Brussels Gets its Groove Back: 5 reasons to make this your next city break
Short breaks in Europe
For decades, Brussels has been knocked as a dull, dreary, joyless city.
Granted, it may not have the show-stopping landmarks of Paris and Rome, or the underground cool of Berlin and Budapest. But the city has begun to draw young creatives with its notably high quality of life and low property prices, leading to a renaissance across the city.
Brussels is finally shaking off its reputation as the “most boring city in Europe”. Here are five reasons to make it your next city break destination!
1. Outstanding architecture
In a city where the most significant landmark is the Manneken Pis, tourists may not be expecting much in the way of impressive public art and architecture. But Brussels is famed for its Art Nouveau buildings – it was the home of architects Victor Horta and Paul Hankar, who are credited with designing the first two Art Nouveau buildings in the world: Horta’s Hotel Tassel and Hankar’s own home.
Around 500 buildings from this era remain intact, and while the exteriors alone are magnificent, give yourself the opportunity to fully appreciate these masterpieces by arranging a visit inside – the Horta museum (hortamuseum.be), located in Horta’s own house, is truly breathtaking, although opening hours are very limited (2pm-5.30pm, Tuesday to Sunday). Maison Cauchie is open the first weekend of each month (cauchie.be), or you can book private tours of some of the other buildings such as the Hotel Solvay (hotelsolvay.be) and Hotel van Eetvelde (arau.org).
In addition to stunning examples of Art Nouveau, the city offers an intriguing mix of conservative traditional architecture and edgy contemporary buildings – in the Leopold Quarter, for example, the Place du Luxembourg contrasts with the post-modern glass façade of the European Parliament’s Paul Henri Spaak building.
2. Diverse art collections
Lovers of surrealism will find much to enjoy in Brussels, from the aforementioned Mannekin Pis, regularly dressed up in one of his 800 costumes, to the Atomium, a model of an iron crystal with a Belgian flag protruding from the top. Of course, the Belgian painter Rene Magritte produced many of his most famous works in Brussels, and the city houses an impressive museum filled with his paintings, drawings and sculptures (fine-arts-museum.be).
Next to Magritte’s floating bowler hats and pipes-but-not-pipes, the most recognisable Belgian artworks are Herge’s Tintin comic stripes. Comics, called ‘bandes dessinees’, are a serious business here, and Belgium counts the Smurfs and Tintin among two of its major comic-strip exports. Brussels has a museum dedicated to the art form, The Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinee (cbbd.be), as well as giant murals depicting Tintin & Co. across the city, or visit the legendary comic book shop Brüsel (brusel.com).
If your taste veers toward more classical art, the fantastic Musee Royaux des Beaux-Arts (fine-arts-museums.be) is housed in the same building and boasts a huge collection, including the major names in Flemish art history – the Bruegels, Rogier van der Weyden, Anthony van Dyck and Jacob Gordaens. You could spend days wandering around the enormous space, which is also home to an extensive ‘Rubens Room’, along with works by Hieronymous Bosch, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gaugain.
3. Trendy (and delicious) eateries
Most people associate Belgian food with moules frites (mussels and chips) – or just plain frites – and carbonnades flamandes (beef stew), and there’s certainly no shortage of those. Belgian food is typically based on comforting, down-to-earth recipes using seasonal produce, but it’s not all traditional booths and wood panelling - there are a few trendy, contemporary restaurants focused on local, artisanal food, such as Pre de Chez Nous (predecheznous.be) and Les Filles du Centre (lesfillesplaisirsculinaires.be).
Of course, you can’t go to Brussels without sampling their famous Belgian waffles. For double tourism points, head to Maison Dandoy (maisondandoy.com), where you can get a divine crispy waffle with ice-cream made from Speculoos, a type of spiced crunchy biscuit native to Belgium.
4. Up-to-the-minute fashion
Neighbouring city Antwerp is often overlooked as a leading fashion city, but it boasts some seriously impressive contemporary designers – most famously, Martin Margiela and the Antwerp Six, the legendary gang of designers including Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dirk Bikkembergs, Marina Yee and Dirk Van Saene. Take a day trip to Antwerp to visit MoMu (momu.be), the city’s fashion museum, or make your way to the Rue Antoine Dansaert in Brussels and you’ll fine plenty in the way of stylish boutiques.
For cool local and international designers, try Stijl (stijl.be), an upmarket boutique offering designs by Van Noten, Demeulemeester, Raf Simons and Vetements. Stijl Men is located just around the corner.
There are a number of cool concept stores around the city, offering clothes and accessories alongside homewares and books.
Homewares store The Game (the-game-online.com) offers contemporary interiors and ceramics, Yawn Space (yawn.world) combines homewares and fashion, while Hunting and Collecting (huntingandcollecting.com) showcases designs by international names like Kenzo and Carven along with cult labels like Lemaire and Stine Goya, and frequently plays host to DJ sets and other events.
5. World-class chocolate (yum!)
It’s no secret that the capital of Belgium is also the world capital of chocolate, and has been since Jean Neuhaus invented the praline 100 years ago. The average Belgian consumes 6.8kg of chocolate each year.
But of course, the industry is changing, as a new breed of chocolatiers has eschewed the traditional praline and experimented with innovative flavours, resulting in a dichotomy of chocolate for tourists versus chocolate for Belgians.
On one hand, you’ll find visitors clamouring around high-street brands like Neuhaus, Godiva and Leonidas, while locals make their way to the Sablon area for the city’s finest chocolate, popping into one of Pierre Marcolini’s stores (eu.marcolini.com) or Laurent Gerbaud (chocolatsgerbaud.be).
For a real treat, try Frederic Blondeel (frederic-blondeel.be), an understated little chocolatier that ranks among the very best in the city.