Stefano Amantini  /  Corbis file
Roads around Brussels are lined with medieval and gothic-style architecture.
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Special to msnbc.com
updated 1/15/2007 1:05:29 PM ET 2007-01-15T18:05:29

After the Belle Epoque expanses of Paris, the picturesque winding canals of Amsterdam, and the softly crumbling, sienna-hued streets of Rome, many first-time visitors on the classic “grand tour” of Europe feel a twinge of disappointment when they encounter Brussels. Chockablock with skyscrapers and bustling with bureaucrats (it’s the headquarters for the European Union), it seems, on first glance, rather sanitized, modern, a European version of say, Cleveland, Ohio. But first impressions are often wrong. Try the following itinerary and you’ll discover the charming, chocolate-scented, art-loving soul of the city behind its efficient façade.

8 a.m. - 9 a.m.: Breakfast in your hotel. It’s usually included in the cost and will be small (coffee and a croissant is the norm), so you can gorge at lunch and dinner.

9 a.m. - noon: For centuries, visitors to Brussels have gone first not to the city’s stately Cathedral but to its elaborately gilded, architecturally harmonious, outdoor temple to commerce, the Grand’ Place — and so should you. This medieval market square (it’s been here since the 12th century), flanked on all sides by exquisite Baroque and Gothic Guild Halls, is the heart and the soul of the city and arguably one of the most important secular architectural sights on the continent of Europe. Grab a guidebook so that you can identify all of the symbol-laden Guild Halls around the plaza. It’s good, clean fun picking out the hops motif on the Brewers Guild, spotting the stern of a ship on the House of the Boatmen, and noting that the ornate swirls on the Cabinet Makers Guild make the structure look uncannily like one giant chest. Be sure to tour the Hotel de Ville or City Hall,the oldest structure on the plaza (built in the 1400’s) being the only one to escape the destruction wreaked by the French in 1695 (an act so dastardly that even Napoleon decried it a century later saying it was “aussi barbere qu’inutile” — as “barbaric as it was useless”). Before leaving the area entirely, be sure to visit the Mannekin Pis , the tiny statue of a tiny boy pissing, it’s one of the most famous sights in the city (and has inspired countless tasteless souvenirs). Nobody quite knows who the statue is supposed to be (this bronze one replaced a stone statue from the 15th century of the same little boy in the same act) but one legend has it that this tot was a hero who used his, er, skills to extinguish a bomb tossed into the streets by invading troops.

Morning Alternative
Head to Waterloo , less than an hour by bus from Brussels. Pace the battlefield that finished off Napoleon — its rolling pastures look much like they did when Napoleon’s army was defeated here by a mighty combined army of British, Dutch, Belgian, German and Prussian troops. By the end of the battle, 40,000 soldiers lay dead or wounded and the Little General was exiled once again, this time permanently (he died on St. Helena’s Island six years later).

Noon - 2 p.m.: Take a seat at one of the long, rough-hewn wooden tables of ‘t Kelderke , and tuck into a massive, steaming plate of mussels; some bloedpens (blood sausage); or waterzooi (a classic Belgian dish, its name technically means “watery mess” but it’s actually a savory cream-based stew of either chicken or fish). Be ready for a wait — this 17th century cellar restaurant is right on the Grand Place and can get crowded.

2 p.m. - 5 p.m.: Gallery hop at Brussel’s renowned Musee Royaux des Beaux Arts , really two museums in one, dedicated to modern art (or Arte Moderne) and to classic art (Arte Anciens). Together, these two conjoined museums span the centuries from the 14th through the 20th.  This being a Flemish museum, it can be trippy stuff, from Hieronymus Bosch’s demon and imaginary-beastie laden Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony to Paul Delvaux’ surreal Pygmalion, with its human-on-statue couplings and the day/night confusions of Magritte. Don’t leave before getting an eyeful of the Breughels here; this is the finest collection in the world for that great master.

Afternoon alternative
If you’ve already done the Musee des Beaux Arts, take a stroll through the museum that contains the spoils of Belgium’s colonial past: The Royal Museum of Central Africa . Just outside Brussels in Tervuren, it offers a mix of dioramas, art pieces and historic objects from the days when Belgium still had imperial ambitions (guns, cannons and the like). Be sure to leave time in your schedule for a walk through the lovely gardens surrounding the museum.

5 p.m. - 6 p.m.: Go hunting for truffles — chocolate truffles, that is. It's against the law — or it should be — to visit Belgium and not bring back a box of chocolates to share with family and friends. The sweets here are, with no exaggeration, the finest in the world, particularly at the famed Choclatier Mary which supplies the royal court of Belgium with its chocolate fix.

7 p.m. - 10 p.m.: Leave your computer and get over to the phone now to begin your attempts to secure a reservation at Comme Chez Soi . No matter how many times you need to call back, it’s worth it for this temple of gastronomy which despite its name (which means “like at home”) serves an otherworldly cuisine of luxury ingredients (Mechelen cuckoo anyone? Or how about goose liver butter?).

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommer guides in bookstores now.

To get to the Grand’ Place take the metro to Bourse or Gare Central.

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The Hotel du Ville is located right on the Grand’ Place. For information on the hours of its guided tours, call 02/279-43-65. Admission is 3€.  

The Mannekin Pisis located at the corner of the rue du Chêne and rue de l'Etuve.

To get to Waterloo take bus W which departs twice hourly from Gare du Midi and costs 3€. By car from Brussels, go south on the ring road to exit 27 for Waterloo, and N5 south to the battlefield; follow the signs for Butte du Lion. Be sure to stop by the Visitors Center  (route du Lion 252-254) before heading onto the field, to watch the informative video there and pick up information.

‘t Kelderke, Grand’ Place 15, phone 02/513-73-44.

Musee Royaux des Beaux Arts, Rue de la Régence 3  at place Royale, phone 02/508-32-11; www.fine-arts-museum.be. The  Museum of Historical Art is open Tuesday through Sunday 10am-noon and 1-5pm. The Museum of Modern Art is open Tuesday through Sunday 10am-1pm and 2-5pm. Admission is 5€ adults; 3.50€ students, seniors, visitors with disabilities, and children 13 and over. It’s free for everyone the first Wednesday afternoon of the month.

The Royal Museum of Central Africa, Leuvensesteenweg 13 in Tervuren (a suburban area just east of Brussels), phone 02/769-52-11; www.africamuseum.be. To get there take Tram 44 from Metro Montgomery. It’s open Tuesday to Friday, 10am-5pm and Saturday to Sunday 10am-6pm. Admission is 3€.

Comme Chez Soi, Place Rouppe 23 near the Grand’ Place, phone 02/512-29-21; www.commechezsoi.be.

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new Pauline Frommer guides in bookstores now.

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