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Free tours from Use-It: Get them while you still can

14:37 28/11/2018
Brussels’ tourist office for young people is closing its doors, so you only have a few weeks left to go on its free Monday tours

It’s the end of an era: The Use-It tourist office for young people in Brussels is shutting its doors. December will be the final month that volunteers man the desks at the office in Ravenstein Galleries.

“For the last several years, the public funding we receive has not been sufficient to maintain the whole of our activities,” says Yannick Van Keer, in charge of the Brussels office, “And we’ve run out of savings.” Use-It Brussels will be “forced to close the desk at the beginning of 2019 simply because we can’t pay the bills anymore.”

Use-It started as a volunteer-run tourist office in Copenhagen in the early 1970s. Its alternative way of seeing the city as a collection of people, clubs and eccentricities rather than a collection of squares and monuments soon went international.

But it was Belgium that came up with the quirky, hilarious map that soon became Use-It’s claim to fame. The first Use-It map was published by volunteers in Ghent in 2005. Now it’s standard issue in every city. Even if a chapter doesn’t have an office or a Facebook page, it has a Use-It map. All of them can be downloaded from the central Use-It website.

Use-It mapsAlternative maps to many Belgian cities can be found at the Use-It office in Brussels

Today, Use-It has local chapters in 40 cities in Europe that provide information and the legendary maps in English. Even if you live here, checking out a Use-It map is well worth it.

While it might mention such luminary spots as the royal palace, Grand Place and the EU district, it does so in passing. The real stars of a Use-It map, which also serve as very thorough reference guides, are the jazz clubs, brown bars, arthouse cinemas and weirder activities on offer in any given city.

So on the Brussels map, for instance, you’ll find entries for ‘Beards and Blues’ (Bizon), ‘Freakshow’ (Madame Moustache), ‘No Bullshit, Just Coffee’ (Corica) and ‘Sexy Graffiti Hype’. There’s also the “local tip” sections, with suggestions by young residents. In the current Brussels’ edition, for instance, Bea, 27, provides this gem: “Mont des Arts for a great view over the city. Bring your boyfriend for the ultimate Disney Princess experience, smooching here at sunset. There will be mice running around you as well, but cute wildlife is part of the experience.”

The map also takes pride in the historical facts that seem to embarrass other tourist organisations. Take its opening line: “If you like your cities overwhelming, confusing and chaotic, you’re in for a treat.”

And rather than sweeping King Leopold II under the rug, for instance, Use-It digs in with both hands as it points out the statue at Place du Trône: “… treated Congo as his private garden ... Repressing the natives in gruesome manners, he collected all the riches the land had to offer ... Most megalomaniac buildings in Brussels were built with this wealth … Many people wonder why this Leopold II statue is still here”).

Crappy American foodWhere can I get crappy American food, you ask? Find out on the Use-It tour

Fewer cities have a Use-It office, but Brussels is one of them. It moved from Ghent to the capital in 2008 and perched in various locations until it reached Galerie Ravenstein, where it has spent the last four years. Van Keer admits that the decision to close the office was “painful” but that “we have no choice”.

The good news is that a group of volunteers – all Use-It facilities are still volunteer-run – will continue to update and print the Brussels map, maintain the website and respond to inquiries on the Facebook page. “The enthusiastic group of volunteers will still exist,” says Van Keer, “but it will be without a physical meeting point in the centre of Brussels.”

The free weekly tours will, alas, also come to an end. So if you want to take it, it’s now or never. They happen every Monday afternoon. (Use-It chose Monday because many museums are closed on Monday, so that’s when visitors can fit in tours.)

On the tour I took recently, the guide first introduced the one and only rule: No pepper spray. “Does anyone have any pepper spray?” he asked. We assured him we did not, though the two of us who showed up for the tour that day assumed he was joking, especially as he noted that, if we asked him a question he didn’t know the answer to, he might “make something up”.

Tabora FriterieTabora has the best chips in downtown Brussels, says our Use-It tour guide

We proceeded to amble up and down streets in the centre of Brussels, with Sem pointing out ‘sites’ along the way. Here’s where you can see a drag show, here is the centre’s only Asian market. We saw the Marolles’ Place du Jeu de Balle after the famous market had packed up for the day – a garbage-filled affair indeed.

Sem told the story of Picnic the Streets, as well as his recommendations for the best pizza, hot chocolate and pomme frites in the centre. He talks about the horrors of a more than month-long Christmas market as we peer into shop windows. (“Only really expensive stores hide their prices.”)

But I have to admit that my favourite part of the tour did involve a major monument. We entered the Justice Palace, which – if you’ve never done it – is startlingly easy. Just put your coat and bag through security and off you go. As long as you don’t have pepper spray.

Naturally Use-It revels in the scaffolding story that dogs the exterior of this 19th-century  masterpiece. But once inside, our guide has little to say. There’s nothing in this palatial, awe-inspiring interior to joke about. It is one of the largest buildings constructed in 19th-century Europe, and its sheer height and endless stream of marble columns and staircases makes for a humbling experience. Justice Palace, I apologise for how often I have made fun of you.

Saint-Catherine urinalsWhile most cities make it illegal to pee on their churches, Brussels built a urinal at Saint-Catherine

As a whole, the Use-It tour is more about chatting with a local than learning about history or architecture. But this comes with significant benefits – how often have you wondered where to get decent sushi or spare ribs? And while tastes are, of course, subjective, I have to say that Sem’s choice for best waffle place – in De Brouckere metro station, of all places – was spot on.

“Most tours pass by Brussels’ typical tourist spots and monuments,” says Van Keer, “which results in a rather generic experience. The Use-It walking tour strays from the typical tourist path, following a different trajectory, depending on the guide. They decide what parts or aspects of Brussels you’ll see. This makes for a very personal and local experience.”

Use-It tours are every Monday at 14.00 until at least 17 December (24 and 31 December are not confirmed). The tours are free (“Really free, tips at the end are refused”), and no reservation is required. Just show up at the Use-It office at Galerie Ravenstein 28

Written by Lisa Bradshaw