A City a Day: Brussels, Land of Mussels, Fries, Beer and Waffles (A Guide)

Brussels MapAfter a long and rainy day in Luxembourg, we boarded the train and made the 3 hour journey to Brussels, Belgium. We stayed at 2Go4 Hostel, about a 10 minute walk from the Brussels Nord train station. We were excited about seeing the sun here (apparently it is a rarity), but the second we walked outside we realized that the wind chill was absolutely insane. We stopped along the way to ask one lady for directions, and she was literally crying from the wind. Anyways, the hostel was pretty nice, and I would recommend it. It is about a 10 minute walk from the main center of Brussels, but they do require an extra €10 deposit that they return to you upon check-out. The decorations here were pretty cool, the lounge there looks like it would be fun to hang out in if you had some extra time. We were also upgraded here from a 6 bed to a 4 bed because we had asked to be placed together, so boo yah! The only problem with this hostel is that it doesn’t serve breakfast. There is complimentary tea and coffee in the morning, but the coffee is instant and the cream is powder… blech.

We asked our hostel for some restaurant reservations and headed off towards the center. The hostel recommended Chez Léon, which has been in business since 1893. It is on rue des Bouchers 18, which is a main restaurant tourist trap avenue. There must’ve been at least 20 other restaurants on this street, all advertising those hokey big yellow signs with giant pictures of mussels and fries. And the waiters are relentless, too… They’re all standing outside trying to convince you to come in, and they really don’t leave you alone. I hate to ignore people, but you have to here. You so much as look at them and they follow you down the street, offering you free drinks and refusing to leave you alone. If you don’t respond or look at them, they start talking to you in 5 different languages, trying to figure out which language they can communicate to you with. Some of them say the darndest things, too…

Chez Léon, Photo Cred: http://www.insidebrussels.be

Anyways, Chez Léon. It was one of the few restaurants on the street that didn’t have all of those cheesy tourist signs, so we figured we’d give it a try. The food was pretty good, although pricy. We didn’t realize until after we had eaten just how huge and touristy the restaurant really is. I wouldn’t say that I wouldn’t go back, but I will say I might recommend finding something better for next time (see other restaurant recommendations below).

Anguilles au Vert

My friend decided to try the Anguilles au Vert, or Eels in Green Sauce. During my research, I read that this is a specialty of Brussels and tastes better than it sounds. However, neither of us really liked it… There was the spine still in it, which we weren’t expecting, and it had a strange texture. My friend didn’t like the green sauce, but I did. I have actually tried eel before on sushi and loved it, but this is nothing like that.

Mussels Provençale

I decided to order mussels, because hey… it’s a Brussels classic after all. They had many different variations of Mussels, and instead of going for the normal version, I decided to try something new: Mussels Provençale, basically mussels sauteed in snail butter and topped with a melted layer of parmesan cheese. It was very tasty, I must admit… but my god it was a lot of cheese! You can’t even see the mussels underneath. I, of course, paired it with a fine belgian beer and fries.

Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, Photo Cred commons.wikimedia.org

Nearby, you will find the Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, a beautiful glass-roofed mall (or arcade). It was built in the mid 1800’s and is famous for being the first mall built in Europe. We only went through one corridor, and it was lined with chocolate stores galore. There were some pretty amazing displays! Definitely worth a visit.

Charles Buls Square

When you exit one of the main halls, you come out onto Charles Buls Square, a very nice area to walk around and often accompanied with live music. If you go to the right, you hit the main square and Grand Palace. If you go to the left, you find the Cathedrale St-Michel et Ste-Gudule.

Cathedrale St-Michel et Ste-Gudule

If you’re sick of seeing cathedrals, just go right towards the main square (or Grote Markt). The cathedral was nice, but it wasn’t spectacular. One interesting thing was how they had statues of saints lining the main hall on the pillars, I had never seen that before.

After that, we headed back towards the main square. It really is a sight to see. In all directions there are beautiful buildings lined in gold. I guess during one part of the year, they also cover the majority of the ground in a beautiful flower carpet like this:

If you could visit during that time, it’d definitely be a sight to see! But the square is beautiful regardless, and is known as one of the most beautiful squares in all of Europe.

After staring in awe at the beautiful buildings a while, follow the signs (or your handy map) to get to the famous Mannekin Pis. But don’t expect much… it is literally just a little boy having a wee. I don’t get it. At all. But the best part is that right next door, you will find a famous waffle house… and you just HAVE to buy a waffle there.

