48 Hours: Brussels
Belgium's capital is easy to reach and explore, and full of cultural, gastronomic and architectural treats.
Saturday 05 February 2011
Why go now?
There are always reasons to be enticed by the Belgian capital, but the end of this month presents an added chance to immerse yourself in some culture. On 26 February, Museum Night Fever ( museumnightfever.be) hits the city, and 19 of the main museums will open from 7pm until 1am – with guided tours, workshops and entertainment, plus shuttle buses to take you from one venue to another. And if you still have the energy, there will be an afterparty at Bozar (1), the lively arts centre on Rue Ravenstein. Everything is covered by a single ticket, available in advance for €8 from participating museums or online from bozar.be, or for €12 on the night.
Eurostar (08432 186 186; eurostar.com) has nine daily trains to Brussels Midi station (2), taking less than two hours from London St Pancras and even less from Ebbsfleet, from £69 return.
BMI (0844 8484 888; flybmi.com) and its partner Brussels Airlines (00 32 2 723 2345; brusselsairlines.com) flies from Birmingham, Bristol, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Heathrow, Leeds/Bradford, Manchester and Newcastle; British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow; and Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) from Manchester and Southampton. Trains depart frequently from the airport station and stop at both Midi and Central (3) stations; the journey takes 20 to 30 minutes, and costs €5.10 one way.
Get your bearings
Central Brussels consists of the lower town, whose focal point is the Grand'-Place (4), and the upper town containing the royal palace (5), parliament (6) and other state institutions. The tourist office (7) is in the lower town at 2-4 Rue Royale (00 32 2 563 6399; biponline.be) and opens 10am-6pm daily. Here you can buy a Brussels Card, ( brusselscard.be) affording entry to more than 30 of the city's museums, unlimited travel by bus, metro and tram, and discounts at a number of shops, restaurants and attractions. The card costs €24 for 24 hours or €34 for 48 hours. Central Brussels is enclosed within the inner ring road, outside which are a number of suburbs, including the European quarter where all the main EU buildings are located. Two official languages are spoken in Brussels, French and Flemish; street names are given here in their French version.
Odette en Ville (8) is a chic boutique hotel tucked away at 25 Rue du Chatelain, a quiet street off Avenue Louise (00 32 2 640 2626; chez-odette.com) within easy reach of trams to the city centre; doubles from €250, with an extra €25 for breakfast.
The friendly, family-run Vintage Hotel (9) at Rue Dejoncker 45 (00 32 2 533 9980; vintagehotel.be) is a recent addition to the hotel scene, decorated in homage to the 1960s and 70s. Doubles from €90, including breakfast.
In the Marolles district, the pleasant, well-located Hotel Galia (10) at 15-16 Place du Jeu de Balle (00 32 2 502 4243; hotelgalia.com) has doubles from €75, including breakfast.
Take a ride
Like many other cities, Brussels has installed ranks of bicycles for residents and visitors to hire for short periods; given the compact nature of the city, they provide an ideal way to explore. The Villo bikes ( villo.be) are yellow, and can be found in 180 locations around the city. Buy a one-day card for €1.50 at any terminal with a card reader, then follow the instructions to take your bike from the stand. The first half-hour is free, the next costs €0.50, and charges increase the longer you keep the bike.
For the traditional Brussels souvenir, chocolate, head to the Place du Grand Sablon (11), where all the tastiest names – Leonidas, Wittamer, Neuhaus and, most luxurious, Pierre Marcolini – are found.
Every weekend a market held in front of the church sells bric-a-brac and antiques. For design head to Rue Antoine Dansaert, which has become the centre of the Brussels fashion industry. Among the stores to seek out is Stijl (12) at number 74, showcasing a number of cutting-edge designers. Normal shopping hours are 10am-7pm.
Lunch on the run
At the bottom end of Rue Dansaert is the original branch of the now world-wide chain, Le Pain Quotidien (13), serving soups, sandwiches and salads, a tiny place that is often crammed with people. An alternative is Via Via (14) on the Quai à la Houille, where the dish of the day costs €9.50.
Brussels was the adopted home of René Magritte, who came to study here at the age of 18, and remained in the city for much of his life. More than 200 of his paintings, drawings and sculptures are on display in the Magritte Museum (15), in a striking neo-classical building on Place Royale (00 32 2 508 3211; musee-magritte-museum.be; open 10am-5pm daily except Monday; Tuesdays and Wednesdays to 8pm; admission €8).
