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If you've been to Brussels, chances are you were sent on a business trip. After all, only one-third of the six million people who visit Belgium's capital each year come for pleasure. Of the tourists who visit the country, many skip over Brussels in their rush to see the scenic canals and cobblestones of nearby Brugge.
Before you strike Brussels from your own must-visit list, take another look. Get beyond the modern government buildings in the Quartier European 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, you'll see the curving facades and wrought-iron balconies of the city's gracious Art Nouveau neighborhood, while farther 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 cellphones. 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. 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, Manneken Pis, 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 1987 Jeanneke Pis, a female counterpart to the famous statue was erected in another section of the city. And as if that wasn't enough, in 1998, a canine counterpart to the two was erected as a tongue-in-cheek tribute. (All this little bronze dog needs is a fire hydrant!)
Just in case statues of peeing children aren'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 Brugge, it's easier there than in most European capitals to find a quiet corner to call your own.
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Other British Isles & Western Europe Cruise Ports:
Amsterdam • Antwerp • Basel • Belfast • Brugge (Bruges) • Brussels • Dover • Dublin • Dusseldorf • Edinburgh • Ghent • Harwich • Holyhead • Invergordon • Le Havre • Lisbon • Liverpool • London (Tilbury) • Newcastle (England) • Paris • Rotterdam • Rouen • Southampton • St. Peter Port (Guernsey) • Vigo
Belgium has a well-deserved reputation for its beers, many of which were originally (and still!) brewed by Trappist monks. Whether your tastes tend toward a strong Flemish sour brown ale, a yeasty wit beer or a fruity lambic, you're sure to find something that suits.
Brussels is the birthplace of Godiva chocolates, and there are numerous outposts throughout the city where you can pick up a sampler of Belgium's signature sweets.
Brussels is a town of many tongues. Nearly all street signs are in both French and Flemish (a variant of Dutch), Belgium's two official languages, and we had no problem finding people who spoke at least a little English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the euro. Visit www.xe.com for up-to-date conversion rates. ATMs are plentiful in the city center.
Where You're Docked
Only river ships are small enough to fit through Brussels' canals, and they dock at either Heembeekkaai or the Becodock. Though both ports are within city limits, only the Becodock is a comfortable walking distance from downtown.
Big ships dock farther away in Antwerp or Zeebrugge. Train service connects both cities to Brussels.
There's little to see at either of Brussels' ports, so hop on the Metro system (buses are available at Heembeekkaai, while the Beco dock is near the Yser train station) and head downtown.
Antwerp's gorgeous cathedral and famous Diamond District make it worth a day trip if you've already been to Brussels. Trains run directly to and from Brussels and take about 45 minutes.
Zeebrugge is a largely industrial port city that's mainly used as a jumping-off point for day trips to Brugge or Brussels. To get to Brussels, just head for the train station; the trip will take about an hour and 15 minutes, with a change of trains in Brugge.
On Foot: Once in the city center, it's easy to walk between Brussels' main attractions -- just remember to pack comfortable shoes for navigating the cobblestones.
By Public Transportation: When you get tired of walking, hop onto Brussels' efficient Metro system, which operates subways, trams and buses. You can purchase single ride tickets or an unlimited day pass.
By Taxi: There are many taxi stands throughout the city, particularly near major rail stations and hotels. You can also hail cabs from the street, but it may be difficult to find one during rush hour. To make a booking in advance, call Taxis Bleus at +32-2-268-0000. Learn more about the taxi system in Brussels on the website of "Service regional des Taxis et Limousines."
By Car: We don't recommend using a car in Brussels, as navigating the crowded streets can be more trouble than it's worth, and efficient train service is available both within the city and to most of the surrounding cities and towns. That said, Auto Europe, Avis and other major rental agencies offer multiple pickup locations in Brussels. Expect to pay at least $35 a day.
Watch Out For
Metro stations, museums and streets are often known by two 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. (Editor's Note: We've listed all names and addresses below in French.)
Also be aware that most Brussels museums are closed on Mondays.
The heart of Belgium's historic district is the breathtaking Grand Place, a cobblestone square surrounded on all sides by elegant Gothic and Baroque buildings -- including the massive 13th-century Hotel de Ville (town hall). With a number of sidewalk cafes, this square is one of Brussels' prime people-watching spots, and during the summer it's colorfully carpeted by a large flower market. Also on the square is the Maison du Roi (Grand Place; +32-2-279-4350; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday), a museum that chronicles Brussels' history and even includes a collection of costumes for the Mannekin Pis, the city's most famous statue.
