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As the centre of European culture and institutions, Brussels has much more to offer than most people imagine. Apart from its famous chocolates and beers, there are almost 90 museums, beautiful parks, architecture, bars and much more. Brussels airport is only 12 km from Brussels city centre and you can get in between them by train, bus, taxi and personal car.
There is nothing more Belgian than a dinner of moules frites—or, mussels and fries—al fresco. Mussels are always served 1 kilo at a time in a huge pot, but you decide what broth flavors them. For a traditional meal, request moules marinere, or mussels with vegetables and white wine. For a more indulgent meal, try the moules à la crème, which features a thick and rich sauce made with lots of heavy cream.
Thickly cut and fried twice, typically sold in a paper cone with mayonnaise and a plastic fork, this is the most popular fast food dish in Belgium. Bought at food trucks, hole-in-the-wall fritures and some cafés, pommes frites are easy to find anywhere in the country. The servings can vary, as some places opt for carton or plastic boxes. The sauce is not limited to just mayonnaise either, with options ranging from familiar ketchup to unique choices like samurai sauce and andalouse.
This treat is sold mainly at fairs by food trucks, served in carton boxes or paper cones with powdered sugar. They are somewhat akin to a donut, as both are deep-fried dough. Eaten both in the Netherlands and Belgium, there are some differences in name and preparation. While they are known as oliebollen and are fried in vegetable oil in the Netherlands, Belgians call them croustillons or smoutebollen and prefer them fried in animal fat.
Right in the heart of Brussels Old Town, the city’s main plaza (known as Grand Place) is one of the best preserved in Europe. Much of the square’s elegant character is due to the unique architecture of its elegant Gildehuizen (guild houses) with their magnificent gables, pilasters, and balustrades, ornately carved stonework, and rich gold decoration. Most were built between 1696 and 1700 in the Baroque style but with some Flemish influences. The history of the Grand Place dates back much earlier though. It was first established in the 11th century and evolved soon after, to become the political and economic center for the city.
Along the Rue de l’Etuve is Brussels’ best-known landmark, the Manneken Pis, usually besieged by a throng of tourists. Although he can be traced back to at least 1388, nothing much is known about the origin of the figure of a little boy urinating, popularly referred to as “the oldest citizen of Brussels.” The Manneken is, however, surrounded by various legends. According to one, the fountain is a memorial to a courageous infant who averted a conflagration, according to another, it commemorates the son of a count who succumbed to a pressing urge while taking part in a procession. The present statue was made in 1619 by Jérôme Duquesnoy the Elder and has been stolen on several occasions though always recovered. During major celebrations, events, and festivals in Brussels, the statue is famed for being dressed in costume.
The most important building on this square is the Royal Palace (Palais Royal) used by the Belgian royal family as an official residence. The Belgian flag, flown from the roof, signals the sovereign’s presence and a ceremonial Changing of the Guard takes place every day at about 2.30pm. Surrounding the palace are an ensemble of cultural buildings boasting neoclassical facades. The Palais des Académies, home of the Royal Academy of Sciences and once the residence of the Crown Prince of Orange, and the Palais des Beaux-Arts (Paleis voor Schone Kunste) on the west side of the plaza, designed and built in the 1920s by Victor Horta, are two of the finest examples.