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Recently, I ran through Brussels. Literally. I was there for only about 24 hours, during which time I ran the Brussels Marathon & Half, making Belgium the 30th country where I’ve run a race, and the last of the Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg) conquered on my quest to run the world.
While Brussels is the destination for many, for others it often serves as a side trip from other nearby European cities like Paris, London or Amsterdam. With that in mind, here’s my recap of the Brussels Marathon & Half, in the form of a mini travel guide, with 13 things to do and see (and eat!) based on the race course, for those doing a “run through” the city.
13.1 THINGS TO DO AND SEE IN BRUSSELS
13. Palais Royal de Bruxelles (Palace Royale of Brussels) is the official palace of the Belgian King and Queen. However, it is not the royal residence but is where the royal family does its work and receives visitors. The stunning neoclassical façade is 50% larger than that of Buckingham Palace, but in a classic case of looks being deceiving, the floor area is 50% less than Buckingham Palace’s. The palace is open only to the public normally from mid- July until the beginning of September. However, you can admire the palace and grounds from Brussels Park.
12. Brussels Park is a large urban park located in the center of Brussels. Adjacent to the Royal Palace and the Belgian parliament, the neoclassical designed park is full of trees, fountains, statues, and paths for walking, running or biking.
11. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts is home to a large collection of Flemish Renaissance pieces, including several masterpieces from the Old Masters Bruegel and Rubens. Considered one of the best museums in Belgium, it is definitely worth a visit.
10. Mont des Arts is a complex of large buildings located on the elevated site between the Place Royale and the Place de l’Albertine, and comprised of the Palais de la Dynastie, Palais de Congrès, and the Bibliothèque Albert I. the Bibliothèque Albert I includes more than three million volumes as well as a valuable collection of manuscripts and several interesting museums. The square between the buildings offers great views of Brussels city center.
9. The Atomium is one of Brussels’ recognizable landmarks. The whacky, 102-meter high (335 feet) steel and aluminum structure was designed by the architect André Waterkeyn for the 1958 Brussels World Exhibition. The interior of the building, which represents a molecule of iron magnified 165 million times, is open to visitors and has a presentation about human life called Biogenium. The Atomium is found just outside of the city, but if time allows, and you’re traveling with kids, I’d say go for it.
8. Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula is a Roman Catholic church that carries both names of the patron saints of Brussels. It shares the status of being the co-cathedral of the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels, together with St. Rumbold’s Cathedral in Mechelen. The Gothic style cathedral with its distinctive towers and stunning architecture sits atop Treurenberg Hill, and looms imposingly over the city. Inside the cathedral are a series of exquisite stained-glass windows depicting the Stations of the Cross, European royalty and the story of the Miracle of the Host.
7. Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate is a small, self-guided museum off Grand Place with interesting facts about the history of chocolate via a candy making exhibit, short films, and dispensers throughout the museum with free samples of different kinds of chocolate (bitter chocolate, cocoa butter bits, white chocolate, semi-sweet, etc). You won’t be especially “wowed” by the museum, but the exhibits are short and sweet, and it’s worth a visit in this town of chocolate.
6. The Comic Strip Center is dedicated to the history of cartoons and comic strips by Belgian and French artists who gave the world such enduring cartoons as The Smurfs and Tintin. Housed in a gorgeous early 20th century Victor Horta designed, Art Nouveau building, the museum has a vast collection of original comic strip drawings by Belgian and French comic artists, original manuscripts, draft sketches, and imaginatively reconstructed sets.
5. Parc du Cinquantenaire was built in 1880 to commemorate the country’s 50th anniversary. The centerpiece of Parc du Cinquantenaire is Palais du Cinquantenaire, which is linked by a triumphal arch designed by the French architect Charles Girault. The complex is home to the Royal Art and History Museum, which has one of the most extensive tapestry collections in the world, and the Belgian Army Museum and Museum of Military History that gives an overview of the development of military technology and of the major campaigns fought on Belgian soil. Parc du Cinquantenaire was also the start line for the Brussels Marathon and Half.
4. Food – Brussels has a legendary gastronomic scene, and with 160 breweries, 1,800 restaurants, hundreds of chocolatiers, and awesome street food you will find that you spend much of your time in the city eating. Frites sold at friteries or fritkots all around the city, and sweet Belgian waffles are always great, on-the-go snacks, and I found them to be perfect options for pre-race carbo-loading. Frites and waffles can both be enjoyed plain, but are typically topped with something; for frites it’s any number of sauces, from mayonnaise to ketchup to saté sauce, and for waffles toppings include chocolate, powdered sugar and fresh fruit.
Chocolate, as you know, is also plentiful in Belgium, and world-renowned chocolate factories like Neuhaus, Leonidas and Godiva are found throughout Brussels, as well as small, independent shops selling handmade chocolates. Brussels also has more in the way of gourmet dishes, such as mussels, which are undoubtedly one of Belgium’s most popular dishes. Mussels are served in a huge pot, with different sauces, a bowl of pommes frites on the side, and of course, a Belgian beer.
Check out this post on The Sophisticated Life for a more in-depth look at the food scene in Brussels. Nadeen is a serious foodie and gives an excellent run down of local cuisine in Brussels and more tips on how to spend your time there.
3. Beer – Belgium is known for producing some of the world’s best beer. The country has a rich and diverse brewing tradition, boasting more than 160 different breweries that produce everything from grand scale to nano, pico and micro. Most of these different brands and types of beer have their own respective glasses in which only that beer can be served.
2. Manneken-Pis, the famous figure of a little boy urinating, is commonly referred to as “the oldest citizen of Brussels.” The city’s famous mascot is always surrounded by tourists, and during major celebrations and events in Brussels, he always dresses for the occasion.
1. The Grand Place, located in the heart of Brussels Old Town, is one of the best-preserved squares in Europe. The elegant architecture of the buildings, most notably the Gildehuizen (guild houses), with their magnificent gables, pilasters, and balustrades, ornately carved stonework, and rich gold decoration, also makes the Grand Place one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) is probably Grand Place’s most recognizable building, and it houses a banquet hall, marriage chamber, and a number of other official rooms ornately decorated with tapestries and murals illustrating the history of Brussels.
.1 check off another country in a quest run the world (assuming you’re into that kind of thing).
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