Just adjacent to Grand Place is Ilot Sacre, a neighborhood of narrow medieval streets whose charm is only partially dimmed by the many souvenir shops that have taken over the area. Shoppers should head for the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert (between Rue du Marche-aux-Herbes and Rue de l'Ecuyer), a grand neo-Renaissance gallery filled with jewelry stores, upscale cafes, chocolatiers and bookstores.
He might be only 22 inches tall, but the Mannekin Pis (Rue de l'Etuve) has become one of Brussels' most enduring symbols. This bronze statue of a little boy urinating into a fountain dates from 1619 and can occasionally be seen dressed in costumes made especially for him (the first such outfit was a gift from King Louis XV in 1747). If you like the Manneken Pis, don't miss his female counterpart, Jeanneke Pis (east side of the Impasse de la Fidelite) or his canine counterpart, the Zinneke Pis (Rue des Chartreux and Rue du Vieux-Marche-aux-Grains) -- a bronze statue of a peeing dog.
Ornate Gothic architecture and brilliantly colored stained-glass windows make the 16th-century Notre Dame du Sablon (rue Bodenbroek 6; +32-2-511-5741; open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday) one of Brussels' most beautiful churches. After your visit, you can sit and relax in the tranquil gardens of Place du Petit Sablon or enjoy coffee at a sidewalk cafe overlooking Place du Grand Sablon; both squares are adjacent to the church.
The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium (Place Royale 1 - 3; +32-2-508-3211; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday) are a storehouse of artistic treasures. The bulk of the collections can be found in the Museum of Old Masters (holding works from the 15th to the 18th century), the Museum of Modern Art (spanning works from the end of the 18th century to today) and the new Fin-de-Siecle Museum (dedicated to the 1900s). The Royal Museums also encompass three smaller collections devoted to individual Belgian artists: the Magritte Museum (Place Royale Koningsplein 1; +32-2-508-32-11; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday), the Antoine Wiertz Museum (Rue Vautier 62; +32-2-648-1718; open 10 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Friday) and the Constantin Meunier Museum (Rue de l'Abbaye 59; +32-2-648-4449; open 10 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Friday).
Construction of the massive Cathedrale Saint-Michel et Sainte-Gudule (Place Ste-Gudule; +32-2-219-6834; open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday, hours vary in winter) was begun in the early 1200s but not completed until some three centuries later. Visitors can wander through the present-day Gothic nave and then head underground to see the remains of the 11th-century Romanesque church over which the current structure is built.
Been There, Done That
The cure for the art museum fatigue that plagues many visitors to Europe is the unique Musical Instruments Museum (2 Rue Montagne de la Cour; +32-2-545-0130; open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday to Sunday). This is a place where the exhibits are not only seen but also heard; included in the cost of admission is a headset that plays a sample from each musical instrument as you step in front of it. You'll hear and see both familiar instruments (violins, harps, guitars) and more foreign ones -- like a gigantic Tibetan mountain horn or a carved wooden fish totem from Vanuatu.
Though Brussels' historic core dates back hundreds of years, the city also has an Art Nouveau quarter where visitors can enjoy the architecture of a more modern era. Victor Horta, one of the leaders of the Art Nouveau movement, once lived and worked in Brussels' St. Gilles neighborhood, and today, his house has been transformed into the Horta Museum (25 Rue Americaine; +32-2-543-0490; open 2 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday). Its elegant rooms feature curved lines, stained-glass windows and a dramatic main staircase. There are a number of other Art Nouveau residences in the surrounding neighborhood, so be sure to leave time for a quick stroll after you visit the museum.
Go shopping. The city's finest antique stores can be found in the neighborhood surrounding Place du Grand Sablon -- and if you're in town on a weekend, don't miss the antique market held on the square in front of Notre Dame du Sablon. If you'd rather take home a little piece of Belgian haute couture, head for Avenue Louise, a major shopping artery packed with chic boutiques and high-end department stores.
On a nice day, join the locals at the Park de Bruxelles (236 Rue Royale; +32-2-218-3732; open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in summer and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in winter) for a stroll through its neatly manicured flower beds -- or for an afternoon nap in the grass. Classical statues, colorful blooms and several lovely fountains make this a serene place to rest after a long day of sightseeing.
Many visitors to Brussels take their ship's shore excursion or a quick train ride to the romantic city of Brugge.
Belgium's cuisine is best known for a number of signature dishes: moules (steamed mussels), frites (fries, dipped not in ketchup but mayonnaise) and, of course, gaufres (waffles), which are warm and delicious whether served with powdered sugar, chocolate, fruit or ice cream. You'll also want to save room for handmade chocolates and Belgian beer.
