Brussels – The Offbeat and the Tourist Traps

Photo by Colin Moors

There's still loads to see!

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This itinerary is designed to provide a spread of different things to do on your way around Brussels, including two or three that the guide books won’t always tell you about. It is arranged in as logical a sequence as possible. It’s an end-to-end trip but you may find yourself hard pushed to do it all in a day. Just do bits of it, or base yourself in the middle and work it out from there. There’s a balanced selection of indoor and outdoor things to do as well. The weather can be entirely unpredictable and you’re probably going to need options.

Getting around

The public transport system (or on foot) really is the best way to travel around Brussels, plus you get to see more, as a rule. The Brussels bus company (STIB/MIVB) will sell you a ticket valid for the entire bus network, local trains, trams and metro (subway) for a very low price. 18€ will cover all your travel for 3 days straight – and that includes getting you back to the airport! A little forward planning and a good guide will save you money. No visit to Brussels would be complete without a visit to the Atomium, so let’s start there.

Jump on a number 7 tram (direction Heysel) and stay on to almost the very end (Stop Centenaire or Eeuwfeest). You’ll see it in front of you soon enough. Seriously – you can’t miss it, it’s huge.  On the 7 tram again back towards the city, a really surprising diversion is the Belgian national rail museum,  known by its English name – Train World. The Flemish neo-Renaissance architecture alone makes the former main line station of Schaerbeek worth a visit. If you are a real train fan, you might want to stay at the nearby Train Hostel. It’s like a sleeper train but without the inconvenience of being somewhere else in the morning.

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Beyond The Atomium

Find the same tram and get off at the stop Diamant, follow the motorway for 5 minutes and turn left into the Avenue de Février. Tucked around the corner from the roundabout is the Enclos des Fusillés. Once the grounds on which the German armies of WWI/WWII executed resistance members by firing squad, it’s now an eerily quiet oasis of calm and a garden of remembrance. English nurse and resistance member Edith Cavell was among those killed here.

‘Quirky’ is a word often associated with Brussels and the next stop is definitely that. Follow the motorway back the way you came and cross the road. A left turn onto Avenue Brand Whitlock brings you almost immediately to the Clockarium. If Art Deco ceramic clocks are your thing, congratulations! You’ve hit the jackpot. For Deco lovers, it’s a real find as they have over a thousand on display.

The last trip on the tram will take you to Metro station Montgomery, named after the famous British Field Marshall. From here, you could switch to a Metro or just walk the ten minutes it will take to get to the Parc du Cinquantenaire. The park containing the well-known arch, inaugurated to celebrate 75 years of Belgian independence, also has many other interesting features and of course provides ample space for picnics, sunbathing and sport.

Cars and guns

As you enter the Cinquantenaire from Montgomery, on your right is the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History. It began life as a collection put together for the 1910 World Exhibition in Brussels but has continued to grow ever since. Given Belgium’s involvement in conflicts from Waterloo to the two World Wars, there’s plenty to see. The small entry fee also gives you access to the top of the arch itself. The views are excellent from there.

The building directly opposite the military museum is Autoworld, a thing of joy for petrol-heads everywhere. It features antique and modern cars and bikes from Belgian manufacturers to the more exotic and specialist exhibitions are a regular occurrence. Check to see what’s new on their site before you visit. They also hold regular bar and DJ events during the summer and it’s a popular venue for viewing international football events. A real mixed bag but if you just want to go for the cars, they won’t mind.

On leaving Autoworld, go under the arch and take a stroll down the grassy expanse towards the exit. But don’t go yet – there’s still one more thing to see. Head over to the right in the direction of the Grand Mosque and look for something resembling a Greek temple. This is known as the Temple of Human Passions and it houses something of a controversial artwork. Opening times are extremely limited, so check if you want a tour.

Fries and beer – Brussels on a plate

The next stop is a brisk 10-minute walk but on the way, you’ll encounter the EU Quarter and its buildings and quite a few bars and restaurants too. Many people stop and take photographs here so just grab a glass and do some people watching. Or simply press on, straight down to the roundabout at Schuman and turn left into rue Froissart. Keep on until you run out of road and you’ll find yourself at Place Jourdan. A busy square with many shops and bars, its regular Sunday morning market makes it a firm favourite with locals. However, the real reason many  people – tourists and locals alike – come here is to sample the wares of Maison Antoine. Whether they are the best frites in Brussels or not is a matter of hot debate but the permanent queues attest to the fact they’re doing something right.

Once filled with fries and beer, it’s time for something else, if you can manage it – the Museum of Natural Sciences. As fascinating an exploration into our world as any, you’ll see mammoths, insects, minerals and everything in between. Home to the largest dinosaur hall in the world, it may keep the kids quiet long enough for you to enjoy them too.

The arts scene

Leaving via the museum car park (back the way you came) continue back down rue Vautier. On the left is a relatively small entrance gate with a fairly unassuming sign informing you that this is, in fact, a museum too. The Wiertz Museum, as it is called, houses a collection of works by the celebrated and despised Belgian romantic painter and sculptor. Some of the paintings are unpleasant to look at and it’s not always clear what on earth he’s on about. Lovers of the macabre and/or smutty will have a great time.

Last but not least is Place Flagey (tram 81, bus 60 or 38 are best). It’s a little off the beaten tourist path but if you want to dine out and enjoy a glass of something, there’s a bar or restaurant here to suit any budget or palate. An extremely popular square with locals, it can get very busy in the summer. There are often shows or concerts, as well as a bustling market over the weekend. You may well have to jostle for a table but you could always just take a stroll around the pretty nearby ponds (Etangs d’Ixelles / Vijvers van Elsene) and try again later. Things don’t close very early around here.

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