BRUSSELS — Sometimes the most satisfying vacations spring from the most modest expectations. Well-known destinations think London, Paris, Munich spark high hopes in the heart of a traveler. But Brussels? Isn't that just a place for business and bureaucrats?
As it happens, no. Any stereotype portraying this as a pinstriped suit of a city serious, proper, buttoned-up tells only part of the story. As the capital of Belgium and home of the European Union, Brussels obviously serves as a center of commerce and politics. But it also sparkles with art nouveau architecture, 70 museums, broad tree-lined streets, and one of the highest concentrations of restaurants in the world. A vibrant cafe culture adds an air of relaxation and conviviality.
The old saying "All roads lead to Rome" could be updated to read: "All trains lead to Brussels." Thanks to the Eurostar train, travelers can leave London's Waterloo Station in the morning and be in Brussels 3-1/2 hours later, in time for lunch. Paris is just 1-1/2 hours away on a high-speed train, and Amsterdam only 2-1/2 hours distant.
Yet Americans often mistakenly regard Brussels as the European equivalent of the Midwest simply a place to change planes or trains on the way to somewhere else, rather than as a destination in its own right.
The best place to begin refuting stereotypes and savoring the city's hidden spirit is the magnificent Grand'Place, a 17th-century square lined with ornate guild houses that once served as meeting places for tailors, bakers, butchers, and sailors. Here, too, stands the imposing Gothic town hall, its facade dotted with statuary.
At noon on a springtime Thursday, this ancient square pulses with modern vitality. Lunchgoers relax at outdoor cafes. Backpacking students sit cross-legged on worn cobblestones. A gleeful Japanese toddler chases a pigeon. Tourists click cameras. And everywhere, welcome sunshine casts a dazzling glow on the spot Victor Hugo once called "the most beautiful square in the world."
And no wonder. This richly ornamented architecture rose Phoenix-like from the ashes after the French king Louis XIV bombarded Brussels in 1695, destroying the original Grand'Place. Today, it's a place to crane your neck skyward (ideally with small binoculars in hand) to admire the statues and gold filigree decorations crowning elaborate rooflines. The gable of the Sailors' House even suggests the stern of a 17th-century sailing ship. Sunlight glints off the outspread wings of a golden eagle. A horse, a swan, and two gilded lions shine with equal splendor.
Brussels can be divided into two parts. The Lower Town, a maze of pleasantly tangled streets, centers on the Grand'Place. The Upper Town is distinguished by wide boulevards and grand houses.
Until the late 19th century, Brussels stood on the banks of the River Senne. Then city fathers decided the river was unsanitary and flood-prone, and they bricked it over.Today it flows under the city.
Over the years as an eager traveler, I've devised a list of six basic sights to see in any city, whatever the length of my stay. At minimum, I like to visit in no particular order a museum, a church, a shopping district (not a mall), an open-air market, a park or garden, and a cafe, preferably one with street-side windows for a view of the passing scene.
During three days in Brussels, this mix of art, religion, commerce, street culture, nature, and food proves satisfying once again.
One don't-miss attraction on the list, just a few blocks from the Grand'Place, is the Saint Hubert Royal Galleries, the crown jewel of shopping arcades. Three galleries, each named for royalty, were built in 1847, featuring shops on the ground level and residences above.
Marble columns, statuary, and classical friezes make this an architectural delight. Soft light streams through the metal and glass roof, casting a lacelike grid on the walls. It's a fitting motif in a city famous for lace. Upscale shops offer an elegant array of leather goods, jewelry, clothes, umbrellas, chocolates, and walking sticks.
From the shopping galleries, it's only a short walk to the 14th-century St. Nicholas Church, a small Romanesque edifice noted for its asymmetrical design. Builders were forced to place one section off-center to avoid a brook that once ran through the street.
Another pleasant walk from the Grand'Place takes visitors to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts. A majestic promenade, called Le Mont des Arts and lined with formal gardens, leads to the museums, where airy galleries display classic and modern art. Especially appealing is the collection of 15th- and 16th-century Flemish paintings. An entire room is devoted to the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Lowbrow culture is fun, too, so early on a Saturday morning, three of us take a taxi to the Place du Jeu de Balle. Here, a daily flea market offers a different slice of city life. Tables and racks are cluttered with a cheerful jumble of goods, ranging from kitschy knickknacks to crystal chandeliers, furniture, and clothes. It's the opposite of the upscale Place du Grand Sablon antiques market.
