Brussels - Europe's Best Kept Travel Secret
The secret of Belgium’s capital city, Brussels, is to go with the flow
and allow yourself to become part of its charming everyday life.
Having been previously ruled by Spain, the Netherlands and France, Belgium is one of those countries that find it easier to describe itself by what it is not: It’s not French, nor is it Dutch, neither German. Belgium is a country with an identity crisis as its population encompasses French, Dutch, German; some Arabic tongue is also spoken and further still, a large percentage of the population are expat English-speaking foreigners. With all that variety, Brussels takes the mix in its stride and pulls everything together into an offbeat, almost bizarre sense of being.
With this cultural diversity, it’s no wonder that Brussels has seized the 21st century with fresh vigor, leaving other European cities wondering who stole their tourists. One source of the tourism influx is Belgium’s fashion: While other European cities rested on their laurels, Belgium became a trendsetter in style, surpassing France; while the buzzing sidewalk café scene has outmatched those of Paris.
Yet, the urbanization of Brussels will not leave you woozy with its splendor; rather you will feel compelled to seek out its intimacy and explore its secret treasures.
Eating in Brussels
The capital’s restaurants rival those of Paris and London—both in value and excellence. It’s not an inexpensive city for dining and it has high standards. Here restaurants that fall short of excellent simply close.
Mussels and chips is the classic dish and can be found in nearly all Belgian restaurants. However, certain districts of Brussels specialize in specific food: Ixelles has excellent Thai, African and Italian bistros, mainly around St-Boniface Church. Place du Grand Sablon has an abundance of these restaurants, although a little pricier.
Drinking in Brussels is a national pastime. The Grand’ Place is lined with terrace bars, full of life in the summer. Le Roi d’Espagne has the most ambiance and Place St-Géry has designer bar terraces with oodles of mood, as is the timeless art deco bar of L’Archiduc which is claimed to remain open until dawn.
Sleeping in Brussels
Most visitors to Brussels are on business, therefore hotel rates drop significantly on weekends, so don’t write off the five-stars entirely. The most celebrated luxury hotel is the five-star Amigo only a few meters from the Grand’ Place.
Of the mid-range options, the Mozart is oddly kitsch and often noisy, but only a step from the Grand’ Place. Overlooking the flea market in the Marolles is the Galia. The George V is a budget favorite near the bars of St-Géry.
Shopping in Brussels
Escape the shopping malls and try something more idiosyncratic, like the shabby area between Boulevard Lemonnier and the Grand’ Place, where you’ll find second hand bookshops, record shops and clothes shops. By the Grand’ Place is the Galeries St-Hubert, which is filled with designer boutiques and quirky sidewalk cafés.
Sightseeing in Brussels
The lower city, centered around the superbly ornate Grand’ Place is considered by many as the most beautiful medieval square in all of Europe, with elegant 17th-century guild houses and narrow atmospheric lanes leading off it. In summer, daily flower markets are held there, which are often accompanied by a concert. Nearby, St-Géry flourishes on stylish bars contained in an old covered market on Place St-Géry. The cafés, restaurants and nightspots buzz in the summer months, as does St-Catherine, a canopied terrace lined with seafood restaurants. Immediately south of Grand’ Place, amid the grimy old stores in rue de l’Etuve, is the symbol of Brussels—the little statue of the urinating rascal—Mannekin-Pis. Further south in the earthy Marolles quarter, rue Haute hosts the daily flea market at Place du Jeu de Balle. Throughout the lower town are murals of Belgium’s comic-strip heroes like Tintin.
The upper town boasts dramatic architecture and parks, with a string of grand names along its Boulevard. The Royal Quarter overshadows everything else with the palace and the fountained Parc de Bruxelles leading through to the Belgian Parliament. The Fine Arts Museum boasts old masters like Bruegel, Rubens, Magritte, Delvaux and Monet.
A short tram ride from Brussels Montgomery to Tervuren takes you through parks and the beautiful Ambassadorial District. Tervuren is home to the African Art Museum and Léopold II’s spectacular monuments and parks.