Chances are if you've been to Brussels, you were sent there on a business trip -- after all, only a quarter of the six million people who visit Belgium's capital each year come for pleasure. Of the tourists who do visit Belgium, many of them skip right over Brussels in their rush to see the scenic canals and cobblestones of nearby Bruges.
But before you strike Brussels from your own must-visit list, take another look. Get beyond the modern government buildings in the Quartier Europeen and you'll discover the city's intimate historic core, where centuries-old houses hug narrow cobblestone alleyways, neatly dressed waiters serve lunch on the terraces along the Place du Grand Sablon, and the mighty Gothic spire of the Hotel de Ville soars above Grand Place, one of Europe's most magical squares. To the south are the curving facades and wrought-iron balconies of the city's gracious Art Nouveau neighborhood, while further north you'll find the wide green lawns and vibrant blooms of the Botanic Garden. Art, history and culture are celebrated in over 100 museums throughout the city, featuring everything from delicate Belgian lace to musical instruments and vintage cars.
As charming and eclectic as these sights are, they're often overshadowed by Brussels' no-nonsense reputation as a major seat of international government -- and to some extent that reputation is deserved. The city is not only the capital of Belgium but also of the Flanders region and the entire European Union, so it does have a disproportionate share of harried civil servants bustling around with briefcases and cell phones. But Brussels' position as a center of international government also means that it's uniquely multicultural and welcoming to visitors from all over the world. One local resident told me that her children never bat an eyelash when they meet someone whose skin color or language are different from their own, because in Brussels diversity is the norm. The city embraces both of Belgium's official languages with street signs in French and Flemish, while English and German are also widely spoken. And the locals are never too busy to translate a menu or help lost visitors find their way.
Brussels also has a sense of fun that belies its bland, businesslike reputation. Whimsical cartoon murals adorn the facades of buildings throughout the old city, a tribute to the comic strip tradition that thrived in Belgium in the early 20th century. An even older tradition involves the city's most famous mascot, a statue of a little boy peeing into a fountain. Locals delight in dressing him up in various costumes (Elvis, Mozart, a vampire, a samurai warrior) and occasionally substituting beer for water in his stream. In 1998, a canine counterpart to the famous statue was erected a few blocks away as a tongue-in-cheek tribute (all this little bronze dog needs is a fire hydrant!).
Just in case a statue of a peeing dog isn't enough of a draw, here's perhaps the best reason to visit Brussels: with the businesspeople tucked away in the modern part of town and a good portion of Belgium's tourists fighting the crowds in Bruges, it's easier here than in most European capitals to find a quiet corner to call your own.
Editor's Note: Metro stations, museums and streets are often known by two different names, one in French and one in Flemish -- so keep that in mind when asking for directions and navigating your way around the city. For instance, if you're looking for Grand Place and you find yourself in Grote Markt, you're in the right spot. We've listed all names and addresses below in French.
--written by Sarah Schlichter