So you want to know the best things to do in Brussels? Perhaps you think that they will just be eating frites and chocolate and drinking beer? Well, you can do those things well anywhere in Belgium, but Brussels is actually home to many fascinating museums and beautiful works of architecture. You can spend a perfectly lovely day in the European Union’s capital wandering around and just snapping photos of all the cool Art Nouveau buildings. Or you can just eat some truck waffles and find a musical instrument that’s shaped like a winged rat. A vous de choisir!
Morning: Magritte Museum
Address: Rue de la Régence 3
Hours: 10-5 Tuesday-Friday, 11-6 Weekends, Closed Mondays
Price: 8 Euros
The Magritte Museum is one of several museums within the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. (If the term “Royal” confuses you, keep in mind that Belgium is still technically a monarchy, even though I am willing to bet that zero percent of non-Belgian people reading this blog can name the current ruler of Belgium, or even whether said ruler is a king or queen. It’s King Philippe, for the curious)
Anyway, a Belgian who is much more famous than the current ruler of the nation is preeminent Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte. Magritte’s strange paintings of sky-birds, men with apples on their faces, and pipes that are not pipes have influenced everyone from David Lynch to Andy Warhol. Even if you’re not a museum person, if you are into quirk, I guarantee that you’ll enjoy spending a morning looking at…
the approximately top five paintings in the magritte museum
1) “La Saveur des Larmes” is a painting about a creepy bird plant that is being eaten by a caterpillar. Even though the bird is very sad, the caterpillar doesn’t care. I imagine that’s why the title of the painting is “The Taste of Tears” because the caterpillar is enjoying the taste of the bird’s suffering. This is one of Magritte’s very few titles that makes sense.
2) Before Magritte started making money as an artist, he had to work in advertising. It’s pretty fun to see Magritte’s ads in the museum and try to notice how he inserted flashes of surrealism into them. But now I’m really surprised that none of the characters on Mad Men with artistic aspirations ever mentioned that Magritte started out as one of them.
3) This painting, “L’Empire des Lumieres” is another example of Magritte’s putting two things together that couldn’t possibly go together. In “La Saveur des Larmes”, he makes a bird out of a plant, and here he puts a house at night in the middle of a sunny day. This is one of those paintings it’s much better to experience in person to see how Magritte managed to pull off making it look like it was daytime and nighttime simultaneously.
4) Magritte didn’t start out as a surrealist; he developed his own style over time. This painting from 1927, “L’homme du large” (Man of the Deep), is one of the first paintings to have that Rene Magritte feeling. I have so many questions about this painting. Why does it have the same title as a 1920 French film about a fisherman. Is this guy supposed to be a fisherman? It seems like it would be pretty hard to fish with no eyes and a head made out of wood, but then again I’ve never been fishing, so what do I know?
5) The brightly colored “L’incendie” is from a brief period when Magritte tried to imitate the style of the Impressionists a bit and combine that style with its own work. But people didn’t want light droplets and happy colors from Magritte, they wanted headless fisherman and dying bird-plants. So he was forced to return to his original style of Plain Surrealism.
6) This painting, “La Magie Noire”, was a very popular painting of Magritte’s, and I’m assuming that’s because dudes with money like to look at pictures of naked ladies even if/especially if their boobs are blue. The painting’s title translates to “Black Magic” and I wonder if the magic is that the sky is turning into a lady or that the lady is turning into the sky…
Travelerette Treasure: My favorite painting in the museum is “Le Retour”. This painting has everything: night and day at the same time, something that is a bird and not a bird at the same time, clouds, eggs…basically it’s every Magritty element rolled into one painting.
Travelerette Tip: You probably won’t have time to go for a real lunch, and we’re going to eat a lot this afternoon, so I suggest just grabbing a snack at the museum cafe. The sandwich or soup lunch deal is a good value, and you’ll be able to head out on the rest of your afternoon ASAP.
Early Afternoon: The Musical Instruments Museum
Address: Rue Montagne de la Cour 2
Hours: 9:30-5 Weekdays. Opens at 10 AM Weekends. Closed Monday.
