Brussels: Europe’s Cultural Crossroads

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For most of us, Brussels is synonymous with European and world politics. As the administrative centre for the European Commission, EU Council and NATO, the Belgian capital constantly makes an impact on our daily lives. However, considering its importance it lags behind other major European cities as a British tourist destination. Brussels has plenty to offer a traveller, even those on a budget. It’s immediately obvious that this is an eclectic city, from the architecture to the people who live there.

The buildings of the Grand Place (Grote Markt in Dutch) clash Gothic, Baroque and Louis XIV architecture, while only streets away there are towering modern office blocks, the Royal Palace contains a room whose ceiling and chandeliers are decorated with the wing cases of 1.4 million Thai jewel beetles. René Magritte and Tintin are both icons of the city’s culture. The giant triumphal arch of Cinquantenaire Park contrasts with Manneken Pis, the tiny iconic statue of a peeing boy who is constantly surrounded by camera-happy tourists and is dressed in costumes several times a week and sometimes, if you’re lucky, even pees beer! To experience the diversity of the city sights, it is best to pick up a free (English) Use-It city map from one of the city’s hostels and follow their themed walking routes.

The city’s inhabitants, whether they are locals, delegates or visitors, add to the truly diverse nature of this city. Brussels officially speaks French and Dutch, but has become increasingly francophone during the 20th century. However 46% of the city’s population have foreign roots and, in 2006, 16% of Brusseleers did not speak French in their home environment. Add diplomats and tourists from all over the world to this linguistic melting pot and walking down the street can be the aural equivalent of reading the multilingual McDonalds packaging. If you are struggling, retailers and restaurants will try any language they know to communicate, so be prepared to mix some languages.

It is impossible to talk about Belgium without mentioning food and drink. Belgian chocolates in Brussels are expensive and so most locals head to the supermarkets for slabs. However there are some sumptuous chocolatiers lining the Brussels streets so if you’re feeling flush indulge in some Godiva, Neuhaus or Leonidas. For a cheaper food cliché try the freshly-made Belgian waffles. Shop around Manneken Pis as they can be as cheap as one Euro. Make like a local and go plain or dusted with sugar, having cream, fruit and chocolate on top makes it difficult to eat them on the go. Belgian fries are chunky and drenched in mayonnaise, try on Rue du Midi near the Stock Exchange (Bourse/Beurs). For cheap beers try Celtica or come for the Belgian Beer Weekend in the first weekend of September. To avoid ‘Belgian’ food and to eat real Belgian cuisine try Fin de Siècle.

If rubbing shoulders with people from all over the world and rubbing your eyes with confusion when looking from the ornate Cathedral to the admittedly drab Central Station isn’t enough, take advantage of Belgium’s budget-friendly train fares and visit some of its other cities. Train prices are reduced by 50% at weekends or, if you are under 26, you can pick up a Go Pass 10 which gives 10 single journeys in Belgium for €50 and can be shared with your fellow travellers. Bruges is beautiful but crowed with hordes of gaping tourists. Ghent, Mechelen, Leuven and Antwerp are all possible daytrips.

With flights direct from Southampton Airport, Brussels is an easily accessible place in Europe to see European culture meet and mix with the rest of the world.

For information aimed at young travellers visit: http://www.brusselsmania.com

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