Brussels: The City Beyond Belgian Waffles

When I asked my friends what to do on a day-trip to Brussels most of their advice was very simple: eat a waffle, drink beer, buy chocolate, and walk around. However, during my layover in Brussels on the way to Israel, I discovered lovely gems of the city extending too and beyond its delicious food. Though I was slightly less organized about this trip than about my Amsterdam layover I am excited to share with you all, the Brussels I discovered.

First a little background information about Brussels, a city contained within the Brussels-Capital Region of Belgium (one of the three main regions of the country). Brussels is considered the de facto capital of the European Union as it hosts several major EU institutions (along with Strasbourg and Luxembourg). While it is historically Dutch-speaking, the city experienced a shift to French language starting from the early 18th century. Back then, French was considered a more “prestigious” language. Francization effectively ceased around the 1960s because Dutch regions of Belgium prospered economically and Dutch language regained popularity. Currently language-use is pretty evenly split between French and Dutch with many individuals knowing both. I speak a little French but no Dutch and found that most people I met were able to communicate with me, if not in French then in English. Brussels was built on the banks of the Senne River and was a major port city and trading center throughout most of its existence. However, by the 19th century, the river was highly polluted and became a major health hazard leading to major floods and a cholera epidemic. Hence the river was diverted and covered in 1865 – without this however Brussels might have been a city of canals like Venice and Amsterdam. Interestingly, I learned that people are able to go underground and tour one of the subterranean tunnels of the Senne. While I did not have a chance to do this it is definitely on my to do list for the next trip.

After my plane landed in Belgium, I took a 20-minute ride on the intercity train to Bruxelles-Centraal the main train station in Brussels. I found the city to be extremely walkable. Getting to every location I describe involved less 15 minutes of walking, even from the train station. In fact, I was able to circle the center multiple times throughout the day.

My first course of action was to take a 2-hour walking tour of Brussels with Viva’s, a native Belgian organization committed to opening the heart of Belgian cities to tourists. Viva’s tours work on a “pay-what-you-like” basis and are available in Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent in addition to Brussels. Our enthusiastic and energetic guide shared the history, urban legends and hidden mysteries of the city. He also gave great tips on where to eat and drink the cheapest, tastiest, and most authentic Belgian delicacies. In general, I believe that walking tours are a wonderful thing to do, especially during a layover – not only do they reveal the standard landmarks and history of a city, but they also leave time for and provide tips on how to best immerse oneself in the local culture.


The tour started at the Grand-Place, a large square in the heart of Brussels, alive with classic cafes, chocolate shops, and stands selling Belgian waffles. In the 12th century, the Grand-Place was already a marketplace and as trading became more important to the economy, and merchants rose in power, improvements were made to the square. The streets surrounding the square are actually named for foods in homage to its historical significance. The square was burnt down by French armies in 1695 however it was rebuilt by the city’s guilds in only 3 to 4 years (which illustrates pretty well how wealthy they were). The Grand-Place was central to a lot of Belgium’s history – it is the place where the socialist party formed and was the unfortunate location of many executions throughout history. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.

There are many notable buildings surrounding the square; I will discuss 3 of them. First is the current Museum of the City of Brussels, also called Le Maison du Roi and the Broodhuis. This is a beautiful, gothic revival building which I’ve been told has a lovely collection of tapestries inside. The museum used to be a bread and clothing market (who knows why the two were combined). The building was originally constructed by the Duke of Brabant in 1536, to establish a location of ducal power which would compete with the municipal power of the Brussels City Hall, which is right across the square.

The next building, is the Hotel de Ville or the Brussels City Hall. This building is slightly quirky: upon looking at it one will notice a huge number of architectural mistakes. First off it is not symmetric and the entryway to the building is not centered. There is a legend that the architect who constructed the building was in such a rush to finish it, that he screwed up all these details and jumped from the tower upon discovering his errors. What actually explains them is that different parts of the City Hall were constructed during different epochs, and the doorway was eventually moved from the side to the front. There is a 5-foot golden statue of St. Michael fighting the devil at the very top of this building as St. Michael is Brussels’ patron saint. The City Hall still functions as the seat of municipal power in Brussels.

