Before I went to Brussels I asked a few friends if they wanted to go with me. None of them did. I didn’t take it personally, “It’s not you, it’s Brussels” they said.
“What’s wrong with Brussels?” I replied.
“It’s a bit meh”
“Yeh, it’s just a bit boring”
Another friend even labelled it “lame”
Some people might have been put off visiting Brussels after hearing a wishy-washy flow of excuses but I wasn’t. Every city has something worth seeing and I knew Brussels would be no exception.
So after trying but failing to find any willing participants I latched onto my twin brother. He didn’t have much going on so I managed to twist his arm under the condition that I was to take care of organising the Eurostar and accommodation. It was a deal.
I know I could have gone by myself but I just really fancied the company. However, as it turned out my brother, who’s an artist, received a last minute commission which rendered him confined to the flat we had rented out, so it was really no different to going on my own in the end.
The main reason why I wanted to go to Brussels was to see the Flower Carpet, a festival that only happens once every two years in mid-August. But now that I’ve had a chance to reflect on my brief visit to Brussels, it’s easy to say the best part of my trip wasn’t the flower carpet but meandering through the streets.
I was surprised to find them filled with murals, wall gardens, gorgeous design shops as well as coffee shops – and not so surprisingly – every girl’s reliable pick-me-up: chocolate.
But chocolate wasn’t the only thing I knew about Belgium. Now is probably a good time to admit something embarrassing about myself. I first learnt about Belgium through its association with Hollywood action hero, Jean – Claude Van Damm aka the Muscles from Brussels. He was my first childhood crush, along with Steven Seagal, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hulk Hogan. Thank heavens my taste has evolved since then, and the men I like are more advanced on the evolutionary scale too.
Anyway, less about muscles and more about Brussels.
As you walk down the streets there’s every chance of spotting greenery weaving up the walls, encircling windows and shop façades like a dreamy suburban house. All urban development should take a leaf from this city.
For the first two days I couldn’t understand why one of my friends had called it lame, we may not have the same taste in everything but lame is one of those words that usually doesn’t alter much. In other words, if it’s lame it’s usually lame. A word that no city wants to be identified as.
However, on the third and fourth day, I went looking for a pharmacy and in doing so I discovered where Mr Lame himself was hiding. It was 5pm on a Sunday, and all the shops were closing so I needed to be fast. My only hope was the shops near the main square. I raced down the nearby shopping street and the more I looked the less I seemed to find. Apart from feeling really touristy, it felt…. lame. There was a lack of character, style and it felt dated, like I had been transported to the late 1990s. I finally saw where my friend was coming from.
But what this also means is that my friends probably didn’t explore far from the main square. They didn’t wonder around the north-western part of the city near the fish market where you’ll find lots of pop-up restaurants and independent clothes shops. And for anyone who enjoys going away and buying pieces for their house then head south west of the city to the Flea Market and Grand Sablon Antiques Market, one of the finest in Europe.
All around this area are shops dedicated to design from antique to modern. This area is strikingly cool, stylish and hip – and whatever you do – don’t forget to drop by Bali Africa, this place is mind-blowing!
You’ll also find small art galleries dotted throughout the city. Some more surprising than others…
And it would be foolish to miss the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.
Something else that’s important for any city is a liberal, supportive and opened-minded character to make any visitor from any ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation feel welcome. Many cities around the world don’t have this but Brussels does in abundance and it’s proud of it. Twenty-five percent of the population comes from a foreign background, and adding to the multi-cultural vibe is Belgium’s three official languages: French, Dutch and German.
The city also expresses its open-mindedness through its street art. If you head over to Chaufferette Street you’ll find a row of vinyl street art advocating sexual-equality. It put a big smile on my face seeing them because this is what every city should be striving towards: a place that has a sense of community, a sense of belonging. It makes me angry to think of people marginalised from a society because they are considered the wrong colour, the wrong gender, the wrong sexual orientation, or the wrong religion. And it’s clear Brussels thinks the same way…