Explore a treasure trove
Ancient yet thoroughly modern, industrial and now also vibrantly arty, Liège is an appealingly energetic city surrounded by wooded hills and bisected by the River Meuse.
While its formal history has been traced back to Roman times, evidence of a prehistoric settlement has also been found here. In the course of its long history the city has been a medieval pilgrimage site (to the chapel of St Lambert, martyred bishop of Tongres-Maastricht), a political powerbase, a manufacturing centre, and now, with more than 15 museums and galleries, a dynamic place of culture. You’ll see some of Liège’s greatest riches in Le Grand Curtius museum (00 32 42 221 68 17; grandcurtiusliege.be; closed Tuesdays; adults €9) at 136 Feronstree. Originally containing the town’s collection of archaeological finds and decorative arts, it has recently been expanded.
Here you will now also see displays of glassware, weaponry and religious art aswell as many examples of the wonderful Mosan art of the Meuse valley, ornate works of carved stone, embellished metal and manuscript illumination. Don’t miss the Evangeliaire de Notger, the Book of Gospels belonging to 10th-century Bishop Notger. The cover is a stunning work of carved ivory.
Be in the buzz
Quite apart from its cultural credentials, Liège today has become renowned for its shops and café life. Make for the Carré district, a pedestrian area of small streets lined with boutiques and bars that lies between Place de l’Opera and the cathedral of St Paul. You’ll find an especially good choice of shoes shops on Rue du Mouton Blanc; chocolates at Galler, 2 Rue du Pot-d’Or; and leather fine jewellery at David Mann,Rue du Mouton Blanc. Or try home-made accessories at Matrioshka, Rue de la Casquette.
Come back later for the nightlife: try Café Bouldou at 15 Rue Tête de Boeuf (00 32 42 21 31 22) with a progamme of live music on Monday and Thursday nights.
Head to Rue du Palais to see the sumptuous palace of Liège’s Prince-Bishops, founded in the 11th century and restored several times, with the current façade completed in the 18th century. Today the building contains government offices and law courts. Continue eastwards on this street and it changes its name to Rue Hors Chateau, so-called because during the early medieval period this area lay outside the old walls of the palace and city. It’s an intriguing road lined with handsome 17th- and 18th-century houses. Winding off it are several narrow passageways where the servants of big houses once lived: if you amble down one (such as Impasse Venta) you’ll get a fine perspective on the half-timbered backs of the grand mansions. Return to the main street and continue eastwards down Rue Hors Chateau until you reach a dramatically steep staircase on the left. The 374 steps known as Montagne de Bueren will take you up to the town’s old fortress, now a park area with magnificent views, Les Coteaux de la citadelles.
Behind its red and white façade, the collegiate church of St Barthélemy (open daily 9am-6pm, except during church services; adults €2) at Place St Barthélemy, is a fine Baroque building containing some elements from its foundation in the late 11th century.
But the really big draw here is the masterpiece that the property houses: a beautifully worked baptismal font created in brass in the very early 12th century and adorned with five scenes from the Bible of which pride of place is given to the baptism of Jesus.
You’ll see a charcoal blast furnace, ancient steam engines and more at Maison de la Métallurgie et de l’Industrie de Liège (00 32 43 4265 63; mmil.be; open daily, but closed weekends November to March; adults €5) at 17 Boulevard Raymond Poincare across the Meuse from the historic centre.
It is set in an impressive historic building, the 19th-century factory of Esperance. The exhibits here cover everything from the history of water mills and hydraulic machines to Liège’s steel manufacturing.
Follow a literary trail
The writer Georges Simenon was born in Liège in 1903 and began his career here, working as a reporter for La Gazette de Liège. He subsequently moved to Paris and found fame as the creator of the pipe-smoking detective, Inspector Maigret. His hometown, though, continued to be an inspiration and Liège was used as the background in several novels in his crime fiction series. At the tourist office (see address below) you can pick up a leaflet giving details of a Simenon walking trail.
This takes you across the Meuse and around the author’s home turf of the Outremeuse district, which is renowned for its independent, somewhat rebellious spirit – it was even declared a free republic in 1927.
In keeping with its newly revived go-ahead image, Liège has recently seen the completion of a number of major architectural commissions. Among them is Ron Arad’s Mediacite, a state-of-the-art shopping and entertainment complex on Boulevard Raymond Poincare. Yet perhaps best of all is the Guillemins railway station by Santiago Calatrava, a sublime glass-and-concrete creation with a spectacular, space-age roof.
See striking art
In the green and pleasant Parc de la Boverie, south of the Outremeuse neighbourhood, is a splendid 1905 building designed for the Universal Exhibition of that year. Today it houses the Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain (00 32 43 43 04 03; mamac.be; open in the afternoons but closed Mondays; adults €2.50) whose fine permanent collection includes works by Chagall, Kokoschka, Picasso and Monet. If cutting-edge modern art is your passion, head for Nadja Vilenne Gallery, Rue Commandant Marchand ( nadjavilenne.com).
An aperitif with the locals
Backed by the striking dome of the former church of St Andre (now a cultural activity centre), the old Provence – like Place du Marché – is where locals gravitate in the early evening. Grab an outdoor table at Brasserie du Perron or Le Petit Paris, order a Gauloise Ambrée beer and watch theworld go by.
Other restaurants popular with the locals are Pica Pica, a top end tapas, at 62 Hors-Chateau, Le Thème, which changes its theme, decor and menu every nine months, 9 Impasse de la Couronne, or for a laid back hot stone BBQ experience, L’Histoire Sans Faim, 3Rue Sébastien Laruelle, in Le Carré district.
Sleep in sleek luxury
Complete with turrets, terraces and sweeping views over the historic city centre, one of the most magnificent of Liège’s aristocratic mansions has been transformed into a luxury hotel that opened at the end of May 2011. The Crowne Plaza (00 32 42 22 94 94; crowneplazaliege.be) on Mont Saint Martin, a five-minute walk from the heart of the old city, describes itself as an “urban resort”. It is a beautifully self-contained world apart, offering 126 stylish bedrooms, a gastronomic restaurant called Le Selys, and a bustling brasserie, Ô Cocottes, that serves local specialities such as boulets a la Liègeoise (Liège meatballs in a sauce flavoured with the local juniper gin). Doubles from €160 per night, excluding breakfast.
For contemporary comfort book into the newJala Hotel (00 32 42 30 73 30; jalahotel.com) at 2 Rue Jaspar on the western fringes of the old town. This is a chic, boutique establishment offering a fine dining restaurant – Remparts Notger – and 54 bedrooms soothingly furnished in grey, silver and white. Doubles from €140 including breakfast.
Office de Tourisme de la Ville de Liège (00 32 4 221 92 21; liegetourisme.be) at 92 Feronstree is open Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm; Saturday 10am to 4.30pm and Sunday 10am to 2pm.