The last building I will discuss, is the building of the Brewer’s Guild, which now houses a beer museum. Apparently, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also wrote the first draft of The Communist Manifesto there (I wasn’t too surprised that a lot of beer was involved in its creation). Apparently, the beer museum is quaint and cute, tickets include free beer, and  is worth the visit if one has the time (I didn’t unfortunately).20170827_135212

The tour then walked us through a few other interesting and notable landmarks of Brussels. First off, the Brussels Stock Exchange, which is not really in use any longer but still an interesting architectural landmark. Next the Brussels gay district, which has a beautiful mural at the entrance. We also walked through the Galeries Royale de Saint-Hubert, a majestic shopping center more than 100 meters in length. Our guide recommended we buy Belgian chocolates from the brand Galler – apparently, they are not super expensive as far as Belgian chocolates go and are also quite authentic since they are made and sold only in Belgium.

Finally, our tour group went to see the Manneken Pis, the famous statue in Brussels depicting a naked boy urinating into a fountain. The statue is surprisingly small, only 24 inches tall and people joke that the Manneken Pis is the oldest resident of Brussels – he has been around since 1618. There are a ton of legends about why there is a random statue of a peeing boy in the city-center: our guide told us that this boy peed on a burning fuse when the city was under siege by a foreign power and saved it. The boy is dressed in the traditional clothes of different nations according to a published schedule – when I saw him he was dressed in Philippines attire. On certain holidays, the Manneken Pis is also hooked up to a keg of beer, and passersby are handed out cups of beer collected from the stream.

The tour ended around lunchtime, so I decided enjoy some traditional Belgian snacks. I bought frites with andalouse sauce in a traditional paper cone at a frieterie right across from the stock exchange. The tour guide recommended this place specifically, because they get fresh potatoes delivered every day. The secret to the Belgian frites is that they are fried twice: first at a lower temperature to cook the inside to a fluffy consistency, and then at a higher temperature to make the outside crispy. The frites are meant to be eaten with a mayonnaise-based sauce and andalouse is a spicy variety of this. The fries were delicious though too big a portion for just one person (in my humble opinion).


I then travelled to the Delirium Café, a legendary, 3-story bar in Brussels, to try a glass of Belgian beer. Delirium Café has a menu of 2,004 different beers available and was entered into the Guinness Book of Records for this enormous variety. It is located in a small alley that you have to knowingly seek out. However, delirium brand beers are also served all over Brussels and one can recognize the brand by the café’s iconic pink elephant. The Delirium Café alley also houses a statue of a peeing girl, the Jeanneke Pis, who is affectionately known as the Manneken Pis’s little sister. This statue was specially commissioned and installed in 1985. There is also apparently a statue of a peeing dog (the Zinneke Pis) somewhere in Brussels – I’m not sure why this city is so fascinated by urinating beings. At the café I ordered Delirium Red, a cherry beer that the café had on tap. It was one of the best fruity, sour beers I’ve ever tried and cost 4 euros. I went with a fellow tourist, who ordered a beer called The Triple Carmelite, which is brewed by nuns in a monastery (the Viva’s tour guide had told us this was his favorite there). I tried this beer too, and it was tasty and interesting, but probably best left to fans of bitter beers.

After enjoying food and beer, my next stop was the Royal Museums of Fine Arts. These are six conjoined museums in the city center dedicated to honoring the works of Belgian artists. The museum tickets are very cheap for visitors under the age of 25. I bought a ticket for only 2 euros the Magritte Museum. Rene Magritte was a surrealist Belgian artist who was central to founding and revolutionizing this movement. Traumatically for the artist, his mother committed suicide by drowning when he was young. He later married and spent his life with childhood friend Georgette Berger who was a great inspiration to his work. While initially Magritte was introduced to surrealism by his friend Andre Breton, Magritte’s decision to stay in Belgium during the Nazi occupation and the development of his unique approach to art caused a rift between the two. In general, Magritte was a loner artist and relatively isolated from the bustling surrealist movement. Many historians hypothesize that this was because of the prejudice he faced as a Belgian. Magritte found success towards the end of his life and sadly died in 1967 from pancreatic cancer.