For a change of pace not on most tourist lists, hail a taxi to the European Union. What the United Nations is to New York, the 15-member EU is to Brussels. Its soaring glass, stone, and steel headquarters features a curved glass roof that arches into the sky and glimmers in the sun.
And then? When in doubt, return to the Grand'Place, a magnet pulling visitors back to an ever-changing scene. A daily flower market and a Sunday-morning bird market offer additional attractions. And when it's time to eat, cafes and restaurants here and at the nearby St. Hubert Royal Galleries offer varied menus.
In a city famous for chocolate and lace, no first-time visitor should leave without making two more quick stops. Step into any of the cozy lace shops dotting the city to admire the delicate beauty of everything from table linens to wedding veils. Lace bookmarks, costing about $3.50, make inex-pensive souvenirs weightless, and perfect for gifts.
And who can depart without circling through a chocolate shop, if only to inhale the sweet aroma and exclaim over the candy's elaborate shapes?
For a pleasant finale at the end of an evening, head back to where else? the Grand'Place. Facades that a few hours ago were streaked in sunlight now glow with floodlit splendor. Outdoor cafes still echo with conversation and laughter. And tourists are still flashing cameras to record the moment, as if to say: "I was here."
The lively scene offers one final memory to carry home. It's added proof that I was here, too an initially skeptical visitor surprised and delighted by the richness of an underrated city.
BRUGGE, BELGIUM - Sixty miles northwest of Brussels, the medieval city of Brugge resembles a picture-perfect movie set. As an international trading port in the 1300s, it ranked as one of the most prosperous cities in Europe. Then a coastal inlet that provided its only access to the North Sea filled with silt, and the city's role as a port changed forever.
Today, that long-ago loss is a modern traveler's gain. Brugge's vitality has returned, thanks in part to new industries and a new harbor 10 miles away. But its charming medieval architecture remains intact, serving as a magnet for tourists.
Brugge is an easy day trip from Brussels. Trains from Centraal Station make the trip in an hour. Their pastoral route passes villages dotted with red tile roofs and pastures sprinkled with sheep and brown-and-white cows.
From the train station in Brugge, it's a short bus ride or a pleasant walk to the town center.
For a picturesque overview, begin by taking a half-hour boat tour along some of the 24 miles of canals winding through the city. Trilingual guides offer snippets of local history as boats glide under arched bridges, passing centuries-old gabled houses, huge trees, and a 10th-century church, St. Xavier's.
It's touristy, to be sure, right down to the obligatory swans floating regally on the water. But it's also a good camera-clicking introduction to the city.
Half-hour tours by horse-drawn carriage offer another way to capture the flavor of Brugge. But here, as in many places, walking remains the ideal way to explore. Grab a map or let your feet take you where they will. It's hard to get too lost.
Brugge boasts two town squares. The smaller one, Burg Square, serves as the administrative center. Here, a magnificent Gothic town hall features wall paintings and a wood-vaulted ceiling.
The larger square, the Market, is closed to traffic, making it a pedestrian's haven. In medieval times it served as the city's commercial heart. A landmark13th-century belfry rises high above the street.
Energetic visitors can climb the 366 steps of the belfry tower. Stairs wind past an impressive clock mechanism and lead up to a 47-bell carillon. At the top, on a clear day, a panoramic view of the city and surrounding countryside rewards visitors for all that exercise. The tower closes at 5 p.m., so belfry climbers must arrive before 4:15.
This year, Brugge has been designated a Cultural Capital of Europe. A changing roster of events throughout the year includes live performances, theater, and art.
Before heading back to the train station for the return trip to Brussels, treat yourself to a Belgian waffle, available at open-air stands around the Market. Whether plain or topped with whipped cream, they're portable.
Simply find a bench, relax, and savor this specialty as you marvel at the ornate architecture, listen to the clip-clop of horses' hooves echoing on ancient cobblestones, and watch other tourists as they, too, find pleasure in this once-forgotten city.