My only full day in Brussels started out less than promisingly, with a spitting cold rain pelting me as I left the city’s central station and tried to sort out where I could go before getting soaked. I had no map, no real plan – only a short list of things to see and do before the end of the day.
Huddled under a small umbrella, I was able to get Google Maps working properly and found that I was only a few meters away from the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. I hurried inside to escape the rain, and I was greeted by the yawning expanse of the cathedral, a combination of Notre Dame and Westminster Abbey where royal events happen. As it was near Easter, everything was starting to be decorated for the holiday. There were not many people inside, which afforded me free reign to walk around and be contemplative and take photographs.
By the time I left the beautiful cathedral, the rain had let up to merely gloomy skies, and more tour groups were approaching the cathedral. It was then that I found the city sightseeing bus, just beyond the park, and was able to hop aboard to see as much of the city as possible whilst it was dry.
I landed at the Royal greenhouses, waited in the short queue, checked through security, and wandered inside, as the rain was starting again. The day was as glum as possible, as many April days tend to be, but inside the greenhouses, the outside world didn’t exist. Palms, ferns, orchids, columbines, roses, and vines burst out of their pods and shells and made everything smell heady and heavy. It was like being back in Hong Kong again, with the rampant humidity making my hair curl up and frizz and the flower fragrance following me every step to work.
While the crowds were a bit thick for ease of movement, it was nice to slow down for an hour or two and just enjoy nature. The greenhouses are a worthy visit, especially if the rain is being an annoyance.
After a coffee and pastry, I tiptoed back outside – and into the sunshine! It was a bit of a miracle that it had come out after really low clouds all day, but it appeared just in time for a bus to come by and give me a chance to sit on the open top. Driving under the World Fair creation Atomium was particularly fun, especially when it came to getting a good picture of it from underneath.
I settled in for a tour toward the city centre, past all the parks and granges in the middle of the city, and along the National Basilica (Basilica of the Sacred Heart). As we reached the older parts of Brussels, I hopped off at Dansaert Street to get another favorite snack – frites. Oh, my frites. Frites with every sort of topping available. Manneken Frites was my choice, it being a play on the famous statue Manneken Pis, and got frites smothered with curry ketchup. I sat in the window and watched people go by, locals and tourists alike, along with people asking for extra Euros or directions. The world goes by in fishbowls like this, with us just gaping in as outsiders.
I found the thick crowds near the Manneken Pis statue, a 17th century cheeky creation of a boy peeing into a fountain. A man was dressing the statue in a vampire costume, and when he turned the statue’s water back on, it peed all over the front row of people crowing in. It seemed strange that this would be such a tourist attraction, but it was amusing to see how they dressed him in costumes.
Sneaking in through the deep queues of people, I managed to get a waffle smothered in fresh strawberries and condensed milk and quickly got out of the suffocating alley. I all but stumbled into the Grand Place square, which opens up like a massive ornamental flower in the center of the city. After the narrow alleys clogged with people like arteries after a full-on waffle, the Grand Place was busy, of course, but it was open and flanked with gorgeous old buildings.
In the square, I found a swanky Starbucks (though I have to say, the one in the bottom floor of the Château Frontenac in Quebec City is really posh and new roastery being built in Chicago is no slouch either) and sat in the square with a coffee, people watching and pigeon watching so they didn’t crap on my head or my latte.
I roamed the square a bit, trying to get the best camera angle of the massively ornate buildings. From there, I hopped on the second route of the Citysightseeing bus, and as the sun broke free for good from the gloom and doom, the city opened up around me. Sitting on the open top of the bus, listening to the commentary, I saw people begin to smile as the sun drenched us.
We whizzed by the glorious Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon church, the Palais de Justice, and other beautiful parks and neighborhoods, I got off the bus near the same sites again and roamed around to the top of the city, overlooking the new and old and the elevator which connected the two. The sun felt magnificent on my skin, so very welcome.
Dinner had to be next – all of the afternoon lunch snacks had worn off after hours of walking – so I settled down to one restaurant and had a solid Belgian beer with a roasted rabbit dish. It was filling, settling, and just the right meal to end a solid day of seeing as much as I could of Brussels.
Before I returned to my hotel for the evening, the day was capped off by a zombie parade near the central train station and a spectacular sunset over the city.
A much more promising ending to a day that hadn’t seemed like it wanted to happen.