Like all surrealists, Magritte aimed to use symbolism and unusual juxtapositions to get people to reexamine the world around them and question their understanding of reality. However, rather than creating a warped and elaborate dreamlike image (as in Salvador Dali’s paintings for instance), Magritte drew simple and recognizable objects and scenes while throwing in unexpected details. He represented things with utmost precision and clarity, in an almost flat and two-dimensional way. Some art critics say his style was more “automatized” than his surrealist contemporaries. In fact, many artists of the time criticized him for creating multiple copies of his works. Magritte also enjoyed confusing the onlooker of a painting with an esoteric title, that at first appeared highly disconnected from the clear and often trivial images in his paintings, but upon further inspection appears to carry a profound and discombobulating meaning. Looking at his art one can get deeply unsettled without realizing what exactly is so disturbing.

It’s important to note that for most of his life, Magritte made his living by working in advertising as this is clearly reflected in his artistic style. Many of his paintings have the distinct vibe of an advertisement: they are composed of a simple image with a brief but often obscure “tagline”. This highlights another very unique aspect of Magritte’s work – his incredibly “meta” approach to art. Magritte was very interested in the interplay between text and images as well as reality and its representations. His art constantly pushes viewers to go beyond the medium of images and understand its strengths, limitations and “treachery” (notice the veiled reference to the artist’s most famous painting which is displayed at the MOMA). Magritte does the same thing with text – reading the title of his paintings makes you think about how phrases and words convey something that art can’t.

The Magritte museum was possibly one of the most mind boggling and captivating adventures into art of my life. I was enchanted, fascinated, disturbed and confused all at once as I looked at paintings, read titles, and tried to discover what everything means. For me, walking through the museum was similar to reading an incredible piece of literature full of imagery, symbolism and characters. Just like I do with books that really get me thinking, I walked through the museum twice and looked at every painting at least twice. The first time, I only got a cursory, basic understanding of each work of art. Only the second and third look allowed me a glimpse into the depths of these paintings and all they convey about the world. I won’t bother trying to interpret Magritte’s work in this blog entry as I think that would defeat the point. But I highly recommend looking through Magritte’s paintings, visiting this museum, and thinking profoundly about the nature of the human condition.

My final destinations of the day were two beautiful churches. First was the Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon Church located in the heart of the Sablon district, right next to a vibrant antiques market. Construction of this church is thought to have commenced at the turn of the 15th century and took almost 100 years. The church was dedicated to the crossbow guild. There is a legend that a woman named Beatrijs Soetkens was instructed in a vision by the Virgin Mary to steal an important statue of the virgin and place it in this church. The statue was venerated by the guild but was destroyed when the Calvinists sacked the church in the 16th century and no longer exists. However, an annual procession called an Ommegang was born to honor the statue and remains an important event occurring every July in Brussels to this day. The church is best known for its incredible baroque chapels commissioned by the Thurn und Taxis family and an intricate pulpit designed by sculptor Marc de Vos. The church is not huge, but beautiful with tall ceilings and picturesque stained-glass windows.

The second was the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. It was constructed in the 11th century on Treurenberg hill to honor St. Michael, the patron saint of Brussels. The church was significantly expanded by Dukes of Brabant, Henry I and Henry II in the 13th century. It took almost 300 years to fully complete. The cathedral is perhaps no match for other Gothic churches, which are usually way more colorful and elaborate, but still elegant in its style and simplicity. In fact, Victor Hugo called it the “purest flowering of the Gothic style”. Things worth noticing include the judgement window, donated by Emperor Charles V, and the beautiful 18th century Baroque Pulpit, sculpted in wood by Henri-Francois Verbruggen. Apparently, a pair of rare Peregrine Falcons also nest on this church and can be viewed there in April and May.

With this, I concluded my day in Brussels and continued on my way to Israel. Hence, I would like to offer some final thoughts. When I was embarking on my trip, a few friends had told me that they are not fans of Brussels. Similarly, when I exited the train station there, it was definitely not love at first sight. However, taking a tour of the city, learning about its history and culture, tasting the food and even writing this blog, gave me a newer and deeper appreciation for Brussels. The city’s warmth and beauty is not obvious but must be deciphered and uncovered and understanding Brussels requires work and a bit of dedication. So, my recommendation to get the most out of the city and really enjoy your time there, is to do some research before visiting, take a tour (or 2), and to try to go with friends (beer tasting is way more fun with company). Hopefully your experience will be as unforgettable as mine!

