Free tours from Use-It: Get them while you still can
The tourist office for young people is closing its doors, so you only have a few weeks left to go on its free Monday tours
Use-it or lose it
“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 Flanders 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.
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 they might mention such luminary spots as Brussels’ Grote Markt or Ghent’s Sint-Baafs Cathedral, they do 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 ‘Turks and Donkeys’ (part of the North Walk).
If you like your cities overwhelming, confusing and chaotic, you’re in for a treat
There’s also the “local tip” sections, with suggestions by young residents. In the current Antwerp edition, for instance, Liza, 34, provides this gem of a story about a mansion on the map in the north of the city centre with a rooftop full of trees: “After noticing a little house on top, I did some research. Apparently a dedicated husband built a real farm, complete with sheep and ducks, on his roof so his wife wouldn’t miss the countryside. What a love story.”
The map also takes pride in the 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.”
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”.
Where can I get crappy American food? Find out on the Use-It tour
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. 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”.
The Use-It walking tour strays from the typical tourist path, following a different trajectory, depending on the 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 Marollen’s Vossenplein 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 frietjes 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.
Tabora has the best chips in downtown Brussels, says our Use-It tour guide
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.
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