Brussels Travel Guide

Brussels Travel Guide

Birthplace of the French fry and the Belgium Waffle, the tiny city of Brussels packs a big punch as the fiercely progressive capital of Europe, inspiring the world with vibrant modern culture, classy cuisine and commendable technocracy. A welcoming hub for creatives and expat communities, Brussels is perhaps the most provincial cosmopolitan city you will ever visit. And while Brussels may seem to lack London’s edge and Barcelona’s warmth, look around and you’ll soon be endeared by its approachable atmosphere and forward-thinking attitudes. As the second nation worldwide to legalize gay marriage, gay travellers can feel truly accepted citywide. To congregate for fun times, head to the extensive Gay Village in Saint Jacques for a ridiculous amount of gay bars and some of Europe’s biggest dance parties. If you have an LGBT+ query, the Rainbow House is your go-to; a bar, information centre and event organizer rolled into one. Looking for a Brussels gay guide? Read on for a rundown of the best Brussels points of interest.

The best hotels in Brussels

Let’s start this gay Brussels travel guide with a roundup of the best hotels in Brussels. The top hotels in Brussels mainly reside in the city centre while some are located in the commune of Ixelles. Literally a few steps away from the glorious Grand Place is Hotel Amigo. The hotel is known for hosting prominent guests and dignitaries but perfect for those who want to splurge a bit in subtle yet well-designed, almost playfully-decorated rooms with views of the Hôtel de Ville

Just on the other side of the Grand Place is the Hotel des Galeries which comprises of only 23 rooms and resides within the Galeries Royale St. Hubert, a 19th –Century glass-arched arcade lined with boutique shops, cafes, chocolatiers, and even a small movie theatre. Designers Fleur Delsalles and Camille Flammarion have created an essentially Belgian-designed space that is both minimal and cosy, intricately mixing ceramic works with contemporary furniture pieces and earth-toned parquet flooring. Do not miss the croquettes at their downstairs restaurant Les Comptoir des Galeries!

Just down the street off Rue Leopold is The Dominican, a sleek and modern hotel housed where a 15th-Century Dominican Abbey once stood. For those gents who want to stay close to the bustling restaurants and bars in the centre while also finding quiet and repose, The Dominican boasts a comfortable, lively lounge with minimally designed rooms, some of which face a beautiful courtyard. The picture of the man on their website is indeed a testament to the hotel’s monastic exterior and tastefully modish interior.

If you are looking for a more traditional, large hotel experience with spectacular views of the city, stay at The Hotel. Formerly a Hilton, The Hotel had undergone major renovations leaving it more polished and upscale.  Nestled between the high-end shops of Avenue Louise, the city centre, and the up-and-coming commune of St. Gilles, the hotel is a well-located base to explore all of Brussels.

They say, however, that you truly know a city once you start leaving its centre –  in that case, Maison Flagey is the place to stay. For those men who are fond of beautiful details and want a more intimate experience, Maison Flagey is the ideal place to stay for embracing Brussels’ art nouveau style it is most famous for. With just five rooms, each room is unique, adorned with art nouveau features that extend from its stained glass to the bathroom tilings. The staircase alone will transport you into a different world.

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Recommended hotels in Brussels
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Things to do in Brussels

With all the hedonistic cosmopolitan workers residing here, Brussels of course is a place of leisure and festivals are a common feature on the city’s schedule. In addition to the annual Gay Pride festival and Brussels Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, there are a plethora of smaller events throughout the year.  Pick up a copy of local gay magazines Bruce or Tribu when you arrive to get the lowdown on timely events. There are myriad things to do in Brussels throughout the city, but the best sights are found by venturing into less touristy areas. The Place du Luxembourg (Place Lux for short) for example, is an area featuring a collection of bars and restaurants alongside a grassy null facing the glass-walled European Parliament. Visitors heading here for sundown drinks should prepare themselves for flirtatious conversations with polyglot bureaucrats in tight-fitting suits!

