If ever a city could claim split personality, it’s Brussels. French versus Flemish, historic versus hip, bizarre versus boring. Full of contrasts, contradictions and intrigue, this is a multicultural equation that goes much deeper than just red tape and Eurocrats. An historic heirloom is closer to the mark. And in an age where so much is already discovered, Belgium’s capital seduces as one of Western Europe’s unknowns.
Belgium’s fascinating capital, and the administrative capital of the EU, Brussels is historic yet hip, bureaucratic yet bizarre, self confident yet unshowy, and multicultural to its roots. These contrasts are multilayered – Francophone alongside Flemish, and Eurocrats cheek-by-jowl with immigrants. And all this plays out in a cityscape that swings from majestic to quirky to rundown and back again. Organic art-nouveau facades face off against 1960s concrete disgraces, and regal 19th-century mansions contrast with the brutal glass of the EU’s Gotham City. This whole maelstrom swirls out from Brussels’ medieval core, where the Grand Place is surely one of the world’s most beautiful squares. One constant is the enviable quality of everyday life, with a café/bar scene that could keep you drunk for years. But Brussels doesn’t go out of its way to impress. The citizens’ humorous, deadpan outlook on life is often just as surreal as the canvases of one-time resident Magritte.
Brussels is a city of fine food, café culture, Art Nouveau architecture and the surreal. Pull up a chair and join laissez-faire locals who value the city’s casual atmosphere. Watch money go down on swish Ave Louise or buy dried caterpillars just blocks away in Matonge, the capital’s African quarter. Some of the world’s most enduring images of surrealist art were created in the nondescript northern suburb of Jette. And the architecture ranges from monumental edifices such as the Grand Place to organic Art Nouveau façades and the EU’s real-life Gotham City. Constant among all this is the quality of everyday life – the shopping’s great, the restaurants fab, the chocolate shops sublime and the pub scene extraordinary. For a long time Brussels didn’t go out of its way to impress, but its stint as Cultural Capital of Europe in 2000 saw the city dusted and polished in a flurry that brought renewed life to historic buildings and decaying streets.
A new spirit, just short of cockiness, emerged, flaming outside interest and inner-city regeneration. Nearly a decade on, Brussels is looking better than ever.
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