Cities in the Spotlight: Brussels, Belgium
Updated: Dec 26, 2022
In today's installment of Cities in the Spotlight we will be covering Brussels, Belgium. This series will for sure continue till the end of the year but after that I don't think I will continue it. What other kinds of posts do you want to see??
Brussels City Information
Brussels, officially the Brussels-Capital Region, is a region of Belgium comprising 19 municipalities, including the City of Brussels, which is the capital of Belgium. The Brussels-Capital Region is located in the central portion of the country and is a part of both the French Community of Belgium and the Flemish Community, but is separate from the Flemish Region (within which it forms an enclave) and the Walloon Region. Brussels is the most densely populated and the richest region in Belgium in terms of GDP per capita. It covers 162 km2 (63 sq mi), a relatively small area compared to the two other regions, and has a population of over 1.2 million. The five times larger metropolitan area of Brussels comprises over 2.5 million people, which makes it the largest in Belgium. It is also part of a large conurbation extending towards Ghent, Antwerp, Leuven and Walloon Brabant, home to over 5 million people.
Brussels grew from a small rural settlement on the river Senne to become an important city-region in Europe. Since the end of the Second World War, it has been a major centre for international politics and home to numerous international organisations, politicians, diplomats and civil servants. Brussels is the de facto capital of the European Union, as it hosts a number of principal EU institutions, including its administrative-legislative, executive-political, and legislative branches (though the judicial branch is located in Luxembourg, and the European Parliament meets for a minority of the year in Strasbourg). Its name is sometimes used metonymically to describe the EU and its institutions. The secretariat of the Benelux and headquarters of NATO are also located in Brussels. As the economic capital of Belgium and one of the top financial centres of Western Europe with Euronext Brussels, it is classified as an Alpha global city. Brussels is a hub for rail, road and air traffic, sometimes earning the moniker "Crossroads of Europe". The Brussels metro is the only rapid transit system in Belgium. In addition, both its airport and railway stations are the largest and busiest in the country.
Historically Dutch-speaking, Brussels saw a language shift to French from the late 19th century. The Brussels-Capital Region is officially bilingual in French and Dutch, even though French is now the lingua franca with over 90% of the inhabitants being able to speak it. Brussels is also increasingly becoming multilingual. English is spoken as a second language by nearly a third of the population and many migrants and expatriates speak other languages as well. Brussels is known for its cuisine and gastronomy, as well as its historical and architectural landmarks; some of them are registered as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Main attractions include its historic Grand Place, Manneken Pis, the Atomium, and cultural institutions such as La Monnaie/De Munt and the Museums of Art and History. Due to its long tradition of Belgian comics, Brussels is also hailed as a capital of the comic strip.
Brussels Historical Significance
Although the region has been inhabited since prehistoric times, the oldest known reference to Brussels dates to the 10th century, when it had the Frankish name Bruocsella, which means “settlement in the marshes.” The settlement at that time was a part of Lower Lotharingia, or Lower Lorraine, which later became known as the duchy of Brabant. Brussels owes its development to its location on the Senne (Flemish: Zenne) River, which flows from south to north, and an east-west economic route linking towns on the Rhine, such as Cologne (now in Germany), with Brugge (French: Bruges), Ieper (French: Ypres), and other towns in the county of Flanders. At the point where road and river crossed, a market and bartering place developed under the protection of the dukes of Brabant. By the 12th century, Brussels was surrounded by defensive ramparts with towers and fortified gateways.
During the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries, Brussels grew to become one of the major towns of the duchy of Brabant. Its economic mainstay was the manufacture of luxury fabrics, which were exported to fairs in Paris, Venice, the Champagne region of France, and elsewhere. The cloth trade made fortunes for a few enterprising merchant families, who developed into seven dynasties that, with the help of the duke of Brabant, acquired a position of complete political mastery. In control of business and municipal affairs, they also exercised power as magistrates, giving rulings on disputes arising among the inhabitants, as well as acting as a court of appeal for neighbouring areas. The prevailing regime was, in fact, strongly plutocratic in nature.
Abuse of such powers provoked violent popular uprisings in 1280, 1303, 1360, and 1421. This last upheaval led to a more equitable system of government, with local powers divided between the patrician families and the emergent guilds of craftsmen and other workers. Gradually, however, the patrician elite regained political control; as late as 1719 a popular revolt led by Frans Anneessens ended with his public execution.
Travel to Brussels
*Taken from Lonely Planet*
Historic yet hip, bureaucratic yet bizarre, self-confident yet unshowy, Brussels is multicultural to its roots.