Thank you for reading this post and hope you enjoyed. Hopefully, as I am on vacation, I will have time to write another travel chronicle soon. As usual, all photographs in the entry are originals and please feel free to comment with any ideas or questions. Till next time!


Amsterdam: A Whirlwind Layover

Many of my older (and perhaps wiser) friends say that the best way to see the world is by inserting long layovers into long flights. Layovers do sound like a very good idea: they often make plane fare cheaper and a torturously long flight more bearable. So this year, I decided insert a day-long layover in Amsterdam into my 11 hour flight in Israel. In this blog post I will recount my exciting though very hectic day in detail. Feel free to use this as a cursory itinerary for your own day in Amsterdam.

When you only have a day to explore a metropolitan city bursting with interesting things to do, the key to using your time effectively is lots and lots of research. Before my trip I read a few travel blogs (such as this one), posted in a few Facebook groups for advice on what to see, and what turned out to be most helpful, consulted with my friend Phil, who  turned out to be an expert on the city. Since I had such a limited amount of time, I decided to start my day with the things I absolutely had to see, and leave the evening open to do some extra sightseeing if I had the time. My flight left from Newark Liberty International Airport at 6:13 pm and after 7 hours in flight, I arrived in Schiphol airport in Amsterdam at 7:30 am on August 18th, 2016.


The first thing I wanted to see was the Anne Frank house. Everyone I spoke to highly recommended visiting this museum, but getting tickets was a struggle. Since the house is tiny, the amount of visitors allowed inside is very small and the line to get in is legendarily long (at times a 2 hour wait). It is possible to book tickets online for a particular timeslot but usually they must be ordered months in advance. The one loophole is that it’s usually possible to snag a ticket exactly one day before your visit (the museum throws out a couple extra tickets for the next day the day before). Elated that I was able to do so, I booked a ticket was for 9:30 am.

I took the train from Schiphol airport and arrived at the Amsterdam central train station at 8:15 am. From there I took a scenic 20 minute walk to Anne Frank house. You notice right away that Amsterdam is a city of cyclists – people on bicycles are everywhere and you worry more about being run over by a cyclist than about being run over by a car when you cross the streets. Cycling would definitely be a fun activity to try next time I’m in the city. The city of Amsterdam itself has a horseshoe shape and is home to almost 60 miles of canals. In fact the name Amsterdam originates from Amstelredamme (a dam on the river Amstel). When you walk through the city you are constantly crossing lovely canals. I therefore picked up some coffee on the way and took out my large touristy camera to take lots of pictures.

On the way, I stopped to see the Homomonument, a monument which commemorates gays and lesbians who have suffered persecution. It was unveiled in 1987 and was the first tribute to homosexual people murdered by the Nazis. The monument was unlike any other I had ever seen and despite being such a landmark, was slightly hard to find. I hadn’t seen an image before and expected a monument that is large and obvious. Instead the homomonument takes the form of a flat engraved triangle that blends into the ground (perhaps symbolically so), and unless you are looking for it you probably won’t notice it. The directions of the triangle’s three points are symbolic: One points towards the National War Memorial on Dam Square, another points towards the house of Anne Frank, and the third points towards the headquarters of COC Nederland, a Dutch gay rights group founded in 1946.


I then headed to the Anne Frank house and went in almost immediately. For those readers who don’t know, the Anne Frank house is the preserved residence where eight Jews (the Frank and Van Pels families and Fritz Pfeffer) hid from the Nazis for more than two years during World War II. Anne Frank, the youngest daughter of the Frank family, kept a diary which was a detailed and emotional account of her life in hiding. Tragically, the inhabitants of the Anne Frank house were betrayed and discovered and only Anne’s father, Otto Frank, survived the war. To commemorate his daughter and educate the general public, Otto Frank published Anne’s diary. It became an international bestseller, symbolic of the crimes committed by the Nazis. Reading and even re-reading The Diary of a Young Girl (The Diary of Anne Frank) before visiting the museum is essential in my opinion. It’s an easy read and the writing is sentimental and very young, but partially it’s the writing’s emotion and naiveté that makes it a heart wrenching and exceptionally powerful account of the atrocities committed during the holocaust.

