Chocolate and charm on a visit to Brussels, Belgium

A 24-hour visit to Brussels allows a traveler to sample many of its notable pleasures

Special to The TribuneJuly 17, 2014 

  • IF YOU GO

    Eurostar http://www.eurostar.com (The train reaches a maximum speed of 186 miles per hour and takes only 2 hours to arrive in Brussels. The Eurostar also travels to Paris from London.)
    Hotel Metropole: http://www.metropolehotel.com
    Official languages: Dutch, German, French
    Currency: Euro

Taking a break from our London vacation, we decided to board the Eurostar Railway to visit Brussels for a day and experience its prestigious chocolate. Two hours later, after traveling past storybook scenery and under the English Channel, we arrived — and quickly became captivated by the city’s historic charm.

We arrived in Brussels, the capital and largest city in Belgium, in the evening and took a cab to the Hotel Metropole for a one-night stay. Built in 1895, it is the oldest hotel in Brussels, conveniently located in the heart of the city.

Transported back in time, we marveled at the grand lobby entrance with live piano music flowing from the adjacent bar, a stoic reception desk (the hotel was formerly a bank), majestic marble staircases, glittering chandeliers and ornate ceilings. After checking in, we had a nightcap at the Café Metropole, which offers traditional brasserie cuisine, an array of Belgian craft beers and an Art Nouveau décor. We sat outside on the vibrant Place de Brouckère, watching both tourists and locals enjoy the active Brussels nightlife.

In the morning, after enjoying a complimentary European breakfast, we took our map and embarked on a walking tour of the city.

Historic sites

With towering stone buildings, cobblestone streets, and outdoor markets, this neoclassical city combines a sense of royalty and tradition with a richness of modern contemporary style. Wide streets filled with bustling traffic quickly turn into narrow alleys that beckon you to discover its many shops and cafes. Our first stop was the famous Grand Place, or “Grote Markt” in Dutch, located only a few blocks from our hotel. This ancient town square is bordered by massive and intricately sculpted buildings dating to the 14th Century. It is the most important landmark in Belgium filled with historical significance.

Just a few side streets from the Grand Place is the famous Manneken Pis, or “Peeing Boy” statue. Only 24 inches tall, this unique bronze fountain is a major tourist attraction. Local townspeople celebrate the legendary statue throughout the year with many different costumes. Although jammed with tourists, it is an unexpected sight that is worth fighting the crowds to see.

Our walking tour then took us to the Royal Palace of Brussels. With perfect symmetry, this rectangular neoclassical structure is the official palace of the king and queen of the Belgians and the symbol of the constitutional monarchy.

Across from the palace sits the famous rectangular shaped Brussels Park — the largest urban park (32 acres) in the center of the city. It is a beautiful oasis to rest your feet among the shade of tall trees and soothing sounds of fountains.

Heading back to the city center, we visited the majestic Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. This awe-inspiring church is filled with a rich history that covers 12 centuries. As we continued on our journey, we came upon an outdoor market filled with a variety of arts and crafts.

Our walking tour provided an intimate perspective of the impressive nu ber of museums, historical buildings, churches and street fairs that can be found throughout the city.

The chocolate

But our real quest was to find elite chocolatiers who still make chocolate by hand. It is the gold standard of all chocolates because it uses Old World manufacturing methods and high-quality ingredients. Our trek took us to the Grand Sablon, which is a neighborhood in the historic upper town of Brussels. On the weekends, it features the Sablon Antiques and Books Market. Surrounding the town square are numerous antique stores, stylish boutiques, pastry shops and renowned Belgian chocolatiers.

We visited three iconic chocolate shops — Pierre Marcolini, Neuhaus, and Godiva. The experience can be compared to a high-end jewelry store where you view a variety of jewels under the glass; instead this was chocolate. Friendly sales people educate and help you select your special box of chocolates. Each bite was well worth the trip!

Traditional cuisine

While wandering along a very narrow cobblestone street, we accidentally discovered a colorful restaurant row. A variety of outdoor cafes lined the street, called the Rue des Bouchers, with restaurateurs beckoning you to choose their establishment. We had an excellent meal of traditional Belgium food at Le Brueghel.

Visitors will also enjoy eating the customary Belgian waffle from local street vendors. For only one euro, it is a perfect treat. Other famous foods include Belgian fries, stoemp (mashed potatoes with various toppings), waterzooi (traditional Belgian soup), and croquettes.

We took the train back to London in the late afternoon, spending less than 24 hours in Brussels. Although we thoroughly enjoyed our brief trip, I would highly recommend spending more than a day to truly experience the many unique museums, spectacular churches, historic sites, eclectic boutiques and diverse eating establish ments.

For chocolate lovers, a trip to Brussels must top your list of European destinations. But even if you’re not, don’t miss the historic charm and neoclassical style of this spectacular city.

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