Not just a haven for suits and Euro politicians, Belgium's capital offers shopping without the queues, plenty of watering-holes, and great chocolate.
WHY GO NOW?

When people think of Brussels, they tend to think of the European Commission and a place that grey-suited businessmen travel to for work. In general, they'd be right, but Brussels at the weekend is an altogether different - and quieter - place, and hotel prices and air/train fares are vastly reduced. So, if you fancy doing a bit of pre-Christmas shopping without all the pushing and shoving - and stocking up on some of Europe's finest chocolates - head to Brussels for the weekend.

BEAM DOWN

The Belgian capital is gratifyingly easy to reach from many UK airports. The lowest fares are likely to be from Heathrow or Stansted on Virgin Express (0800 891199), for around pounds 80 return on off-peak flights. By rail, Eurostar (0990 186186) sells return tickets from London Waterloo to Brussels Midi (1) for pounds 59. For more information, you have a choice of two tourist offices: Tourism Flanders Brussels, 31 Pepper Street, London E14 9RW (0171- 458 0044), and the Belgian Tourist Office, Brussels and Ardennes, at the same address but with a different telephone number (0171-458 2888).

GET YOUR BEARINGS

A shuttle train from the airport runs between Brussels' three main train stations, takes 25 minutes, and costs BF90 (pounds 1.50) for a second-class ticket. If you're arriving on Eurostar you can walk for about 15 minutes to the Grand' Place (2) from the Gare du Midi station. The Grand' Place, Brussels' magnificent central square, boasts an extraordinary Gothic Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) and is busy whatever time of day or night it is. Lounge at one of the numerous pavement cafes or walk through the side alleys to find souvenir and chocolate shops. For maps, tourist information, and discounted vouchers for museums, head to Tourist Information Brussels (TIB) (3) situated in the Town Hall on the Grand' Place (00 322 513 89 40). It is open Monday to Saturday, 9am to 6pm and 10am to 2pm on Sundays.

CHECK IN

Brussels hotels aren't terribly cheap, especially those in the Grand' Place area, but at the weekend the prices can drop by half. The Hotel Mirabeau (4) (Place Fontainas 18-20, 00 322 511 19 72) is well located, reasonably priced (about BF2,200, or pounds 36, for a double room), and serves heaps of croissants and other goodies for breakfast. At the top end of the style scale is the Hotel Metropole (5) (Place de Brouckere 31, 00 322 217 64 50) but it doesn't come cheap. Expect to pay around BF7,000 (pounds 115) for a double room or go the whole hog and book the Sacha Guitry suite for BF40,000 (pounds 650) for the night.

TAKE A HIKE

A pub crawl round this city won't be hard on your feet: there's practically a bar or pub on every corner. You could start at the excellent Brussels Gueuze Museum (6) at rue Gheude 56 (00 322 521 49 28). A tour of this family-run brewery includes a free glass of beer - just the thing to set you on your way. Next, try La Fleur en Papier Dore (7), at rue des Alexiens 53. A small pub, also family-run, with nicotine-stained walls and friendly regulars, the bartenders here have an extensive knowledge of the stuff they serve - and a way with pouring, too. For something a bit grander, try Le Cirio (8) at rue de la Bourse 18. This lavish-looking place with white-aproned waiters dates back to 1886. From there on, you're on your own, but be warned: the average alcohol content of Belgian beer is 7 per cent, so don't sip on an empty stomach.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Brussels feels like one big fast-food outlet. For a start, the Belgians sometimes claim to have invented chips, and judging by the number of outlets selling them throughout Brussels, you might begin to believe them. An enormous portion of frites costs about BF120 (pounds 1.95) and you get a suitably large dollop of some sort of sauce - usually mayonnaise - thrown in, too. If you've had your fill of fries, head to rue du Marche aux Fromages, for real (ie edible) kebabs (BF300, or about pounds 4.80, each). The kebab-shop owners here will all tell you that their gyros-filled pittas are the greatest. If you can't bring yourself to believe them, head back to the area around the Grand' Place and the stalls selling warm waffles for BF60 (95p).

