48 Hours In...

Brussels, Belgium

Belgium's capital is not just for MEPs. Ben Ross reveals the fashionable face of the city, stopping off for some beer and chocolate on his way round


WHY GO NOW?

Because Brussels is a very fashionable place to be. The "Mode Design Brussels 2006" event is showcasing design in a series of exhibitions. From 8-17 September many of the strands will be brought together in Design Week 2006 ( www.modedesignbrussels.be). There's also the biennial Fashion Designers' Trail, from 27-29 October, when temporary installations are put up across the city ( www.modobruxellae.be). However, if urban cool leaves you cold, don't despair: Brussels has something for lovers of beer, art nouveau, comic books and - yes - even European democracy.

TOUCH DOWN

Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) has up to nine services each day from London Waterloo and Ashford to Brussels' Gare du Midi (1). Direct services take two-and-a-quarter hours and cost from £59 return. From Gare du Midi, it's three stops on the Metro (€1.50/£1.05) to Bourse (2), the nearest station to the Grand' Place. Alternatively, BMI (08706 070 555; www.flybmi.com) flies to Brussels National from Heathrow, Leeds-Bradford, Nottingham and Edinburgh; British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow, Manchester and Edinburgh; and SN Brussels (08707 352 345; www.flysn.com ) flies from Bristol, Birmingham, Gatwick, Manchester and Newcastle. There are frequent trains (€3/£2.15) connecting the airport with the city centre.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The Grand' Place in the Lower Town is the city's focal point. Here, the Hotel de Ville's Gothic tower (3) is a useful navigational aid while you wander the city, and more detailed assistance can be obtained from the tourist office (00 32 2 513 89 40; www.belgiumtheplaceto.be) housed on the ground floor. The Mannekin Pis (4), Brussels' incontinent mascot, does what he does best slightly further south on rue de l'Etuve. To the east is the Upper Town, which is split by the majestic rue Royale. The whole of the city centre is neatly contained by a ring road (the "petit ring"). Wherever you are, Brussels does her best to help out: signposts at virtually every junction also display a tourist map.

CHECK IN

For a five-star fashion experience, head for the Royal Windsor (5) at 5 rue Duquesnoy (00 32 2 505 55 55; www.royalwindsorbrussels.com). Ten of its 226 rooms have been remodelled by Belgian fashion designers, from Kaat Tilley's womb-like creation to the muted browns and reds of Nicolas Woit's retro-chic design. Standard doubles cost from €99 (£71) at weekends including breakfast; a " fashion addict" package, with one night in a fashion room, costs from €229 (£165) including breakfast. In the Ste-Catherine district, the Welcome Hotel (6) at 38 rue du Béguinage (00 32 2 219 95 46; www.hotelwelcome.com) has style of a different kind: the decor of each of its 15 rooms is inspired by a different country. Doubles cost from €85 (£61) including breakfast. In the upper town, try the elegant 19th-century town houses that make up the Hotel du Congrès (7) at 42 rue du Congrès (00 32 2 217 18 90; www.hotelducongres.com). Doubles start at €80 (£58) including breakfast.

TAKE A HIKE

From the imposing Cathédrale de St-Michel et Ste-Gudule (8), at Place Ste-Gudule (open 8am-6pm daily, free), head up along rue Treurenberg until you hit the rue Royale. Cross over to the shady pathways of the Parc de Bruxelles. At the park's south-east corner, rejoin the rue Royale. Opposite, at 23 rue Ravenstein, is the art deco bulk of the Palais des Beaux-Arts, aka "Bozar" (9) (00 32 2 507 82 00; www.bozar.be), the city's arts centre, which hosts an India festival on 7 October. Dominating the southern end of the park is the Palais Royal (10), and beyond is Place Royale, where you'll find Brussels' fine art galleries, the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts (11) (00 32 2 508 32 11; www.fine-arts-museum.be, open 10am-5pm Tues-Sun, €5/£3.50 admission). Tuck back down rue Montagne de la Cour and gawp at No 2, the Musée des Instruments de Musique (12) (00 32 2 545 01 30; www.mim.fgov.be), a sensuous art-nouveau building. The museum is open 9.30am-5pm Tues-Fri; 10am-5pm Sat-Sun; admission €5/£3.50. The views from the sixth-floor restaurant are fantastic.