The museum is relatively small and depending on your interest level, you can spend from 1 to 2 hours there. When the Nazis discovered the Jews in the hiding place, all the original objects and furniture were removed and disappeared. When the Anne Frank house was established as a museum after the war though, Otto Frank asked that the rooms remain unfurnished as they were left by the Nazis, to commemorate all the terrible losses of the holocaust. It was a wise decisions – the lack of furniture only adds to the emotional rollercoaster that walking through the house is. To me it was unimaginable that eight people could live for 2 years in the tiny, cramped rooms of the house without making noise or ever stepping outside. The sliver of window that Anne writes about in the diary, their only physical connection to the outside world, is a heartbreaking symbol of how much these people endured.  There are some interesting historical objects exhibited in the house: the original bookcase that hid the entrance to the hiding place and Anne Frank’s original red and white checkered diary. There are also lots of photographs: the people who brought supplies to the hiding place (the helpers), the inhabitants of the hiding place, the Frank family before the war. Moreover many of the rooms have video interviews with Otto Frank, people who knew Anne before the war, and various historians.

After I left the Anne Frank house I wandered over to Westerkerk, the largest protestant church in Holland. It’s noted for its beautiful organ and its 275ft tall tower that you can actually climb to get an unmatched view of Amsterdam (I unfortunately didn’t due to time constraints). Westerkerk is right near the Anne Frank house, and in fact, she mentions the church several times in her diary. Also, the famous Dutch painter, Rembrandt Van Rijn, is buried in an unmarked location somewhere in Westerkerk (he had impoverished himself at that point and received a poor man’s funeral). The church’s modest interior definitely rings of protestant values – it’s very plane though large and completely different from the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches I’ve been in.

What I loved about Amsterdam is that it’s such a walkable city. I many different part of the city in my one day there and never once used an uber, bus, or tram for intercity transportation. Therefore, after Westerkerk, I took another quaint 30 minute walk to my next destination – the Museumplein (a square with the major museums of Amsterdam). On the way, I strolled through Jordaan, a very picturesque neighborhood near the Anne Frank house and Westerkerk. Jordaan used to be a working class neighborhood but has now become one of the most posh and expensive areas of Amsterdam to live in. The paysage of cute, classic houses on a pristine canal, that so many associate with Amsterdam, is exactly how Jordaan looks. An interesting fact is that many houses here have a stone tablet in the front, displaying the family sign or the profession of the inhabitants. The area is home to many galleries, specialty shops and restaurants. Phil actually suggested that I visit a brown café (casual pubs featuring drinks and snacks) called ‘T Smalle in Jordaan but unfortunately I didn’t have the time.

 After some walking, I also passed through the Leidseplein, a lively square in Amsterdam, which apparently used to be a parking lot for horse-drawn traffic (perhaps created so citizens to avoid the tricky craft of parallel parking a horse). But honestly unless you go for the active nightlife or a particular restaurant, Leidseplein isn’t particularly notable. I also passed by Vondelpark, a large park in Amsterdam (the equivalent of our Central Park I guess), but didn’t have time to explore it. When I got to the Museumplein, I hopped onto one of Amsterdam’s famous canal cruises, which leads you all through the city by waterway with audio narration throughout. Though the cruise came highly recommended, I didn’t really like it. The audio wasn’t particularly interesting with too little actual information and too many corny jokes. My biggest issue though was that the seating on the boat was inside a closed cabin so you couldn’t feel the lovely breezes from the water, and had to view the city through a murky window. I guess it’s a fun activity for first-time visitors who have plenty of time on their hands, but I would have preferred to just wander.

After the cruise I had lunch at Café de Jaren, a casual restaurant that Phil had recommended, which was only 15 minutes away from Museumplein. The restaurant was lovely – there were lots of locals and delightful seating right on the bank of a canal and overlooking the city. There I ate a classic Dutch lunch: an ossenworst (raw beef sausage) sandwich with pickles and mustard accompanied by a frosty glass of beer. It ended up being very cheap – I paid a total of 10 euros.


My next destination was the world-famous Rijksmuseum, located right on the Museumplein. The museum is the largest in Holland and houses a collection of 1 million objects. It’s particularly famous for masterpieces from the Dutch Golden Age, many painted by Rembrandt Van Rijn, Johann Vermeer and Franz Hals, amongst others. Since the museum is huge and one would probably need multiple days to see everything, I organized my time there by looking only at some major paintings that the museum is known for (most of which are conveniently located in the Gallery of Honor). Here I will talk about a few.