Price: 8 Euros
I was initially disappointed to learn that the MIM is not a museum dedicated to Madam Mim, the wicked witch from The Sword in the Stone. Instead, it is a museum dedicated to musical instruments. But that ended up being almost as exciting as a museum about cartoon witches, as you will soon see. Your price of admission comes with a comprehensive audioguide, so if you see an instrument that looks interesting, just press the right button, and you can hear what the instrument sounds like.
As a bonus, the museum is located inside this stunning and historical Art Nouveau building, which has an Old England sign on it for reasons that remain unclear to me. I think someone should have clarified to the architect that he was in Belgium and not England.
There are two main areas of the museum, and the first is a floor dedicated to folk instruments from all the countries in all the world. My favorite thing about this exhibit is that the instruments are grouped by instrument type, so you can see drums from Ireland paired next to drums from Africa. However, as tempting as it might seem, I don’t recommend that you run around the museum and try to bang on the drums one after the other and pretend to be Animal from the Muppets. That will get you thrown out of the museum.
I gathered from the percussion exhibit that regardless of the country of origin, the principle of playing a drum remains the same around the world. You hit an object with either your hands or a baton of some sort and it makes sounds that make your neighbors want to call the cops on you.
Travelerette Treasure: My favorite instrument in the museum was this creature, who is either a winged rat, the world’s cutest demon, or an ancient representation of Rocky the Flying Squirrel from Rocky and Bullwinkle. He is apparently some sort of wind instrument but I would personally feel a little inappropriate putting him in my mouth. I mean you probably have to put your mouth on his butt to play him, right? That seems inappropriate.
Travelerette Tip: Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the second part of the museum, which is dedicated to European court instruments, is going to be stuffy and boring. You can find anything there from fancy white violins…
to this weird, which looks like a cross between a tuba and a chandelier. I don’t even want to think about the number of mouths you’d need to play this fellow.
Late Afternoon: The Brussels Journey: Beer and Chocolate Tour
Hours: Every Wednesday-Sunday from 3-7:30
Price: 70 Euros–100% worth it
Of course you cannot leave Brussels without consuming the Four Horsemen of the Belgian Apocalypse: beer, chocolate, waffles, and frites. I will save my waffles suggestion for another time, but you will have the beer and chocolate more than covered if you take the amazing Beer and Chocolate Tour with the Brussels Journey.
This may be my favorite tour I have ever taken in my life. I have taken it two times: once with Marie, who started the tour company, and once with Daniel and they were both terrific. I paid for the tour myself both times, so you know it is real love. I now feel qualified to share with you…
the approximately top five beer and chocolate places in brussels
1) The most recent time I took the tour (with Daniel), we started in Chocopolis, which looks kind of cheesy from the outside. However, as is the case with all the chocolate makers you will be visiting on this tour, they are a local artisanal chocolate shop. Here we started with a fun chili-chocolate. It has a bit of a kick to it, but that just makes it more memorable.
2) Our next stop was Frederic Blondeel, a local high-end chocolate maker who is famous for these delectable little white chocolate domes filled with different flavors. (I think they’re all fruit flavors.) This little guy was filled with passion fruit. Eat it in one bite or you’ll make a mess.
Daniel taught us about how single-origin chocolates are one of the hot topics in chocolate making now. In a single-origin chocolate, as many of the cocoa beans come from the same country as possible. To demonstrate, we tasted a single-origin chocolate from Papua New Guinea. About 75% of the beans used in the chocolate came from PNG. And look at how pretty it is!
I wasn’t really convinced before tasting the chocolate that the origin would make a difference, but the chocolate really did have an intense smokey flavor I have never tasted before. Now I want to try all the single-origin chocolates that there are! I can catch ’em all like (delicious) Pokemon.
After that, we tried a rum chocolate that tasted like A Very Special Christmas…
And we got to pick another chocolate from four more experimental choices. I chose bay flavored chocolate because I always choose the weirdest flavor. It tasted intriguingly herbal and not like a chocolate coated Maryland crab boil at all.
3) Next we stopped at Pierre Marcolini, who is apparently known as the Chanel of chocolate. Daniel told us that his stores are always decorated very beautifully to go with the seasons, just like a house of haute couture would be. This summer the shop was decorated entirely with flowers to go with the theme “A Summer at Pierre’s”.
