I Heart My City: Yamina’s Brussels

Yamina el Atlass was born and raised in Brussels, and returned home in the 90s, when the city was coming into its own. She writes about Brussels for Spotted by Locals – a series of blogs, PDF city guides, and smartphone apps on 43 cities in Europe. Yamina says she loves Brussels because even though it’s Belgium’s capital city and the de facto capital of the European Union, it has the charm of a small town. Catch up with Yamina on her blog, then add your own recommendations for the city she hearts: Brussels.

Brussels is My City

St-Hubertus Galery is definitely worth a visit. (Photograph by Marianne Janssens, Flickr)

The first place I take a visitor from out of town is on a walking tour of the city center to visit the classical Grand Place and the great galleries that surround it: Bortier Gallery, Sint Hubertus Royal Galleries, or the recently renovated Galerie Horta. The walk continues all the way to the fashion area of Rue Antoine Dansaert and Rue des Chartreux, the vivid Place St-Géry, small and friendly bars, such as Au Soleil in the cozy Saint Jacques neighborhood and then the multicultural area next to Place Rouppe.

When I crave Moroccan food I always go to one of the many Moroccans restaurants in town, due to the importance of this community in Brussels. My favorite one is L’Ocean, for their fish and salads.

To escape the rain I head to one of the city’s independent cinemas – Vendôme, Styx, or the Cinematek – to see a movie or check out one of the many film festivals.

If I want to find a gift after the shops have closed I go Cook & Book, a restaurant with a great bookstore inside.

For complete quiet, I can hide away in one of Brussels’ many parks – Parc d’Egmont, the Jean-Felix Hap Garden, and in a more residential area, the Park Fond Roy.

Take a break from sight-seeing at Cafe Zebra. (Photograph by Marianne Janssens, Flickr)

If you come to my city, get your picture taken with a French speaker on your right and a Dutch speaker on your left (or the other way around) and I bet that no one at home will be able to tell the difference and, with time, you won’t remember yourself who spoke which language as they would obviously speak in French to each other and in English to you.

If you have to order one thing off the menu from Zebra Barit has to be the fruity iced teas.

Plaizier Art Shop is my one-stop shop for great postcards featuring old pictures of the city.

Locals know to skip Delirium and its collection of more than 2,000 beers that you can find everywhere else in the world and check out Moeder Lambic‘s traditional and qualitative beers instead.

When I’m feeling cash-strapped I go to the Gratis in Brussel website to find out what’s going on for free every day: from concerts to exhibitions and from guided tours to parties (even if the whole site is only available in Dutch).

Skip Delirium: Check out Moeder Lambic instead. (Photograph by Marianne Janssens, Flickr)

For a huge splurge I go to one of the contemporary art galleries in Ixelles, such as Xavier Hufkens, Almine Rech, or smaller ones such as Meessen De Clerck, Albert Baronian, or Lot10, one of my favorites. I must confess that I rarely spend a cent (not to say “never”) when I visit, but it’s the place I would go if I could afford a huge splurge, for sure!

Photo ops in my city include bottles and glasses of beer, fries with many colorful sauces, people from all styles everywhere, fresh food markets, skies of different colors with large clouds. The best vantage points are the Arcades of Jubilee Park, the view from Place Poelaert or from Laîné Square at the end of Duden Park.

If my city were a celebrity it’d be Belgium’s king, Albert II: he’s the perfect example of a typical guy growing up in Brussels. He wasn’t raised to be a king and was just living his life. But then, due to many circumstances, he got “the” job and he’s doing it in a quiet, laid-back manner but with seriousness and modesty. So is the city: it’s one of the diplomatic centers of the world, but yet the city is small, modest, and surprises its visitors with the large amount of cultural and authentic experiences on offer.

Enjoy some quiet time in Jubel Park. (Photograph by Marianne Janssens, Flickr)

The most random thing about my city seems to be the rain, when you look at how people suddenly can’t drive when the weather is drippy. What is not random is the rain, though everyone acts like rain is a rare occurrence in our city.

My city has the most fanciful men.

My city has the most well-rounded women.

[To find those two perfect attributes, we had an intense discussion via social media. We decided to reject the adjectives “dikkenek men and babbeleer women,” because they're in brusseleir, the Brussels’ dialect, too complicated to translate, and there are many nicer things to say about us!] 

In my city, an active day outdoors involves experiencing the four seasons in the space of a few hours (the weather can be fickle) and being ready to fight against cars while cycling.

My city’s best museum is the micro museum Home Frit’ Home, an independent initiative about one of our national dishes: Belgian fries.

My favorite jogging/walking route is one of the many routes around the Green Belt where you can see some of the ancient villages that have shaped the city: farms, woods, countryside, little old streets. The GreenBelt offers visitors and locals alike a chance to escape the crowded city center.

The Grand Place is the center of the city. (Photograph by Marianne Janssens, Flickr)

For a night of dancing, go to one of the many independent concept parties which can pop up anywhere — clubs, bars, train stations, hotels, even in abandoned churches or factories. Or, for live music, check out the Concerts section of the official cultural agenda.

Au Vatel is the spot for late-night eats. They’re busy baking fresh bread all night long.

To find out what’s going on at night and on the weekends, read the paper free magazine Agenda. You can mix it up with the website Agenda.be, the official cultural agenda. Despite their common names and goals, they’re not similar.

You can tell a lot about my city by sitting on a bench in Place Flagey: you’ll see all kinds of people from families of all social, economic, and ethnic origins in this spot. From students and artists to businessmen and hipsters, not to mention sports freaks and people coming to one of the cultural venues in the area.

You can tell if someone is from my city if, as a French speaker, s/he does not pronounce the “x” of “Bruxelles” but says “Brusselles” instead. You can also tell that someone is from my city by the chaotic way we cross streets (not respecting the signals), or how we step on escalators (not making it easy for other people to pass).

In the spring you should start all the outdoor activities, from apéro on terraces to music festivals, markets, and flea markets. 

In the summer you should spend one day on the Belgian coast to get some fresh air when the heat makes the city nearly unbreathable.

A sample of the fabulous street art on display in the city. (Photograph by Marianne Janssens, Flickr)

In the fall you should drive in busy traffic to realize that there’s one place where Brussels inhabitants lose their nerves and friendliness.

In the winter you should go to the Animation Movie Festival.

A hidden gem in my city is what you’ll discover while wandering the streets with no purpose: a park between private houses, a sculpture which makes no sense.

For a great breakfast joint try Café de la Presse, the newest trendy place at the end of Avenue Louise, near Bois de la Cambre.

Don’t miss the Brussels Jazz Marathon festival in May.

Just outside my city, you can visit the Castle of La Hulpe and the huge natural area surrounding it. 

The best way to see my city is on foot or by tram, depending on the area and the distances.

If my city were a pet it would be a dog. They are everywhere. We even have a sculpture of a peeing dog called Zinneke Pis!

If I didn’t live in a city, I’d live in a cottage on the beach before getting bored and coming back to a city.

The best book about my city is a comic book, “Brüsel,” which presents a vision of Brussels in a parallel world.

When I think about my city, the song that comes to mind is Bruxelles” by Dick Annegarn.

If you have kids, you won’t want to miss the Childrens Museum, where kids are allowed to touch everything, climb walls, listen to stories, and attend workshops.

An Underpants Museum in a tiny old bar could only happen in my city.

My city should be featured on your cover or website because you’re not obliged to talk about us and we will not feel hurt if you decide not to cover it. We will feel blessed if you show an interest but we’ll also think that something must be wrong with you. While we do love our city, we will probably recognize our own folly and will welcome you as one of ours.