Oh, and on the way there, you will see some fun street art:

Adventures of TinTin! On the road from the main square to Mannekin Pis. Photo Cred clausitosfootprints.com

As for Mannekin Pis… behold, the wonder that is a little peeing statue that everyone comes to see:

It’s so very terribly interesting, don’t you think? Sarcasm aside, if you come at special times of year they dress him up. I’ve heard they have a museum dedicated to his outfits… -_-

Here’s what you do: take the mandatory picture in front of the statue, and move on. In fact, turn left onto the same street you came from and go a couple doors down until you find a line coming out of a delectable smelling waffle shop. Take out your wallet and give them your money… it’s worth it!

The famous waffle shop, right next door to Mannkein Pis. Don’t be fooled by that €1 sign, though… We paid about €5-6 for our waffle complete with strawberries, bananas, chocolate, and whipped cream. The €1 must be just for a plain waffle… how boring! Don’t be that person.

Yummers. It is messy as all hell, but get over it. And throw the forks away, there really is no use. Just use your fingers and enjoy!

After you’ve enjoyed that deliciousness, check your map and head towards the palace. It is a bit of a walk, though… Expect about 10-15 minutes, depending on your speed. If you go back to the right of the Mannekin Pis statue and go uphill, you’ll pass by some more street art:

On your way to the palace, you will come across the Jardin du Mont des Arts which houses a statue of Albert I on a horse and some nice landscaping. From the top, you will have a nice view of the gardens and the city laid out below you, especially on a clear day. I’d imagine it’d be quite nice to have a picnic there during the warmer months.

If you continue upwards further, you will find a lovely street with some beautiful architecture and lovely museums. We decided not to go inside any of them, but if you have lots of time and enjoy museums, here is a list of the top ones from my research:

You can really take your pick, though… I saw a museum of cinema, of musical intruments, etc. It’s a museum-goers paradise up here.

The Courthouse and Plaza

Up at the very top of the hill, you will find the courthouse. If you turn left and then make a right on the first street, you will find Coudenberg (the remains of the ancient palace; we decided not to go in, but I’ve heard it is interesting) and then the current palace, Palais de Bruxelles. However, unless you’re in Brussels during the summer months, don’t expect to go inside. It is closed to the public, but you can get your cheesy picture out front:

Royal Palace of Brussels. When you see the flag flying at the top, it means the King is in town.

By this time our feet were extremely tired, so we decided to circle back around towards the central square and grab a drink at the Delirium Bar. If you like beer (and well, you’re crazy if you don’t), you should definitely check it out! They have lots of varieties, and the prices are pretty good. It also has a very fun atmosphere, and seems to be one of the more popular hang outs at night. On the way to the Delirium Bar, you will pass by some other lovely street art:

For a peek inside the bar itself, here you go:

Photo Cred ourtastytravels.com

Photo Cred: Trip Advisor

If anyone reading this has ever been to or knows anything about Brussels, you’ll realize that there’s something very important missing: Atomium. Unfortunately, Atomium is located way outside of the city center, and is a little difficult to get to if you don’t have time and don’t know where you’re going. I had a goal of visiting the Atomium during the day so that we could go up inside of it and see the wonderful views, but that didn’t happen. Instead, we came at night to admire the beautiful lights. There weren’t many other people around, but it was definitely a lovely sight to be seen. I guess there’s also a really nice restaurant at the top, but expect to pay a lot of money and have a reservation!

Atomium during the day. Photo Cred ojoscuriosos.com

If you want to go to Atomium during the day, make sure you have at least a half day to do it. Also, ask your hotel for SPECIFIC directions on how to get there. When I google mapped the directions, it told me it’d only take about 15 minutes. However, when we followed the basic directions of the hostel, it took us about 45 minutes… and the trams only came about once every 20 or 30 minutes.

Atomium at night. Photo Cred Flickr

During the day until 6pm, you can go up inside of this marvellous structure and see some great views, from what I hear. If you’re here for longer, you should definitely check it out!

Below, I will list other museums and restaurants that I didn’t have a chance to see, but which my research found to be worth seeing:

Museums

Food and Drink

Think I missed something? Please feel free to let me know in the comments! 🙂

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Porto: Birthplace of Port Wine and Beautiful Beyond Belief

Let me start by saying I had never heard of this place before. Sure, I had heard of Port wine (hello, wine is amazing), but I had no idea that it came from a little city in Portugal named Oporto (or Porto in English). Before going on the trip, I was lucky enough to get some great advice from my host family on where to go and what to see… and Porto was high up on their list. They advised us to take the train one night from Lisbon, stay the night, then spend all day the next day exploring and take a train back. They insisted i was such a small city that you didn’t need to spend more than a day.

