The Belgian capital may not spring to mind as being a great destination for children, it often implies interminable bureaucratic wrangling instead. However, Nadine Mellor, Kids Collection Editor for the savvy and stylish website of beautiful places to stay, i-escape.com, found Brussels has much to offer for a short city break for families. On a recent half-term jaunt with her 7 year old daughter, Esme, together they discovered sights, gastronomy and Tintin. Here are her 5 favourite things to do with kids in Brussels…
1. Chow Down on Chocolate
Not for nothing is Belgian chocolate lauded. The dark art of chocolate making is beautifully presented on every corner, in myriad whirls, cascades, hues and sculptures, yearningly viewed through Art Nouveau windows; a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds. We sampled chocolate tarts, waffles drizzled with chocolate, pralines and truffles. One particularly appetising promenade is to stroll through the heritage-listed mid 19th-century shopping arcade, Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, with its artisanal emporiums to right and left. Here we purchased chocolate boxes at beautifully stacked shop, Les Delices du Roy, for those family members left at home.
2. Mannekin Pis and Grand Place
These are the two most famous sights in Brussels, close together in the historic centre. The former, a small 17th-century bronze statue of a cherubic boy urinating into a fountain, is slightly underwhelming. As I didn’t tell her what we were on our way to see, it was a fun surprise. The statue is dressed in several different costumes during the week, these are also seen inside the City Museum inside the Baroque Breadhouse in the breathtaking Grand Place, which doesn’t disappoint. This vast cobbled square dates to the 12th-century, was given prestige and municipal power when the imposing Gothic City Hall was constructed in the 15th-century, and rebuilt in the 17th-century following bombardment. And is now considered by many the most beautiful square in Europe, combining opulence, gilt, pediments, pilasters, Palladian grace and rococo to wondrous effect. We came here at different times of day and early evening for a variety of light. Esme liked running and jumping in the wide open space and pretending to be a character from Horrible Histories.
3. Hergé Museum
Although an hour’s train ride outside Brussels, in Louvain-la-Neuve, this purpose-built shrine to master cartoonist Georges Remi, the artist who created Tintin, was a great hit (and just 5 minutes from the railway station). We are both huge fans of the Tintin books, and can quote large chunks of Captain Haddock’s expostulations at each other! We learned a huge amount about the great man, his background and his methods of working, and his many other characters as well as Tintin. What really struck me was his insatiable curiosity about the world; how scientific endeavours, anthropology and cinematic techniques were all incorporated into the stories. Hergé could do it all: drawing, humour, dialogue. You get head phones to guide you around the galleries, which made progress easy, and we spent considerable time and Euros in the gift shop.
It isn’t just chocolate which Belgium does well. We ate like queens! There’s a yellow waffle van on every touristy corner, the local potato and ham or shrimp croquettes found their way inexorably into our tummies, and we found a wide range of cuisines available to us for evening meals from Italian to sushi. I was most looking forward to a steaming pile of moules-frites so our hotel booked us a table at a Belgian-themed restaurant, Le Chou de Bruxelles, which even had Belgian flag napkins. Esme was a bit suspicious of the moules so chose to have hers in a sauce on fettucine, I went for mussels with saffron and cream from the 30 versions available to me on the menu. She positively waded into the ice cream and chocolate sauce for dessert…
Found to the North of the city, and erected for the 1958 World Fair in the shape of an iron crystal in 9 connected Space Age silver spheres, this proved such a hit it was not demolished as originally planned. Still hugely popular with visitors (note we found the queues for the lift long), some of the spheres are closed off, the top houses a restaurant with excellent views over the city, and others host temporary and permanent exhibitions. While displays of futuristic post-war visions left Esme cold, I loved the 1950s design (cool coral and celadon metal staircases!) and there are fabulous flashing illuminations enlivening the escalators between the spheres. Nearby is Mini-Europe, a theme park with Europe’s most famous buildings in miniature, which was closed for the winter when we visited but you can get a combo ticket for both attractions. After our descent from the future, we strolled around Parc d’Osseghem at its base, admiring waterfowl, hanging upside down on exercise bars, and tossing leaves through the trees.
We stayed at the welcoming Made in Louise – which has a useful large honesty bar on the ground floor for snacks and drinks, delicious breakfasts and is close to shopping, restaurants and public transport.
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