I’ve visited Brussels a dozen times — this is why I love it
It’s a lazy stereotype to label this city as boring when it is home to contemporary art, natural wine bars, live music and much more. Plus your 48-hour guide
The Belgian capital — the beating heart of European politics — is also the first city of a country widely deemed to be dull. I disagree. While it won’t ever be described as edgy, it certainly isn’t boring. I’ve visited more than a dozen times across all seasons and can confirm Brussels has year-round cultural clout, offering visitors a heady line-up of art, live music, festivals, clubs (Kiosk Radio and C12 for techno enthusiasts, rather than technocrats) and contemporary dance (at the art centre Wiels).
The beer is excellent, naturally, but there’s also an enviable gastronomic scene, with natural wine bars such as Nightshop, tucked behind a garage door in the trendy Dansaert district, adding to the foodie credentials. Cool arrivals such as the Hoxton, a 198-room hotel in a glassy 1970s former IBM tower near Brussel North station, and Fondation Blan, a contemporary art spot in upmarket Ixelles, are continuing to change the city’s tempo.
The city’s Winter Wonders programme runs from late November until New Year’s Eve; with festive stalls clustered around Place Sainte-Catherine, just north of 17th-century square Grand-Place (plaisirsdhiver.be). The rejuvenated Bourse, Brussels’ 19th-century former stock exchange, now houses the Belgian Beer World museum with its rooftop bar and 360-degree views (£15; belgianbeerworld.be).
• Morning: Museum hopping at the Mont des Arts
• Lunch: Nordzee
• Afternoon: Royal Museum of Central Africa
• Drink: Daringman
• Evening: L’Archiduc
• Dinner: Chez Jacques
• Morning: Maison Hannon
• Lunch: Verdo
• Afternoon: Shopping in Chatelain
• Drink: Beerstorming
• Evening: Tenbosch park
• Dinner: Old Boy
What to do
• Step out along Mont des Arts, an artistic hub centred around a grand landscaped garden that connects the Royal Quarter and Grand-Place. You’ll find the Magritte Museum dedicated to the surrealist René Magritte (£9; musee-magritte-museum.be), the fine arts hub Bozar (prices per exhibition; bozar.be) and kooky displays at the Museum of Musical Instruments (£13; mim.be).
• Shop for fancy chocolate truffles in the gorgeous arcades of Galeries Royales Saint Hubert; Leonidas, Godiva and Neuhaus (inventor of praline) are all here. Further out in Tervuren, the Royal Museum for Central Africa offers a sobering insight into how chocolate came to Belgium, via the 19th-century colonisation of Congo (£11; africamuseum.be).
• Brussels has some fantastic live music venues and the city hosts its jazz festival every January. Even if you’re not a fan of the genre, a night at the 1953 art deco institution L’Archiduc — where everyone from Nat King Cole to Lady Gaga have played — doesn’t disappoint. The galleried cocktail bar is jam-packed at weekends, but the atmosphere alone is worth it (free entry; archiduc.net).
• A visit to the art nouveau pioneer Victor Horta’s former home and studio in Saint-Gilles is a must (£11; hortamuseum.be), but ten minutes’ walk away is another equally beautiful early 20th-century marvel, the Jules Brunfaut-designed Maison Hannon; it reopened as a museum in June after years of restoration (£12; maisonhannon.be).
• Locals hang out in Châtelain, which is chock-full of cute shops, concept stores and stylish bars. Find ceramics at Puls (instagram.com/pulsceramics) and flip through the used books at La Mine de Papier. The weekend market stalls at Place Flagey offer up the chance to scoff Moroccan pastries and sample champagnes.
• Tenbosch Park is a tranquil escape from the tourist and commuter hordes. This tree-filled oasis was dreamt up by Jean-Louis Semet, a 19th-century dendrologist (tree botanist), and makes for a verdant refuge for Brussels’bird life.
Where to eat and drink
Head to the nearby Dansaert design district, and imbibe a beer at the cash-only Daringman, a teeny, wood-panelled time of a boozer. There’s a small range on tap and lots of bottled options ranging from Trappist ales to unfiltered Papegaei.
One helping of moules-frites is surely compulsory. For the full Brussels “brown café” experience (traditional-style Belgium pubs), make a reservation at Chez Jacques, a family-run bistro serving seasonal classics such as moules de Zélande or roggevleugel, a skate dish (mains from £18; restaurantjacques.be).
Opt for a veg-heavy lunch in the pretty surrounds of Verdo: truffled-mushroom croquettes, big piles of roasted cauliflower steak and Snickers-like cake alongside blobs of tonka cream. It’s all plant-based but even the most vociferous meat-eater will hardly notice (mains from £14; verdo.brussels).
Indulge in some beer nerdery at Beerstorming, a creative microbrewery with a cult following in Saint-Gilles. There’s a delicious selection of artisan brews on tap (GMGK is a favourite, a Belgian ale with notes of kaffir lime) or try your hand at making the amber nectar with a brewing session (from £90pp; beerstorming.net).
If the weather’s decent, snaffle just-caught deep-fried North Sea bounties at the fishmonger Nordzee; this Place Sainte-Catherine favourite has outdoor tables where you can stay awhile (mains from £6; noordzeemerdunord.be). The waffles are worth queueing for at Maison Dandoy: order the gooey caramelised Liege (from £4; maisondandoy.com).
Old Boy on Rue de Tenbosch, a hip restaurant in the Châtelain area, serves up redolent, Asian-inspired food. The co-owners have roots in Taiwan and Thailand, with dishes such as spicy stir-fried clams in nam prik pao and Binchotan-barbecued veal cheeks on the menu. The drinks are interesting too; from skin-contact wines to gin-shiso leaf cocktails (tasting menu from £43; oldboyrestaurant.be).
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Where to stay
Made in Louise
Boutique haunt near Place Flagey
This 48-room hotel is near Avenue Louise, a shopping hub in the city’s south. The turn-of-the-century building is an optimum base for discoveringvibey Châtelain and Ixelles, the well-heeled neighbourhoods where Audrey Hepburn spent the first few years of her life Nearby, the Jackie coffee shop does a mean flat white with beans from Mok roastery, while the toasties from Jacq’s Toastery ooze with raclette and comté (room-only doubles from £87; madeinlouise.com).
Wins max interiors points
Mix is a chic “hospitality concept” housed in a former 1960s insurance company HQ beside the old beech trees of the Sonian Forest. A vision of glass, steel, concrete and etched brass, every inch of this calm 180-room hotel — with a health club and pool — has been carefully considered by Lionel Jadot at Zaventem Ateliers. In the city’s south, it’s 25 minutes by public transport to the centre (room-only doubles from £140; mix.brussels).
Traditional central five-star
The Rocco Forte group’s sole Belgian outpost, Hotel Amigo, is mere cobblestones away from Grand-Place and Manneken Pis, Brussels’ famous statue of a peeing boy, and sits on the site of a 500-year-old prison that once held Karl Marx. Kitted outwith Flemish tapestries, the hotel carries an old-world charm; the pared-back rooms are stocked with Irene Forte smellies and there’s even a suite dedicated to Belgium’s most famous comic strip character, Tintin (room-only doubles from £223; roccofortehotels.com).
Need to know
Getting there Fly to Brussels, or take the Eurostar; there are up to ten trains a day from London St Pancras, with one-way fares starting from £39 (eurostar.com).
Getting around The best way to see Brussels is on foot or via rented bikes or scooters. Trams and metros are the quickest way of getting around; you can tap in using your contactless card. A single journey is £1.80; costs are capped at a maximum daily price of £6.50.
Victoria Brzezinski travelled independently