You’ll hear people sigh over the intricacy of the Grand Place in Belgium’s capital city of Brussels, but here are the experiences – not “sights,” not “attractions” – that you really need to enjoy. Ben calls this post, “Five Ways to Sprout in Brussels.” Jokes aside, these are the things you shouldn’t miss. In no particular order:
Frites at Maison Antoine
(and beers at The First)
You’ll find it at the center of a cute plaza in the European Quarter, just a couple of blocks away from the European Commission headquarters. The line on Saturday night proves what locals already know and what you’re about to find out: in a country renowned for fried potatoes (don’t call them French fries), these are some of the best.
Choose from over twenty sauces and decide whether you prefer yours in a plastic container or loaded on top. Then make sure your hands are free to receive the large, cone-shaped bundle, which looks more like a flower arrangement than something edible.
The golden, crispy exterior gives way to a soft, almost creamy center, just as it should. They really are to die for. The only thing that could possibly up the pleasure would be a frothy Belgian beer to wash them down.
Luckily, several cafes in the area have posted signs that read “frites acceptee.” (Like other dual-language European capital cities, such as nearby Luxembourg, this is also written in the Flemish “repas acceptes.”) Roughly translated, that means “Bring it on! We’re happy to take your business!” If you’re still not sure, focus on the graphical: you’ll see a happily smiling, conical shaped bundle of frites winking at you merrily.
Our favorite bar is “The First,” positioned on a corner across from Maison Antoine. Order a framboise if you’d like something light and fruity or a Trappist triple (get ready for 13% alcohol) if you have faith that the frites will ward off inebriation. Sit back with your fellow frites eaters and indulge in a perfect evening snack.
Brussels is the seat of the European Union, but it feels more like the United Nations. You’ll see people of all shapes, colors and sizes, often wearing traditional dress. In few places can you witness such a confluence of glittering sarees, Congolese gowns, and men wearing kaftans and slippers. Ben and I spent hours just watching the parade.
It turns out that nearly one in four people in Brussels is of African descent (this according to a Ryanair article, which is perfectly trustworthy; Belgium itself does not collect demographic statistics by ethnographic background), mostly immigrants from former colonies like the Congo and Rwanda. So to truly go local, you’ll need to head towards the plantains and rum punch.
Those would be found in the Ixelles neighborhood, in an area known colloquially as the Matonge, after the market in the Congo’s capital city Kinshasa. Grab a seat outdoors along the Rue Longue Vie and watch the parade of gorgeous dresses and matching head scarves, concealing perfectly coiffed dos fresh from the area’s many hair salons and barber shops.
As you kick back to a meal of fried fish surrounded by a great mix of Africans, tourists, hipsters, and European diplomats, the sound of music will fill the air and time will seem to linger.
Beers at Delirium Monasterium
As their coasters will tell you, Delirium Tremens was voted the best beer in the world. We’re not sure when or by whom, but there you go. That’s not to say we don’t like it – love it, even – because, after all, we’re promoting it here. But we also love Delirium Nocturnum, and find it hard to choose between the many other beers served at this beer emporium.
Yes, the Monastarium sells more than their own brew, to the tune of about 50 Trappist and Abbey beers, plus 40 varieties of vodka. That’s not nearly as much as their sister “Delirium Café” two doors down, at which you can work your way through a list of over 2,000 beers. “List” is a euphemism: it’s really a book, which can be purchased as a memento for about 5 euros. (We spoke to one man who was on his own pilgrimmage of sorts, camping out in Brussels for over a month in an attempt to work his way through the entire offering.) If that sounds like your kind of thing, consider Belgium’s Beer Weekend over Labor Day (Guest blogger Lloyd Parfait talks about it here).
But back to the bar at hand: This is a low-key place where you can actually converse with fellow patrons and the bartenders, soaking up great tips along with strong beers both blond and brown, sweet and bitter. (If the beer is a bitter variety, don’t pour the entire bottle into the glass. Drink what is left in the bottle first – the bitter remains, if you will. This will be the most bitter of the lot, and will make the beer in your glass taste sweeter.) And with a curated list of 50 of the best Trappists and Abbeys – arguably the best in Belgium – who needs more?
You can tell from people-watching in the hipper neighborhoods that Bruxellois like fashion, and they like it vintage. In fact, the vintage scene here has developed a name throughout Europe, and people come from surrounding areas with this single shopping purpose in mind.
Google “Brussels vintage” and you’ll be served a list of stores too long to name here. But one golden example that shines on everyone’s Top 5 is Gabriele, blocks from the Grand Place, where the proprietress is often on hand to help guide, inspire, or motivate you with her own unique style.
Costume designers and fashionistas flock to Gabriele for her hand-selected assortments of high-quality vintage pieces at affordable prices, and since inventory moves quickly, you never know what you’ll find (or who you’ll see). Me? I scored a sweet little Yves Saint Laurent silk scarf circa 1970, which I’ve already worn about ten times.
Back in the day, Lambic beer was all that was produced in Brussels. Nowadays it is rare, but independent Brasserie Cantillon has maintained continual production, using equipment from the 19th century.
This naturally fermenting beer can supposedly only be produced in the Brussels area and only in the late fall / early winter, when cold weather shifts the ratio of local airborne microorganisms to favor good over bad. The result is a non-carbonated liquid which must undergo secondary fermentation to reach anything even close to what we would recognize as beer today.
This traditional brewing method requires absolute balance of a delicate ecosystem. The brewery points to the cobwebs throughout their buildings as an example of their adherence to these principles.
During summer, large numbers of insects are attracted by the last stages of fermentation as well as the deliveries of fresh fruit.
Since insecticides are harmful to beer maturing in barrels, we instead let Mother Nature take care of this job. Spiders, which are very effective predators, maintain a biological equilibrium in the brewery by eliminating harmful insects. A Lambic brewer will never destroy a cobweb and killing spiders is very much frowned upon.
At the end of the brewing process, Lambic brewers will add fresh fruit. The result tastes nothing like beer, but more like champagne. A very fruity champagne that’s totally addictive. At Cantillon, cherry and raspberry brews will likely be available for your tasting pleasure. They’re more tart than the commercial versions, but when in Brussels…
**See more photos in our photo gallery.