Brussels and Mussels and Beer, Oh My!
National Geographic Traveler intern and sometime Foreign Service brat Amy McKeever shares some tips from a recent stay with her Belgium-based folks:
The greatest thing about being an expat—even if just for a few months at a time, like I usually am—is learning insider tips about both the tourist and local scenes. Below are a few of my favorites from Brussels.
Shopping—The Marolles district is the best place in Brussels to shop for antiques, vintage clothing, and unusual gifts. There’s an excellent antiques market at the Place du Jeu de Balle, but if the weather is looking gloomy (as it often does in Brussels) you may want to check out the shops along Rue Blaes or Rue Haute. Among these is the eclectic New De Wolf (Rue Haute 91/Rue Blaes 40; +32 2 503 3836). The two-level store stocks home decor and furnishings, which are sometimes classy and mostly kitschy.
It’s the perfect place to buy a trendy sofa or the life-size peacock replica you’ve always wanted to match your purple and turquoise dinette set. Not a shopper? Rue Blaes converges with Rue Haute at Notre-Dame de la Chapelle, so you can pop in for a quick look at the church’s stained glass windows—or visit the skate park next door—and call yourself cultural.
Snacking—For a midday treat, a cone of frites is the obvious choice. After all, misnomered “french fries” are originally from Belgium. A shoe salesman once told me that the best places to buy fries in Brussels are actually in the outer rings of the city, and he was right. Friterie Charles on Place Dumon (at the Stockel metro stop) is worth the wait in line. Don’t forget to order mayonnaise instead of ketchup.
Dining—Dinner is a good time to sample Belgium’s acclaimed mussels. One popular place to grab seafood is the Rue des Bouchers. This narrow cobblestone strip is the ultimate tourist trap, with waiters harassing passersby. If you’re going to eat on what I call ‘Fish Street,’ know where you’re going first and don’t engage the waiters in conversation. I generally get my moules at Chez Léon. First opened in 1893, the restaurant has gradually expanded to wind its way through nine creaky buildings. Service is fast and friendly, and options range from a small pot of mussels cooked in white wine sauce to a plate of decadent moules provençales covered in butter, tomato, cheese, and garlic. For an upscale establishment with more local appeal, try Aux Armes de Bruxelles across the street.
Waffling—To round out your gastronomic experience, a post-dinner waffle from one of the many street vendors is in order. Avoid the generic Belgaufra stands (the company’s motto is an uninspiring “Probably the best since 1950”); any other free-standing stall will do for a delectable square covered in sugar and Chantilly cream, so long as you can see they’re making it fresh.
Indulging—Belgium is a chocoholic’s dream. Grab a box of mixed varieties from popular Neuhaus or slightly more affordable Leonidas. These gourmet chocolates are amazing, but sometimes I prefer to buy a thick bar of Côte d’Or dark chocolate from the local supermarket to feed my addiction.
Drinking—Stella Artois, considered a delicacy in many American bars, is the Budweiser of Belgian beers. Try Kasteel Blonde, Leffe or Chimay, but be careful when ordering a dubbel or a tripel—these beers have higher alcohol content than American beer. Non-beer-drinkers often enjoy this country’s cherry and raspberry varieties. The best place to sample beers is Délirium Café, known for its menu the size of a phonebook. Tourists and locals of all ages mingle here, ordering the country’s hundreds of beer varieties. If that’s not enough, you can tour the world with bottles of brew from Mongolia, South Africa, and the Dominican Republic. On your way out, snap a picture of Brussels’s hidden gem: the peeing girl statue, the little-known female counterpart to the famed “Manneken Pis“.
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