WHAT TO DO
Brussels is the captivating capital of Belgium as well as headquarters of the European Union (EU). It is historic yet hip, bureaucratic yet bizarre and multicultural to its roots. All this plays out in a cityscape that swings from majestic to quirky. Organic art nouveau facades face off against 1960s concrete developments and regal 19th century mansions contrast with the glass of the EU's real life Gotham City. This whole maelstrom swirls out from the city's medieval core - where the Grand Place is surely one of the world's most beautiful squares. Brussels is a city of fine food, sublime chocolate shops, cafe culture, art nouveau architecture and the surreal. Most places of interest are within walking distance of the city center - so head out and join the laissez faire locals who value the city’s casual atmosphere.
There's no better spot to begin your adventure than at the Grand Place. This magnificent public square is one of the world's most unforgettable urban ensembles. Oddly hidden, the enclosed cobblestone marketplace is only revealed as you enter on foot from one of six narrow side alleys - rue des Harengs is the best first approach. The focal point is the spired 15th century town hall, but each of the antique guildhalls (circa 1697) has a charm of its own. Most have fine baroque gables, gilded statues and elaborate guild symbols. Alive with classic cafes, the square takes on different auras at different times. Be sure to visit more than once and do not miss looking again at night when the scene is beautifully illuminated. Note: on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings there's a flower market in the square. From the Grand Place, make your way up to the historic Sablon neighborhood and its large Eglise Notre Dame. This flamboyant Gothic church started life as the 1304 archers' guild chapel. A century later it had to be massively enlarged to cope with droves of pilgrims attracted by the supposed healing powers of its Madonna statue. The statue was procured in 1348 by means of an audacious theft from an Antwerp (Belgium) church. Nearby is the Place du Petit Sablon - this charming little garden is ringed by 48 bronze statuettes representing the medieval guilds. Standing huddled on a fountain are Counts Egmont and Hoorn, popular city leaders who were beheaded in the Grand Place in 1568 for defying Spanish rule.
Brussels is known for its art nouveau architecture and there are several buildings that should not be missed. Start with the Old England Building, located at rue Montagne de la Cour 2. This 1899 former department store is an art nouveau showpiece with a black facade covered with wrought iron and arched windows. The building contains the groundbreaking Musical Instruments Museum (MIM), a celebration of music in all its forms, as well as a treasury for more than 2000 historic instruments. The emphasis is very much on listening, so put on a pair of headphones to hear everything from bagpipes to harpsichords. Note: be sure to visit the rooftop cafe for a superb city panorama. Next, head to Maison Cauchie at rue des Francs 5. Built in 1905, this stunning house was the home of architect and painter Paul Cauchie. Its sgraffito facade, adorned with graceful female figures is one of the most beautiful in Brussels. A petition saved the house from demolition in 1971 and since 1975 it has been a protected monument. Entry inside is extremely limited, but the facade alone definitely warrants a visit. Musee Horta (rue Americaine 25) is set in the former home of the great Belgian art nouveau architect Victor Horta. It is an art nouveau jewel - the stairwell is the structural triumph of the house: follow the playful knots and curlicues of the banister which become more exuberant as you ascend, ending at a tangle of swirls and glass lamps at the skylight, glazed with citrus colored glass. Floor mosaics, glittering stained glass and ceramic brick walls reflect the light in the superbly harmonious dining room, rich with glowing brass and a pink and orange color scheme. Conclude at the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinee, located at rue des Sables 20. This center offers a definitive overview of the country's vibrant comic strip culture. Even if comics are not your cup of tea, do peek inside this impressive 1906 art nouveau building - a Victor Horta classic with wrought iron superstructure and a glass roof. Note: the center is open every day from 10a-6p.
