At once the de facto capital of the European Union, the country of Belgium and the ancient and culturally distinct region of Flanders, Brussels has been a crossroads for travellers since medieval times. It’s still the perfect destination for a quick break or extended shopping expedition, with lots to offer those with a taste for architecture, fine art and design. Lovers of Art Nouveau especially will revel in the well preserved examples of that early 20th century style elegantly dotting the historic heart of the city.
Where to Shop
Atmospheric, historic and upscale, the glass-roofed Galerie Saint-Hubert(Rue du Marché aux Herbes 90) dates from 1847. Here you’ll find lots of high end design boutiques and galleries including the showroom for Ligne Contemporary Design (Galerie du Roi, 14) where you can drool over contemporary Euro-design interpretations of leather sofas and other transcendent pieces.
Mid-century vintage pieces and older antiques are readily available at Brussels abundant flea markets and lower-end second-hand shops if you know what you are looking for. Try Les Petits Riens (Rue Americaine 101 and other locations), a Belgian chain of thrift stores with a large inventory that will need energetic picking over. Or, check out Mouche (Rue de flandre 23 ) for a well curated collection of used and restored mid-century homewares.
Well-heeled shoppers will find the Sablon district mesmerising for its antiques, art objects and ultra chic shop. And here you’ll find the flagship store for Flamant (Grand Sablon 36), long the Belgian go to for high quality home furnishing design.
Recently moved from the Sablon to a new location at 78 Quai des Charbonnages in Saint-Jean-Molenbeek, Emery & Cie is as essential as ever for tiles, iron fittings, wallpaper and textiles, styled to exquisite perfection in store-wide vignettes.
Galleries and Museums
A must for architecture aficionados is a pilgrimage to The Horta Museum (Rue Americaine 25) in St.Gilles. The former private home of the Belgian architect Victor Horta is filled with swirling Art Nouveau fixtures and furniture pieces. Several other houses designed by Horta have been designated World Heritage Sites by UNESCO – including the elegant Tassel House (Rue Paul Emile Janson 6) and Solvay House (Avenue Louise 224).
Classicists may prefer to pay their respects at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (Rue de la Régénce 3), a grouping of six museums covering ancient to contemporary art works. There is a dedicated Magritte Museum devoted to Belgian surrealist René Magritte, and also a Fin du Siecle Museum which focuses particularly on the Art Nouveau and Beaux Arts movements in Belgium.
We also just have to give a mention to the Belgian Comic Strip Center. Right in the heart of Brussels, in a majestic Art Nouveau building, created by Victor Horta in 1906, it’s a shrine to comic book art, including the works of Hergé and Peyo, of course rightly famous for Tintin and for the Smurfs (which sound far more peculiar as the original Les Schtroumpfs. Much Smurf-related art can be found in the museum shop. It’s open every day from 10am to 6pm and has an amazing Tintin rocket and a red Citroen 2CV in the foyer. What’s not to love?
Where to eat and drink
The hallmark dish of modern Brussels is the rustic dish moules frites – mussels, usually steamed in wine and broth, served with skinny french fries, mayonnaise on the side. At Chez Leon (Rue des bouchers, 24), the dish is prepared with fastidious care in the traditional casserole style.
Purists can skip the moules and go straight for the frites (aka fritkots) at numerous popular locations in central Brussels. Frit’Flagey (Place Eugène Flagey), Barriere de Saint-Gilles (Avenue du Parc, 1060 Saint-Gilles) and open late, and the famous Friterie Maison Antoine in Place Jourdan, all come highly recommended. Just be prepared to line up and wait for your fix. For an even more carb-rich option, waffles are available from vans and small stores everywhere!
Sip fancy cocktails and listen to luscious jazz at the legendary L’Archiduc (Rue Antoine Dansaert, 6) near the stock exchange. The Art Deco-style club retains many of its original fittings and fixtures, including the massive rosewood bar and courtyard. It is still ground zero for jazz in Brussels after 80 years.
Where to stay
The Dominican (rue Léopold 9) is a downtown fixture that offers a 5 star experience in a former 15th century Dominican abbey. Not incidentally, this gorgeous light-filled building was once the home of neo-classicist painter Jacques-Louis David.
Designers will appreciate the concept behind the Pantone Hotel (Place Loix 1), located in the financial district. This contemporary lo-rise budget hotel designed by Michel Penneman and Olivier Hannaert is styled around the Pantone colour matching system. Every colour-drenched floor is unique and larger rooms come with a terrace or balcony.
Brussels is oddly packed with iconic sites and structures that will be fully recognisable even to first time visitors to the city. The gigantic Atomium, in the Square de l’Atomium, for example, was built for the 1958 World’s Fair by engineer André Waterkeyn and architects André and Jean Polak to represent an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. Believe it or not there is a restaurant with panoramic views and OK frites in one of those shiny spheres. Others contain cultural and art exhibits.
And just around the corner from the Grand’ Place, Brussels’ iconic main square surrounded by historic guild houses (and rightfully listed as a UNESCO’s World Heritage site), you’ll find the statue Mannequin Pis (Little man pee), an irreverent bronze symbol from the 1600s. The statue is the globally recognised butt of many jokes, pranks and legends, most of them incomprehensible to non-Belgians.
How to get there
Cheap direct flights from London leave daily on Flybe, British Airways and Brussels Airlines. Or, hop on the Eurostar train at St Pancras and arrive at Midi Central station downtown in about an hour and a half.