To find out about Magritte in more domestic surroundings, take tram number 94 from outside the museum to the suburb of Jette and visit the house at 135 Rue Esseghem (00 32 2 428 2626; magrittemuseum.be) where he lived for more than two decades with his wife Georgette, and where he had a studio.
The walls of the sitting room are painted in the sky blue colour that appears in many of Magritte's works, and many features of the rooms, including doors, windows and a fireplace, feature in his paintings.
The house opens from Wednesday to Sunday 10am-6pm, admission €7.
The Flat (16) at 12 Rue de la Pépinière, is a sort of home-from-home – at least in the sense that this is a bar where you can drink in rooms furnished like an apartment – so if you like to sup your cocktails in the kitchen or the bathroom, this is the place to go. If you prefer a Belgian beer, L'Ultime Atome (17), in the lively surroundings of Rue Saint-Boniface, is always a good choice.
Dining with the locals
The Bozar Brasserie (1) (00 32 2 503 00 00; bozar.be), which opened just before Christmas, is currently the place to eat, so reservations are recommended. The chef is David Martin, well-known in the city for his Michelin-starred restaurant, La Paix, in the Brussels suburb of Anderlecht. His new brasserie is on Rue Ravenstein in the extravagant Bozar building, formerly the Palais des Beaux-Arts. It opens noon-11pm daily.
Sunday morning: go to church
Perched on a small hill, the gothic Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudule (18) would once have dominated the medieval skyline. Building began in the early 13th century and was finished over the course of 300 years. A restoration completed some 10 years ago shows off the beautiful stone carvings and elaborate wooden pulpit inside.
Out to brunch
Brunch has become very popular in Brussels; one of the most copious spreads is offered in the cafe at the Bla Bla Gallery (19) on Rue des Capucins (00 32 2 503 5918; blablagallery.com). Stick to traditional breakfast dishes and pay €15.50 for your meal, or add in a hot dish, salad and dessert for €22.50.
Take a hike
This tour explores Brussels' eclectic mix of architecture. The Art Nouveau movement began here, and several fine buildings from this period remain. Start at Merode metro station (20), and look first at the Maison Cauchie (21), a block away to your left. This was designed by Paul Cauchie, an important Art Nouveau architect, and the facade of the tall, thin building is covered with sgraffiti: figures which are carved into the stone, but appear to have been painted. If you are visiting on the first weekend of the month you will be able to get inside; the house opens 10am-1pm and 2-5.30pm, admission €5.
From here, walk across the Cinquantenaire Park, laid out in 1880 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Belgian independence. On either side of the main avenue are museums, devoted to Art and History (22), and to the Army (23). In the far corner of the park, a small pavilion (24) designed by Victor Horta, one of the main exponents of the Art Nouveau movement, is being restored.
Leave the park by the exit nearest to the Pavilion and head down to Square Ambiorix (25). On the north side is one of the most striking buildings in Brussels, the house built for the artist Georges Saint-Cyr. Although the ground floor is temporarily shrouded in scaffolding, you can still admire the elaborate tracery and wrought ironwork around the upper window.
Further down on Avenue Palmerston is Horta's Hotel van Eetvelde (26), whose facade, with its industrial-style steel and glass exterior, was revolutionary when it was built in 1895.
Walk south and west, through Brussels Park, designed in the 18th century in a formal French style, with the elegant facades of the Royal Palace (5) and the Belgian Parliament (6) facing each other.
Finish at another Art Nouveau building, once the Old England department store, now the Musical Instruments Museum (27) (00 32 2 545 0130; mim.be; 9.30am-5pm Tuesday-Friday, from 10am at weekends; €5).
Take a view
The Rooftop Café inside the Musical Instruments Museum (27) has a great view over the city centre. For a different perspective, take metro line 6 to Heysel (€1.70) and exit at the Atomium (28), a silvery representation of an iron molecule – a landmark on the Brussels skyline and also the best place from which to get a view of the city. Five of its nine spheres are open to the public, and the panoramic view can be seen from the highest one. Others contain a permanent exhibition about the 1958 World's Fair, for which the Atomium was built, as well as temporary exhibits. Open 10am-6pm, €11.
A walk in the park
Stretching out beyond the Atomium is an area of parkland. At its heart is the Parc de Laeken, a pleasant space which contains the residence of the royal family as well as a Japanese pagoda and Chinese pavilion. Several metro stations along the edge of the park are on line 6, which will take you back to the city centre.
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