There are a number of museums in town and I would like to discuss my top 3. The first is the Musees Royaux des Beaux Arts, located at rue de la Regence 3. This prestigious museum incorporates the Musee d'Art Ancien (ancient art), the Musee d'Art Moderne (modern art) - with works by surrealist Paul Delvaux and fauvist Rik Wouters, and the Musee Magritte (the second of my top 3). The 15th century Flemish Primitives are wonderfully represented in the Musee d'Art Ancien: there's Rogier Van der Weyden's Pieta with its hallucinatory sky, Hans Memling's refined portraits and the richly textured Madonna With Saints by the Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy. Pieter the Elder was the greatest of the Bruegel family of artists, whose humorous and tender scenes feature a wealth of lively rustic detail. The most famous example is Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, where the hero's legs disappearing into the waves are overshadowed by the figure of an unconcerned plowman and a jaunty ship. Inspired by Renaissance artists, Antwerp painter Peter Paul Rubens specialized in fleshy religious works of which there are several colossal examples here. The Musee Magritte holds the world's largest collection of paintings and drawings by the Belgian surrealist artist Rene Magritte. Watch his style develop from colorful Braque style cubism in 1920 through a Daliesque phase and a late 1940s period of Kandinsky like brushwork to his trademark bowler hats of the 1960s - (The Son of Man, 1964). Note: the museum is open from 10a-5p and is closed on Monday. My third museum of choice is the Musee du Cinquantenaire, located in Parc du Cinquantenaire at number 10. This art and history museum was built by former Belgian King Leopold II and has an abundant collection that ranges from ancient Egyptian sarcophagi to Meso American masks and so much more. Decide what you want to see before coming (on the museum website) or the sheer scope can prove overwhelming - it is one of the biggest museums in Belgium. Visually attractive spaces include the medieval stone carvings set around a neo Gothic cloister and the soaring Corinthian columns that bring atmosphere to an original AD 420 mosaic from Roman Syria. Note: the museum is open from 10a-5p and is closed on Monday. When you leave the museum, take a stroll through the park (also built during Leopold II's reign) and check out the massive Arcade du Cinquantenaire, a triumphal arch built in 1880 to celebrate 50 years of Belgian independence.
From Cinquantenaire Park, make your way to nearby Parc Leopold and the Parliament of the European Union. Inside this glass building political junkies can sit in on a parliamentary session in the huge debating chamber known as the hemicycle (it can seat all 751 members of the European Parliament) or tour it when parliament is not in session. Tours, using multilingual headphones, start at the visitor's center. Note: a valid passport is required to access the EU Parliament. Hidden away just behind the EU Parliament is the steep sloping Parc Leopold, a pleasant oasis that was Brussels Zoo until 1880. From there, walk along rue Belliard until you arrive at the Palais Royal. These days Belgium's royal family lives elsewhere, but this sturdy 19th century palace remains its 'official' residence. One unique room has had its ceiling iridescently clad with the wing cases of 1.4 million Thai jewel beetles by conceptual artist Jan Fabre. You'll also see contemporary royal portraits and other state rooms. The Royal Palace is only open for tours in summer. Adjacent to the palace is the largest central patch of greenery in the city - the Parc de Bruxelles. An old, formal park, it's laid out under the guardianship of the dukes of Brabant and is dotted with classical statues and framed by trees. Next, head to the northern part of town and the totally rad Atomium. This space age landmark looms 350 feet over north Brussels's suburbia, resembling a steel alien from a '60s sci fi movie. It consists of nine house sized metallic balls linked by steel tube columns containing escalators and elevators. The balls are arranged like a grade school chemistry set to represent iron atoms in their crystal network. It was built as a symbol of postwar progress for the 1958 Brussels World's Fair and has become an architectural icon. You might want to visit at night when the spheres sparkle magically.