WINDOW SHOPPING

The number of chocolate shops in Brussels - each one dripping with elaborate and tempting displays - means that all but those with the firmest of will powers should stay away. Never mind the calories, your pockets will quickly lose extra pounds - these confections are not cheap. If you're feeling extravagant though, head to Godiva (9) at Grand' Place 37. Make your selection from the hundreds of chocolates on offer and they will be carefully packaged for you by white-gloved sellers - for prices starting at around BF500 (pounds 8).

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Brussels is full of museums, but if you're in the mood for something fun, don't miss the Belgian Centre for Comic Strip Art (10) at rue des Sables 20 (00 322 219 19 80). Entrance costs BF200 (pounds 3.20) and will entitle you to return to your youth for a few hours in the splendour of an art nouveau building. Displays outline various aspects of strip cartoons - including the work of Herge, the Belgian creator of Tintin. Fans of Tintin will find a replica of his red-and-white rocket here but, if this doesn't satisfy your search for mementos, pop along to the Tintin shop at rue de la Colline 13 (11), which stocks books and all manner of Tintin memorabilia.

THE ICING ON THE CHRISTMAS CAKE

Christmas in Brussels centres unsurprisingly around the Grand Place which, from 10 to 19 December, plays host to a traditional Christmas market. From German gluhwein to Scandinavian glogg, and from Italian panetone to English Christmas pudding, all tastes and cultures are catered for - and all to an accompaniment of folk music and Christmas carols to get you in the festive mood. This year's market has a Finnish theme and the country's giant fir tree will stand twinkling in the centre of the square.

TAKE A RIDE

... to the top of the Atomium (18) at blvd du Centenaire. This bizarre structure (a model of an iron molecule, enlarged 165 billion times) is a somewhat shabby space-age leftover from the 1958 World Fair, and was designed by engineer Andre Waterkeyn. Now a city icon, visitors can take the elevator to the top ball (102m up) to view the city from above. It is open daily from 10am to 6pm and admission costs BF200 (pounds 3.30).

BRACING BRUNCH

Build up an appetite or work off a hangover at the Grand' Place, where an ice-rink is installed for a few weeks in December. After a few graceful swirls - or clumsy falls - visit Flavours of the World (17) at passage du Nord 14-18 to regain your composure. The city's first bagel store sells filled bagels for BF150 (pounds 2.40) or pasta dishes (BF310, about pounds 5) for those who need something more substantial.

SUNDAY MORNING

Take a stroll to Brussels' oldest place of worship, the Church of Notre- Dame de la Chapelle (15) at rue des Ursulines 4. Founded in 1134 and built in Romanesque-Gothic style, Sunday morning mass takes place at 11am. Slightly more out-of-the-way, the Cathedral of Saints Michel and Gudule (16) is named after Brussels' male and female patron saints and sits on the hillside to the north of Gare Centrale. Open daily from 8am to 6pm, the cathedral took more than 300 years to construct, which shows in its blend of architectural styles.

DEMURE DINNER

Lining the rue des Bouchers are rows of over-priced restaurants, armed with waiters that stand outside and lure you in. One that stands back and doesn't shout out is Aux Armes de Bruxelles (13) at rue des Bouchers 13 (00 322 511 55 98). Gorge yourself on outstanding mussels or waterzooi, a local cream-based fish soup. If you'd prefer to avoid the area altogether, venture out to L'toile d'Or (14) at rue des Foulons 30 (00 322 502 60 48). The service is friendly, the food traditional (mains from around pounds 8 to pounds 12) and the portions large.

AN APERITIF

If your stomach is becoming fuller than a barrel of beer, avoid the pubs and go instead to the trendy St Gery area (12). Here a trio of cafes (the Zebra at place St Gery 33, Mappa Mundo at rue du Pont de la Carpe 2-6, and the PP Cafe at rue Van Praet 28) provide the evening's entertainment, their fashionable customers progressively spilling out on to the pavements as the evening wears on.

Comments