Battle of Waterloo by Jan Willem Pieneman (1824): This painting is massive (18×27 ft) and impresses you with its sheer size, the complex details, and the myriad of interconnected portrayals from the famous battle. The painting is a composition of events that did not actually happened concurrently: it portrays the Duke of Wellington bathed in sunlight and smiling at the news that Prussian troops will soon arrive to reinforce the Anglo-Dutch army. The Prince of Orange, the wounded “hero of Waterloo” lies on a stretcher and smiles at the news as well. Apparently, some of the surviving officers from the battle, particularly the Duke of Wellington, actually sat for Pinieman while he made preparatory portrait sketches.


The Milkmaid by Johann Vermeer (1658): This painting is one that most people would probably recognize upon seeing it which tells you how iconic it really is. It depicts a sturdily-built woman wearing a crisp white linen cap and a blue apron, pouring milk from a jug into a bowl. The painting is full of thematic elements particularly the ethical and social value of hard work and allusions to female sexuality (especially since maids were often painted back then as objects of corrupting lust). The lighting, color and compositional elements are also notable especially the tactile realism of the scene presented. What draws me in is the mysterious expression on the maid’s face: one cannot tell if it’s one of annoyance, contemplation, fantasy or romance and you can spend many enjoyable hours puzzling over it.


The Threatened Swan by Jan Asselijn (1650): This painting portrays a ferocious and riled-up swan attacking a curious dog. The painting is thought to symbolize (and became a symbol) of the Dutch national resistance (though it is not clear if the creator actually intended it as such). Even without the history though, I found the painting a marvelous action shot. It’s full of trepidation, anger, anticipation, tension almost like someone paused a movie right at the breath-taking climax.


The Night Watch by Rembrandt Van Rijn (1642): This one is the Mona Lisa of the Rijksmuseum, but unlike the Mona Lisa, it’s doubtful you’ll be disappointed by this painting’s size (12×14 ft). The Night Watch is housed in a special hall and there you can pick up a brochure that describes its many characters and elements in detail (great idea Rijksmuseum). This painting is a portrait of the militia company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and was revolutionary for its time. Instead of painting a static portrait as was the standard, Rembrandt made the painting explode with action, color and interplay of light and dark. Interestingly, light and dark are used not only aesthetically but to strategically identify the important characters in the scene.


The final stop on my layover was yet another art museum, this time the Van Gogh museum. The museum is located right near the Rijksmuseum on the Museumplein. This art museum was incredible (I liked it even more than the Rijksmuseum perhaps). Vincent Van Gogh was a brilliant Dutch post-impressionist artist known for his vivid colors and ability to make everyday scenes come to life. The museum has an incredibly rich collection and is full of all kinds of lively, human and colorful paintings that so characterize Van Gogh’s style. They are arranged in a way that traces Van Gogh’s life and the different artistic phases that he went through. The museum also houses some paintings of Van Gogh’s contemporaries and has some interesting descriptions of how they influenced the artist. The Potato Eaters, Sunflowers and Bedroom in Arles are some of the more famous paintings there. Unfortunately the museum does not allow taking photographs but I did manage to snag one before I was yelled at to put my camera away.

Outside the Van Gogh museum I walked around the Museumplein itself. I looked at the famous Amsterdam sign (in front of the Rijksmuseum) and enjoyed sitting on the huge grassy field between all the museums.

By then it was 7:00 pm and already time to return to the airport (by bus 197) and so my hectic layover had concluded. Of course I did not see all there is to see in Amsterdam as one would need weeks to do that. I didn’t get to see the Rembrandt House, other fascinating museums, the notorious red light district, and did not visit a “coffee” shop. But I did discover that Amsterdam is really a unique European city and a wonderful destination – it’s picturesque and lively, walkable, full of culture, food, and fun. My verdict on layovers is as follows: they can be fun as an introduction and a good way to see something particular in exciting, metropolitan cities. But one day is definitely not enough to really discover the heart of a city and travelling to Amsterdam again is definitely on my bucket list.

Hope you enjoyed this entry. More to come soon. As usual, all photographs are originals and I therefore apologize for the bad quality of some on the paintings. Till next time!

