Before I get started, yes, we really went to Brussels.
And come on, people. Brussels is basically a Belgian Willy Wonka wonderland, with delicious chocolate, beer, french fries, and waffles on every corner. I halfway expected the wallpaper to taste like snozzberries and for Oompa Loompas to pop out at me from street corners singing weird rhymes.
Since Gene Wilder wasn’t available to show us around, we started our week long self-guided food tour with chocolate. Brussels is the home of Godiva, so naturally, we stopped in the flagship store on the Grand Plaza.
It was super fancy. As soon as we walked through the door, we had a personal shopping assistant assigned to us. He greeted us (first in French, then in English) as ma’am and sir, and apparently he’s trained in treating everyday backpackers like royalty.
I’m not going to lie. At first, I thought we made a terrible mistake. In general, places with this much luxe make me incredibly uncomfortable and suspicious of everyone being a total kiss ass. But then, he offered us free chocolate samples, and that’s when I knew he was a friend of mine.
Our new friend asked us about our chocolate preferences, and helped guide us in making our selections. He wasn’t pushy, and he knew every ingredient of every piece of chocolate. He did put on a pair of crisp, white gloves before using metal tongs to pick up each piece of chocolate (which definitely made me roll my eyes), but overall, it was a good experience and we got a few pieces of AMAZING chocolate as well as a truffle.
A few pieces and a truffle? Don’t worry. We were just getting started with the chocolate. Our next step was just a few doors down, Neuhaus Chocolatier.
This location opened in 1857 as an apothecary, where Jean Neuhaus covered his medicines in chocolate to make them more palatable. (Genius.) As time went on, he became less focused on pharmaceuticals and more focused on chocolate, until eventually that’s all he sold. (Also genius?) His family members got involved too. Jean’s grandson created the first ever chocolate-filled bonbons, and his wife invented the standard chocolate gift boxes that we still use today.
Chocolate power family, y’all.
We also made our way to Leonidas (several times) during the week. This store sells delicious Belgian chocolate, but is a little more casual (aka way more my style), with lower prices to match the less stuffy atmosphere. No personal shopping assistants here, which was totally fine by me. They focus on top quality chocolate, while remaining affordable. Which means more frequent Leonidas trips, and more amazing melt-in-my-mouth chocolate.
And last but not least, we stopped into Galler. We shopped around a bit before deciding to grab a full bar of chocolate to have as a snack back at our Airbnb later. (Also: I’m not a macaroons person by any means, but we got free samples of macaroons here that were OUT OF THIS WORLD amazing. Sorry for the lack of photos. They were devoured immediately.)
Brussels is also one of the biggest beer capitals in the world. So we adjusted our palates, and made the switch from Italian wine to Belgian beer during our visit.
Our Airbnb host left us a Tripel Karmeliet in the fridge, so that was our first taste. It’s a golden Belgian beer, with 8.4% alcohol by volume (which explains why a lot of clueless tourists fall off their barstools after only a couple of beers). The Tripel Karmeliet is brewed according to a 1679 recipe from an old Carmelite convent. It’s old school cool.
In Brussels, at a restaurant or bar, beer is served its own unique, branded glassware. The proper glassware is considered to enhance the beer’s flavor, and is very important to people. Apparently, if dirty glasses start piling up, the server will apologize if they have to bring your beer in the “wrong” glassware. You are allowed, and maybe even expected, to grumble about it a little bit.
Since brewery tours are always fun, and neither of us really knew anything about Belgian beer (or glassware?), we went to the Cantillon Brewery to learn about a super traditional type of brewing. The beer brewed there, called lambic beer, is spontaneously fermented by wild yeasts in giant open-topped vats. As in… they literally just let their beer sit in the attic for a while until it’s ready to drink. (Full blog post here.)
This brewery tour also introduced me to kriek, a style of beer traditionally made in Brussels, that also happens to be my new favorite kind of beer. It’s made by fermenting lambic beer (see above) with sour Morello cherries. And the end product is a delicious sour, dry, and fruity beer that is WAY too easy to drink. (Not upset about it. Will try not to fall off any barstools.)
Belgian frites! Totally a thing. Fries are thought to have originated in Belgium (though France will never admit it) and there is literally a french fry culture here. It’s crazy. There are dedicated fry stands on the streets, and people of all ages and all walks of life stand in line to get a cone of frites.
We went to Maison Antoine, a famous fritkot, to sample the goods.
Aaand it did not disappoint. They filled a standard cardboard cone with frites until it was overflowing, wrapped it in thick paper to make it even taller, filled it to the brim again, and then topped it off with a sauce of our choosing. Wait. Let’s talk sauces real quick though, because this is a huge deal in Belgium. It’s typical for a fritkot to have at least a dozen different kinds of sauces available.
Maison Antoine had closer to 30 different types of dipping sauces (I only got the top half of the sauce menu in this photo due to my extremely poor French skills). We chose samurai sauce for our frites, which is a mayonnaise-based sauce with Tunisian chili, spices, tomatoes, and bell peppers. Nom.
But fries aren’t only served in a cone on the street. Moules-frites (aka mussels served with fries) is super popular, sometimes considered the national dish of Belgium. Typically the mussels are served in the same pan and the same stock that was used to cook them. Then you get a second pan to dispose of your shells as you eat. The fries are served on a different plate so they don’t get soggy, but as the name implies, they are a vital part of the meal.
The book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die lists eating moules-frites at a restaurant called Chez Léon as a must-do. And since this book is a great global travel guide and also a rough bucket list for us, we went for it. It was the first time that either of us had eaten mussels. Pro tip: the locals eat one mussel, and then use the empty shell as a sort of chopstick-like utensil to grab the meat out of all the other mussels. Not too shabby! (Note: the beef carbonnade was also delish.)
And last, but certainly not least, WAFFLES. Forget everything you know about American waffles. Erase the word “Eggo” from your brain. The waffles in Brussels are other worldly.
In the more touristy areas, the waffles will be covered in all manners of fruit, chocolate, and whipped cream. These waffles are 100% made for tourists, but I’m not going to badmouth them. Because fruit and chocolate and whipped cream are all delicious things. (And I’m pretty sure there are still waffles underneath all that stuff.)
The two traditional types of waffles are the Brussels waffle and the Lèige waffle. They’re usually served plain or dusted with powdered sugar. And they honestly don’t need any toppings because they are incredible all on their own.
Brussels waffles are lighter, crispier, and more rectangular. Lèige waffles are denser, sweeter, and chewier, with chunks of pearl sugar that caramelize on the outside of the waffle. OMG. #LèigeWaffles4Life. They are sweet and delicious and taste like mini fluffy cakes, except that I’m allowed to eat the whole cake without anyone judging me.
Soooo basically there is no reason not to go to Brussels, and there are 4 VERY good reasons to visit this city. Chocolate, beer, fries, and waffles. Plus, bonus mussels if you’re into that.
Self-guided food tours are the way to go, but keep your eyes out for chocolate waterfalls and Everlasting Gobstoppers, because I’m still not convinced that Willy Wonka isn’t behind all this.