Architecture The cityscape swings from majestic to quirky to rundown and back again. Art deco facades face off against 1960s concrete developments, and regal 19th-century mansions contrast with the shimmering glass of the EU’s Gotham City. This whole maelstrom swirls out from Brussels’ medieval core, where the Grand Place is surely one of the world’s most beautiful squares. But Brussels' greatest architectural expression came at the turn of the 19th century with art nouveau, and its master builder is Horta. While restraint characterises his exteriors, the interiors are sensual symphonies of form and colour. Art Sometimes it seems as if every building in the city is being converted into a contemporary art gallery, from townhouses to skating rinks to the vast canal-side Citroën garage being remodelled to showcase conceptual art. With property prices lower than Paris, many commercial galleries are choosing to shift to the city. And students and young artists are opening their doors to show work at open studio weekends and event nights. Whether you prefer iconoclastic or outsider art, Magritte or the Flemish Primitives, there really is something for every art lover in Brussels. Food & Drink As with many other aspects of life, the people of Brussels like to eat and drink a little differently, and there are some deeply ingrained habits: delicious frites have to be double fried, and the classic waffle comes with a snowfall of icing sugar. They even have their own biscuit: the shortcrust cinnamon speculoos. In addition to the fabled beer, which many visitors focus their trip around, Brussels boasts the half-en-half, a heady mix of white wine and champagne. In recent times there has been an increasing focus on local organic cuisine, and this heavy eating city is definitely getting healthier. The Marolles Brussels’ once resolutely working-class Marolles quarter has partly shed its proletarian image with a clutch of intimate restaurants and funky interior-design shops along the main streets, Rue Haute and Rue Blaes. Nonetheless, pockets of original Bruxellois character can still be found, notably around the Place du Jeu-de-Balle. At a few of the enjoyable downmarket cafés here you might overhear people speaking in the earthy Bruxellois dialect, and at least one stall still sells the traditional street food: snails. Note that, despite the name, Jeu-de-Balle (aka balle-pelotte) is no longer played here.
Must See Sites
Strap on a pair of headphones, then step on the automated floor panels in front of the precious instruments (including world instruments and Adolphe Sax’s inventions) to hear them being played. As much of a highlight as the museum itself are the premises – the art-nouveau Old England Building. This former department store was built in 1899 by Paul Saintenoy and has a panoramic rooftop café and outdoor terrace.
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts
This prestigious museum incorporates the Musée d’Art Ancien (ancient art); the Musée d’Art Moderne (modern art), with works by surrealist Paul Delvaux and fauvist Rik Wouters; and the purpose-built Musée Magritte. The 15th-century Flemish Primitives are wonderfully represented in the Musée d’Art Ancien: there's Rogier Van der Weyden’s Pietà with its hallucinatory sky, Hans Memling’s refined portraits, and the richly textured Madonna with Saints by the anonymous artist known as Master of the Legend of St Lucy.
Musée des Sciences Naturelles
Thought-provoking and highly interactive, this museum has far more than the usual selection of stuffed animals. But the undoubted highlight is a unique ‘family’ of iguanodons – 10m-high dinosaurs found in a Hainaut coal mine in 1878. A computer simulation shows the mudslide that might have covered them, sand-boxes allow you to play dino hunter and multilingual videos give a wonderfully nuanced debate on recent palaeontology.
Église Notre-Dame du Sablon
The Sablon’s large, flamboyantly Gothic church started life as the 1304 archers’ guild chapel. A century later it had to be massively enlarged to cope with droves of pilgrims attracted by the supposed healing powers of its Madonna statue. The statue was procured in 1348 by means of an audacious theft from an Antwerp church – apparently by a vision-motivated husband-and-wife team in a rowing boat. It has long since gone, but a boat behind the pulpit commemorates the curious affair.
St-Gilles Town Hall
One of Brussels’ overlooked architectural wonders, this splendid Napoleon III–style palace sports a soaring brick belfry dotted with gilt statuary. Try to see the wedding-hall ceiling, painted by Belgian symbolist artist Fernand Khnopff.
Parc du Cinquantenaire
Parc du Cinquantenaire was built during Léopold II's reign. It's best known for its cluster of museums – art, history, military and motor vehicles – which house an incredible 350,000 artefacts. The Royal Art and History Museums in the southern wing of the Cinquantenaire buildings are chock-a-block with antiquities. Autoworld, in the northern building, has a huge collection of vintage cars. There is also the massive Arcade du Cinquantenaire, a triumphal arch built in 1880 to celebrate 50 years of Belgian independence.
Must Try Food & Drink
Mitraillette is a Belgian sandwich that's believed to originate from either Brussels or Wallonia, the French-speaking part of the country near the French border. The sandwich consists of a long baguette that's fully loaded with french fries, fried meat, and some kind of sauce. In Belgium, almost every friterie has its own version. The meats vary from meatballs and steaks to hamburger patties and frikandel, while the sauces include mayonnaise, béarnaise, ketchup, and garlic sauce. Some friteries like to add carrots, cabbage, caramelized onions, lettuce, and tomatoes while others serve it in its simple version. Mitraillette is especially popular after a night out, and the name means submachine gun, possibly referring to the baguette as a gun, while the french fries then act as bullets. In northern France, the sandwich is called l'américain, referring to the resemblance between mitraillette and American overstuffed burgers.
