A winter trip to Brussels wasn’t in our original Europe travel plan. Having previously spent a few days in the Belgian capital in 2007, I wanted to focus on other new-to-me destinations, preferably farther south. Riga was dark and cold in February and I was in need of some Iberian sunshine. But search as I might, flights to Barcelona just didn’t match up with our travel dates. So I took a chance and used the “travel everywhere” search feature of skyscanner.com. My only requirement was a direct flight from Riga on a particular date. The best (read: cheapest) flight was to Brussels on RyanAir, €50 round trip. Sold! We were off to the land of chocolate and beer.
Someone recommended we check out the Museum of Musical Instruments for something a little different and it turned out to be my favorite experience of the entire weekend. Visitors are given special headphones to wear that play music from some of the nearly 1,200 instruments on display. Infrared sensors pick up your location so that the music you hear corresponds with the instruments you’re closest to, greatly enriching the experience. I was most drawn to the 17th and 18th century harpsichords, accordions and string instruments, but the Museum’s collection includes everything from African drums and Chinese zithers to American guitars and Belgian saxophones.
The Museum is housed in the architecturally stunning Old England Building, a 19th-century Art Nouveau department store that has been beautifully restored. I recommend having lunch in the top-floor cafe where you can enjoy sweeping views of the city.
Another unique historical exhibition is the Horta Museum, the former home and studio of Belgian Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta. The fully furnished, five-story townhouse is a masterpiece of stained glass, curved railings and tile mosaics. I literally gasped when I first saw the dining room, resplendent in white subway tiles and earthy-brown woods illuminated with colorful glass chandeliers and floor-to-ceiling windows.
The Museum is only open from 14:00-17:30, and just 40 or so people are allowed in at a time so you will likely queue outside. But a visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site is most definitely worth the effort. It took around 20 minutes to walk to Horta Museum from the Royal Palace neighborhood, but it’s also possible to take the tram.
For dinner, head to Au Vieux Bruxelles in the Matogne neighborhood. This cozy, old-fashioned restaurant has been dishing up Belgian classics since 1882! I ordered the steak with mushroom sauce and it was seriously one of the best pieces of meat I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat. I would travel back to Brussels just for that steak!
The appetizers were also tasty. We started with mussels baked in tomato sauce, cheese and herbed bread crumbs – kind of like a Belgian pizza. Then, as the restaurant filled up, we noticed plates of golden fish-and-shrimp croquettes showing up on nearly every table. Naturally we had to have some, too. My only regret is not ordering dessert.
Since we crazy Americans like to eat dinner at 6:30pm, our nights were free to enjoy the spectacular lights of the Grand Place (or Grote Markt if you speak Dutch), the city’s magnificent old town square. They definitely don’t make buildings like they used to!
I had the opportunity to attend an exhibit of works by Belgian artist Rene Magritte when I was in college (and once again in Manhattan), and have been a fan of his whimsical surrealist paintings ever since. The Magritte Museum opened in Brussels in 2009 and showcases over 200 of his works including his early Art Deco advertisements and plenty of paintings featuring those fluffy white clouds. Sadly absent is the famous Son of Man painting of a man in a bowler hat with his face hidden behind an apple. I understand it is privately owned – lucky them!
It makes sense to pair a visit to the Magritte Museum with one to the Royal Museums of Fine Art as a “combination ticket” will save you some money, while the buildings are connected for ease of access. The Royal Museums are comprised of the Old Masters and Modern Art collections as well as the new Fin-de-Siecle Museum dedicated to art from the early 1900s, the era in which Art Nouveau was at its peak.
The Old Masters include the likes of Rodin, Rubens and Bruegel, while the Fin-de-Siecle Museum introduced me to Belgian painter Henri de Braekeleer whose beautiful works were influenced by those of Johannes Vermeer. The cafe inside the main building is a serviceable option for lunch.
I needed to stretch my legs after being cooped up in a museum all day, so we went to gape at the Royal Palace and amble through the adjacent park. After getting a waffle from the van outside the museum, of course.
Even though I’ve been told that mussels are only in season in months that end in “r,” I couldn’t visit Brussels without having some meaty mollusks! I’m not sure that I believe all this “season” stuff because my gigantic order of mussels at L’Ultime Atome (another restaurant in Matogne) was excellent. Each one was plump and juicy, and there wasn’t an unopened shell or grain of sand in the bunch.
On our final morning in Brussels, we enjoyed leisurely cappuccinos at Cafe Sablon before heading across the street to Notre-Dame du Sablon, a Gothic church once frequented by nobility. The adjacent garden, Place du Petit Sablon, is also worth a gander for its peaceful atmosphere and interesting bronze statues representing medieval guilds.
After that we had time for one final walk through the Grand Place before buying our chocolate and heading home. I may also have snuck in one more waffle. There are many chocolate shops on the square as well as on the street leading towards the old stock exchange, but I opted to buy my treats at the original Neuhaus store in the Galeries St-Hubert. If Neuhaus chocolate is good enough for the Belgian Royal Court, it’s good enough for me!
How would YOU spend 72 hours in Brussels?