Brussels travel tips: Where to go and what to see in 48 hours

Belgium's capital blooms in summer, with a (floral) welcome on the mat, says Julia Buckley

Travel essentials

Why go now?

Belgium's capital comes to life in summer: café life spills out on to sunny terraces, the city's many parks are full and the Royal Palace (1) opens until September. The biennial flower carpet (flowercarpet.be), at Grand Place (2), opens at 10pm on 14 August and runs from 9am-11pm from 15-17 August.

Touch down

Eurostar (03448 224 777; eurostar.com) runs 10 daily services to Brussels Midi station (3), taking two hours from London St Pancras, or less from Ebbsfleet or Ashford, from £69 return.

Brussels International Airport (00 32 9007 0000; brusselsairport.be) is eight miles north of the city. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Heathrow, as does Brussels Airlines (0333 222 0777; brusselsairlines.com), which also flies from Bristol, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Manchester and Newcastle. Flybe (0371 700 2000; flybe.com) flies direct from Aberdeen, Kirkwall, Belfast and Manchester, while easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) flies from Gatwick.

Trains run from the airport to the Gare Central (4) in the city centre; tickets cost €8.50. If arriving by Eurostar, take a train from the Gare du Midi to Gare Central, or take metro line 3 or 4 to either Bourse (5) or De Brouckère (6). A single journey is €2.

Get your bearings

Central Brussels is divided into the Lower Town, where most sites cluster around the Grand Place and, to the east, the Upper Town on the Mont des Arts, where state buildings such as the Royal Palace (1) and the Palais de Justice (7) are ringed by a series of main thoroughfares (the designer shop-filled Waterloo Boulevard (8) is the main stretch).

Fanning out from that inner ring are trendy residential districts such as Ixelles and Chatelain, and the EU's European Quarter. The main tourist office is at the Hôtel de Ville (9) on the Grand Place (00 32 2513 8940; visitbrussels.be; visitflanders.co.uk). It's open 9am-6pm. French and Flemish are the official languages. Street names here are given in French.

Check in

As a business destination, hotel rates drop significantly at the weekend and go lower still during the summer. In a tower block overlooking the Lower Town, The Hotel (10) at Boulevard de Waterloo 38 (00 32 2504 1111; thehotel-brussels.be) is a charismatic mix of luxury, business and boutique with the best views in the city. Double rooms start from €130, room only.

Converted from a 15th-century abbey in the Lower Town, the Dominican Hotel (11) at Rue Léopold 9 (00 32 2203 0808; thedominican.be) has design-heavy rooms and a bar in the old cloister. Double rooms start from €110, room only.

A 10-minute walk west of the Grand Place, the Atlas Hotel (12) at Rue du Vieux Marché aux Grains 30 (00 32 2502 6006; atlas-hotel.be) is a stylish budget option. Doubles start at €79, including breakfast.

prague map

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Day One

Take a view

Brussels doesn't have the most inspiring skyline; but if you're viewing it from the Atomium (13) at Square de l'Atomium (00 32 2475 4775; atomium.be), it hardly matters. The emblem of the 1958 World Fair, its nine conjoined spheres shimmer over Brussels in Heysel, northwest of the Lower Town, with a panorama deck at 102 metres in the highest sphere. Entry costs €11.

Take a hike

Start at the Opera House (14) on Place de la Monnaie (from Heysel take the No 7 and 3 trams, or the No 6 and 1 metros, to De Brouckère). Follow Rue de L'Ecuyer eastwards to the Galeries Saint-Hubert (15): three conjoined Neo-Classical shopping arcades, stuffed with fashion brands and chocolate shops.

Continue straight ahead into the Grand Place (2), described by Jean Cocteau as the "finest theatre in the world" and the setting for the biennial Flower Carpet. Then head down Rue de l'Etuve to the corner of Rue de Chêne, where you'll find Brussels' most famous landmark, the Manneken-Pis (16): a statue of a naked boy urinating into a fountain, symbolising the city's contempt for authority.

