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Carroll County Times

The beating heart of Belgium

The Brewers' Guild of Brussels in Grand-Place is shown.

Waffles. Chocolate. Moules frites. Trappist beers. Bring your appetite when you visit Brussels, the capital of Belgium. But the city is more than a place for a gastronomical retreat. For one thing, it is the headquarters of both NATO and the EU. As such, Brussels is many things to many people, but above all, it is charming. Quirky shops line the city streets that crisscross and meander in ways that will baffle even other Belgians. Food stands are everywhere. Even the graffiti - uncommon as it is - is upbeat and well-meaning. Plus, there are nearly 100 museums in the Brussels metropolitan area, on everything from comic strips (Brussels being the birthplace of Herge, an artist known for his Tintin comics) to musical instruments and more. You'll never want for things to do in this city; you'll only want more time to experience it.

Three things you'll need

Brussels Card: This little card is your key to euro-saving fun. For approximately $30, $43 or $50, you'll have 24-, 48- or 72-hour access, respectively, to more than 30 Brussels museums. You'll also get unlimited travel on certain forms of public transportation and discounts at participating shops. Pick up a Brussels Card at a tourist office on Grand-Place.

Local map: I opted for a "Use-It" map. Use-It is a very tourist-friendly information desk network in Europe, and it has a branch at 9 Steenkoolkaai in Brussels. The great thing about the Use-It map is that it's noncommercial and made by locals, so it's the next best thing to having a Belgian friend show you around. You can download a map at http://www.use-it.be/brussels/map/, as well.

Comfortable shoes: Brussels' streets are unevenly cobbled and take a bit of getting used to. Wear appropriate footwear for walking around - you'll be doing a lot of it.

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Three travel tips

Be prepared for variable weather: Brussels' climate is temperate, ranging from an average of 37 degrees in winter to 70 or so in the summer, but it can be rainy year-round. Dress in layers, and take along an umbrella.

Speak the language(s), if you can: It makes a mighty good impression on the locals when you can converse with them - or at least ask where the bathroom is - in their native tongue. One of the interesting things about the city of Brussels is that it is bilingual. The two official languages are French and Dutch, with French being predominant. However, pretty much everyone in the tourist areas speaks English, so don't fret if that's your only language. It's not uncommon for a shopkeeper to greet you in four or five languages, until she finds the one you respond to.

Venture away from the tourist traps: Like many places in Europe - or anywhere - you will find some of the choicest food, the most breathtaking attractions, and the most interesting people off the beaten path. Ask the locals for their recommendations; you just might be surprised what you find off the grid.

Three things to do or see

Grand-Place: This is Brussels' central square, bordered by guild halls as well as the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) and Maison du Roi (King's House, now Musee de la Ville de Bruxelles, or Brussels Museum). Located in the Lower Town district, it is the heart of the city, a place to gather for various festivals, concerts, or simply to enjoy the view. UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site in 1998. Once you see the spectacular architecture, incorporating Baroque, Gothic and Louis XIV elements, it'll be evident why this is such a popular destination.

Manneken-Pis: Arguably the most famous icon of Brussels, this statue of a urinating boy draws immense crowds on a daily basis. He is frequently dressed up in fancy costumes, some of which are kept on display at the Musee de la Ville de Bruxelles, and, on special occasions, wine or even champagne flows forth from the statue instead of water. Bring a zoom lens for your camera, if you have one; you're not likely to get very close to this little statue, but it's still worth the short trip south of Grand-Place.

Atomium: In the royal district of Laeken is an enormous feat of architecture built for the World's Fair in 1958. It represents an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times, with nine interconnected steel spheres. Some of the spheres have exhibit halls, and the top sphere features a panoramic view of Brussels. There's even a restaurant at the apex of the structure, if you've worked up an appetite after a long day of sightseeing.

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One thing to skip

Mini-Europe: It's a 1:25 scale model of some of the continent's most well-known landmarks. Sounds great, but here's a secret: If you take a trip up to the top of the Atomium, you can see the entirety of Mini-Europe from above without having to pay the $18 per adult Mini-Europe would charge, and you won't have to wait through the attraction's very long lines.


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