TAKE A VIEW

For a panorama that doesn't involve a lunch bill, continue south down rue de la Régence to the Palais de Justice (13), a vast edifice currently shrouded in scaffolding. From Place Poelaert, the vista back over Brussels is impressive.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Cheap and tasty set menus can be found at the maelstrom of restaurants that is rue des Bouchers (14). On the one hand, it's a bit tacky; on the other, it's full of energy and a great place to watch the world go by. Chez Léon at No 18 (00 32 2 511 14 15) is more genteel than most: a three-course set menu, including the obligatory moules-frites, will set you back €13.90 (£10).

WINDOW SHOPPING

For the fashions that are making Brussels famous, head to the boutiques of rue Antoine Dansaert (15). Stijl at number 74 (00 32 2 512 03 13) stocks cutting-edge local talent, and measures its designer labels by the square metre in a useful list on the shopfront. Alternatively, admire the lace shops that line the Galeries St-Hubert (16), a beautiful 19th-century shopping arcade.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

One art form that has always been close to Belgians' hearts is the comic strip. Murals throughout the city are testament to this affinity, and the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée (17), at 20 rue des Sables (00 32 2 219 19 80; www.brusselsbdtour.com) gives focus to what is known here as the " ninth art". Tintin, one of Belgium's most famous sons, is given pride of place, and fans will love the paraphernalia to be bought from the ground-floor shop. The museum is open 10am-6pm daily, except Monday, admission €7.50 (£5.40).

AN APERITIF

Try one of the many Belgian beers on offer at Cirio (18) at 18-20 rue de la Bourse (00 32 2 512 13 95). The interior is a sober array of dark wood, mirrors and century-old fittings. Brews start at €2.50 (£1.80).

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

For exquisite modern cuisine, head for Cospaia (19) at 1 Capitaine Crespel (00 32 2 513 03 03; www.cospaia.com) in the Ixelles district. Dark wood and bright steel abound, candles line the stairs, and its first-floor dining room has a pleasant view. A main course of filo parcels of lamb stuffed with goats cheese is €28 (£20). For a more rustic ambience, the nearby rue St-Boniface is lined with cheery Belgian bistros: try Saint Boniface (20) at number 9 (00 32 2 511 53 66), where the cassoulet costs €18 (£13).

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

Ste-Catherine (21) is a beautiful 19th-century church set in a pretty district to the east of the Lower Town. The elegant stained-glass windows inside contrast sharply with the neon lobsters suspended over the fish restaurants in the adjacent square. Open 8.30am-6pm Mon-Sat; 9am-noon on Sun day (service at 10am).

TAKE A RIDE

A €4 (£2.80) ticket gets you unlimited transport on the city's tram and underground system for a day. Use it to travel north on line 1A to Heysel station. Here, next to the ill-starred football stadium (rebuilt since the disaster of 1985), is the Atomium (00 32 2 475 47 72; www.atomium.be), a true design classic, recently reopened after a revamp. Built for the 1958 World Fair, its nine spheres (containing exhibition space and a restaurant) represent the shape of an iron crystal molecule magnified 165 billion times. Arrive early, as the queues are equally impressive; open 10am-6pm daily, entry €9 (£6.50).

OUT TO BRUNCH

It's not all high fashion down rue Antoine Dansaert (15): there are espressos (€2/£1.40) and croissants (€1.55/£1.10), too, available from the cosy Le Pain Quotidien at No 16 (00 32 2 502 23 61; www.painquotidien.com).

A WALK IN THE PARK

Parc Léopold (22) is at the beating heart of Europe. For here, looming above a pretty lake, rises the great glass edifice of the European Parliament Building. It's a humbling thought that, while you feed the ducks, vital political decisions are no doubt being taken a mere 100 yards away.

WRITE A POSTCARD

Write home from the discreet formal garden of Place du Petit Sablon (23), just off the rue Royale. Sit in the shade, and take inspiration from a bubbling fountain and a neat semicircle of noble Belgian statuary.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

Chocolate is everywhere in Brussels, but the greatest concentration of chocolatiers is found at Place du Grand Sablon (24). Try Wittamer at number 6 (00 32 2 512 3742; www.wittamer.com), which currently has a giant chocolate model of the Atomium in its window. A 500g selection of some of the finest chocs you will ever eat costs about €28 (£20).

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