After the charming medieval vibes of Bruges, Brussels was sadly a bit of a letdown. If you love Brussels, I’m sorry - I know that there is lots here to interest tourists, like world class museums, architecture and beer, plus it’s the goddamn capital of the EU. How could we dislike it, right? I guess the answer is that it’s not a bad city, it’s just not for us. Here, for the first time since we left home, we really struggled to enjoy ourselves. Of course I know not every city we visit is going to be an incredibly positive experience (it’s important to remember that especially when you’re traveling long-term), and we did still have plenty of enjoyable moments.
Let’s be clear. Nothing bad happened, and Brussels isn’t a dangerous or sketchy city: I think people might have this image of Brussels as kind of gritty, which is due to some really unfair media coverage following the Brussels attacks, and that’s definitely not true in our experience. Like any major city there are some questionable neighborhoods, but overall it’s totally fine. I was hassled on the street a lot, which sucked, but unfortunately I know that’s going to happen a lot more in many of the places we will travel to, so it’s something I’m going to have to learn to ignore rather than letting it ruin my day or color my perspective of a city.
More than anything, though, our enjoyment of Brussels fell victim to the fact that we’re in the middle of the most rapid-fire part of our European trip, and it is incredibly exhausting. I didn’t really think about the mental or physical toll this pace of travel would take on me, and it’s been a real challenge. I’d love to say that I’m the perfect traveler, ready to move at a moment’s notice and capable of seeing all the sights and hopping from country to country every few days with a smile on my face. But really, that’s not me. I need some time to myself, to relax and recharge my batteries. Needless to say, the lack of rest led to one very grumpy Jenny and one very frustrated Alex just trying to keep the peace.
Luckily, we still had plenty of enjoyable experiences: we spent a morning visiting Mini-Europe and the Atomium. Mini-Europe is a tiny village made up of miniature replicas of various architectural and cultural achievements from every country in the EU. I’m obsessed with miniature things: the miniature rooms at Chicago’s Art Institute are my favorite museum attraction of all time, so this was an absolute must do. We saw a tiny Big Ben, a tiny Parthenon, and a tiny version of the Belfort tower in Bruges, which we had just visited days earlier. It was wholesome, it was adorable, and we actually learned a surprising amount about the EU.
Near Mini-Europe stands the Atomium, a giant monument erected for the 1958 World’s Fair that they never took down. It reminded me a lot of the Bean, although it was significantly taller. Apparently it’s possible to enter at least some of the balls as they are now museums, although we chose not to pay the entry fee since we had just visited Mini-Europe. Luckily, even if you don’t go, there are plenty of places to take great photos and that’s the most important thing, right?
We also met some incredibly friendly people - a helpful bartender who gave us a restaurant recommendation where I ate the best Gruyere of my life; a group of locals in a bar who gave us tons of recommendations for other cities we’re visiting this summer, and a dude from Chicago at the Delirium Cafe who’s been living abroad and was so excited to hear a familiar accent. Even when we struggled with language - like at the bakery we visited this morning - we were still able to get the message across in broken French and no one mocked us for trying.
All in all, I wouldn’t say we had a miserable time in Brussels, and hopefully this post doesn’t come across that way. We just hit a bump in the road, and it happened to occur while we were in Brussels, so it colored our experience of the city. I’m sure if we came back, or had spent more time, our perspective would change. Brussels certainly has plenty to offer, but it’s a tough nut to crack and I’m not so sure we were able to do so.