Sleepy Hollow: Journey Into a Fairytale

To me, love of travel and love of literature really go hand in hand. Reading about something instantly makes me want to experience it. Of course this isn’t always so easy and sometimes visiting a place I read about just has to go on the bucket list. Luckily for me, this was not the case with the mystical village from Washington Irving’s short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.The idea of visiting this town arose from conversing with a friend – he talked about an interesting day trip he and his wife took to a town called Sleepy Hollow, only 40 minutes away from my hometown. My literature-loving ear was immediately intrigued. Could it be that Washington Irving’s tale took place just a short drive away from where I live? Apparently yes. Sleepy Hollow turned out to be a small town on the Hudson, neighboring the larger Tarrytown.


I traveled to Sleepy Hollow with my friend Nathan, and both of us studied up for our trip by reading “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. This short story (approximately 40 pages in length) is about a superstitious schoolteacher named Ichabod Crane, who competes with the macho Brom Bones for the hand of coquettish Katrina Van Tassel. Katrina is the only daughter (and heir) of a wealthy farmer, and Ichabod hopes that marriage to her will advance his social standing in the community. One spooky evening though, Ichabod finds himself violently chased by “the headless horseman”, the ghost of a beheaded Hessian soldier, who is purported to haunt Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod disappears and all that’s found of him are some articles of clothing and a shattered pumpkin. Though the townspeople chalk what happened up to spirited intervention, Washington Irving pretty clearly implies that Brom Bones was “the horseman” and that the shattered pumpkin was the head that the horseman hurled at Ichabod to unseat him. The story is ripe with vivid language (particularly describing the placid demeanor of Sleepy Hollow), powerful observations on the nature of the human condition, and pointed social commentary. And though it may be located in the children’s section of your library, due to the archaic flowery language Washington employs, it is by no means an easy read.

Nathan and I set out on our trip at 8 am on the 14th of September, a Sunday. Rather than going straight to Sleepy Hollow, we started out day by going to the Irvington Farmer’s Market. The market was cute albeit tiny, with lots of homemade food samples and cute doggies trotting around. We had delicious light breakfast at the market, mostly by going around from stand to stand and trying samples.

With full bellies, we then set out to retrace the iconic places mentioned within “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. Mostly we wanted to follow the path that Ichabod rode on as he was being chased by the headless horseman. Therefore we drove to Patriot’s Park, where a memorial commemorates the foiled betrayal of Major John André, who was discovered colluding with Benedict Arnold and was hanged for his treachery. In the short story, André‘s ghost haunts the area and here Ichabod first sees the headless horseman. Additionally, the creek constantly mentioned in the text runs through this park. In terms of touring, there isn’t really much to do in Patriot’s Park. We took some scenic photos of the monument and the creek and were promptly on our way.

Next stop on the trip was The Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow and the Headless Horseman Bridge. This is one of the oldest churches in New England and has an ancient adjoining cemetery. Within the legend, Ichabod desperately races to a bridge to cross the creek to ride into the church, because folklore dictates that spirits cannot enter the holy territory of a church. This doesn’t work out too well for Ichabod though since the headless horseman crosses the churchyard just fine and unseats him with the pumpkin on this bridge. The bridge that leads to the churchyard now obviously isn’t the original rickety wooden bridge of the story. Instead it’s an imposing but very picturesque stone structure. Even though there is fancy plaque on this stone bridge stating that it is located where the original bridge used to be, this is blatantly false. The location of the original bridge was about 0.3 miles upstream.

The church itself, built in 1685, has a very historical vibe to it. Looking at it really transports you into the Sleepy Hollow Irving described. In the adjoining Old Dutch Church Cemetery we found the graves Eleanor and Katrina Van Tassel. Though Irving’s character has the name Katrina she was actually was based off of Eleanor Van Tassel, who was friends with the author as a child.

Ichabod rode from Patriot’s Park, down the street in Sleepy Hollow now called U.S. Route 9, all the way to the creek and then crossed the bridge leading to the Old Dutch Church. It’s hard to imagine that this route was covered with forests at one point as it is such a quaint and bustling little village now.

Road down which Ichabod rode. Back then it was covered with forest.