Displaying the life, story and works of Belgium’s most famous surrealist artist, Rene Magritte, the Magritte Museum is quintessentially Belgian and accessible. Not only should you come here for Magritte’s masterpieces, but thanks to the museum’s central hill location, the top floors of the museum offer beautiful views of the city and the Grand Place. And, while nothing good usually comes out of a shabby parked van, outside of the Magritte Museum there are a few trucks vending toasty gaufres de Liège (Belgian waffles) drizzled with powdered sugar or melted dark chocolate. These sugar-encrusted waffles are some of the best in Brussels and can be enjoyed while walking to the nearby Parc Royale, a quaint little park nestled between Bozar and the Royal Palace.

Brussels is a feast for artists of all kinds to thrive on the city’s creative energy and relatively reasonable cost of living. From modern dancing to classical music, there is never a dearth of venues to watch and engage with the arts in Brussels. Bozar is the most famous of these venues, if not for its myriad choices of events to attend, then its art nouveau architecture. Before a dance performance, you can eat at the Victor Bozar Café, both a restaurant and work of art, from its circular chandeliers to its brass-engraved tables.

Photo: Bastiaan Ellen

Photo: Bastiaan Ellen

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Photo: Bastiaan Ellen

Photo: Bastiaan Ellen

What to see in Brussels

The flaneur might have been born in Paris, but he moved to Brussels awhile back to wander around this brilliant city, soaking up the liberal atmosphere and perusing Mr Hudson’s list of what to see in Brussels. Not to be missed during your trip is the UNESCO World Heritage Historic Old Town, home of the Grand-Place. The showy central square is surrounded by guild houses, City Hall and the Maison du Roi and famed for its lavish, ornate aesthetic.

Promoting all the joys of design and fashion is the MAD Brussels Fashion and Design Platform, an art exhibition space as well as a business-centred initiative linking local business owners and innovative creatives. To placate your inner nerd, get yourself to the Atomium, an iconic 335-foot steel structure modelling a magnified iron crystal cell. Originally built as a temporary installation for the 1958 World’s Fair, the Atomium is now a permanent fixture on Brussels’ cityscape. For a dusk soiree or something less ostentatious, wander over to Le Bois de la Cambre, an amazing park for lounging, playing lawn sports and enjoying the odd weekend festival. At the centre of the park, there is a lake on which you’ll find Robinson’s Island. On the island, itself sits an elegant chalet only accessible by boat providing exclusive views of the park’s natural surroundings.

On the face of it, Basilica of the Sacred Heart (Koekelberg Basilica) is an ordinary Art Deco church. Up close however you soon realise it’s one of the biggest – at 89-metres high – and a decidedly more rustic model of Paris’ Sacré-Coeur. Its lush views out over Parc Elizabeth and White City are also impeccable. By the 1920s Art Nouveau was ceding power to the more streamlined Art Deco movement, with Belgium leading the curve. Villa Empain, the daring architectural work of its time, is a so-called masterpiece of the genre, with severe symmetry and rich textures underscored by wealth. The sprawling grounds are now open to the public with the addition of an arts and culture centre dedicated to improving international relations.

Grand Place | Photo: Alex Vasey

Grand Place | Photo: Alex Vasey

Atomium | Photo: Jay Lee

Atomium | Photo: Jay Lee

Brussels, however, doesn’t flaunt its culinary prowess, mainly because it doesn’t have to. Its food speaks for itself as long as you have a chance to visit

Where to eat in Brussels

Belgian cuisine is as diverse as its tumultuous history, and the city of Brussels is no exception. Like Belgian fashion, its food rivals various other culinary powerhouses like London and Paris. Brussels, however, doesn’t flaunt its culinary prowess, mainly because it doesn’t have to. Its food speaks for itself as long as you have a chance to visit.

While it’s always important to stray off the beaten path, sometimes being a tourist is okay. Every now and then it is best to stick with cultural clichés that tend to define a city, especially when those cliches involve chocolates, waffles, beer and French fries (the latter, of course, being a misnomer coined by Americans, French fries are in fact originally Belgian). To do this, venture away from La Grand Place and walk up to the more upscale Sablon area. While passing various shops housing old and new African art, you will suddenly find yourself surrounded by various chocolatiers. Skip Godiva and go to Pierre Marcolini, one of Belgium’s top chocolatiers. A three-story building sitting on the corner of Rue des Minimes just down the street from the Jewish Museum, Pierre Marcolini is sometimes dubbed “The Chanel of Chocolates”. Then stop by Maison Dandoy for a heavenly speculoos biscuit. If you want a more café experience with your chocolate, walk down the street to Wittamer, known not only for its chocolates and baked goods but also for its view of the Sablon and all its elegant passersby.

