Brussels Travel Guide

Brussels Travel Guide

Jeff Katcherian

Considered a “hell hole” by some (one orange-faced individual in particular), Brussels is anything but, as it’s blossomed into more than a mere day trip from Paris or Amsterdam. Brussels is a small, big city – deemed the veritable capital of Europe, it is both inspiring and technocratic. This European hub welcomes a vibrant, creative community bolstered by a large foreign resident population, attracting various citizens from other parts of the European Union and throughout the world. Brussels is both endearing and approachable making it the most provincial cosmopolitan city you will ever visit. At first glance, it does not have Paris’s charm, London’s edge or Barcelona’s warmth. Substance, however, is just beneath the surface in this petite city – once you scratch it, only then will you realise how charming, innovative, and magical this city really is.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Things to do in Brussels

The flaneur might have been born in Paris, but he moved to Brussels awhile back. With all its professional cosmopolitans residing within the city, Brussels is a place of leisure. It may be its size, or it may be 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 sit down all day alone or with friends and just look (and probably stare) while drinking a Vedette and snacking on blocks of white cheese dipped in celery salt.

If you want to leave the centre and venture into areas most tourists do not go to, then explore Place du Luxembourg (Place Lux for short), a collection of bars and restaurants alongside a grassy null facing the glass-walled European Parliament. Because of its location, you will find crowds of European, polyglot bureaucrats coloured with form-fitting suits, drinking, laughing and flirting with each other after work. 

If culture is what you are looking for and you don’t want to be burdened with long lines in a museum that houses five million pieces of art, there is always, of course, Magritte. Displaying the works, life, and story of Belgium’s most famous surrealist artist, Rene Magritte, the Magritte Museum is quintessentially Belgian and accessible. Standing upon a hill in central Brussels, the top floors of the museum offer beautiful views of the city and the Grand Place. You will learn and enjoy Magritte’s oeuvre in this museum even if not inclined to surrealist art.

Although nothing good comes out of a shabby parked van (arguably), you’ll often find one or two outside the Magritte Museum selling warm 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 on one side and the Royal Palace on the other.

Brussels is a feast for artists of all kinds who 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

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.

Photo: Bastiaan Ellen

Photo: Bastiaan Ellen

Brussels Nightlife

Vertigo offers the best cocktails in Brussels in yet another cosy, 15th-Century backyard setting with high, red-bricked walls. The bartenders are so knowledgeable they will craft you your special cocktail according to your tastes. 

If keen on more tipples, venture on to Rue de Marche au Charbon to a few bars for a drink. Le Belgica and Le Dolores are two tried and true bars for gents, both local and foreign, to gather and grab a beer and, in the case of Le Belgica, a Martinica (a semi-sweet but potent concoction that will set you up for the night). Like the country itself, the bars are small and reside on an equally petite street. During the relatively warmer summer months, men, flushed with confidence after a few drinks, spill out onto the street to join their friends and meet new ones.

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