At this point, we had ended retracing Ichabod’s steps and took a fascinating walking tour, called “The Original Knickerbocker Tour”. This tour took us through the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery (not to be confused with the 2.5 acre Old Dutch Church cemetery which adjoins but is not part of it). The tour references Knickerbocker because “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, published originally in The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon is supposedly narrated based on the notes of someone named Diedrich Knickerbocker. Both Geoffrey Crayon and Diedrich Knickerbocker were pseudonyms of Washington Irving. Apparently, Irving was a famous author even during his lifetime, so famous in fact that the basketball team the New York Knicks was originally the New York Knickerbockers, named after this pseudonym of Irving.

The walking tour, which lasted about an hour, took us to the Irving family burial plot. Irving’s tombstone had to be replaced twice because his fans kept cracking pieces off it for good luck. The tour guide then led us through other notable monuments in the cemetery from the Victorian era: a revolutionary war memorial, the gothic revival monument of a New York City dry goods merchant, a marble monument created by Augustus Saint Gaudens (sculptor of the golden “Diana” with a bow from the Metropolitan Museum of Art). John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie are also buried at the Sleepy Hollow cemetery but we didn’t get a chance to see their monuments (Nathan being a Carnegie-Mellon student was very upset about missing that last one).

We ate lunch at the Bridge View Tavern, which serves delicious burgers and has breathtaking views of the Hudson and the Sleepy Hollow lighthouse. After lunch, we took a two hour tour of Kykuit, the magnificent Rockefeller family estate right near Sleepy Hollow. The estate overlooks the Hudson and the New York City skyline and is almost 250 acres. Four generations of Rockefellers lived in there and two-thirds of it was donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The last surviving Rockefeller lives on the remaining third. John D. Rockefeller Jr. was the contractor for the estate since, as he wasn’t much of a businessman, his father John D. Rockefeller Sr. (the founder of Standard Oil) gave Kykuit to him as a pet project. He became such a good contractor went on to construct many other notable buildings of the Rockefeller legacy.

The estate consists of a six-story stone house, lovely gardens and a coach barn. Symmetry was essential to the estate’s architecture. The house and gardens showcase magnificent art collections, particularly pieces of modern art loved by New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Works by Pablo Picasso, Andrew Warhol, Marc Chagall, Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Louise Nevelson, and David Smith are all exhibited. The gardens of Kykuit were designed by architects William Bosworth and Frederick Law Olmstead (who designed Central Park). They were specifically planned to showcase the modern sculptures of Governor Rockefeller’s collection. The tour was very informative – we learned a lot about the devoutly Baptist Rockefeller family and their history and way of life. It’s pretty crazy to think that these people could go and chill in a basement with their personal world-renowned art collection.

Our last stop was the Union Church of Pocantico Hills. This is a gem housing stained glassed windows by Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall, which were commissioned by the Rockefellers. The Rockefellers begged Matisse, who at that point was a sick old man, to create a design for the stained glassed window above the altar. Matisse was terribly sick at the time and did not want the commission. Yet after Abigail Aldrich Rockefeller (John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s wife) who had been Matisse’s close friend passed away, he agreed to do this window as a memorial to her. Matisse died two days after finishing the paper cutouts of this window and the actual stained glass was manufactured by his daughter after his death. The Chagall windows were commissioned by his brother David Rockefeller, to memorialize Rockefeller Jr. after his death. David saw Chagall’s windows from the Hadassah medical center in Jerusalem and asked the artist to create a stained glass window of one of the great philanthropist’s favorite bible passages, The Good Samaritan. Later Chagall created 8 more windows of biblical scenes featuring prophets from the Old Testament, which memorialize members of the Rockefeller family. The church really is magical with its romantic neo-gothic architecture and its tiny, cozy interior. Chagall’s expressive and colorful stained glass windows come to life and highlight the lovely Matisse in the center. Photos are not allowed inside the church, but feel free to google to find out what the windows look like.

Unfortunately Nathan and I didn’t have time to visit Lyndhurst (a gothic revival mansion) and Sunnyside (Washington Irving’s estate) which are also in the area, but we are definitely planning to go again. If you live in the vicinity or are passing by Sleepy Hollow/ Tarrytown, I would highly recommend not just one but multiple visits. Of course start by doing your research: read “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and check out for additional information about the sights there. You will be enchanted by the lovely, fairytale village, its rich history, and the incredible estates that it houses. Make sure you give yourself time to walk around and soak it all in.

Thanks for reading. All photos in the post are originals. Feel free to comment or reach out to me with any questions. Till next time!