Brussels, or Bruxelles, or Bureaucrat Central, the capital of Belgium and the defacto administrative heart of the European Union is, like any city with multiple identities, a study in the cultures and influences that made this the predominantly bilingual French-Dutch city in the Dutch Flemish half of a country, a unique melting pot and a centre of the experiment that is a united Europe (God that was a mouth-full). It is more than a monument of ambition: it is, like any good Belgian chocolate, a mix of unique ingredients that work and leave you wanting for more.
City of Hills
Unlike the Dutch half of Belgium that is Flanders which is mostly flat, Brussels, is fairly hilly, and this is something you will notice when you arrive at Brussels Central Station. Unlike Antwerp with her massive, grand arrival hall, a nexus of trade, Brussels’s station is very much a product of her art deco 1920s time and slowly reveals itself as a showcase city for royal ambitions.
Stepping out of Central, you will notice the handsome streets, almost Parisian facades and hills. Central itself is located within one of the city’s many hills, and the landmark Cathedral of St Michael and St Guluda/Co-Cathedral Collegial des Ss Michael et Gudule/Collegiale Sint Michiels en Sint Goedele co-kathedraal, just next door, is a good vantage point to look towards the old city.
Walking down the Rue du Montainge, towards the old city and the Grand Place/Grote Markt, the sheer bustle and congestion, the proximity of buildings and grandeur of Northern Renaissance buildings will make you look up most of the time. No grand plazas like Antwerp here. Think urban canyon of St Mark’s Square in Venice.
Nibbles and Scribbles
Within the Grand Place/Grote Market, are an array of alley ways where your nose, and stomach, is a sufficient guide. Crepes and waffles, chocolate pieces and chips galore, all wonderfully delicious and made in just the right size, you can walk and nibble, and still have room for one more as you digest your snack while walking. I am not ashamed to admit that my diet in Brussels was dominated by waffles and crepes.
If something more high-brow is your thing, head up towards the Place Royal, in the aptly named Royal Quarter, for a study in Low Country art. While not as expansive as Amsterdam’s Rijkmuseum or home to curated collections in Den Haag’s Mauritshuis, the art and galleries in this square here have a good collection of lesser known but equally stunning artworks, with print shops selling good reproductions.
The Royal Centre
The monumental Royal Centre on top of a hill is for stunning vistas, both of Brussels and the imperial image it seeks to project. From the expansive Brussels Park in front of the Royal Palace of Brussels to the neo-classical lines along the Konigsplein or Place Royale, the royal and imperial ambitions of a clean-lined, grand centre is on display.
The Koningsplein/Place Royale draws your eye upwards as you approach from the lower wards in the city, with the Church of St Jacques du Coudenburg providing the focal point and the equestrian statue of Godfrey du Boillon a centre piece looking out to the city.
The axis centred on the Konigsplein/Place Royale provide stunning vistas to other parts of the city, from the copula of the Palace of Justice to the green parks of Brussels Park and Mont Des Arts.
Monuments for Monumental Dreams
As a student of international law and geopolitics, Brussels is one of those destinations which I have to go to if only to see one particular major institution. I am that much of an international law geek that I purposely went to Den Haag to see the ICJ, Geneva to the former League of Nations quarter to Brussels and the legislative heart of the European Union.
Located a bit off-centre to the west, easily reached via tram or a leisurely walk through character-filled neighbourhoods, the Espace Leopold, focal point of the European Quarter, is one of the homes of the European Parliament. The complex is unassuming, blending well with the neighbourhood, and incorporates the classical frontage of the former Brussels-Luxembourg Station.
Going back westwards, if you extend the visual axis from the European Quarter to the Royal Palace and Konigsplein/Place Royale, the other stunning site of Mont Des Arts offers amazing views of Brussels. Thanks to the hilly terrain, this city is not short of vantage points, but this is one of the prettiest.
From the spire of the Brussels City Hall at the Grand Place, framed by the neo-classical buildings fronting the terraced gardens, and its proximity to Brussels Gare Central railway station, this spot is easily a picture-postcard spot before zooming off to your next destination.
Train connections? Local trains, high speed inter-city trains, Eurostar and Thalys provides excellent connections to Brussels through the three major railway hubs in the north, centre and south of the city centre, with regular services across the Low Countries. In fact, you can just turn up at Amsterdam Centraal and you’ll be on a train to Brussels within the hour.
Antwerp, or Antwerpen, is one of those interesting destinations that does not pop up frequently in people’s minds, at least if you are not based in Europe. It is however, a fantastic little destination, which is best approached by train from Amsterdam, for the best arrival experience, at least in my opinion.
All that glitters
Arrival in to Antwerp via high speed train from Amsterdam or Paris is definitely the way to go. A short-ish 2 hour train ride away from Amsterdam Centraal, this gem of a destination will definitely feel like it as you pull in to Antwerp Centraal. This grand baroque cathedral of a railway station will definitely remind you of a city built on trade and diamonds.
