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Port of Call: Exploring Brussels

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Brussels' main square town hall on a summer evening. (Photograph by Stephen McDonald, My Shot)

Only river boats and barges are small enough to fit in the scenic canals of Brussels. Cruise ships dock in Antwerp (about 28 miles away) and Zeebrugge (69 miles), and both cities offer train service and bus transportation to Brussels. Here’s what you’re missing if you haven’t been to the European Union’s de facto capital:

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“Comic strip” mural art a la Tintin by Yves Challand. (Photo by Adeo Alday, My Shot)

Just for Laughs

Tintin flowed from the pen of Brussels-born comic book artist Georges Remi, and the character is worshiped all over town. Start at the museum dedicated to the art, the Belgian Comic Strip Center, housed in one of the city’s art nouveau buildings designed by Victor Horta. Then follow Tintin and other comic strip characters decorating murals on 30 city walls along the Comic Strip Trail.

On the Menu

To celebrate the long-standing reason foodies flock here, Belgium has dedicated 2012 to gastronomy. Wander the public plazas bedecked with oversize sculptures of the city’s food icons, from a megacone of frites to a giant mussel and green Brussels sprout.

Honoring hoteliers’ pledges to serve at least eight local food items on their breakfast buffets, the Royal Windsor Hotel showcases a spread of artisanal cheeses next to Liège sausage, organic fruit conserves, and, of course, the puffy, deep-pocketed Belgian waffle. “Old is what’s new,” says local chef Bert De Coster. “We’ve come back to traditional foods, with an

emphasis on fresh ingredients.” A dining tram with a modern, all-white interior trundles past the city’s architectural triumphs while patrons enjoy three-course meals created by Michelin-starred chefs. (2 hours)

Museum Musings

Brussels is also home to the king of surrealist art, René Magritte. In a new museum dedicated to his works, black walls are inscribed with enigmatic statements such as “Poetry is a pipe.” The museum is housed in a neoclassical building that is part of the Mont des Arts, conceived in 1882 by King Leopold II, who wanted to create a district to showcase the culture of Belgium. Pop into the Museum of Ancient

Art in the 19th-century Royal Museums of Fine Arts for Flemish proto-surrealist Hieronymus Bosch, whose sea demons prepare to gobble angels.

Sweet Indulgence

The elegant Place du Grand Sablon is home to half a dozen chocolate makers. Start with a visit to the venerable Wittamer, where you can sip a cup of hot chocolate, thick as pudding, while choosing candy-box jewels. “Our best seller is the heart-shaped coeur framboise,” says proprietor Myriam Wittamer. “But my personal favorites are the crèmes fraîches.”

Wander the plaza’s cobbled streets like Rue de Rollebeek, filled with shops such as Dandoy, the city’s oldest cookie baker, engulfed in the aroma of butter.

Slip into the graceful Sablon Church, with its blaze of stained-glass windows, where, on a Saturday afternoon, you may catch the organist tuning up for Sunday services. Then meander its perimeter, lined every weekend with stalls, to search through antiques and bric-a-brac for that perfect treasure.

This piece, written by Carla Waldemar, appeared in the August/September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler.

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