Thank God we gave ourselves two days instead of one.

It’s about a 3 hour train ride from Lisbon, and as we approached this little city my jaw dropped… literally. The train passes over the bridge and gives amazing views of the city and the Douro River. It was one of those times when you see something just so beautiful you can’t believe it (which was nice after about 3 hours of seeing nothing out the window on the train).

From the train station, we took the short trek up the hill to our hotel (the entire city is located on various hills). Up at the top, there was this beautiful church called Igreja de Santo Ildefonso. I have seen many churches in my life, but this one was unique in that it had this beautiful blue and white tile work all across it.

Igreja de Santo Ildefonso

We walked down the hill in search of a good place to eat. Everywhere you looked, there was something beautiful to admire. There weren’t all too many people around, either, which I liked. It was like we had this beautiful city to ourselves.

Praça da Liberdade

We found a small, cheap restaurant just to the left of this statue. Food and drinks here were extremely cheap, especially compared to the other cities we had been to on this trip. When I was researching things to try in Portugal, a little delicacy called a Franceschina popped up. People insisted that it didn’t look all too appetizing and it was basically a heart attack on a plate, but that it was definitely worth trying. And I must agree! It was surprisingly delicious, I could taste the calories as I ate them. It is basically a sandwich filled with various meats and then covered in melted cheese and a sauce of tomato and beer… YUM! We got this franceschina for about €4, one hell of a deal! Washed it down with a €1 wine. I know it doesn’t look like much, but trust me… I ended up practically licking the bowl.

Even after having an incredibly fatty meal, my mother and I were attracted to a little pastry shop on the corner. There were so many things to choose from! I had heard of pastel de nata as I was researching, so I decided o give it a try. It was fantastic! Perfectly sweet and creamy. I could have easily eaten 3-4. I also bought another random pastry, just to give it a try. It was good, but I definitely would stick to the pastel de nata.

A while later, high on the sugar rush, I decided to try yet another pastry I had seen in all of the store windows… I’m not sure what it’s called, bu it looked interesting. It was gross. I had to throw it away. I was basically a partially cooked egg inside a flavorless crust (or a least that is what it tasted like).

As we were walking around, we noticed a group of singers in old, traditional clothing. That day, we saw at least 2 or 3 of these groups going around singing. I have no idea what was happening, but it was interesting to see!

We wandered over to the other side of the city to see the Lello Bookshop, famous for being one of the inspirations of Harry Potter. Unfortunately, it was a big disappointment. The store was very full, for one, and they didn’t allow pictures at all. And for a place so famous and well-known, you’d think they keep the place in shape… the famous stairs were all scuffed up and the whole place looked a bit dreary. And the shopkeepers were extremely rude. Here are some pictures regardless that you can find on google images, and I promise you it looks better in the pictures. 

From there, we wandered down the hill towards the famous Douro River. It is such a beautiful city with so much to explore! Like this strange park with floating disco balls.

Many of the buildings seem very run-down, unfortunately. In fact, a few of them had signs up saying that it was unsafe to occupy the building. However, once you get closer to the river things brighten up with vendors selling their wares and lovely, brightly-colored buildings. Oh, and more restaurants than you can count!We ended up arriving right on time to take a river cruise at sunset, the last of the day. It was €10 and well worth every cent! The views there are just unbelievable. Seeing all of the lovely European buildings spread out carefully over the hills and the handful of bridges connecting both sides… it was just magical. I’ve also never seen so many giant bridges in my life. I’ll shutup for a bit… the pictures speak for themselves.

My first west coast sunset in months! West coast, best coast.

After seeing so much beauty that we didn’t know what to do with ourselves, we decided to grab dinner at a small restaurant right along the Douro River. We got their famous assa chouriço, a sausage that cooks right in front of you on fire. It is such a fun thing to order! (read more about it here). And the view at night couldn’t be beat.

Right along the river they also had many vendors selling cheap items like table cloths, little bottles of Port wine, and various souveniers with the famous lucky Portuguese chicken on it. We ended up buying a few little bottles of Port to try them out and keep us warm 🙂 When in Porto… drink Port! And Ginja, a strong cherry liqueur.