Ingrida Kurlinkutė gives us her tips on how to spend a cheap weekend in the Belgian capital
Brussels, the capital of Belgium and the de facto capital of the European Union, is often an overlooked destination due to more famous rivals nearby such as Amsterdam and Paris. However, it’s a big mistake to assume that Brussels is not worth a visit, especially with the option of the Megabus, which will take you from Cardiff to Brussels and back for only £50. The only cheaper option is hitchhiking. The journey is nearly 12 hours one way but with power sockets and free wi-fi the time passes quickly.
Things to do and see in Brussels will depend on your personal interests, but one thing that shouldn’t be missed is a visit to The European Parliament Visitors Centre. It is free of charge and includes media guides which are available in all 24 official European languages. There is no need to book in advance, just show up during the opening hours. The visitors centre has lots of interactive multimedia, which opens up the door to the history of European integration and how it influences our everyday lives.
It is possible to visit the European Parliament itself but bookings must be arranged in advance. If you’re from a country that belongs to the EU, get in touch with a parliamentarian from your country who works in Brussels. I contacted a Lithuanian parliamentarian and very soon received an answer from his adviser who kindly accepted to show me around the European Parliament. Take your passport or ID with you, it will be photocopied and you will receive a sticker to put on your clothes whilst visiting. It’s forbidden to wander around the building on your own and the person showing you around must accompany you at all times.
Once you see the official EU part, it’s time to ease up. A local forum suggests tourists get a map from this website: http://use-it.travel/cities/detail/brussels/. The website is aimed at young people and is made by locals. They describe it as ‘no-nonsense’. It includes tips from locals, their favourite spots in the city, the best meals, the metro plan, plans for interesting walks around different areas and much more. You can also get a free copy from their information desk at Galerie Ravenstein 17. Friendly volunteers who give advice on anything run the desk. They also offer free coffee, wi-fi and free walking tours on Mondays at 2pm. There is also the free ‘Greeters’ service consisting of volunteers who take tourists for free walks in Brussels, depending on the tourist’s personal interests! This can be booked here: http://www.brussels.greeters.be/rencontrer-un-greeter.php. You must however request their services at least two weeks prior to your arrival.
Belgium is famous for beer (claimed to have approximately 1000 varieties), fries and chocolate (and I highly suggest trying them all) but another flavoursome meal, which shouldn’t be missed, is mussels. Have them served with garlic sauce and a glass of white wine at Houtsiplou, a quirky brasserie in the city centre. The odd thing is that they aren’t on the menu so make sure to ask a waiter.
A national symbol of Brussels, the ‘peeing boy’ (Manneken Pis), is indeed very small but as long as it’s a symbol of Brussels, one should go and see it and even stand in a queue to get a photo with it. In the past, statues of peeing boys symbolised the poor selling their urine to leatherworkers, but luckily this isn’t being practiced anymore. Peeing-related things are around every corner in Brussels, which isn’t a wonder as people here drink a lot of beer. Nonetheless, behave yourself on a night out to make sure you’re not the inspiration for the next sculpture.
In terms of symbols, the Atomium is also a tourist favourite. The entrance fee is €11 but you can enjoy this metal construction from the outside without paying anything. It was built for the World Exhibition of 1958 when people were fascinated with atomic energy. Just like Paris has its Eiffel Tower, Brussels has the Atomium. However, the cities are completely different. Acting cool and trendy may work in Paris but Brussels is all about being easy-going and being yourself.