Another Brussels favorite is located at the corner of rue de I'Etuve and rue du Chene, surrounded by chocolate shops. The Manneken Pis is a 17th century fountain with a bronze statue of a little boy taking a leak. Designed by Hieronymus Duquesnoy the Elder, it is the perversely perfect national symbol for surreal Belgium. It also embodies the Belgian sense of humor (called zwanze). Note: Belgians are made up of two main linguistic and ethnic groups - the Dutch speakers (called the Flemish) and the French speakers (mostly Walloons). Most of the time the Manneken Pis and its nakedness is hidden beneath a costume relevant to an anniversary, national day or local event. Just up the street at rue de I'Etuve 37 is the Tintin Comic Mural. This wall painting features the most famous of Belgium's fictional characters, created by Georges Remi (aka Herge) in 1929.
Conclude your tour of Brussels with a city tour or maybe visit a market or two. Brussels City Tours cover everything from the Atomium to the EU and include some lovely art nouveau houses. You start off with a walking tour of the Grand Place and are then transported by bus. The city tour lasts three hours. The Place du Jeu de Balle Flea Market is located in the heart of the Marolles neighborhood. Established in 1919, the Old Market is surely the most famous flea market in Brussels and it is the world’s only antique and flea market that is open every day of the year. Enjoy the experience as you treasure hunt and haggle at this chaotic flea market. Weekends see it at its liveliest, but for the best bargains head here early morning midweek. Fabulous food stalls cluster around an elongated, leafy square at the Place du Chatelain Market. Good news - this food market has it all: cheese, charcuterie, fresh fruit and vegetables, truffles and so on. There's a Middle Eastern food truck, a wine bar and several sweet tooth stalls. It's a true foodie nirvana, well worth a special trip. Bad news - the market is only open from 1p-7p on Wednesday. The Gare du Midi Market is said to be the biggest market in Europe. This sprawl of colorful stalls next to the train station in the southern part of town has an international flavor, with exotic North African and Mediterranean spices, cheeses, meats and everything else under the sun. The food stands sell delicious bites like Moroccan crepes with cheese, honey and vegetables along with mint tea. Note: the market is only open from 6a-1p on Sunday.
WHERE TO EAT
Brussels has a number of great places to eat and drink. From casual cafes and brilliant beer halls, to charming chocolate shops and wonderful waffle stalls - the Belgian capital is sure to please. Start your day at the best breakfast joint in town, La Petite Production. Located at rue du Couloir 5, this locals favorite serves up decadent pancakes with maple syrup, colorful bowls of fresh fruit and fantastic french toast. An added bonus, the coffee is among the best in the city. Another solid choice is Barbeton at rue Antoine Dansaert 114. This low key corner spot with a tiled floor and unpolished wood furnishings does a mean Bloody Mary and a lavish brunch on Sunday. As mentioned, the cafe culture in Brussels is among the finest in all of Europe. I would like to discuss a few of my favorites. Located at rue de la Bourse 18 is the excellent Le Cirio. This lavish 1886 grand cafe dazzles with polished brasswork and aproned waiters. The speciality of the house is a half and half mix of still and sparkling wines. Cafe Belga (Place Eugene Flagey 18) is a stylish brasserie located in a corner of the art deco Flagey building. It's mellow by day then comes to life in the evening. There's live jazz on Sunday at 5p. I also enjoy Brasserie de la Renaissance, found at ave Paul Dejaer 39. This majestic cafe has a single, high ceilinged room whose walls sport a ludicrously ornate load of gilt stucco tracery. Yet despite the grandeur, the food and drinks are an amazing bargain. Note: try to score a table out on the terrace for a splendid view of Saint Gilles Town Hall. My favorite cafe in town might just be La Fleur en Papier Dore, located at rue des Alexiens 53. The nicotine stained walls of this cozy cafe, adored by artists and locals, are covered with writings, art and scribbles by Rene Magritte and his surrealist pals. La Fleur en Papier Dore serves a wide selection of Belgian beers and regional dishes. The very cool Wolf can be found at rue du Fosse aux Loups 50. Not a cafe, but a contemporary food market - this rad spot hosts over a dozen vendors serving global street eats, plus micro brews and wine.