Once the opulence and gild of the railway station settles in to your imagination, the city’s plazas and boulevards will set your imagination alight in this the major city of Flanders, the predominantly culturally Dutch part of Belgium.
Just next to the railway station is the Diamond Quarter, aptly named ‘Diamant.’ Do not let the bland exterior fool you: those stores and plain façade hide the Antwerp Diamond Exchange, numerous jewellers skilled in cutting the finest and among the most sought-after gem sets.
Straight out from the main façade of Antwerpen Centraal and Diamant is De Keyserlei, continuing on westwards to Teniersplaats and the Meir, all grand entranceways in to the central of Antwerp. Antwerp is a very walkable city, with wide shaded boulevards, ample trams, a lot of pedestrian space and monumental vistas that are arguably on par with Paris’s Champs Elysees, Newcastle’s Grey Street and Edinburgh’s New Town.
Antwerp can pleasantly surprise you, even if you have high expectations of a city of this magnitude. Walking along the wide boulevard of the Meir, the city’s commercial heart, shopping arcades blend in seamlessly with art-deco constructions, baroque edifices and 19th century opulence.
The Rembrandt House has a fine collection of Dutch works, set in a beautifully restored house, tucked away in the corner along the Meir. Given the right spring day, not your usual street performers will be enthralling you on this boulevard, with my particular highlight being a well-tuned soprano.
Amidst this avenue, you will still be reminded that this is a city in flux, that tries to balance all her commercial interests in one go. In between the medieval city and renaissance quarters, art-deco towers rise up, reminding you of the commercial importance of this city, but unlike other edifices, these almost seemingly blend in at street-level and only really pop up once you see the city from the opposite bank of the River Scheldt.
For an interesting view of Antwerp, head to the banks of the River Scheldt, where, next to the Grote Markt, is Sint-Annatunnel, a pedestrian tunnel that links communities on both sides of the river. This 1km walk under the River Scheldt was built in 1933 and has beautiful painted tiles that tell the story of this unique construction.
The Great Market
Like all great trading cities in the low countries, Antwerp pay homage to her grand market square, the Grote Markt, where the statue of Brabo, or the Brabo Fountain, lies prominent in front of the City Hall. Fantastic beer gardens and bars line the square and the surrounding alleyways, a departure from the formal lines of the renaissance city on the Meir.
The great belfry of Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekatheedraal, or Cathedral of Our Lady is a prominent landmark in Antwerp and provides a good juxtaposition to the spires in the Grote Markt. The interior is, to put it simply, divine, with many beautiful Dutch Masters, Antwerp resident Peter Paul Reubens in particular, hanging in-situ as they would have been when they were initially commissioned. A very interesting way to bring in the people to church: turn it in to an art gallery.
Adjoining the Grote Markt are the old quays and docklands, some of which have been repurposed as art spaces, pop-up markets and warehouse nightclubs. As Antwerp once was one of the great trading conduits linking the interior of Europe to the great outside, Antwerp now becomes the great conduit that links the outside art world to this section of Europe. The Museum aan de Stroom or MAS, is in itself a piece of art and houses a fine collection of works from across the world and is arguably one of the more interactive museums out there. It also has fantastic views of the city from the top terrace.
Chocolate, Chips and Shells Trails
Think Belgium and Belgian Chocolate would surely pop in to your head. Apart from the usual Godiva and Leonidas, Antwerp has a fantastic array of small, artisanal chocolate shops, all tucked away in the old city. These small establishments are worth the hunt, and are consistently as good as their more famous counterparts.
The chocolate trail combines with the, as I now call it, the chips trail. Fries, pomme frites, chips, call them whatever but they taste pretty good in Antwerp, and you cannot go wrong with whichever shop you go in to. However, one particular shop, at the Groenplaats, seems to get the crowds. Queue looks long, but it is fast moving, and as it is next to a Leonidas and a few good bars, you might as well add on a chocolate trail and pub crawl while you’re here.
Another interesting feature you may notice as you walk around Antwerp would be the small bronze shells you see embedded in the pavement. It was only after a visit to the St James’s Church when I realized that there is a third trail that converges in Antwerp: the Way of St James, or the Via de Santiago de Compostela. Yes, that famous Pilgrimage Trail actually starts up in the low countries and passes through Antwerp.
Little did I know, my travels would converge in a nexus where the trails of commerce, art, diamonds, chocolates, beer and religion meet. It helps that it is still one of the largest ports in the world (the Port of Antwerp actually almost reaches the Dutch border) and one of the grandest railway stations around.
WiFi? The City of Antwerp has free decent speed wifi available city-wide, so there is no worry for you to hunt around for free wifi if you are too lazy to get a local sim or pay for roaming.
Train connections? Local trains, high speed inter-city trains and Thalys provides excellent connections to Antwerp with regular services across the Low Countries. In fact, you can just turn up at Amsterdam Centraal and you’ll be on a train to Antwerpen within the hour.
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.