Destination of the week: Brussels
Ditch the diet and head over to this eco-friendly city rich in history and culture.
Mon, Oct 04, 2010 at 08:07 AM
Brussels is the capital of Belgium and the meeting place for the powerful leadership of the European Union. It is a city known for its history and architecture. Yes, buildings that bring to mind the city’s storied past are everywhere, but Brussels is also a cultural melting pot.
Its Walloon (French-speaking) and Flemish (Dutch-speaking) populations have given it a vibe that is part French, part Dutch and completely unique. And modern Brussels is an international city filled with immigrants from around the former Belgian Empire and the French-speaking world. It is also frequented by Europe’s movers and shakers.
Recently, Brussels made a major push to become greener. With trains coming from all directions, it's easy to get your green groove going before you even arrive in the city. Walkable streets and plenty of public transit mean that this is one of the world’s easiest cities to get around, and one of its most pleasant and scenic to navigate without a car. A green push by hotels, businesses and the municipal government has made it easy to make every aspect of a Belgian vacation easy on the environment.
Brussels is a walkable city. Indeed, for tourists, walking is the preferred means of transport (as long as they are prepared for summer rains and winter chills). There is a six-line train network (the Metro) that was recently upgraded. This system is fed by buses and trams. Though it is a bit expensive (especially for visitors who convert U.S. dollars into euros), it is the best alternative to foot-powered travel. One-day passes are available for 4.50 euros ($5.80), with three days of unlimited rides costing only 9.50 euros ($12.25). There are several regional bus services, but the STIB, the main transit authority in Brussels, has an English section on its website that makes it the most user-friendly option.
Eurostar runs a high-speed train that connects Brussels with London. Like many other major cities in Europe, it is possible to arrive from other points on the continent without having to get on the road or into the air.
Bicycle culture might not reach the same level as it does in neighboring Holland, but it is easy to navigate Brussels on a bike. The Villo public bike rental service has 180 stations around the city. A weeklong pass costs 7 euros ($9.15), with daily passes costing only 1.50 euros ($1.95). The rental is free for 30 minutes, then costs 0.50 euros ($.65) per each additional half hour.
There are a wide range of sleeping spots in Brussels. These choices include both five star, super luxury hotels and basic accommodations found in guesthouses and youth hostels. One of the best low-end choices is the Brussels branch of the Auberge Sleep Well Hostel. It has shared rooms, a youthful clientele and practical green features like bike rental.
The Hotel Silken Berlaymont is at the other end of the eco-friendly hotel spectrum in more ways than one. It has recently undergone a renovation that increased its environmental friendliness and earned the notice of the IBGE (Brussels Institute for Management of the Environment), an organization that rates businesses based on their level of sustainability and energy consumption.
Brussels has an impressive collection of parks and gardens within its city limits. The most central of these is Brussels Park, which is located adjacent to the Royal Palace. The park has a long history (it was a battlefield during Belgium’s war for independence in the 1830s). It was refurbished at the beginning of the decade and is known for its fountains and mix of wild and carefully manicured landscape. The Bois de la Cambre Park and adjacent forest (known as the Forêt de Soignes) offer more natural landscapes than the garden-like parks in or near the center of the city.
Brussels has a lively organic retail scene, with plenty of shops specializing in organic clothing. There are also some fair trade options and shops that sell products made from sustainable materials like bamboo. Organic chocolates and beers (see below) are also on the shopping radar.
Eat and drink green
What is the first thing most people think of when they hear the word “Belgium”? If it is not chocolate or waffles, it is beer. Belgian beers are world famous. Places like the Cantillon Brewery take pride in the fact that their brews are 100 percent organic and are made in small batches using traditional techniques. The public can tour Cantillon’s facilities and even visit while beer is being made.
Farmers markets seem to pop up from nowhere in the city on different days of the week. Some have stalls selling organic (bio in local vernacular) produce and there are plenty of locally produced cured meats and cheeses as well. Small-scale shops still thrive in some sections of Brussels, more so than in most chain-happy urban centers, so it is possible to get locally produced goods in many places.
This not the best city for vegetarians. But there are options such as Dolma, a teahouse/restaurant that serves quality vegetarian dishes influenced by cuisines and cooking styles from around the world.
If you are in the market for chocolate, there is no shortage of options. Because it is a highly regulated industry, even the smallest mom-and-pop candy shop has a product that is superior to anything else you are likely to taste in the world.
Brussels is an international city and one of those rare places where history (architecture, food production and culture) has become part of the modern landscape and experience. For travelers looking to get a taste of Europe without giving up their green conscience, Brussels is one of the better destinations.
Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.
Thumbnail photo: Jupiterimages