I would now like to share my midday (or any time of day really) best of Brussels classic grub checklist. I have an addiction to chocolate and Belgium is the perfect place to get my fix. Undoubtedly, there is no better chocolate than that made by Belgian chocolatiers. These chocolatiers have been in business for more than a century in a country whose capital has more chocolate factories than any other city on earth. There seems to be a chocolate shop on every street so I will divulge my top 4 at this time. Located at rue des Minimes 1 in the Sablon neighborhood is Maison Pierre Marcolini. Arguably the greatest chocolatier among them all is Pierre Marcolini (apologies to Mr Wonka). Nothing less than a true legend in Belgium, this master chocolatier is the only one who selects the rare, unprocessed cocoa beans personally, roasting them himself. At the shop, visitors can find beautiful chocolate originating from all around the world, with intense flavors and wrapped artistically like jewels in a designer black box. The core of Passion Chocolat (rue Bodenbroek 2), founded by Massimo Ori, is the passion and love for the artisan way of making chocolate. No preservatives, extracts or concentrates are to be found here - everything is pure and perfectly balanced. The 85 percent dark chocolate explodes in your mouth without tasting bitter and the biscuit pralines, composed of a secret mix of nuts and caramel, leave an unforgettable impression. Galler Chocolatier can be found at rue au Beurre 44. Jean Galler is known for his stunning combination of flavors - white chocolate with marzipan and pistachio, and raspberry truffles and pralines stuffed with almond paste and orange, to name a few. The chocolate shop also has a beautiful range of gift boxes, as well as delicious macarons. Chocolaterie Mary is at Lombardstraat 28B. Founded by Mary Delluc in 1919, it is the chocolatier to the royal family. The pralines are the specialty here and worth the indulgent prices when wrapped in their trademark elegant presentation boxes - a work of art in themselves. Note: many of the top chocolate shops in town can also be found under one roof inside the lovely Galeries Saint Hubert shopping arcade. For more sweets, head to Chouconut at ave Jean Volders 46. Enticing cookies, donuts and cream pastry puffs are the draw at this patisserie. There is a small on site tearoom as well.
For the best waffles in the city, visit Maison Dandoy at rue Charles Buls 14. Just steps from the Grand Place, this family owned business has been in operation since 1829. The waffles are warm and delightful and the chocolate dipped biscuits are crunchy and scrumptious. Note: it is open every day from 10a-10p. The best fries (frites) are at Maison Antoine. Located near the EU Parliament at Place Jourdan 1, its fries are twice fried in beef fat and are among the crispiest you will ever eat. There is always a long line as this place is quite popular, but it's worth the wait. Order a side of mayonnaise or curry ketchup to go with your coneful of goodness. Another good spot for fries is Frit Flagey, which can be found at Place Eugene Flagey. Do get the yummy samurai sauce. When it comes to cheese, there are 2 places that are not to be missed. The first is Cremerie De Linkebeek, located at rue du Vieux Marche aux Grains 4. The city's best fromagerie was established in 1902 and retains its original glazed tiles. It still stocks a beguiling array of cheeses, which you can also try on a crunchy baguette, wrapped in blue and white striped paper ready to take to a nearby bench. The second is the outstanding Tonton Garby, located at rue Duquesnoy 6. Its proprietor is the magnificent Garby, who is the friendliest person I've ever met. He loves what he does and wants to select the best possible cheeses for your sandwich, catered to your tastes. Note: this small shop is open Monday through Friday from 10a-5p.
Mussels in Brussels. Belgians have made this dish their national pride - they boil and serve the juicy shellfish in a casserole. Belgian fries and local beers to accompany the dish are a must. The national way of grabbing the juicy meat out of its shell is to use another empty shell and throw the remaining shells into a deep bowl. Be sure to choose a trustworthy restaurant that knows how to properly cook these delicious shellfish. Chez Leon happens to be one that does it just right. Located at rue des Bouchers 18, this long time favorite focuses on quality and serves the freshest mussels. Rooms are spread over several gabled houses and the decor varies from attractively classic to somewhat tacky depending on where you sit. Another good place is Le Pre Sale, located at rue de Flandre 20. This casual bistro draws a crowd and does a fine moules frites ail creme. Le Chou de Bruxelles can be found at rue de Florence 26 in the southern part of town. The staff is friendly, the beers are flavorful and the large portions of mussels with fries won't break the bank.
