Brussels is an amazing capital city which flies in the face of preconceived ideas, and so much the better. Belgium's premier city may be French-speaking, but also has a strong Flemish and European identity. It is closer than you think and has something to offer all kinds travellers, which is no mean feat! Younger visitors will appreciate the incredibly friendly and welcoming nightlife which you still don't always get in Paris, whilst those after a more sedate holiday can enjoy browsing in the city's many shops and antique markets. Shopping addicts will undoubtedly be very familiar with the big names in Belgian fashion and their unusual trends, which are popular among those who like to dress alternatively. The city is also popular with food fans, particularly on weekends, when they flock here to enjoy the sugared almonds, sweet sugar waffles and spiced biscuits. Many a curious traveller bound for Bruges stops off here for a while on the way, to stroll around the Atomium and the Ixelles Ponds, get acquainted with the comic strip frescoes in situ, or perhaps wax lyrical about the Horta Museum (wouldn't anyone love to have a house like that?!). They will also know where to find the best chips (apparently 'Chez Antoine', in Place Jourdan, the European district of the city) and the best way to enjoy a glass of Lambic at 'A La Mort Subite', which gets mixed reviews, but then you can sample almost 1,000 Belgian beers in the over 1,500 bars and cafes in the city. Art and history enthusiasts will want to keep a clear head in between the odd beverage to admire the Grand-Place, a pedestrianised quadrangle which resounds with the noise of the crowds that flock here (it turns out that cities weren't the quietest of places even before the invention of the automobile!), and whose towering residences, lit up like monuments at night, illustrate so well the crossroads of exchange that Brussels has always represented.
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Brussels has introduced a self-service cycle system, so you can pick up a bike at the stations located in Place de l'Agora (adjacent to the Grand-Place) if you're looking for a quick and fun way to get to the Sablon district of the city (with its many antique shops), Avenue Louise or even the Ixelles Ponds (where you'll find a market selling traditional products, flowers and accessories in the morning). Bike rental costs ?1.50 per week, with an additional charge of ?1 per hour for the actual time it is used (except for the first 30 minutes which are charged at ?0.50), and payment can be made using an international bank card.
Located at 25 rue Americaine (nearest metro station: Horta) in the home of the famous Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta, who designed, converted and furnished the residence with superb interiors, a dining room with stained-glass windows, a bedroom with an adjoining bathroom (a rarity at the time), and a winter garden in a conservatory on the top floor. The museum is only open from 2:30pm to 5:00pm, from Tuesday to Sunday, and given that the house can only accommodate a limited number of visitors at a time, there are sometimes queues to get in. Visitors are also required to leave their coats and bags in the free cloakroom, and an adult ticket to the museum costs ?7.
For your information, if you travel by Paris, a Thalys train ticket to Brussels is valid for all stations, including the Midi (where the Thalys terminal is located), the Gare Centrale (980 ft from the Grand-Place), the Gare du Nord (between the botanical gardens and the 'Manhattan' business district) and the Gare du Luxembourg (opposite the European Parliament). To get to any of these stations, keep your Thalys ticket and take one of the trains (a different network to the metro) operating services out of Brussels Midi (departing approximately every 15 minutes).
Cultural outings on Mondays, as most of the museums (including the Belgian Centre for Comic Strip Art, the Horta Museum, Erasmus House and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts) are closed on this day. The exception is the Atomium, open 7 days a week.
It is also a good idea to avoid overdoing it on the Belgian beer, as it does tend to have a high alcohol content, up to 12% in the case of Bush.
Finally, keep a close eye on your belongings, particularly in the historical district, as there are always nimble-fingered pickpockets about.
Street stalls sell cones of chips with a choice of sauces (try the mayonnaise), Liège waffles (caramelised or uncaramelised with pearl sugar), packets of pralines (chocolates filled with creme fraiche or ganache) and spiced biscuits, among other things. When it comes to a sit-down meal, though, try the waterzooi (chicken or fish and vegetables in a white sauce), carbonnade (beef stewed in a brown beer sauce), chicory (French endives) in a soup or a gratin, and the Dame Blanche ('White Lady') dessert, which consists primarily of vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce.
Sugared almonds from Corné (at 5 Galerie de la Reine, in the Saint-Hubert shopping arcade) or Wittamer (at 6 Place du Grand Sablon, where a major antiques market is held every weekend). Biscuits, Greek bread, gingerbread from Dandoy (at the intersection of Rue Charles Buls and Rue des Brasseurs). A collector's bottle of beer or a special mugful of Gueuze, Kriek, Leffe, etc. can be found at Biertempel, 56 Rue du Marché aux Herbes.
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