Black Russian was created in 1949 in Brussels by a Belgian bartender named Gustav Tops, who made it in honor of the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. The cocktail consists of vodka and Kahlua coffee liqueur. The word Russian in its name refers to the use of vodka, a typical Russian spirit. The cocktail is traditionally prepared by shaking vodka and Kahlua, and it is then served on the rocks in an old-fashioned glass without garnishes. If the cocktail is served in a highball glass and topped with cola, it becomes Dirty Black Russian, also known as Tall Black Russian, Australian Black Russian, or Colorado Bulldog. There are also several other versions of this cocktail, such as Black Magic, Brown Russian, and California Russian.
Moules-frites is a traditional comfort food item consisting of mussels paired with Belgian fries on the side. The dish is commonly found in Belgium, the Netherlands, and northern France. The condiment of choice accompanying the dish is mayonnaise, providing an additional note of richness. Mussels are a Belgian staple - cheap and abundant, they were originally considered a poor man's meal, and have been paired with fried potatoes for a long time at the country's famous friteries (fry shops). It is believed that the dish is originally from Belgium, because Belgians were the first to pair the mussels with fries, commonly eaten throughout the country in wintertime, when no fish was available. Today, the dish is found in most restaurants where it is often shared amongst groups of consumers.
Available only from September to March, sneeuwballen (lit. snowballs) are traditional Belgian sweet treats consisting of a vanilla cloud that is coated with dark Belgian chocolate and sprinkled with icing sugar. Although the recipe is still a closely guarded secret of the Larmuseau brand, it is known that a perfect sneeuwbal will crack when you bite into it, and it should melt on your tongue. These delicious treats were invented in the early 20th century by August Larmuseau from Ghent.
Duvel is a famed Belgian pale ale that is produced by Duvel Moortgat Brewery. It was initially named Victory Ale—but its name was later changed into Duvel, presumably after it was referenced as nen echten duvel (a real devil) due to its high alcohol content (8.5%). This pale ale became the brewery’s flagship beer, though several other styles are also available on the market. Classic Duvel is made from Scottish yeast, and it is hopped with Saaz and Styrian Golding hops. The beer has delicate effervescence, and it undergoes the second fermentation in the bottle. It is smooth and silky, with prominent hop flavors, citrusy, spicy, and floral aromas, subtle bitterness, and a dry finish. Duvel is an excellent match to aged cheese, seafood, and grilled or roasted meat.
This Belgian beer style falls in the category of lambics—traditional beers made with spontaneous fermentation. As evident from the name, fruit lambics are made with the addition of fruit. Traditional and the most popular version is the cherry-flavored kriek. However, several other varieties are also produced, including peach-flavored pêche, raspberry framboise, black currant cassis, and several other variations. Fruit lambics are made with aged lambics in which the whole fruit is then added and macerated before the base is filtered and bottled. During maturation, lambics will usually become drier and sourer. These beers can significantly vary in appearance, flavor, and aromas—depending on the type of fruit that is used. However, they are usually crisp and refreshing, and they mostly have a distinctive sour character that is balanced with subtle sweetness from the fruits.
Delicious and fragrant waffles are the most famous Belgian culinary trademark. Made with thick dough or thin batter, the cakes are baked in a specially designed waffle iron which creates an unusual checkered pattern on the top and bottom of each cake. In Belgium, there are two distinct varieties of this national dessert: the light Brussels waffle, and the denser Liege waffle. The key distinction is in the batter: while the Brussels waffle batter is thin and runny, the Liege variety is made with a thick, brioche-like dough which produces a cake with uneven edges and dense texture. However, this distinction is only recognized in Belgium, while everywhere else in the world, this popular dessert is known simply as the Belgian waffle. Even though waffles have been present in Belgian cuisine since the Middle Ages, and were initially made with a mixture of barley and oats, they were made famous at World’s Fair, held in New York in 1964. Maurice Vermersch, the innovator of the modern waffle version, decided to offer the waffles to American citizens, which proved to be a big hit. Since then, waffles have become a common breakfast staple in traditional American diners. However, in Belgium, waffles are regarded as street food - they are almost always eaten by hand, on-the-go. They are usually served plain or dusted with powdered sugar, but modern versions may be topped with anything from whipped cream and chocolate to caramel or sliced fruits.
Waterzooi is a traditional Belgian seafood stew with a creamy consistency. It incorporates julienne-sliced vegetables, an egg, and a cream-based soup. The dish originated in the city of Ghent, and according to the most popular belief, the rivers around the city were abundant in fish, so the dish was invented as a new way to incorporate fish into traditional Belgian cuisine. However, the decrease in fish population and pollution have caused this dish to be reinvented once again, and today it is commonly prepared with chicken. Although it can be found in other Belgian regions and cities, Ghent has specialized in the preparation of the dish, and there are numerous restaurants across the city which offer waterzooi as their signature dish. It is usually paired with crusty French bread on the side and garnished with chopped parsley or chervil.
Again I love Rick Steves so here is another one of his videos for Brussels and Bruges.