If you fancy fish and chips - make your way to Bia Mara at rue du Marche aux Poulets 41. Served alongside sea salted chips and washed down with a crisp Belgian beer, the fresh fish is perfectly seasoned and delightfully delicious. For more tasty treats from the sea, head to Mer du Nord (Noordzee in Flemish). Located at rue Sainte Catherine 45, this place is a Brussels institution and you must experience it. Don’t expect to be seated - this is a standing affair, with high tables set around a large, semi circular bar, outside at the picturesque Place Sainte Catherine. Place your order at the bar (there is a whiteboard that lists the catch of the day), choose a table, wait for the server to call out your name and pick up your plate - laid with some of the freshest fish and seafood in the city and sprinkled with Mer du Nord’s house tartar sauce. Located across the square at Place Sainte Catherine 23 is Le Vismet (Flemish for Fish Market). This popular seafood restaurant is stylish with rows of tiny bulb lamps and mirrors hung high on the walls. The service is excellent and the quality is top notch. Menu highlights include fresh North Sea crab and avocado salad with grapefruit and pan fried Dover sole with Belgian fries. Note: Le Vismet is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday.
Another great dining spot is L'Idiot du Village. Situated on a little side street (Notre Seigneur 19) near the Place du Jeu de Balle Flea Market, this colorful and quirky eatery offers a truly unique experience in the heart of the Marolles neighborhood. It looks like one of the many antique shops that surround it, with pieces of vintage furniture and accessories strewn around the room. The primarily French menu changes every season. Some of the most exciting delicacies have included the roast pigeon served with artichoke risotto and the foie gras terrine with a beet and cuberdon jelly. Note: be sure to book ahead to secure a table at this cozy restaurant. Au Vieux Bruxelles has been a Brussels institution since 1882, due to its charm and simplicity - the wood paneled walls, checkered table covers and countless memorabilia scattered around the room transport diners to another era. Expect to see the best of traditional Brussels fare on the menu, from the Carbonade a la Gueuze with chips to the Waterzooi chicken stew and some of the best moules frites (mussels with chips) in town. However, be careful not to miss Au Vieux Bruxelles (rue Saint Boniface 35) while walking by - the tumbledown exterior and plastic chairs set on the street outside do a great job at camouflaging this hidden gem of a restaurant.
A peaceful oasis in the heart of central Brussels, just a stone’s throw from the infamous Manneken Pis - Le Cercle des Voyageurs welcomes travelers with a cozy atmosphere, soft music, travel books scattered around the room and rotating exhibitions of photography and paintings. Located at Lievevrouwbroersstraat 18, its menu is equally diverse with delicious specials inspired by world cuisines. Go for the Moqueca (a Brazilian fish stew) or the North African Mechoui (roasted lamb). Note: Le Cercle des Voyageurs is perhaps best known for its live music nights and busy schedule of cultural events, so stay on after dinner and get a taste of local creativity. For a fantastic setting, try La Maison du Cygne at rue Charles Buls 2. This sophisticated, gastronomic Belgian restaurant serves seasonal cuisine on the second floor of a classic 17th century guildhall overlooking the Grand Place. For something slightly less formal, try its first floor Ommegang Brasserie and enjoy the view from its iconic terrace. One final spot is the lovely L'Ogenblik, located at Galerie des Princes 1 inside the Galeries Saint Hubert shopping arcade. This timeless bistro with its lace curtains, wood paneled walls, marble topped tables and magnificent wrought iron lamp feels a world away. They've been serving French classics here since 1969 and the expertise shows.