Pierre Marcolini | Photo: Bastiaan Ellen

Pierre Marcolini | Photo: Bastiaan Ellen

For a more savoury experience, Maison Antoine in Place Jourdan has arguably the best frites in Brussels. Even if not ‘the best’, Place Jourdan offers the perfect space for you to enjoy your fries as Maison Antoine stands in the middle of a square surrounded by bars that allow you to bring in your fries to devour along with a beer to wash it down. You can even walk with your fries to nearby Parc Leopold to catch a glimpse of all the Eurocrats coming and going from the European Parliament.

Although you will most likely wake up to a drizzly morning in Brussels, you will have no trouble finding a delicious breakfast with good coffee. Kaffabar is one of those places. This refreshingly new, aesthetically pleasing, and delightfully friendly coffee bar is located within an unassuming area just within the edges of Brussels’ city centre. The baristas here take pride in making coffee, and it shows especially when you pair it with one of their cakes or cookies (with vegan options). If you can’t make it for breakfast, you can always enjoy an afternoon aperitivo here before going out for the night. You will hopefully catch Marc, the owner, and his adorable canine mascot Marcel.

One good thing about the global hipster movement is its love for coffee (and probably beards and denim), setting the stage for various coffee roasters to thrive. MOK, one of the few independent coffee roasters in Brussels off Rue Dansaert, succeeds in offering unique coffee flavours accompanied by sweet and savoury dishes any hipster would be proud of. Close by, near Place Saint-Catherine, Charli not only prepares excellent coffee but mouth-watering bread, croissants and various other baked goods.

Charli Bakery

Charli Bakery

De Noordzee, just on the other side of the Saint-Catherine cathedral is a classic for lunch. This is one of those holes-outside-the-wall restaurants serving delicious oysters, moules, and fish of the season. Here you stand, not sit, outside while eating, enjoying the view of the cathedral while sipping on a glass of champagne.

A café, a wine bar, and a bistro, Café Charbon’s relaxed, industrial setting rests confidently on a small cobble-stoned street across the enchanting Basilique Notre-Dame de Bon Secours. Around the corner from Brussels’ famous drag club Chez Maman, Café Charbon welcomes a mix of clientele looking to enjoy a cold Chimay with their no fuss, but deliciously prepared burger or tartine.

Just behind the lively bar-ridden Place St. Gery, Fin de Siècle is the perfect restaurant for proper Belgian comfort food. Beautiful in its understated design, Fin de Siècle offers sizeable dishes displayed on a blackboard menu against the wall. As the name of the restaurant suggests, the ambience is vibrant, warm and intimate enveloping you with that feeling of nostalgia for a time and place you wished you had experienced.

SAN Sablon

SAN Sablon

For those who appreciate not only tasty food but also beautifully-designed cuisine, SAN creates for you a culinary experience that will leave you smiling and satisfied knowing you have experienced a variety of flavours to entertain your palette. For Belgian-Korean Chef Sang-Hoon Degeimbre the physical place inspires his cuisine allowing you to travel the world with his nightly minimal, yet well thought-out recipes.

Travel outside the city centre and explore the commune of Ixelles, the birthplace of Audrey Hepburn and one of Brussels’ most energetic districts. Mano e mano is a small Italian pizzeria facing the Saint-Boniface church in one of Brussels’ most beautiful squares. They serve basic but scrumptious Italian-style pizzas and dishes. Here, you can share a hot plate of scarmoza with your parmigiana pizza or veal Florentine.

Another pocket of Ixelles, and probably the most quaint and chic is Chatelain. Popular with both expats and locals alike, this area entices you in a way that central Brussels cannot. Here, you will want not only to be a visitor but a local. Indeed, if you were living here, your weekend brunch venue of choice would be La Fabrique. During the evening, there is a wide selection of trendy restaurants here such as Le Bout de Gras; as one of the top restaurants for meat in Brussels, Le Bout de Gras fuses traditional bistro style food with tinges of Creole flavours. But one Chatelain restaurant that is not so trendy yet still delicious is Chatelain du Liban; a traditional Lebanese restaurant recently renovated to look less like the home of your Lebanese friend’s aunt in Beirut. Before sitting down to tuck into some mezze, however, stop by nearby Xavier Hufkens nearby, which hosts an eclectic display of contemporary art.

