A short break in... Brussels

Now that the Belgian capital is just a train ride away, only the fear of too much beer, chocolate and moules-frites could keep anyone from visiting, writes Nicola Smyth
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The Independent Travel
Why go there?

Brussels suffers from an image problem. If it's not boredom, bureaucrats and doilys, it's paedophilia, police corruption and Tintin. Finally, we are learning different word associations - forget "sprouts", think "moules-frites". Brussels is fun, friendly and as well-connected as any young city could hope to be. Stand gazing at your guidebook for more than a few seconds and you will be mobbed by enthusiastic, multilingual bruxellois desperate to offer you directions: it is the ideal place for wandering around in a self-indulgent haze of beer, chocolates and bivalve molluscs. How could the favourite haunt of so many surrealists be dull? Only a city with a sense of humour would bury its river under a main road.

When to go

The Belgian climate is generally quite mild, but the weather is as changeable as ours, so do pack your umbrella. During the winter months, highlights include the Christmas Market in the Grand' Place, the Antiques Fair and the Film Festival in January, and the Cartoon Festival in February. May is a cultural high point, with the Kunsten Arts Festival and the start of the prestigious Queen Elizabeth International Music Competition. The first Thursday of July sees the traditional Ommegang (a pageant dating from the 14th century), and later the same month, the city celebrates Belgium's National Day with a spectacular firework display.

Where to stay

L'Amigo, 1-3 rue de l'Amigo (tel: 547 4747). Its reputation, sumptuous interior and perfect location just off the Grand' Place almost justify the prices. Singles from 7,700BF, doubles from 8,900BF.

Le Dixseptieme, 25 rue de la Madeleine (tel: 502 5744). A minute or two from the Grand' Place, this small hotel has a quiet elegance that outstrips the flashier L'Amigo. Each of the 20-odd rooms is individually decorated. Singles from 6,300BF, doubles 7,100BF. Special weekend/holiday rates.

Hotel Saint-Michel, 15 Grand' Place (tel: 511 0956). As centrally located as you can be, the Saint-Michel is on the Grand' Place - a little noisy, but with a view this good, who cares? Rooms are fairly basic, but all have a bathroom. Singles with a view from 4,550BF, doubles 5,100BF. Rooms at the back are from 2,400BF for singles, 3,850BF for doubles.

La Legende, 35 rue du Lombard (tel: 512 8290). Close to Mannekin Pis but set back in its own small courtyard. A pretty, stucco-fronted building with a friendly atmosphere. Rooms are clean and good value for those on a budget. Prices from 2,300BF (single) to 2,950BF (double). Off-season rates from 1,300BF upwards.

Bed & Brussels, 2 rue Gustave Biot (tel: 646 0737). A b&b agency offering a large choice of host families to stay with. Especially good if travelling with children. Singles from 850BF, doubles from 1,470BF. Children under three stay free.

Deals and Packages

The Belgian Travel Service (tel: 01992 456156) offers packages to Brussels by air, car, rail and coach. A car trip plus two nights' accommodation costs from pounds 88 per person. There is also a wide choice of UK airports to fly from, with prices starting at pounds 193. Travelscene Eurostar (tel: 0181-427 4445) offers two-night weekend breaks from pounds 135.

Getting there

The Eurostar (tel: 0990 186186) from London's Waterloo station takes two hours and 40 minutes - fares start at pounds 79. Flights with British Midland (tel: 0845 607 1636) from Heathrow start at pounds 70, plus pounds 20 airport tax. British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) flights from Heathrow and Gatwick start at pounds 82 midweek/pounds 94 weekend return. The airport (Zaventem) is a 20-minute train ride from Brussels and there are three trains an hour into the city. The Eurostar arrives at Gare du Midi, 10 minutes by tram (numbers 52, 56 or 81) from the centre.

Getting around

Brussels is compact enough to navigate on foot without needing to use public transport too often. Make sure you wear something flat and spongy on your feet though - the cobbles can be painful. There is just one type of ticket covering the Metro, trams and buses. It costs 50BF (90p) and is valid for an hour after you stamp it. The STIB city transport plan (available from the information office at the Gare du Midi) should tell you all you need to know. If not, there is a hotline (tel: 515 2000).

What to do and see

There are lots of imaginative routes through the city besides the more standard walking, bus and cycle tours. One of the most novel is the Comic- strip Route - some 18 murals (and rising) celebrating a Belgian passion that does not stop at Tintin. If you want to see the city from underneath, you can tour the Metro stations. Famous artists were commissioned to decorate them and if you have not got time to do the full route, get a taster by popping down into the station at Bourse, with its "Moving Ceiling" by Pol Bury, and a frieze by one of Belgium's best-known surrealists, Paul Delvaux.

More conventional tours usually begin with the Grand' Place - a magnificent cobbled square which hosts a flower market by day and stages son-et-lumiere shows on summer evenings. Surrounded by gilded guildhouses with names such as the Wheelbarrow, the Bag, the Helmet and the Donkey, this is where Victor Hugo stayed and where Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto.