Brussels has several cool places to enjoy a drink or two. Begin at Chez Moeder Lambic, located at rue de Savoie 68. Behind windows plastered with beer stickers, this kooky old brown cafe is the ultimate beer spot in town. Sample some of the hundreds of brews at this institution while flipping through its treasured collection of comics. Toone (rue du Marche aux Herbes 66) is two things - a rad old bar and a classic puppet theater. This irresistibly quaint and cozy timber framed tavern serves beers and snacks. Another fun stop is Goupil le Fol at rue de la Violette 22. Overwhelming weirdness hits you as you acid trip your way through this sensory overload of rambling passageways, ragged old sofas and inexplicable beverages mostly based on madly fruit flavored wines. Note: it is open every day from 4p-2a. The most popular place in town is Delirium Cafe, found under the pink elephant symbol at Impasse de la Fidelite 4. Its barrel tables, beer tray ceilings and over 2000 types of beer were already impressive. Now they've added a rum garden, a tap house and the very cool Floris Bar across the alley. It serves vodkas and gins, plus over 400 types of absinthe which would have made Oscar Wilde devilishly happy. Delirium is open every day from 10a-4a with live music on Thursday. Floris is open every day from 8p-4a. An additional venue to celebrate absinthe is Green Lab, located at ave Louise 520. Enthusiasts of the green fairy will revel in shots of the spirit (up to 89.9 percent alcohol) and other botanical potions in this darkly dressed bar dedicated to Vincent van Gogh's favorite drink. If you'd rather keep your ears whole, opt for a Kimerud gin and tonic with elderflower and grapefruit.
For a stiff drink, head to the excellent Alice Cocktail Bar at ave Louise 190. Mixologists bewitch with their concoctions at this converted 19th century townhouse above the Michelin starred Rouge Tomate restaurant. Elegantly renovated into a 1940s style lounge - Jean Luc Moerman's photography and a grand piano set the mood at this upscale address. Another cool spot is The Modern Alchemist at ave Adolphe Demeur 55. This stylish brick walled cocktail and rum bar does deceptively potent drinks. Conclude your evening at the magnificent BOZAR - center for fine arts, located at rue Ravenstein 23. This acclaimed classical music hall is home to the National Orchestra and Philharmonic Society. From the outside, the Victor Horta designed 1928 art deco building is bold rather than enticing, but Henri Le Boeuf Hall is considered to be one of the best venues in the world for acoustic quality. BOZAR also hosts major art exhibitions and houses the totally rad Cinematek. This modern and fashionable space includes a museum where you can browse archives and memorabilia. The real highlight is the program of silent films screened nearly every day at the cinema with live piano accompaniment. There is also an impressive program of art house movies.
WHERE TO STAY
Brussels has plenty of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations that provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is Hotel Amigo, located next to the Grand Place at rue de l'Amigo 1. This elegant red brick hotel is a short walk from the iconic Manneken Pis statue and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts. Stylishly designed digs feature marble bathrooms, flat screen TVs and free WiFi, plus city or courtyard views. Upgraded rooms add seating areas, minibars and chocolates along with Magritte prints and framed Tintin figurines. Other amenities include a stately bar and a refined restaurant.
A second option is Hotel Metropole, located in the city center at Place de Brouckere 31 opposite the De Brouckere tram stop. This 1895 lavish hotel has an opulent French Renaissance style foyer with marble walls, coffered ceiling and beautifully etched stained glass windows. Sophisticated rooms with chic decor provide flat screen TVs, complimentary WiFi, minibars and separate sitting areas. Much of the furniture is restored from 1930s originals. Other amenities include a free of charge breakfast buffet, a high end Indian restaurant and a formal piano bar with live music. UPDATE: the hotel is currently closed for restoration. It is scheduled to reopen in 2025.
Brussels is brimming with charm, history, culture, art and fantastic food. It treated me well and I look forward to returning.