If you've been to Brussels before, chances are you were there on a business trip. After all, only one-third of the 6 million people who visit Belgium's capital each year do so 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 Bruges.
But as locals will make a point of noting, there's much more to Belgium than Bruges. The city boasts it's "the heart of Europe" for its role as the capital of the European Union and its multiculturalism. Locals say that the March 22, 2016, terrorist attacks, which took place at Brussels Airport and a subway station that killed 32 people, were an act of extremist individuals and not indicative of the city as a whole. Indeed, a makeshift memorial to the victims features chalked messages of love and peace on buildings and on cobblestones in multiple languages and alphabets. The messages include "Love wins," "Je suis Bruxelles" and "Hart bove Haat."
Visitors should move beyond Brussels' modern and somewhat sanitary government buildings of the Quartier European and instead dive deeper into into the historical heart of the city. In its intimate historic core, 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. South of the center, you'll see the curving facades and wrought-iron balconies of the city's gracious Art Nouveau neighborhood, while to the north, you'll find the wide green lawns and the vibrant blooms of the Botanic Garden.
The city has expanded its pedestrianized central zone, turning the area around the Place de la Bourse into a place for street acrobats and musicians to showcase their talents. It's easy to walk to most places you'll want to visit, but for those who need a ride, taxis are easily hailed.
Art, history and culture are celebrated in more than 100 museums throughout the city, featuring everything from delicate Belgian lace to musical instruments and vintage cars. The newest offering is the Millennium Iconoclast Museum of Art, MIMA, in the Molenbeek neighborhood, which features different exhibits, mostly be street artists. The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium recently opened a unique exhibition of the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, with videos and displays allowing for a deeper look at the lost master's works.
Brussels also has a sense of fun and whimsy. 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. The Belgian Comic Strip Center includes a museum that looks at pioneers of the genre as well as contemporary masters and up-and-coming artists. Permanent exhibitions address the invention of comic strips and a deeper look at the art of the Smurfs. (Yes, the Smurfs!)
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 Bruges, it's easier there than in most European capitals to find a quiet corner to call your own.