuine European hospitality. The house was huge and beautiful and we ate dinner with a group of his friends, people from all different countries who spoke multiple languages. It made us Americans feel bad.
We went out that night to a few of Ryan’s favorite bars. Our first stop was Café des Halles, a massive, cathedral-like building in the downtown area that used to serve as a market place. It was spacious and trendy, with a DJ and dance floor in the front, green carpet and lawn chairs in the back, and a giant pyramid shaped pillar in the center that would have been less out of place in a museum.
Later that night we found ourselves at Grand Place, the central square of Brussels and the location of its city hall. It’s a walking square enclosed by several old, ornate buildings, each of which with slightly different architectural designs. Seeing the buildings lit up late at night with the daytime foot traffic gone was very exciting.
The next day we stood in a long line for classic Belgian frites (fries) that I ate with a pile of mayonnaise. We sat and ate them in Grand Place, and admired the buildings in the daylight. We chased the frites with waffles and I felt sick and happy.
We spent that night in a cozy bed and breakfast-style hostel that had a grand piano and a dog. It was quaint and homey and I could have stayed there all weekend. Instead, we left the next morning to go to the Horta Museum, the preserved former house of Victor Horta, a Belgian architect of the Art Nouveau movement. It opens at 2pm for two hours and only lets in 45 guests per day (to preserve the integrity). It felt very exclusive.
We got more fries later that day and felt even sicker and happier. We also saw the Atomiuim, a strange, atom-shaped structure whose purpose is unknown (to me). I heard it referred to as the Eiffel Tower of Brussels.
Easily the best thing we saw in the city were the Royal Greenhouses of the Belgian king. They are open to the public two weeks out of the year, and we happened to be there at the right time (even more exclusivity). Walking through them felt like being in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, where just looking at everything was as satisfying as eating candy. It was a maze of exotic and beautiful greenery, and if I were the Belgian king I would never leave. But we had to.