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.
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).
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.
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.