La Fabrique Chatelain | Photo: Bastiaan Ellen

La Fabrique Chatelain | Photo: Bastiaan Ellen

Photo: Samuel Foster

Photo: Samuel Foster

Shopping in Brussels

Avenue Louise and Boulevard de Waterloo are ideal places to shop if you are looking for high-end retail. However, it is Rue Antoine Dansaert and its environs that you will find well-designed, truly one-of-a-kind clothing you will not find anywhere else in the world. Just off Rue Danseart is Hunting and Collecting, one of Brussels’ most popular boutiques hosting clothing from various Belgian and international designers.

If you have a book fetish, and love looking at books but never have time to read them, feed your fixation at Peinture Fraîche, an intimate bookshop with a carefully curated selection of photography, art, design, and fashion books in Ixelles.

For the design-inclined gentlemen who don’t want to just look at books on design, venture on to Homepage Furniture & More.  As a homage to Brussels’ cosmopolitan residents, Homepage is filled with creative furniture and home décor from internationally-recognised designers. Homepage has been so successful they have opened another location across the street – Homepage2 More Furniture – which gives visitors a chance to indulge their fantasies of designing a (second) home of their own. 

Very close by, in Brussels’ chic Chatelaine area off Rue du Page is Lulu Home Interior.  Here you will find more innovative, contemporary home goods ranging from dining sets to kitchenware. Lulu’s simple and tasteful design options translate well into its café where you can enjoy a coffee and pre-dinner snack off a menu developed by French Chef Guillaume Gomez.

Lulu | Photo: Bastiaan Ellen

Lulu | Photo: Bastiaan Ellen

An institution in Brussels’ gay nightlife scene since the 1980s is Le Belgica, a popular mixed establishment home to cute bartenders, a small dance floor and live DJs

Brussels nightlife

And now for Mr Hudson’s Brussels gay scene guide. It may be due to its size or its people, but grabbing a drink in Brussels is a much more relaxed activity than in other big cities in Europe. Le Fontainas is one of those bars you could stay alone all day or with friends to enjoy a local Vedett Beer alongside – don’t question it – a block of cheese dipped in celery salt. Mellow vibes are also to be had at L’Archiduc, an authentic jazz bar serving strong cocktails to patrons in classic wooden booths to the sounds of soulful jam sessions. To get into this Art Deco establishment, customers must ring the bell on the grand cast-iron door. If it’s the thrill of prohibition that does it for you, then get your next cocktail at Kosovar-owned vintage café Lord Byron, where the music is soothing, the drinks moreish, and the atmosphere primed for good conversation.

For the next level of mixology, La Pharmacie Anglaise is your place. A curiosity cabinet reminiscent of a gentleman’s saloon, this cocktail bar packs its shelves with century-old oddities and formaldehyde containers alongside a healthy amount of gin, mescal and scotch. Like stumbling into the lair of a mad scientist, La Pharmacie Anglaise is an unnerving neo-Gothic delight. Less ‘pharmacy chic’ more intimate hub is Hortense & Humus a hard-to-find underground speakeasy and cocktail bar that now has joined forces with Humus Botanical Gastronomy, meaning visitors can enjoy both candle-lit drinks and foodie adventures all in one.

Leaving our underground bunker for something a bit more outrageous, the next stop in our Brussels guide is La Boule Rouge, a bar with food, drinks and various modes of entertainment. From drag and dance to cabaret and karaoke, this place is as kitsch as it gets yet always a fun night out. In the heart of Brussel’s gay street, popular with bears, advocates and admirers, you’ll find Le Baroque, a tiny, colourful gay bar with laid-back outdoor seating, a mixture of club classics and pop music, and a lively atmosphere. If you need space to bust a move, however, Chez Maman is one of the best Brussels points of interest for (fabulous) men only, featuring glittering drag performances from Maman and her posse atop the bar. Lastly, an institution in Brussels’ gay nightlife scene since the 1980s is Le Belgica, a popular mixed establishment home to cute bartenders, a small dance floor and live DJs – perfect for meeting locals before moving on to the clubs!

Photo: Stephanie Leblanc

Photo: Stephanie Leblanc

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