48 hours in: Brussels, Belgium
With a brand new Magritte Museum opening its doors this week, now is the time to visit the Belgian capital and indulge in culture, shopping or, of course, chocolate
Saturday 30 May 2009
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Why go now?
Catch the Belgian capital in party spirit. The city is currently celebrating The Year of the Comic Strip (from Hergé to Jijé, more than 700 artists turned Brussels into the capital of comic-book heroes). Next Tuesday also sees the opening of a remarkable museum. The Magritte Museum (1) at Place Royale showcases more than 200 works by the Belgian master of Surrealism. Painter, illustrator, photographer, engraver and film-maker, René Magritte attended art school in Brussels and lived in the city most of his life (1898-1967), his cool graphic paintings famously challenging the viewer's perception of art and reality.
If you're setting out from the south of Britain, by far the most convenient way of reaching Brussels is by rail on Eurostar (08705 186 186; eurostar.com), which offers 10 daily services from London St Pancras to Brussels Gare du Midi (2), taking two hours or less. Return fares start at £59, and are valid to and from any Belgian station on the day of travel.
Alternatively, British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Gatwick and Heathrow; BMI (0870 6070 555; flybmi.com) from Edinburgh, Heathrow, Leeds, Manchester and Nottingham; Brussels Airlines (0905 6095 609; brusselsairlines.co.uk) from Birmingham, Bristol, Gatwick, Manchester and Newcastle; and Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) from Manchester and Southampton. There are frequent trains from the airport to the city's Nord (3), Central (4) and Midi (2) stations; the 20-to- 30-minute journey costs €3.
Get your bearings
Brussels is surprisingly small. The inner city is easily navigable on foot, with most tourist areas well signposted. The efficient metro and tram service will whisk you to neighbourhoods further afield. All streets have Flemish and French names, but for ease of reference French names are given here.
The central area is defined and encompassed by ring roads that stand moreorless in place of the old city walls. Over to the east, beyond this ancient heart, lies the European quarter; while on the south-west fringe of the centre is the Gare du Midi (2).
At heart of the city is the Grand-Place (5), lined with gloriously ornamented guildhalls, and location for a tourist office, open Monday to Saturday 9am-6pm and on Sunday 10am-2pm. Another, the Brussels Info Place (6) at Rue Royale 2-4, is open daily between 10am-6pm. For more details on the city, call the Brussels Tourist Board on 00 32 2 513 8940, the Belgian Tourist Office for Brussels and Wallonia on 020-7531 0390 or visit belgiumthe placeto.be.
A Brussels Card, giving access to 30 of the city's best museums and providing free transport on the metro, tram and bus networks, is available at the tourist offices and online (brusselscard.be). It costs €20 for 24 hours, €28 for 48 hours and €33 for 72 hours.
For luxury and location you cannot improve on Hotel Amigo (7) at Rue de L'Amigo 1-2 (00 32 2 547 4747; rocco fortecollection.com). Just off the Grand-Place, this is a Brussels institution. It was acquired by Rocco Forte in 2000 and beautifully refurbished by his sister, the designer and hotelier Olga Polizzi. She has incorporated aspects of Brussels' considerable creative and artistic achievements throughout the property – big wooden apples and pears in the bedrooms, for example, are a nod to Magritte, while framed Tintin pictures hang in the bathrooms. Double rooms from €179 without breakfast. A special Magritte package is on offer, which includes tickets to the Magritte museum, a copy of the exhibition book and a Magritte umbrella. The price, from €293 for two people sharing, also covers a welcome cocktail and buffet breakfast.
If a trendy, boutique establishment is more your style, head over to Pacific Hotel (8) at Rue Antoine Dansaert 57 (00 32 2 213 0080; hotelcafepacific.com). Set over five floors of an Art Nouveau building, it has just 13 rooms, each very individually styled, and a lively bar on the ground floor. Doubles cost from €159 including breakfast.
Take a view
Gaze out over the city from Place Poelaert (9) in front of Brussels' imposing law courts. On the north side of the square a glass lift (operating from around 7am until 11pm; free) takes you down to the street below, and presents a magnificent panorama on the way.
Brussels' main shopping area is around Avenue Louise just beyond the ring road to the south and here you'll find the department store Innovation (10) (Inno), the flagship outlet of Belgian chain Chine (at 82 Avenue Louise) and international stores such as Hugo Boss. For a good choice of Belgian designers head north to Rue Antoine Dansaert (11): Olivier Strelli is at number 44, Nicholas Woit is at number 80.
Chocolates are sold almost everywhere in the city, but for a sublime range make for Place du Grand Sablon (12), one of the loveliest of Brussels' squares. Wittamer, Neuhaus and Pierre Marcolini are among the chocolatiers here. The area is also famous for its beautiful antiques shops.
For bric-a-brac bargains go west to Rue Haute, Rue Blaes and the morning market at Place du Jeu de Balle (13).
Lunch on the run
Grab a quick bite at the old fish market area around the pretty square of Sainte-Catherine (14). Sit at the outdoor tables of Brussels Resto at 3 Place Sainte-Catherine (00 32 2 502 3573; brusselsresto.be) where a dish of moules with a glass of beer costs €12.50; or stand at the bar of Poissonnière ABC (15) (00 32 2 512 7547) at Rue Sainte Catherine 46: a dish of prawns and chips at this stall costs €7.
