I imagine it’s not easy being the capital of all of Europe. A continent so filled with history, beauty and culture, and to be the head of all of it? in a way, Brussels is to Europe as Beyoncé is to the music scene (in my humble opinion), so naturally, the only way to deal with so much pressure and privilege is this: Do not take yourself too seriously. And Brussels does not. Brussels has an excellent sense of humor.
It was such a joy to arrive in Brussels after spending a week in Paris—potentially the most pretentious city in Europe. Potentially. Here are the things I noticed immediately upon arriving in Brussels that prove Brussels is your friend’s really cool, humble older brother who has a lot to offer but also knows how to make fun of himself and have a good time in any kind of company. Are you a little confused? Let me explain.
1. The Manneken Pis
The Manneken Pis is arguably the most famous landmark in Brussels, and what is it? It is a little boy happily peeing into a fountain. It is hilarious, making light of the whole concept of naked, cherubic statues spouting water into fountain basins. And, not only is the actual statue funny, but the rest of the city has a fun time parodying the little boy as well. Belgian Waffle shops have remakes of the Manneken Pis outside their stores happily holding a waffle. Glasses stores have him wearing a cool pair of glasses. Clothing shops have him outside painted neon colors. Furthermore, several times a year, they’ll dress the little guy up in different costumes for holidays. There are many legends as to how the fountain was dreamed up and created in the first place, which you can check out here, but I know the real reason it’s there: when you’re the coolest city in Europe, it’s hard to keep that from manifesting itself.
2. The prevalence of grafitti
I’ve never seen more imaginative or pervasive graffiti anywhere than I saw in Brussels. It was overwhelming—especially because in this city, graffiti is mainly used as an artistic outlet to make something beautiful for the city than it is to simply scrawl names or hateful things. In a way, Brussels graffiti is the best free public arts project a city could have. Aleah and I saw entire skate parks filled with graffiti from ramp to rail, entire building walls covered with hopeful words and images, and entire artistic communities created and designated by where the beautiful graffiti ends and the stucco starts. Brussels is so creative it can’t help but share as many original, creative things with the world as it can.
3. Headquarters of USE-IT
Traveling throughout Europe, we had to get really familiar with maps. We used any kind of map we could get our hands on. Sometimes they were great, sometimes I wondered why the city even wasted its ink. But, our whole relationship to maps completely changed when we got to Brussels. Our couchsurfing host gave us a map left to him by another surfer made by a tourism company called USE-IT. The moment we read it, we were absolutely blown away by how excellent it was. It was a map created not-for-profit for the city of Brussels by its residents—filled with not only the big tourist attractions, but also the little known places and shops only the locals know and frequent. The map came complete with sections called “How to act like a local,” “Local slang to know,” and short paragraph description of all the 80 hotspots the map suggested we visit. The map was not only clear and thorough, but filled with sarcastic humor and lightheartedness. After using the map for 2 days, we decided we had to go to USE-IT headquarters in Brussels and thank them for the map that made our trip, and when we got to headquarters we found that nearly 20 other cities in Europe have followed Brussels’ example and created their own USE-IT maps. We stocked up on those and were set for the rest of our trip. But, of course, something that cool, helpful, welcoming, smart and funny could only have been created in Brussels. And, of course, imitation is the sincereest form of flattery. You can check out USE-IT’s website here.
4. Inability to select a single national language
Brussels is one of the most open, welcoming cities I’ve ever encountered. And a result of that, I feel, is welcoming all languages and not being sticklers about their own language. Belgium, in general, hasn’t decided if its national language is Flemish, French, Dutch or German, and Belgium really doesn’t care. If you like beer, chocolate and comedy, you’re in the right place, no matter what language you speak.
5. Expertise in Beer, not wine
It’s all about Belgian beer here. The emphasis on beer really stood out to me after just having been in Paris where people basically put wine in their coffee mugs in the morning.
6. Jokes are scattered throughout the city.
The artists here certainly have a sense of humor. Let me show you some funny things I saw around the city you might appreciate (besides the Manneken Pis and its parodies).