Its high ceiling and cavernous dining area might make you feel like you're sitting in a train station rather than a restaurant, but Belga Queen, housed in a converted bank, is one of Brussels' prime spots for fine dining. The focus is on seafood (there's an extensive oyster bar) and local Belgian ingredients. For lunch, the fixed-price menu varies each day; recent offerings include a first course creamy garden bean soup with smoked salmon and an entree of beef stew with gueuze (a type of Belgian beer), glazed carrots and mashed potatoes. (32 Rue Fosse aux Loups; +32-2-217-2187; open noon to 2:30 p.m. daily)
In the midst of all the pricey sidewalk cafes along Place du Grand Sablon is Chez Richard a dim, cozy neighborhood hangout where beer and conversation flow freely. The unpretentious fare (quiches, salads) is tasty and reasonably priced. Plus, every weekend between October 1 and April 30, the eatery puts out an oyster bar spread. (2 Rue des Minimes; +32-2-512-1406; open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 9 a.m. Sunday)
You don't want to visit Belgium without trying a waffle, so be sure to treat yourself to one as a light lunch or a sweet afternoon snack. Vendors are legion, but we like Belgaufra (tongue-in-cheek motto: "Probably the best since 1950"), which has outposts throughout the city -- just look for its yellow cartoon logo.
If the weather is sunny, enjoy a view of Grand Place from the terrace at 'T Kelderke, or, if it's not, dine inside in a 17th-century vaulted cellar. Traditional Belgian cuisine is the order of the day there, including mussels, eel in herb sauce and mashed potatoes with sausage. (15 Grand Place; +32-2-513-7344; open noon to 2:30 p.m. daily)
Brussels sees so many business travelers that many of its hotels lean to the bland, expensive side -- but that doesn't mean you can't find properties with charm and character even if you're traveling on a budget.
Closest to the Port: The Crowne Plaza -- Brussels City Centre is a few blocks from the Beco dock (it's probably too far to walk if you're toting a heavy bag, so we recommend taking a quick cab ride instead). The refurbished guest rooms feature free Wi-Fi, Art Nouveau accents, and many offer a view of the nearby Botanic Gardens. The hotel is within walking distance of Grand Place and convenient to public transportation, permitting easy access to the rest of the city. (3 Rue Gineste; +32-2-203-6200)
Historic Charm: Located in the Art Nouveau quarter in the southern part of the city, the Hotel Manos Premier has an elegant Old World ambience. Rooms are furnished with Louis XV and Louis XVI period furniture and generously lit by floor-to-ceiling windows. Marble bathrooms and a gorgeous Arabian-themed spa add to the sense of luxury. (100-106 Chaussee de Charleroi; +32-2-537-9682)
Big Splurge:The Royal Hotel Windsor enjoys an ideal location just a block or two from Grand Place and the central train station. The decor is subtly luxurious, with calming earth tones, marble bathrooms and flat-screen TVs. Other upscale touches include free Wi-Fi and spa therapy bath amenities. (5 Rue Duquesnoy; +32-2-505-5555)
Fun and Affordable: In a city that sees visitors from all over the globe, the Brussels Welcome Hotel embraces that multiculturalism with 15 rooms that each represent a different country of the world. Exotic fabrics, artwork and decorative objects -- some donated by past guests of the hotel -- capture the spirit and culture of places like Japan, Morocco and India. The small size of the hotel ensures friendly, personal service, and the rates are surprisingly affordable for its center-city location. (23 Quai au Bois a Bruler; +32-2-219-546)
Staying in Touch
It's easy to get onto the Internet in Brussels, as numerous cafes and restaurants offer free Wi-Fi to customers. You don't even need to go inside, just set your phone to scan for a hotspot and walk toward it until the signal is strong enough to use.
Best for an Introduction: The Brussels Old Town and Grand Place tour hits all of the highlights, including Grand Place and Mannekin Pis. The full-day tours include transportation from the embarkation port to the historic center of the city, a guided walking tour and a three-course Flemish lunch. Eight hours.
Best for Foodies: The Brussels Beer Tasting combines a walking tour of the city with a four-course lunch paired with Belgium's famous beers. Besides including a stop at the Musical Instruments Museum, the tour has time for shopping and a walking tour before returning to the pier. Eight hours.
River cruises sometimes also offer half-day walking tours of the historic city center.
For More Information
On the Web: Belgium Tourist Office and Brussels Tourist and Convention Bureau
Cruise Critic Message Boards: British Isles and Western Europe
IndependentTraveler.com: Europe Travel Guide
--By Sarah Schlichter, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Dori Saltzman, News Editor