Brussels was kicked into the world spotlight when it became the capital city of the European Union in 1992. This is an honor that has both brought great wealth to parts of the city and caused decades of aggravation as fine old neighborhoods were torn down to make way for the soulless contemporary architecture of the E.U. quarter as well the building of sometimes unnecessary boulevards to improve commuting time through the city.

So the Bruxellois have mixed feelings about their city’s transformation into an international power center. At first the waves of Eurocrats swelling the residential ranks brought a cosmopolitan air—and money—to somewhat provincial Brussels, but many people nowadays wonder whether the city has lost its soul. After all, this city doesn’t only mean politics and business. This is the place that inspired Art Nouveau and Surrealism; it worships comic strips, and prides itself on its ancient skills with handmade lace. It has one of the most glorious art galleries in the world as well as countless other enticing museums. Brussels is a gourmet destination, famed the world over for its haute cuisine, fine confectionary, and craft beers.

But it’s not an easy city to know. Unlike Amsterdam, which welcomes all and sundry with hugs and laughter, Brussels wrestles with its tourists. Service does not always come with a smile, social unease is evident even in the city center, and pockets of opulence are sharply contrasted by districts of degradation and dilapidation. Despite all this, the Bruxellois have preserved their individuality and the city’s spirit lives in its traditional cafes and bistros, where you’ll eventually find the convivial ambience that is peculiarly Belgian.

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