Hey travel slacker: It’s time to go to Brussels.
Sure, you’ve been meaning to make it Belgium’s cool capital at some point, but frankly, when push came to shove, you opted for more obvious Euro heavy-hitter destinations like Paris or Amsterdam, cities that with merely a mention conjure up images of charm, personality and boast reputations for romance or raucous fun. And yes, maybe Brussels is a bit off the gaydar in comparison to Paris or Amsterdam, but therein lies its charm. Being less hung up than the former and more suave than the latter makes it a place worth hanging out in for at least a weekend. There are some fabulous experiences to be had here, if you know where to look. By all means, lap up a kriek, or cherry-flavored beer, in the aptly named Grand Place as you admire the tall gilt-edged medieval guild houses. It’s storybook architecture at its most harmonious. But as you walk around central Brussels you’ll also delight in the many whimsical wall frescoes, often depicting Tintin or other famous Belgian comic strip characters in fanciful colors.
This is a town with gusto and a sense of humor. In Belgium the aristocracy was never quite removed from the wealthy merchants and traders, which translates today into a people who are not arrogant, but rather who are so used to high quality they needn’t even demand it. Indeed, you’ll never see the word “gourmet” in a store in Brussels – it’s just taken for granted. Belgium can seem like a modern reincarnation of the old German dream of Schlaraffenland, the gluttons’ paradise where people lie under trrees waiting for roast pigeons to fly into their mouths. Once you taste your first carbonnade flamande (Belgian beef stew) or dame blanche, vanilla ice cream with melted Belgian chocolate poured on top, you’ll be hooked. The food is that good. Unlike Paris or Venice, Brussels was never designed to be a city for lovers. It’s strictly for gourmands and gourmets – gluttons and gastronomes. The famous chocolates are rich inside but never bitter, and neither, after repeated inspections, are the Belgians.
Brussels is a patchwork of neighborhoods that are often very different from one another. The main gay ‘hood is but a five minute walk from the Grand Place, but you must move about a bit to experience the city’s real diversity. Trendy Brussels is unofficially headquartered in and around Rue Dansaert, due south of the ornate stock exchange building. For fabulous flea markets and fun antiquing there’s the Marolles district, especially on Rue Blaes and Rue Haute. The shopping takes a decidedly posher turn in the Les Sablons quarter, with luxe chocolatier Pierre Marcolini on the Place du Grand Sablon leading the pack. And north of that are leafy residential neighborhoods with some very beautiful Art Nouveau architecture.
All this and more makes Brussels a somewhat unusual destination for the gay traveler accustomed to a flashier or more anonymous urban scene. Here though, in inverse proportion to the generally cool climate, gay life is cozier and more familiar than in bigger cities like London. On weekends and even during the week in warm weather, the asphalt between the main gay bars on Rue du Marché au Charbon is a more popular place for buddies to meet up than the bars themselves. The number of gay bars may not be overwhelming but the variety is good. The locals – who could be from anywhere around the world or just around the corner – seem to get on quite fine with what they have, and with a little pluck no doubt you will, too.