If you are even remotely considering adding Brussels to any sort of travel itinerary, chances are that someone (either in person or print) has told you that it’s one of Europe’s best cities and that another person has told you that visiting would be a complete and utter waste of time.
So what’s the case? Is visiting Brussels just “pissing time away”? (Yes, that was a Manneken Pis joke; yes, it was lame.) Despite reading lots and lots of “don’t go”, I added Brussels as the first stop of my post-semester trip…mostly because it was only a cheap Ryanair flight away from Pisa.
My first impressions of Brussels weren’t the greatest. The Brussels Charleroi airport was more than an hour bus ride into the city center, but I guess that can be expected from most airports that Ryanair flies into. What I was expecting was how infrequent the buses run. I had read that the bus to the city departs approximately twenty minutes after a Ryanair flight lands. This held true–but there was no way I was getting on that bus and another didn’t come for another 20+ minutes.
When I finally arrived in Brussels, I plugged in the address of my hostel (I used a really great offline app called Maps.Me during my time in Europe) and started my walk. Heading past the train station, I wasn’t feeling too safe. I reminded myself that no city should be judged by the area around the train station and kept walking. Eventually things got a little nicer and I was ecstatic to find the first actual thrift (not vintage) store I had seen in months. After a quick browse, nothing in my size that I liked, I spotted a fry shop on the corner. I realized how hungry I actually was and decided getting to the hostel could wait a little longer. I ordered a cone of fries with the traditional ketchup and mayonnaise combination. I’m not a huge fan of either, so I was pretty surprised when I really liked the combined flavor.
At that point, I was full and ready to face the city–well, after I dropped off my way-too-heavy backpack. I checked into the hostel, but wasn’t able to take my bag up to the room because of the midday lock-out. Simple enough, there were lockers in the lobby. Just as I sat my backpack inside a locker, someone explained to me, through miming, a guessing game, and some broken English, that her bag had just been stolen out of the same locker. I thought I’d give it a go anyway, but then noticed you could get the door open about three inches even with the lock on.
Despite the lockers being extremely close to the front desk, I was instantly uneasy….and that’s how I ended up walking around the city all day with my backpack. First, we (my backpack and me) walked to the Magritte Museum. The museum was incredibly well done, just be prepared to not see some of Rene Margritte’s more famous pieces like “The Son of Man” and “The Treachery of Images”; you might know these as the man with the apple in front of his face and the pipe. Luckily my back got a little bit of a break, as I was able to store my backpack in the museum lockers while I walked around.
After the museum, I hiked over to Grand Place, the main square in Brussels. From there, I departed on the longest three hour walking tour of my life. I’ve taken quite a few tours with Sandeman’s before, but this was certainly my least favorite. Perhaps it was just the rain, my aching back, or the tour guide openly admitting that people struggle to find Brussel’s personality as a city (agreed.) The tour did have some perks, as it took you past all the must-see sights in the city– I didn’t feel as though I needed more time on my own.
Well, all the major sights except for one. The Atomium is easily one of the top two things-to-do in Brussels, but it is pretty far from everything else. Built for the 1958 World’s Fair, the odd structure now houses a temporary exhibition on Magritte and surrealism, in addition to a permanent exhibition of the World’s Fair. Visitors can also take an elevator to the top for views of Brussels and apparently even the Netherlands, if the day is clear. In the end, the Atomium took up half a day when you combined transportation there and back, waiting in lines, and the visit itself. In my opinion, it was completely worth it and, in all honesty, the only thing in Brussels that I didn’t find underwhelming.
In the end, I think I could have skipped Brussels. It just wasn’t the city for me, but you don’t need to fall in love with every city that you travel to. If you do decide to go, I think it is manageable in a day. I would have much rather another night in one of Belgium’s smaller towns than my night in Brussels. Brussels might be a highlight for some and just a stop along the way for others, but no matter what you think, make sure you get a waffle if you go.