From Tintin to the Smurfs and Lucky Luke, see Belgium's comic strip icons at the Centre Belge de la Bande (16) at Rue des Sables 20 (00 32 2 219 19 80; comicscentre.net; open 10am-6pm daily except Monday, €7.50). The building itself is well worth a visit: a former draper's store designed by seminal Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta.
A walk in the park
Stroll the gardens of Parc du Cinquantenaire – complete with majestic triumphal arch. The park was laid out in 1880 to mark the 50th anniversary of Belgium's independence. It lies to the east of the European quarter and is reached by metro to Merode station.
A haunt of Magritte and other Surrealists, La Fleur en Papier Doré (17) at Rue des Alexiens 55 (00 32 2 511 1659; open Tues-Sat 11am-midnight and Sun 11am-7pm) creaks with atmosphere and memorabilia. Belgian beers are the main attraction, and include Geuze Boon at €4.50 for a 37.5cl glass.
Dining with the locals
Brasserie Roue D'or (18) at Rue des Chapeliers 6 (00 32 2 514 25 54) is a bustling restaurant with fine Belle Epoque furnishings and walls painted with Magritte-style murals – clouds on the ceiling, men in bowler hats looking down from the cornices. It serves well-priced Belgian and French cuisine (the likes of Waterzooi de Poissons, a sort of fish stew, at €24, and Saucisson de Lyon aux Lentilles at €15) to appreciative locals.
Sunday morning: go to church
The recent completion of renovations has seen the wonderful Gothic church of Notre Dame du Sablon (19) restored to sublime glory (open daily 9am-6pm; free admission). The interior is particularly notable for its wall paintings and fine stained-glass windows. Sunday mass is at noon and at 6pm.
Out to brunch
Mokafe (20) at Galerie du Roi 9 (00 32 2 511 7870) in the Galeries St Hubert is a charming café, open daily from 8am and serving Belgian specialities such as Stoemp Saucisse (stoemp is a purée of potatoes and vegetables) at €8.50. It also offers a tempting range of waffles and gateaux.
Take a hike
For a walk that takes in surrealist aspects of Brussels, start at the south-west edge of the Grand-Place (5) outside Brasserie de l'Ommegang. Gaze at the splendid guildhall facades then turn around to read the plaque to the right of the restaurant's entrance. Between 1845 and 1848 Karl Marx lived on the top floor of the building – about 70 years later Marx's ideology was to be a major influence on Magritte and other Surrealists. Walk across the wide cobbled square to the north-east corner and down Rue au Beurre which leads to the large and lavishly ornamented late 19th-century Bourse (21) – still in operation as the Brussels Stock Exchange. Head down Rue de la Bourse and stop at number 18 for a coffee at the wonderful Belle Epoque Le Cirio (22).
Continue to Boulevard Anspach, built in the 19th century over Brussels' River Senne which, in somewhat surreal mode, continues to flow far beneath it. Take the entrance into the Bourse subway (23). As at many of Brussels' metro stations it is decorated with a notable work of art: as you pass under Boulevard Anspach, pause by the dreamy surrealist-style painting Nos Vieux Trams Bruxellois by Magritte's near-contemporary Paul Delvaux. Take the exit to Rue J van Praet and walk down this street to the old covered market (24) at St Géry, now a café and hall for (free) exhibitions on Brussels (open 11am until 8pm).
Turn right into Pont de la Carpe and the second left turning into Rue des Chartreux: Greenwich Café (25) at number 7 (closed Mondays) is where Magritte used to play chess, and locals today continue the tradition.
Keep going down this street, lined with art shops and funky boutiques, to the first intersection, the location for a bronze statue of a peeing dog (26): the locals' wacky take on the Mannekin Pis is called Zinneke Pis – zinneke being Brussels' dialect for mongrel.
Turn right into Rue de Vieux Marché aux Grains towards the old fish market area around the 19th-century church of Sainte-Catherine (27). Follow Rue Sainte-Catherine to the left and continue straight over to Rue Marche aux Poulets then cross back over Boulevard Anspach and keep straight on up Rue Marche aux Herbes, which is awash with little shops.
On your left at the end of the street is the entrance to the elegant Galeries St-Hubert (28), built in 1846 and said to be Europe's earliest shopping arcade. Continue up Rue de la Madeleine, over Place de L'Albertine (29) and through the small, formal gardens of Mont des Arts. Walk up Rue Mont de la Cour and continue to Place Royale where on your right you'll find the brand new Magritte Museum (1).
The icing on the cake
Explore the three floors of the Magritte Museum (1) (00 32 2 428 26 26; museé-magritte-museum.be) where exhibits range from the artist's early posters to his "mystery" works such as The Empire of Lights (1954) and Sky Bird (1966). It opens 10am-5pm daily except Monday (Wednesday to 8pm), €8. Or buy a combined ticket for entrance also to the Museums of Modern and Ancient Art next door, €13.
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