Here we had our own private chocolate tasting room and feasted on another single-origin chocolate, this time one from Madagascar that tasted like raspberries. Weirdly enough, this chocolate also made me dance to I Like to Move It.
Then we dabbled in another experimental chocolate with Earl Grey tea. I loved this flavor because it tastes like something like Queen Elizabeth would serve the Belgian ambassador at a fancy party. In fact, I think that should be the plot of the next episode of The Crown.
Our last goutee at this establishment was a very sweet raspberry-chocolate heart to give us energy for the road, and off we went to our last chocolate shop. This raspberry-chocolate heart is one of Marcolini’s specialties, just like the white chocolate dome is a specialty of Blondeel’s.
5) Now that we were done with the chocolates, it was time to get smashed! Speaking of weird things, our first bar was at a place called Royal Theatre Toone which also puts on puppet shows, and nothing is weirder than puppets.
Travelerette Treasure: It was here that we got to try a truly Belgian specialty, the sour beer. In Belgium, sour beers are made by using wild yeast so that the beer ferments spontaneously. This gives the beer a strangely sour taste–the best description I can give is to say it tastes like vinegar if vinegar were delicious. This sour beer is kriek, which means it’s made with cherries.
Don’t let the cherries fool you! This beer is not at all sweet yet somehow manages to taste like cherries. This was my favorite beer of course because it was the strangest. I need to figure out a way to try sour beers back home.
6) At our next stop, we moved to the top floor of a beer shop. This was great because we had an almost unlimited list of beers to try–including many enjoyable gluten-free beers for a woman with celiac disease on the tour. We also got to nibble meat and cheese with our beer here so we didn’t get too tipsy.
Our first beer was a local craft beer–a stout, which is a dark beer. We paired this with a crispy hazelnut chocolate that Daniel had brought from Pierre Marcolini because he said that stouts pair well with chocolate. He was certainly right about that.
After this, we feasted on a couple of triple ales. A triple is just a really strong ale, I think, and Belgian beers are famous for being strong. Math was never my best subject, but I feel confident in saying that a triple ale is generally stronger than a double ale. This triple pictured below has 9.5% alcohol content.
I do not remember any difference in the taste of the two triples that we tried, possibly because it’s hard to notice things like taste after you’ve had a couple of beers with 9.5% alcohol content.
Lastly we tried an IPA (India Pale Ale) because those are so trendy right now. Daniel told us that this beer was a little less bitter than most IPAs. That was just what I needed after drinking four glasses of Belgian beer-a smooth and easy to drink IPA!
7) Our final stop was at the oldest bar in Brussels–I believe it’s called Au Bon Vieux Temps–where we finished off with a Trappist ale. According to Ye Olde Belgianne Lawe, to be classified as a Trappist ale the brewery can’t profit at all from making the beer. So you can imagine that there are not too many breweries queuing up for this classification. There are only 11 Trappist breweries in the world, and six of them are in Belgium.
The Trappist beer we sampled was from the Rochefort brewery. It’s not from the most famous Trappist brewery because that’s the Westvleteren beer that’s almost impossible to get without paying an arm and a leg. Still, I was more than satisfied with the beer’s rich flavor.
Address: Rue Henri Maus 49
After six beers, the tour is over and I don’t suggest that you make any other plans for the evening. But you will want something to soak up all that beer, and what better object could there be for such a purpose than a giant pile of greasy French-fried potatoes slathered in mildly spicy mayonnaise? Just head on over to the frystand Fritland, and soon your every potato dream will be satisfied.
Fun Fact: Americans call these puppies French fries, but in fact the Belgians and the French can never agree on which country invented the world’s greatest fried food. What we can all agree on is that what makes the fries in Belgium so good is that they fry the potatoes two times. This results in an insanely crunchy exterior swaddling an interior that is as soft as a baby potato’s bottom. I promise you, when it comes to fries, once you go Belgian, you don’t go back!
And That’s How to Have a Perfect Day in Brussels
What would you do with one day in Brussels? Do you prefer beer or chocolate? And which is weirder, a Magritte painting or that snake chandelier musical instrument? Please leave your thoughts below!
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