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Don't let a reputation for bureaucracy turn you off this intriguing city. As the headquarters of the European Union, Brussels is set squarely in the middle of world events. Superlative food and a magnificent plaza lift it into the big league.
It feels like magic dust has been sprinkled over Brussels' renowned Grand Place. It's hard not to be impressed by the sweep of architecture that encloses the cobbled market square: opulent guildhalls date from the late 17th century, plus feast your eyes on the exquisite 15th-century Hôtel de Ville (City Hall). Come back at night for lovely illuminations.
From Grand Place it’s a short walk to the enchanting old districts of Ilôt Sacré and Sablon. If you haven't overdosed on architecture, explore the Notre Dame du Sablon, a magnificent late-gothic church dating from the 15th century. Among the city’s many great museums is the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts - its section dedicated to Old Masters dazzles, but there are also departments honoring art nouveau and homegrown surrealist Magritte.
For a country of its size, Belgium has had a disproportionate impact on the palate of diners and drinkers around the globe. Belgian beers are revered (especially Trappist beers, brewed in monasteries), and its reputation for fine chocolate is unmatched. Perhaps the most iconic Belgian meal is mussels and French fries, moules-frites. The area around Ste-Catherine’s fish market is a super spot to sample this and other seafood specialties.
You can track down bistros that serve European classics in old-world, polished-wood charm, or Michelin-starred temples to fine dining. There's a growing breed of fresh cafes, and world cuisines are nicely represented. For addictive local street food, stop at a friterie for a cone of perfectly made frites (fries - the Belgians claim to have invented them).
Topping your shopping list: chocolate, beer - and lace! These are the most iconic of Belgian souvenirs. The Place du Grand Sablon is a beautiful 17th-century square and the holy grail of Belgian chocolate - most of the grand chocolatiers have a store here. The Sablon neighborhood is perfect for browsing - it's loaded with antique stores and chic boutiques. A market sets up on the square on weekends, selling antiques and books.
More refined, elegant shopping can be found at Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, a glass-roofed arcade from the 19th century. For street-market mooching, you're in luck: Brussels has some outstanding options, from flower sellers setting up on Grand Place a few mornings a week, to a sprawling Sunday market by the Gare du Midi train station.