With less than 48 hours to explore it, I expected Brussels to be a whirlwind of activity. What I forgot to account for was the 7 hour time difference and the overnight, trans-Atlantic flight from home. After stumbling off the plane, traipsing 20 minutes through the city center with my bulky bags, and waiting through a seemingly endless shift change at the hotel check-in desk I promptly crashed into bed and took a 3 hour nap. When I finally awoke around 6pm local time (11am to my jet-lagged body), I headed out on the town.
What I immediately found is that Brussels is a city of many languages, cultures, and concepts. In just a few minutes on foot you can traverse the classical city center, an aging neighborhood seemingly stuck in the ’80’s, and a modern, hipster haven, all the while passing halal markets tucked next to Dutch breweries, and French boulangeries. Every sign, from advertisements to street names, comes in a minimum of two languages but more often 3 or 4. I think I liked Brussels, but it’s hard to tell when I’m not able to get a good read on a city that’s constantly changing. If I had more time and sleep perhaps I could’ve started to figure Brussels out, but I almost wonder if Brussels itself even knows what it’s trying to be. The only thing I can tell for sure is that despite being the capital of Europe, Brussels doesn’t take itself very seriously at all.
My first stop in Brussels was the famous Grand Place square, but my second was the almost-as-famous statue of a boy peeing into a fountain, in which Brussels takes a bizarre amount of pride. Mannekin Pis, as he is named, is regularly dressed in different costumes, and an entire museum in the city center is dedicated to his wardrobe. Every tourist shop sells Mannekin Pis miniatures, every bakery has his likeness advertising their waffles, and his image covers the streets in posters, art, and more.
While exploring the city center I stopped to try my first Belgian waffle at Maison Dandoy. It quickly became the first of many, because, as it turns out, real Belgian waffles are literal heaven on earth. This one was covered in caramel sauce and whipped cream, but I also tried them with powdered sugar, ice cream, and all sorts of other toppings during my brief stay in Belgium.
The next day, after sleeping for another 14 hours, I hopped on a train to the Atomium and Mini-Europe theme park north of the city. The Atomium is a blown up (to a ridiculous scale) iron atom that was created as an symbol for the 1958 Universal Exposition in Brussels, then renovated in the early 2000’s as a tourist attraction. Its top sphere holds a panoramic viewing area, and the lower levels contain exhibits on the exposition and the history of air travel in Belgium. Though the displays were interesting I found myself altogether underwhelmed by the Atomium and breezed through it pretty quickly.
I spent significantly more time at Mini Europe which was built to commemorate the First World War and hosts miniatures of the most iconic landmarks from every EU country in perfect 1:23 scale. (It seems Belgium has a fascination with making displays of real things larger or smaller than they actually are…) There are over 350 buildings miniaturized in the park, along with tiny people, cars, trucks, boats, and more, many of which move on a pulley system to seem more life-like.
At the beginning of each country’s display a sign lists its size in both population and land, and the year it entered the EU. On top of the signs are buttons that, when pressed, play that country’s national anthem. It’s such a cool experience to walk through all the major national monuments of a country with its anthem playing in the background like a soundtrack. What’s even more fun, though, is that many of the displays are interactive. In Paris you can run in place on a metal plate which powers a tiny figure “stealing the Mona Lisa” to run away from police, and in Sevilla shouting Olé into a microphone will make a miniature bull charge around the ring as crowds of mini people cheer.
After exploring the rest of Europe, I headed back to Brussels proper on foot. When I had gotten on the train that morning I couldn’t figure out how to pay for my ride, so I accidentally rode for free. Not wanting to make the same mistake, and feeling like I should stretch my legs a bit more after sleeping so long I made the 3+ mile, hour and a half long trek back to the hostel.
Getting to a new place and not understanding the language, much less the public transit system or local customs can be incredibly intimidating, especially for a solo traveler. But learning how to be comfortable with that discomfort, and making the best of difficult situations is an important part of travel. In the end, walking back to the hostel allowed me to see parts of Brussels I might never have otherwise. On a very touristy short trip it was a chance to see the side of the city where people live, work, learn, and play.
When I got back to the Hostel I got ready to do a little playing of my own, as my dorm mates and I headed off to check out the famous Delirium Cafe, a series of connected bars down a side alleyway in the city center which together offer over a thousand different types of beer. The other downside of solo travel is that it can be quite lonely at times, so it was nice to connect with people so quickly and we ended up having a great time wandering the city til after midnight.
Early the next morning I packed up my bags and walked to the train station, ready (and not ready at all) to depart for Morocco.