A Love Letter to Brussels: Quirky, Cultured City Be Mine

Angela Dansby

Dear Brussels,

You had me at “bonjour, enchanté” when we first met years ago. I fell for your charming personality, international flair and striking appearance. Often overshadowed by your bigger siblings Paris and London, you have so much to offer yet remain an underexplored gem. That’s because you’re modest and understated, only capturing the hearts of those who take the time to know you. Here’s why I love you:

Heart of Gold

Your Grand Place, formerly the big market and now a UNESCO World Heritage site, was once the hub of trade where rich merchants lived. Today visitors gawk at the former guild houses—some of which are even gilded.

Your City Hall, with its tall spire in the Grand Place, represents your eccentric self with two different wings, each designed by different architects working some 50 years apart. While visually compatible, the two sides are not at all symmetrical, representing your quirky self.

Your Royal Palace is divine and unique, complete with a room marked by iridescent green ceilings and chandeliers covered with Thai jewel beetles from the Congo. Since the Belgian king and queen don’t live there, you’ve opened the street in front of the palace for public parties. The remains of the old Coudenberg palace from three centuries ago lie quietly underneath.

Your Cinquantenaire Park arches, recognizing Belgium’s 1830 independence from the Netherlands, makes Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate seem small by comparison. And what a romantic view you offer on top.

Worldliness

You are the second most international city in the world after Dubai, representing 180 nationalities. European institutions alone account for one-tenth of your population; no wonder around 60 percent of your inhabitants were born outside of Belgium.

Your competing French and Dutch influences (Wallonia and Flanders) make you more cultured and compelling. Nice that your street signs and other public materials are in both languages, even though you’re dominated by the French language of love. 

You handle your six governments (federal, Flanders, Wallonia, Brussels capitol region and French- and German-speaking communities) earnestly, but I know you’re actually laid back, never letting rules interfere with the joy of living.

Great Sense of Humor         

Your rarified sense of humor is inspired by a legendary comic culture. Kudos that you have the Belgian Comic Strip Center (housed in a former warehouse designed by famed Belgian architect Victor Horta) as well as about 40 commissioned murals in your Comic Book Route. I appreciate that you’ve played home to famous artists like Hergé and Peyo who created Tintin and the Smurfs, respectively.

Quirky
You’re quirky as all get out with giant puppets wandering around public events, an International Puppet Museum, royal puppet theater, open air Street Lamp Museum, Clockarium (funny it opens on Sundays at exactly 2:55 pm) and a fantastical winter merry-go-round. Your hidden sculpture Human Passions shocked the public when it was unveiled in 1896. Depicting humanity’s pleasures and sins, including seduction, murder, suicide, rape, and death, the sculpture was locked up for over a century until recently.

I overlook your bizarre obsession with peeing, demonstrated through the sculptures Manneken Pis, Jeanneke Pis and Het Zinneke (little boy, little girl, and big dog peeing). Why the 2-foot-high Manneken Pis is your symbol is beyond words? But your people love it, so much so that it has been stolen seven times and cycles through almost 1,000 costumes.

Physically Attractive

You have fantastic physical attributes as a Dutch-French mix. Victor Horta’s Hotel Solvay, his eponymous museum (the architect’s former home and studio), his student’s Saint-Cyr House, The Cauchie House and A. Ciamberlani House are all shining examples of Art Nouveau, the style born in Belgium. I adore your Old England building (now the Musical Instruments Museum) with its glass, wrought iron and rooftop view as well as the secret La Bellone art space and cafe.

Your physical beauty runs deep, going back to the 12th and 14th centuries with Halle Gate and other remnants from first and second defensive walls that once enclosed you. Your Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, which took a mere 300 years to complete, is gothic gorgeous.

But you’ve kept up with the times as well, showing off modern architecture in the European Parliament and Commission as well as the new Europa Building with its Frank Lloyd Wright-esque exterior and giant, bulbous structure inside. Your National Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the fifth largest church in the world, is the epitome of Art Deco. The Atomium, designed for Expo 58 to represent an atom magnified billions of times, is a unique city symbol. The night lights of its giant orbs are serenely romantic.

You also have many fine interiors, including boutique hotels Harmon House, Made in Louise, Manos Premier, Odette en Ville and The Dominican, a former convent. Intimate B&Bs Louise sur Cour and All in One contrast with your large but charming hotels Moxy (opened September 2020), The Hotel, Amigo and Warwick.

Chalet Robinson, Bois de la Cambre

Outdoorsy

You have lots of lovely green space, including many secret parks that stay lush thanks to your plentiful rain. Bois de la Cambre forest is an urban oasis with its running and biking trails, small lake for canoeing, and island restaurant, Chalet Robinson. It’s charming to take a mechanical ferry across the lake to reach the restaurant. The green space surrounding the lake is perfect for a picnic as is Tenbosch Park, L’Abbaye de la Cambre, Ixelles Ponds and further out Tervuren. 

Egmont Park next to the mysterious Egmont Palace and Leopold Park behind the European Parliament are wonderful places to linger. Your Mont des Art has a lovely bush maze. The nearby Royal Library of Belgium (KBR) offers great views of this maze and City Hall from its rooftop cafeteria.

