I must admit I was a bit taken aback by the amount of interest in my ‘top of head tips’ for a weekend in Brussels but perhaps it is worth me rounding them out. And it is apt; this month marks our 4th anniversary in Belgium so it seems like as good a time as any. Plus I am drawing on the very recent experience of entertaining my sister here over Christmas. Plus I am finally getting to the point where I am not (very) down on Brussels as a city.
So. Here goes.
Sleeping:Like all capitals, Brussels does not lack for hotels. If you are coming via Eurostar, there are often very good deals if you buy your train ticket and book a hotel togeher. Another tip is to head to the EU Quarter (Thon EU, Radisson Blu EU, The Renaissance, The Stanhope, Silken Berlaymont and to a lesser extent Sofitel) as these places are filled to bursting during the week with bureaucrats and lobbyists but often deserted at the weekend. This means there are bargains to be had if you can also avoid the traditional holiday periods. I’m not saying any of these places are charming but you might get a good deal and they are relatively central.
If it is design or something a bit different you’re after, perhaps try the Pantone Hotel, the Vintage Hotel or if it is a special weekend, perhaps Le Dix-Septième or The Dominican or Le Berger, a former ‘rendezvous’ hotel for public figures and their mistresses.
Eating: Far, far too many restaurants to mention. Brussels has more 1 & 2 Michelin starred establishments than any other European city except San Sebastian in Spain which is foodie central. You get the idea. If you’re in the mood for Italian, I have some suggestions here but otherwise, know that wherever you go you will likely always eat well in Brussels, no matter your budget. People here like to eat.
For those seeking ‘traditional’ Belgian food, the perennial favourites are Fin de Siecle (good for those on a budget, very close to Zinnekin Pis in case you’re looking for him) or for the full on Brasserie experience: Le Volle de Gas, Roue d’Or, Chez Leon or Aux Armes de Bruxelles, these last two each claim to have invented ‘moules et frites’, only eat mussels if there is a ‘r’ in the month incidentally, and finally Chez Vincent with its gorgeous, tiled interior.
For afternoon tea, go to Lilicup in the Ixelles district or head to the Grand Sablon (Wittamer has a large tea-room upstairs. The daily cakes are gorgeous, ask to see tray and try to pick only one). Aksum, OR, JAT and Karsmakers are hits with coffee drinkers in Brussels.
Drinking: Likewise, people in Brussels like to drink. Not in a ‘neck your pint, fall down drunk’ British kind of way but lingering with friends, chatting for hours on one of the many squares in the city. People watch well-heeled ladies having a glass of champagne on the Grand Sablon or see the locals enjoying a drink with fresh oysters or snails at practically every market in town (at the weekend, check out the markets at the Parvis de Saint-Gilles or Place Flagey or further afield at Boitsfort-Watermael).
You want to check out the infamous beers? If you want to make it really authentic, head for La Cantillion, the last working brewery in the city limits. A La Mort Subite draws the crowds with its well appreciated beer menu, as do Moeder Lambic and Le Poechenellekelder. Much less nice in my view but some people love it, is Delerium Cafe (opposite Jeannekin Pis).
Mr B and I love L’Archiduc, others prefer Bar du Matin or Maison du Peuple or Chez Maman if drag acts are your thing. There are myriad bars across the city and there is no right or wrong. If you’re in the centre of town, Place St. Gery is a good bet.
Exploring Brussels: 2 suggested walks:
1. The Classic: Start at back of La Bourse (the stock exchange) and stroll up past St.Nicholas’ church, past the small fountain of the parable of the blind and into the Grand’ Place. Visit the City Museum to check out Mannekin Pis’s wardrobe and absorb the sights from the 1st floor of La Roi d’Espagne if you need a break.
From Grand’ Place, head down rue Charles Buls and continue down rue de l’Etuve to Mannekin Pis. For those needing to rest their feet, I recommend Le Cercle de Voyagers cafe too.
Leave the little guy behind and stroll uphill on rue du Chêne through Place de la Vieille Halle aux Blés and up rue de l’Escalier. Cross Boulevard de l’Empereur and take the tiny rue de Rollenbeek next to the Bowling Alley (look for the petrol pumps and take a second to take in one of the last remaining pieces of the city wall) up to the Grand Sablon. Check out the gorgeous church and multiple chocolate shops. Cross the road behind the church to take in the wonderful Petit Sablon park. From the church you have two choices. Head right to the Palais de Justice and take the glass elevator down to explore the Marolles district (great shopping along rue Haute and the parallel street rue Blaes). Alternatively head left to the museums (the cafe at the top of the Musical Instruments Museum has amazing views) and the royal palace.
2. Expat heaven: Ixelles: If you’ve done the main tourist attractions and want to explore the ‘real’ city, more accurately the expat friendly zone, or take things at a slower pace, the district of Ixelles is a good start. You can either start at metro/tram stop Louise and head down the shopping haven of Avenue Louise or take tram 94 down to stop ‘Bailli’ (NB this is an infamous tram route for pickpockets, you have been warned).
If you walk, take the right hand side of the street (with the metro stop behind you) and stop just before the Steigenberger Hotel (the Club Med shop is a good vantage point) to appreciate perhaps the most infamous piece of street art in town over on the side of a building on the opposite side of the street.
For those who want designer clothes at bargain prices, check out the various Dod stores you’ll pass and Les Enfants d’Edouard.
The interconnected streets of rue de Bailli, rue du Châtelin and rue du Page have great independent shops if you want to take home something for yourself or friends and have a huge choice of bars, restaurants and cafes.
If shopping is not your thing, head downhill at the corner of rue de Bailli/Avenue Louise onto rue Lesbroussarts (look for the Natural Caffe on the corner to guide you). This will take you down to Place Flagey which has a huge market at the weekends until around 1pm and will allow you to stroll around the ‘étangs’ (ponds). For those needing a drink Cafe Belga is an institution but gets very busy especially on a Sunday. If you explore the streets around the Square, there are plenty of alternatives.
Many people say the frite stand on Place Flagey is the best in town, others argue for the traditional Maison Antoine on Place Jourdan which allegedly invented ‘frites’ as the world knows them. Our personal favourite is on Place de la Chapelle close to the Sablon.
If you walk to the top of the furthest étang you will find yourself in the oft-overlooked but gorgeous Abbey de la Cambre (the site is now shared with Brussels’ equivalent of Central St. Martins), with the Bois de la Cambre a short stroll beyond (you’ll need to cross the main road and continue right down to the bottom of Avenue Louise to get there but if you are coming to town in the summer and the sun is shining it is recommended for picnics or running!)
A final note, the Ixelles district is the easiest place to see the art nouveau architecture of Victor Horta and his pupils. As well as the Horta House Museum, (open only from 2pm) there are plenty of other houses to admire simply by walking around and keeping your eyes open. Try rue du Page, 55 Avenue Brugmann (the owl house) or rue Defacqz.
Hope these give you some inspiration. If you come to Brussels in 2014, I’d love to hear your favourite places in town!