Gastronomes should start their tour just off the Grand' Place at Maison Dandoy. The shop, on the aptly named rue au Beurre, specialises in gingerbread and speculoos (a spicy biscuit), and is as beautiful to look at as its wares are to taste. Chocaholics should also gather to worship at the Place du Grand Sablon - an elegant square with a popular weekend antiques market and home to two of the top chocolate-makers, Wittamer and Pierre Marcolini. Eat on the spot or hide in the gardens of the Petit Sablon to gorge yourself.

Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts, 9 rue du Musee (entrance: 150BF). The museum is split into two collections - ancient and modern - both of which are well worth the ticket price. The absence of crowds in the galleries means that you can have famous works such as David's Death of Marat all to yourself. There is a large Magritte collection, of course, but there are also plenty of other interesting Belgians who have not made it in the poster market, such as Ensor, Delvaux and Khnopff.

Musee Horta, 23-25 rue Americaine (entrance 200BF). Victor Horta was one of the most famous exponents of art nouveau, and his distinctive buildings form a significant part of the Brussels landscape. His own house - now the museum - is a paean to style and elegance, each bend of the curling wooden staircase revealing a room more wonderful than the last. The house is situated in the St Gilles commune of the city and a walk down the rest of this street, or up the nearby rue Africaine, is one of the best ways to learn to love Brussels.

Manneken Pis (off rue de l'Etuve). A naked urinating boy would not be everyone's choice for a city symbol (ditto a giant silver "atomium" - Brussels' other emblem), but no stay would be complete without paying him a visit. Watching him being changed into one of his more than 600 costumes (accompanied by marching bands) is one of the city's more bizarre sights.

Food and Drink

Comme Chez Soi, 23 place Rouppe (tel: 512 2921). An art-deco interior and a reputation rivalled by none, Pierre Wynant's restaurant is the best in Brussels and consequently very hard to get a table in. If you can afford a minimum of 3,500BF (pounds 70) per head, you will not regret it.

La Sirene d'Or, 1a place Sainte-Catherine (tel: 513 5198). Famous for its mouthwatering seafood, the maritime theme is carried over into the decor which is big on mermaids' busts. Specialities include a show-stopping bouillabaisse. Set menu at 1,350BF, otherwise around 2,200BF.

Au Vieux Saint-Martin, 38 place du Grand Sablon (tel: 512 6476). A chic brasserie, visited by Clinton when he visited Brussels. Modern European food and local specialities such as waterzooi (chicken or fish stew), which features on most Brussels menus. Around 1,400BF per person.

L'Estrille du Vieux Bruxelles, 7 rue de Rollebeek (tel: 512 5857). Housed in a beautiful 16th-century red-brick building, L'Estrille is not the place to visit if you are a herbivore. The set menus (from 960BF-1320BF) are great value for money, but choice is fairly limited.

Chez Leon, 18 rue des Bouchers (tel: 511 1415). At the end of the most restaurant-riddled street in Brussels, this one is the cheapest by far. Big plates of mussels and chips, and even a vegetarian option. Also frequented by a very well-fed cat, openly flouting every EU food-hygiene regulation ever passed. Around 700BF per person.

Night life

This revolves around two things - bars and beers. Both are available until dawn, with some bars offering more than 200 varieties of beer. Order a gueuze or a kriek if you want to try the local brew. Choosing your bar is just as difficult, but you could start from the Bourse (Stock Exchange), which has two of the most famous establishments - Le Cirio and Falstaff - on either side of it. Le Cirio's speciality is the half- en-half (champagne and white wine) and the decadence of the surroundings chimes in well with the drink. Falstaff has an impressive selection of beers, as well as some above-average food, and the interior (a collaboration between arts deco and nouveau) is stunning. Moving on to the Grand' Place, you can compare and contrast two other classics: La Chaloupe d'Or and Le Roy d'Espagne. The latter (like Le Cirio) was a favourite of Magritte's, and the puppets dangling from the beams are aptly surreal.

Out of town

Antwerp, the closest of Flanders's other major cities, is only half an hour away by train (a day-return costs 390BF), and it provides a good contrast with Brussels - it has a river you can see (the Scheldt), is exclusively Flemish-speaking, and produced a Rubens rather than a Magritte. The city is dominated by the Old Master - as well as visiting where he was born (Rubenshuis) and where he was buried (St Jacobs), you can see four of his finest works in the cathedral. The Grote Market, a few steps away, and the network of narrow cobbled streets radiating out from it, are a perfect foil to the more cosmopolitan attractions of the cutting- edge designer stores lining the Meir.

Further information

Tourism Flanders (tel: 0891 887799, calls cost 50p per minute). In Brussels, the tourist office is on the Grand' Place (tel: 513 8940). The Bulletin - an English-language weekly - has a handy pull-out, What's On.

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