Given that Belgium is roughly the geographic size of the state of Maryland, it could perhaps be easily overlooked as a European travel destination. That would be a shame, because this little country nestled between the borders of France, Germany, Netherlands and the tiniest of countries … Luxembourg, is world-class indeed. After a visit to Amsterdam I landed in Brussels, the capital city of Belgium and the de facto capital of the European Union. Did I mention that it is also the headquarters for NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization? Yes, Brussels is the European nerve center for politicians, bankers, civil servants and diplomats. This cosmopolitan capital boasts astounding architecture and is awash in vibrant culture and heritage. Here are six solid reasons why Brussels is a fantastic travel destination:
#1. La Grand-Place/Grote Markt: The central square of Brussels is hands-down the most luxurious place/plaza/city square I’ve ever visited! Decadently ornate architectural façades, spires and statues adorn Brussels Town Hall, numerous guildhalls, the Maison du Roi (Kings House). Outdoor cafes and boutiques fill La Grand-Place. http://www.lagrandplace.org. After sufficiently ogling the extraordinary architecture filling Brussels’ central square, my travel friend Julia and I wandered a few short blocks beyond La Grand-Place in search of the infamous “Manneken Pis” (peeing boy) to witness his amusing “stream” and ever-changing attire. We enjoyed a lovely shopping spree in a few of Brussel’s many linen and chocolate boutiques, then wrapped the afternoon by propping up our tired feet and toasting the day with a frothy Duvel (a tasty Belgian blonde ale) and an order of gooey cheese fondue at Grand Place’s La Brouette Taverne. YUM! http://www.taverne-brouette.be.
#2. Brussels’ Flowercarpet: Book your trip to Brussels now because preparations for the 2014 Flowercarpet held at La Grand-Place are well underway. This year from August 14-17, the entire floor of Grand Place will be transformed into a spectacular flower carpet created almost solely from approximately a million colorful begonias (Belgium is the world’s largest producer of begonias.) Every two years since 1971, resplendent Flowercarpets are conceptualized, designed and created, then unveiled to hundreds of thousands of visitors. 2014’s Flowercarpet will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Turkish migration in Belgium. http://www.flowercarpet.be. If you’re lucky enough to be in Brussels for Flowercarpet, please partake in the wildly popular Brussels Summer Festival (BSF), a 10-day multi-cultural event running from August 8-18th this year and featuring art, music and theatre performances. http://www.bsf.be.
#3. National Basilica of the Sacred Heart and Cathedral of St. Michael & St. Gudula: History clearly indicates that Belgians are rightfully proud of their cultural heritage! In 1905, King Leopold II laid the first stone of the National Basilica of the Sacred Heart during the 75th anniversary celebration of Belgium’s independence. 65 years later, in November of 1970, doors to this art-deco style basilica located in Parc Elisabeth atop Koekelberg Hill were formally opened. (Originally neo-gothic in style, the unfinished church was completely re-designed in 1919.) Also referred to as the Koekelberg Basilica, a duo of twin towers, the large green copper dome and heavy brick façade combine to make Basilica of the Sacred Heart fantastically one-of-a-kind unique! http://www.basilicakoekelberg.be. Situated atop yet another hill … this one named Treurenberg … the towers of the Cathedral of St. Michael & St. Gudula surge 210 feet high, giving it an imposing presence on Brussels’ skyline. A massive stone exterior façade features ornately carved gables, towers, and stained glass. The interior of the Cathedral continues in a mix of extravagant gothic and baroque styles, culminating in a massive marble altarpiece. The Cathedral of St. Michael & St. Gudula is just a short 15-minute walk from La Grand-Place. http://www.cathedralestmichel.be.
#4. Parc du Cinquantenaire: The Belgian Revolution of 1830 gave Belgium independence from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. 50 years later, Parc du Cinquantenaire (Jubelpark) and the Triumphal Arch were dedicated at the 1880 National Exhibition, honoring the 50th anniversary of Belgium’s independence. Stunning architecture adorned with copper statues swathed in weathered verdigris, gardens and water features fill this park on the eastern edge of Brussels. Visiting the Royal Military Museum, Cinquantenaire Art Museum and AutoWorld Museum, all housed here in the buildings of Jubelpark, provides a nice perspective on some of Belgium’s most exalted history.
#5. Atomium and the Chinese Pavilion: Visiting Atomium, a futuristic … hmmm, “building” … designed and constructed for the 1958 Brussels World Fair Exhibition, will surely prompt fond memories of the Jetsons and Mr. Spacely! Atomium is precisely shaped as one unit cell of an iron crystal, magnified … 165 billion times! In diametrically opposing architectural style and located a short five minute drive away, the Chinese Pavilion is an ode to exotic and ornate Asian style architecture. Commissioned in the early 1900s by King Leopold II, the Chinese Pavilion first opened its doors in 1913 and is now part of the Royal Museums of Art and History. The lush adjoining parks (Osseghem and Laeken) which are home to Atomium and the Chinese Pavilion are serene oases featuring vivid gardens, lakes, ponds and water features, greenhouses and theatrical venues.
#6. Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert: The most fascinating “window shopping” mall … EVER! Yes, Holly Golightly preferred browsing New York’s 5th Avenue (specifically Tiffany’s), but I believe Brussels’ Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert (Galerie de la Reine) is every bit a feast for the eyes as the Big Apple’s renowned 5th Avenue. Grab a steamy cup of coffee and stroll among the exclusive boutiques, galleries, restaurants and specialty stores filling this extraordinary mall which features a light boosting arched glass ceiling to protect shoppers from the elements. Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert is a very short three minute walk from La Grand-Place. http://www.grsh.be/en/