Off Duty: Brussels

Debbie Pappyn suggests an extended stay in a surprisingly buzzing city

Monday 21 May 2007 00:00 BST
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Why?

The centre, the heart even, of the EU, Brussels is one of the world's largest political and economic trading blocs but it is also an unexpectedly intimate place, and one well worth taking time to explore.

This is, after all, a city of chocolate, Art Nouveau, cafes, hot waffles and great restaurants. Brussels is in many ways divided by its history, languages and politics, but this mix creates its own energy. And there is common ground in music: the Brussels Jazz Marathon, a three-day event with more than 125 concerts taking place around the city, starts on Friday ( www.brusselsjazzmarathon.be); and there's more music, from hip-hop to salsa, jazz and classical concerts, during the Fete de la Musique from 21 to 24 June ( www.fetedelamusique.be).

What?

Any trip to Brussels should take in the magnificent Grand Place and will probably feel incomplete unless you visit the Manneken Pis on the corner of rues du Chene and de L'Etuve - the small statue of a weeing boy having become something of a city mascot. But for real local flavour take time also to wander the working-class neighbourhood of Sainte Catherine. Here you'll find some of the city's best fish restaurants and local fish sellers. On Sundays try the excellent seafood that is served at Café De Noordzee (45 Sint-Katelijnstraat; + 32 2 513 11 92): it's cheap, fresh and pure Brussels.

By contrast, for designer cool head to rue Dansaert, probably the most chic street in the city. Once one of the oldest immigrant neighbourhoods of Brussels, it is now the place to be, packed with boutiques, cool restaurants and art galleries. And then there's Place St-Géry, one of Brussels' most reinvigorated districts. Narrow cobblestone streets meet at a square that is always buzzing. This is a hotspot of the beautiful people of Brussels.

For another treat of a square make for Grand Sablon, a lovely place that effectively divides the Lower and Upper Towns of central Brussels. On weekends this glorious square is packed with antique stalls and other outlets. Buy some Belgian chocolate at the famous Wittamer Chocolatier (6 Place du Grand Sablon; + 32 2 546 11 10), definitely one of the best souvenirs to take home. The Upper Town's principal landmark is the city court, the mammoth, 1833 neoclassical Palais de Justice but for the best views over the city head to the charming Musical Instrument Museum at 2 rue Montagne de la Cour (closed Mondays otherwise open 9.30am-5pm weekdays and 10am-5pm weekends, admission €5) which offers magical panoramas from its rooftop café.

Where?

Currently the hot favourite of the hip crowd is Belga Queen at 32 rue Foss-aux-Loups (+ 32 2 217 2187) in the heart of Brussels. Located in a former bank, it has a slick oyster bar, a funky cigar bar and a nightclub in the vaults.

Meantime there is a great choice of really excellent Continental food. Les Asturiennes restaurant at 36-38 Rue Saint-Laurent (+ 32 2 218 8454) produces some of the best Asturian dishes outside Spain. Just off the fashionable Avenue Louise is a real gem: the Greek fine dining restaurant Notos at 154 Rue de Livourne (+ 32 2 513 29 59). Chef and gastro artist Constantin Erinkoglou comes from the north of Greece and serves dishes that are both delicate and innovative while his restaurant is a former mechanic's shop, transformed into a haven of style. For a great flavour of Belgium head just beyond the magnificent Grand Place to rue des Bouchers. Aux Larmes de Bruxelles (2 rues des Bouchers; +32 2 51 15550) offers just about every regional speciality possible.

Wow!

The beer produced at Sint-Sixtus Trappist abbey in Flanders is said to be the best in the world. Demand far exceeds supply but if you head to Chez Moeder Lambic on 68 rue de la Savoie (+ 32 2 539 1419) in the Elsene (or Ixelles in French) area in the south of Brussels you should be able to sample some. This tiny, dark wooden tavern stocks a staggering range of beers - which the enthusiastic owners will guide you through.

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