Cobbled together: the Royal Palace Cobbled together: the Royal Palace (Arthur Los/ Milo-Profi) Lunch on the run

Pistolets or traditional Belgian bread rolls are on the menu at Pistolet Original (17) at Rue Joseph Stevens 24 (00 32 2880 8098; pistolet-original.be). Crab, brown shrimp and herrings are among the fillings; prices from €3.70. Nearby, Wittamer (18) at 12-13 Place du Grand Sablon (00 32 2512 3742; wittamer.com), is a café-patisserie with a royal warrant; its terrace on the pretty Place du Grand Sablon is a Brussels institution for people-watching. Salads from €18.

Window shopping

A few blocks southwest in the Marolles district is the Place du Jeu de Balle (19) fleamarket, which sells everything from vintage clothing to antique antlers (www.marcheauxpuces.be). Weekend opening hours are 6am-3pm, though some stalls pack up around 1pm.

The surrounding area is full of antique shops: among the best are Hadrien (20) at Rue Haute 202 (00 32 488 462 285), which sells clothes and furniture; and Melting Pot Kilo (21) at Rue Haute 178 (00 32 476 958 872; closed Mondays), which proffers clothing by the kilogram.

While most shops close on Sunday, those in the Marolles stay open, but often close midweek.

An aperitif

In a converted fire station, and named after French slang for a siren, Brasserie Pin Pon (22) at Place du Jeu de Balle 62 (00 32 2540 8999), serves own-label beers in a conservatory overlooking the fleamarket and a quiet courtyard behind it.

Dining with the locals

In Ixelles, Le Clan des Belges (23) at Rue de la Paix 20 (00 32 2511 1121; leclandesbelges.com), serves traditional dishes such as carbonnades flammandes (beer-laced beef stew) on buzzy Place St Boniface. Mains cost around €17.

Meanwhile, in the old town, Fin de Siècle (24) at Rue des Chartreux 9 (00 32 2512 5123) has no-nonsense Belgian food, a decent beer list and flaking Art Nouveau surroundings. Mains start at €15.

Sphere delight: great views from the Atomium Sphere delight: great views from the Atomium Day Two

Sunday morning: go to church

The Gothic cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula (25) at Place Sainte Gudule (00 32 2217 8345; cathedralestmichel.be), straddles both old and new Brussels, halfway up the Mont des Arts. For €1 you can see the underground remains of the 11th-century Romanesque church .

Take a ride

Brussels has an easy-to-use city bike scheme, Villo! (www.villo.be). A one-day subscription costs €1.60. Public transport is also easy to use, with a single fare costing €2, or a 48 hour pass €13. Take either a bike or the 94 tram south along Avenue Louise (26) to Place Marie-José (27), where there's a tram stop and a Villo! station.

Walk in the park

A block west of Place Marie-José (27), across Avenue Franklin Roosevelt, is the Bois de la Cambre (28), a vast area that's part dense forest, part manicured park, around a pretty lake and a small island. On the island, eat at Chalet Robinson (00 32 2372 9292; www.chaletrobinson.be).

Out to brunch

Garage-à-Manger (29) at 185 Rue Washington (00 32 2880 6774; garage-a-manger.be) offers an upmarket all-you-can-eat spread for €25 (10am-3pm). Or try laidback Chez Franz (30) at 30 Avenue du Haut Pont (00 32 2347 4212; chez-franz.be).

Cultural afternoon

Horta Museum (31), at 25 Rue Américaine (00 32 2543 0490; hortamuseum.be), has an extraordinary display of florid Art Nouveau. Highlights include the breathtaking cream-and-gold dining room, and the gilded staircase. Open 2pm-5.30pm daily except Monday; €8.

Icing on the cake

Slightly more tasteful than its European counterparts, though still with lashings of bling, Belgium's Royal Palace (1), in the Place du Palais (00 32 2551 2020; monarchie.be) began its summer opening last week. Entrance is free; open 10.30am-4.30pm, daily except Monday, until 7 September.

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