Off Duty: Brussels

You'll never say belgium is boring again


Why?


Just because Brussels isn’t Paris, Berlin or Amsterdam, the assumption is often made that it’s completely eclipsed by these larger neighbours. But the capital city of Europe is a fun, friendly place, accessible on foot and devoted to food. Art is big in Brussels.

In a city with two official languages, music, painting, sculpture and the graphic novel have helped the French-speaking Walloons and the Dutch-speaking Flemish find a creative common ground. Currently, there’s a major retrospective about painter Paul Klee at BOZAR ( bozar.be). This exhibition is being mounted with the assistance of the conductor Pierre Boulez, who is also a Klee expert. That kind of imaginative crossover is very Brussels.

At the end of April there will be a rare opportunity to see the Royal Greenhouses at Laeken ( monarchie.be/en/visit/greenhouse) just outside Brussels (19 April-12 May). When they opened in 1895, the king thought them so beautiful he initially moved the royal chapel inside. The new Dinosaur Gallery at the Natural Science Museum opened last autumn ( naturalsciences.be/museum) and is now the largest dino exhibit in Europe.

You don’t come to Brussels to shop, unless it’s for Belgian lace or chocolate. The small, exquisitely decorated chocolateries of Galler and Neuhaus, Godiva and Cote d’Or, Marcolini and Meurisse are irresistible.

What?

The architectural splendour of Grand Place is unmissable, a perfect place to drink coffee or a beer and get your fill of this riot of civic baroque architecture. Alternatively, enjoy the illumination of the Gothic town hall in Grand Place in the evening. Not far from here lie the chic Galeries St-Hubert, opened in 1837 as the biggest shopping centre in Europe.

BOZAR ( bozar.be) is one of the last mega-architecture projects by Victor Horta, the man who invented Art Nouveau architecture. It has been an arts centre since 1928.

The Cartoon Museum, Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée ( stripmuseum.be) is also by Horta (though he designed it as a department store). It’s a great place to enjoy the cartoon strip, one of Belgium’s great 20th-century art forms.

The city is divided into an Upper and Lower town and you can walk between the two easily. Don’t bother with public transport.

The Lower Town is where the city started a thousand years ago. When the aristocracy moved up on to Coudenberg Hill it became the money-making centre. Today, it’s a place for shopping, pubs, jazz and late-night entertainment.

Upper Town and the Royal Quarter is where all the palaces and most of the museums are located. You can see Adolphe Sax’s prototype saxophone at the Musée des Instruments de Musique ( mim.fgov.be) and by the end of the year there will be a new Magritte gallery in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts ( fine-arts-museum.be).

Where?

The classic rotundity of the Bruxellois attests to the fact that eating and drinking are major activities in this city. Rue des Bouchers is crammed with tables and chairs and used to literally be the street of butchers’ shops. Now it’s the best place to enjoy the great Belgian dish of moules et frites. Brussels used to be a river port and the area around Place Sainte-Catherine was where fresh fish was traditionally unloaded. There have been fish restaurants down here since the Middle Ages. Among the best is Vismet (00 32 2 218 8545) .

Among the trendier eating places, Belga Queen ( belgaqueen.be) in a sturdy old bank has great over-the-top style and what appear to be transparent cubicles in the lavatories (they turn opaque when you lock the door). Owner Antoine Pinto is one of Europe’s top 100 chefs, so booking is essential.

Chocolate and beer are two of the best exports from Brussels. For the former go to Neuhaus in Galeries Hubert or Grand Place, and for great beer drink yourself silly in style at L’Archiduc ( archiduc.net/home.html) an Art Deco hostelry close to the Bourse. You’ll find yourself in the company of jazz musicians and serious cocktail drinkers.

For somewhere to sleep, the Hotel Amigo ( hotelamigo.com), designed for Rocco Forte by his sister, Olga Polizzi, is hard to beat. It’s central (just off Grand Place), stylish and friendly. The Bocconi restaurant features first-class Italian and Mediterranean food under the direction of executive chef Giuseppe Colella.

For old Belle Epoque charm take a look at Hotel Metropole ( metropolehotel.com), but just to eat a snack in the stupendous Café Metropole, which recalls the days when the King of the Belgians subsidised the city from his own African colony. The bedrooms are modern, dull and cramped. This is a hotel for its public areas only.

Recently opened, The Dominican ( thedominican.be) is behind the façade of painter Jacques-Louis David’s house and is the first Design Hotel in Belgium.

Wow!

To realise how seriously Brussels takes Bande Dessinée take the Cartoon Trail round the city. The gable ends of more than 30 buildings have been carefully painted as scenes from Belgian cartoons and graphic novels. Some actually show the street in front of you as it was recreated in graphic form. No city apart from New York has appeared in so many cartoon books.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss