48 Hours In: Brussels

The political heart of Europe is anything but grey. Sam Archer discovers colourful Art Nouveau buildings, bustling markets and some great places to eat

This year is the 175th anniversary of the kingdom of Belgium, an uneasy alliance between the French-speaking Walloons and the Flemish. Brussels is the most cosmopolitan of European capitals, and its calm yet quirky ambience makes for a pleasurable weekend of antiques shopping, admiring the Art Nouveau and Deco architecture, and hopping between the many cosy bars, pubs and coffee houses.

TOUCH DOWN

Eurostar (www.eurostar.com; 08705 186186) is your best bet from London. It has up to nine services from Waterloo to Brussels daily, taking two-and-a-quarter hours to reach Brussels' Gare du Midi and costs from £59 return. At the Gare du Midi, join the queue for a taxi into the centre; around €14 (£10). Otherwise, it is a 20-minute metro ride to Bourse (€1.50/£1), the closest stop to the Grand' Place.

SN Brussels Airlines (www.flysn.com; 0870 735 23 45) flies from Bristol (from £154 return), Birmingham (from £115), Gatwick (from £82), Manchester (from £134) and Newcastle (from £152). Alternatively, VLM (www.flyvlm.com, 0161-493 3232) flies from London City (from £129 return), with connections from Liverpool and Manchester.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The city is split into the Lower and Upper towns and enclosed by a ring road ("Le Petit Ring"). Its cultural heart is the medieval market square of the Grand' Place, where you will find the Brussels tourist office (00 32 2 513 8940) in the Hôtel de Ville . For an overview of the region, visit the Tourism Flanders website at www.visitflanders.co.uk. On arrival, grab a copy of the listings magazine Agenda, available at restaurants and cafés around the city. It has excellent reviews of new and off-the-beaten-track bars, pubs and nightlife.

CHECK IN

Rock stars and royalty alike opt for the chic, unfussy rooms of the Hotel Amigo at rue de l'Amigo 1-3 (00 32 2 547 4747; www.hotelamigo.com). Its main selling-point is the superb location, in a relatively quiet street behind the Grand' Place and next to the cheeky Manneken-Pis statue. Doubles from €195 (£132), room only.

Only six minutes' walk from the Grand' Place, at 5 rue du Peuplier, Brussels' Welcome Hotel (00 32 2 219 9546, www.hotelwelcome.com) has 15 rooms, each kitted out in the style of a different country (India, Bali, Congo, and so on). Doubles from €95 (£64), including breakfast.

If you prefer the charm of chintz to humdrum minimalism, Hotel Noga at rue du Béguinage 38 (00 32 2 218 6763; www.nogahotel.com) is for you. Centrally located, it has bags of charm and, like the Welcome, is in the leafy Sainte-Catherine district. Doubles from €80 (£54), including breakfast.

TAKE A HIKE

You could spend the good part of an hour in the Grand' Place alone, admiring the Hôtel de Ville (00 32 2 279 4365, guided tours Tues-Wed 2.30pm), the Maison du Roi, and the detailed and gilded Italo-Flemish façades. Founded in 1421, it has seen jousting tournaments for the Dukes of Brabant and Burgundy and battles with the French, who destroyed it in 1695. It was quickly rebuilt with the aid of the city's guilds, including archers, bakers and brewers, whose emblems can be seen to this day. At the blackened arcade of No 8 is the figure of Everard 't Serclaes, a brave burgher who died defending the city in 1356; stroking his golden limbs is said to bring good luck. Walk up rue de l'Etuve, past the lace and chocolate shops, to the Manneken-Pis , the city's little mascot. Turn left into Rue du Chêne, where you will find the Fondation Jacques Brel (00 32 2 511 10-20, Tues-Sun 10am-5pm), a homage to the great Belgian singer. Follow the road round to Place Saint-Jean, then turn right into Place de l'Albertine, and the Mont des Arts, seat of all things cultural.

TAKE A VIEW

For an unsurpassed daytime view over the lower city, take the lift to the top-floor café of the Musée des Instruments de Musique (MIM) at the rue Montagne de la Cour 2 (00 32 2 502 9508; www.mim.fgov.be; closed Monday). Enjoy a glass of rosé on the terrace, or try the popular Sunday brunch, 10-11.30am.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

With an overhaul in 2002, and a cute new name, Bozar, the Palais des Beaux-Arts at rue Ravenstein 23 (00 32 2 507 8444; www.bozar.be) has again become the centre of cultural activity in the capital, hosting a lively calendar of theatre, film, dance, concerts and exhibitions. A current highlight is the Russian show, From Tsar to Emperor (entry €9/£6, to 22 January 2006), which features some superb icons, a bejewelled crown of Ivan the Terrible, and a gallery of portraits of the lucky "favourites" of Catherine the Great.

WINDOW SHOPPING

For some of Europe's best antiques, head to the parallel streets of Rue Haute and Rue Blaes in the Marolles district. At the end of the latter every day (6am-2pm) on the Place du Jeu-de-Balle is a flea market for dedicated bargain-hunters. Back at the Place du Grand Sablon, at No 39 you'll find Pierre Marcolini (00 32 2 514 1206) one of only four maître chocolatiers in Europe. A box of his chocolates - including Earl Grey tea and orange and thyme flavours - starts at €13 (£9).

LUNCH ON THE RUN

If you've had your fill of objets d'art, head to Le Perroquet on rue Watteau 31 (00 32 2 512 9922), which has a range of pitta pockets, pasta and salads from €5 (£3.40). Admire the Art Nouveau decor while you sip a kir.

AN APERITIF

Back downtown at rue des Chartreux 7, the Taverne Greenwich (00 32 2 511 4167) was a favourite haunt of the great Surrealist artist René Magritte, and is now a chic pub for the chess-playing arty set. As if to seal its PC-credentials, it is currently advertising for female bar staff - but they must be over the age of 35.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

Top of the list must be Belga Queen (rue Fossé-aux-Loups 32 (00 32 2 2217 2187; www.belga queen.be), a former bank whose beautiful arched skylight now eavesdrops on the murmurings of diners from the worlds of politics, media and business. The menu features several Belgian specialities using local ingredients and often cooked in Belgian beer. In the oyster bar, the shellfish platter (€31/£21) is ample for two mildly peckish individuals.

In the lively Ixelles district, L'Ultime Atome on 14 rue St-Boniface (00 32 2 511 1367; www.ultimeatome.be) is a buzzy, busy brasserie that opens 11am-1.30am. Main courses from €7 (£4.70).

In the same district, at the rue de l'Aqueduc 95, Tan (00 32 2 537 8787) is a shrine to "living food", which means organic meals cooked at low temperature to retain nutrients, several varieties of mineral water and no bread. Ideal for the non-smoking fortysomething women on permanent detox. In the Saint-Gilles district, meanwhile, Inada (00 32 2 5380 113), at rue de la Source 73, is the brainchild of the eponymous Japanese chef who has 20 years' experience in French cuisine - and a decadent mix of Zen and baroque cooking styles. Somewhat inconveniently, it's closed on Saturday at lunchtime, Sunday and Monday.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

South-west of the Royal Quarter is one of Belgium's Gothic masterpieces. Dating from the 15th century, Notre-Dame du Sablon at 38 rue de la Régence (00 32 2 511 5741) is currently shrouded in scaffolding, but it boasts an intricately carved stone porch and spectacular 14m-high stained-glass windows. Mass is celebrated at 11am on Sunday; visiting hours are Monday-Saturday 9am-7pm, when guided tours are available on request.

WRITE A POSTCARD

In front of the Palais d'Egmont (used by the Foreign Ministry) is the place du Petit Sablon , with its elegant little garden that is a haven from urban life, with its miniature rose bushes, lavender, holly, topiary beds and fountains. It is enclosed by wrought-iron railings and statues of burghers representing all the ancient guilds of the city.

OUT TO BRUNCH

A petit noir and a cigarette is the preferred kick-start for many Bruxellois, but if your hotel's spread doesn't satisfy, then drop in at Bla-Bla & Gallery , 55 rue des Capucins (00 32 2 503 5918), on your way to the flea market and antique shops. The small café in the shadow of the Palais de Justice does a storming brunch every Sunday from 11am-3pm; from €15.50 (£10.50).

A WALK IN THE PARK

In Roman times, Brussels was nothing but marshes, but the vast Forêt de Soignes to the south was an important source of fuel and iron ore. These days, a portion of it, the Bois de la Cambre, is the weekend haunt of families, in-line skaters and cyclists. Take trams 93 or 94 south from Notre-Dame du Sablon.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

Whether for a preprandial tipple or late-night lounging, L'archiduc (00 32 2 512 0652; www.archiduc.net) at rue Antoine-Dansaert 6, is something of an institution in the revamped St-Géry quarter. Try a favourite Brussels aperitif, the half-en-half (half-white wine, half-champagne), in an Art Deco armchair, or retire to the balcony overlooking the "stage" for some top-class jazz. Open from 5pm till late; cover charge for jazz concerts on Sunday.

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