Around 8,000 green parakeets live in many of your trees thanks to a local zoo owner who released 50 in 1974 to give your neighborhoods more color.

Knowledgeable

With over 100 museums, you are chock-full of information. No wonder you’re Europe’s capital and home to the Parliamentarium—covering all political aspects of the European Union—and newish House of European History.

Artistic

You must have more art installations than gas stations. My favorites are the René Magritte Museum (he pioneered surrealism in your care after all), Absolute Art Gallery, Xavier Hufkins and La Photographie Galerie. You also offer various art shows each year, such as the international, prestigious BRAFA; Art Brussels and the Affordable Art Fair.

Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert

Sensibly Fashionable

You prove that fashion forwardness is not limited to big cities. In spite of housing only 1.2 million people, you make fashion statements all the time on Rue Antoine Dansaert, Rue des Chartreux and Avenue Louise. Stores like Caroline Biss, Natan, Essential and Y Dress demonstrate that Belgians know how to design clothing … case in point, designers Dries Van Noten, Diane Von Furstenberg and Liz Claiborne.

I love shopping for Italian leather gloves in your Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert—the oldest mall in the world that once housed one of the first cinemas and the first chocolatier (Neuhaus) in Belgium.

I appreciate that you treasure old things, too, like antiques and second-hand items sold in and around your Jeu de Balle flea market and on Haute and Blaes streets.

Foodie

When it comes to cooking, you are second to no city. You have top chefs, restaurants, and produce (there’s a reason Brussels sprouts were named after you) as well as the world’s best beer, waffles, mussels, fries, gingerbread (speculoos) and chocolate.

Bon Bon restaurant

The Tram Experience—a multi-course, gourmet meal prepared on a tram that moves throughout the city by a cadre of famed Belgian chefs—is one-of-a-kind. And your seasonal food festivals like Taste of Brussels in September and Food Truck Festival (the largest in Europe) in May are tasty and fun.

Some of my favorite dishes and moments can be found in two-star Michelin Bon Bon and La Paix, Art Club (with a two-star Michelin chef), Belga Queen, La Canne en Ville, Fin de Siecle, La Meilleure Jeunesse, Winehouse Osteria and Le Cave. Your Wolf food court conveniently offers a taste of Brussels in one big space.

I salivate over your 500 chocolate brands, though my favorites are Pierre Marcolini (his displays alone are works of art), Mary, Frederic Blondeel, Wittamer, Zaabar and Mi Joya. I love that I can find freshly made waffles everywhere or that they find me via a musical truck roaming your streets. Galler’s molten-chocolate-filled waffles are always worth an indulgence. And the speculoos at Maison Dandoy never disappoints.

Quality Drinker

You are a beer connoisseur, offering the world the best. This includes six of 11 Trappist monastery breweries in the world, such as the cult Westveleteren and about 200 others. You even have your own Cantillon Brewery and Brussels Museum of the Gueuze to showcase this carbonated, acidic beer made only in Belgium. Your so-called “Brussels champagne” does not need French validation. My favorite places to learn about Belgium beers are Poechenellekelder with 150 options (and hanging puppets), underground Delirium with more than two thousand beers and your annual beer fest in the Grand Place. I can’t wait for your former stock exchange (La Bourse) to unveil a new beer museum!

I’m also happy you’ve jumped onto the gourmet cocktail bandwagon with venues such as Dzama, Arthur Orlans, Vertigo, Alice, La Pharmacie Anglaise and the “secret” bar Jalousy. And when the sun shines, your outdoor watering holes do, too, such as urban L’Imperial and woodsy Le Kiosque and Le Flore.

Social Butterfly

You have a lot going on, hosting 20,000 events a year. Every night of the week you offer fun dates, such as year-round outdoor markets in front of the architecturally stunning Commune de Saint-Gilles (Mondays) and in the fashionable Place du Chatelain (Wednesdays). I love our Sundays with oysters and champagne at Place Flagey or authentic Moroccan wraps and mint tea at Gare du Midi market. And Thursdays are intriguing, rubbing shoulders with European bureaucrats at Place Luxembourg, followed by dancing at your elegant nightclub in the forest Jeux d’Hiver.

Finally, I love our special days together at unique folk festivals and sunny afternoons on terraces. You spoil me with Belgian Independence Day celebrations, Museum Night Fever, Heritage Days, Brussels Museums Nocturnes, Grand Place Flower Carpet, Plaisirs d’Hiver Christmas market with sound and light shows, and numerous outdoor festivals and indoor gala balls.

Brussels, what else can I say? My heart will stay with you forever.

XOXO, Angela

This is the unedited, updated version of a letter originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of ART + DESIGN magazine.

One Response

  1. You write so descriptively that you inspire a visit to your city.

    I love the word enchante’. Poirot’ is always saying it when meeting new people. I learned how to say it correctly!

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful article on your city. I have enjoyed taking a visit vicariously.

    Love,

    Aunt June

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