European capital, beer, chocolate, waffles, and French fries – these are some of the stereotypes that come to mind when thinking of Brussels. I will introduce you to the well-known sites, but also to some (possibly) new aspects and corners of this interesting city.
Photo: The modern face of Brussels close to the European Parliament
Brussels - "BoBo" City
Brussels – how often do we hear the name in the media. Brexit, endless meetings and regular visits of Angela Merkel, Theresa May & Co. The locals have a pretty relaxed attitude towards all this political stuff. They enjoy life in their city with its many cafés, restaurants, and museums. And very funnily – I came across the term “BoBo” which stands for Bourgeois Bohemian. Kind of a hipster (but isn´t that term a bit outdated?), BoBos obviously have money and like to spend it. Although your stay in Brussels does not have to be too expensive, you can also easily spend quite a lot, in particular if you love good food. Here´s how to explore one of Europe´s most exciting capital cities!
Photo: Grand architecture at the Grand Place
Brussels - so very cosmopolitan
First of all, don´t be surprised if you see signboards in French and Flemish (sort of Dutch). Most people in Brussels speak French but also English. It is, of course, a very international city. A true melting pot. 120,000 mostly well-paid people are working for the European institutions, ready to spend their money in art galleries, fancy shops and restaurants. The art, design and music scene (with the rapper Stromae as the possibly most famous icon) is exploding. The architecture in Brussels is likewise a real mix of styles. You will see beautiful old buildings as well as Art nouveau (was invented in Brussels!), Art Déco and very modern ones, sometimes standing next to each other which is not always a pleasure for your eyes. It´s all about individualism. Former factories and warehouses are turned into music clubs, lofts and showrooms. And there are people from almost all over the world. For some reason, Brussels is a mix between Amsterdam and Paris, sort of. Many of its charming features are hidden. Explore them. It would be a real pity to limit your visit to the downtown area of Brussels.
Grand-Place – a major, very crowded Attraction
The main attraction of Brussels is the Grand-Place. Guess what, no one could tell me why it´s “grand” and not “grande” since “place” is feminine in French. Maybe you know? Anyways. This impressive square with the famous Brussels Town Hall is always full of tourists, be prepared for crowds and watch out for your valuables, in particular when you admire all the gold on top of the buildings. Honestly, I wanted to see this site for a while, but had to escape then. It´s just too much bling-bling and there are so many other things to see.
Photo: Gold all over the place at the Grand Place
A peeing Boy – Brussels´most famous Site
The little lateral streets of the Grand Place are full of cafés, restaurants and shops, many of them with the usual tourist kitsch. Chocolate all over the place. Don´t be surprised if you also see peep shows and sex shops. Brussels is a very liberal city – thank God. You may wish to walk a few minutes to take a photo of the famous “Manneken Pis”, the monument of a little urinating boy. It somehow stands for the insubordination of the locals. I like that although I do not, of course, support “wild peeing” :-). So far, so good for Manneken Pis.
Photo: Here he is, the famous Manneken Pis
My Shopping Tips for Brussels
Don´t miss a stroll through the Galéries Royales St. Hubert, one of the oldest and most prestigious galleries in Europe. By the way, a great recommendation on a rainy day since the gallery is covered by a glass roof. High-end jewelry, fashion apparel, gifts, pastries, and chocolates (of course) and a terrific book store (Librairie d`art). Sip an espresso at Aksum Coffee House or have a glass of champagne in one of the chic bars.
Photo: Simply eyecatching - Galéries Royales
Photo: The Town Hall of Brussels in all its splendour
Coffee in a trendy Bar
From the Galéries Royales St. Hubert, it´s only a short walk over to “La Bourse”, a beautiful neoclassical building finished in 1873. From there, it is just a stone throw to Rue Antoine Dansaert, one of my favorite streets in Brussels. Beautiful architecture, plenty of boutiques, cafés, and restaurants. I enjoyed a tasty spinach soup at “Bar Beton”. As the name suggests, this cool and a bit shabby place has a big concrete bar and very friendly staff. A cool place to sip a coffee and watch people.
Photo: Rue Antoine Dansaert
Photo: Coffee break at Bar Beton
A few lesser known Hotspots in Brussels
The next hotspot on Antoine Dansaert is Walvis, another café where you can eat and drink all day and watch quite a few beautiful people. It is not far away from the canal with all its modern lofts – the architecture in Brussels has so many different aspects. Ah, if you are into beer, don´t miss the Brussels Beer Project – doesn´t the name say it all?
Photo: Brussels has no river but a canal
I also recommend a quick stop at Place Saint Géry, a beautiful example of 19th-century public markets in Brussels. After its restoration a few years ago, the former market hall has become an exhibition space with a bar inside – worth to have a look at! Every first Sunday of the month, there is a vintage market at the Halles Saint Géry where they sell vintage clothing and second-hand goods.
Photo: The historic Halles Saint Géry
An area not to miss is between downtown and the charming neighborhood Louise. You can walk all the way from the city center, but be prepared for going up all the time and taking staircases. Or take the tram which is a very common means of transport in Brussels.
Best Views of Brussels
The Mont d´Art is a beautiful area with many museums, the Botanical Garden and a wonderful view over the city. On your way from downtown, stop by at Dotspot, a very fancy shop with cool fun articles. From Mont d´Art, walk up to the Royal Palace (with more museums) and to Sablon, a very chic neighborhood with La Maison Wittamer, one of the best patisseries in Brussels (although that´s hard to say since there are so many). Sinful cakes, excellent coffee, but also many guests. Walk up the road to the giant Palace of Justice with its golden roof. You can also take the Polaert elevator ("Ascenseur Marolles", named after the neighborhood close by) to get up to a square with some breathtaking views of the city. Tip: visit the area around the Palace of Justice (Palais de Justice) at sunset to take fantastic photos of the city with the best light.
Photo: View from the Mont d´Art (Art Mountain) to the center with the town hall
Photo: Really "royal" - the Royal Palace
Photo: Spring has exploded at Place Sablon
Photo: Elevator to the Palace of Justice - it`s free!
Are you into high-end shopping and art galleries? Then make sure to stroll along the Boulevard de Waterloo and Avenue Louise, just next to the Palace of Justice. Here is where you will find Gucci and the likes, but also plenty of independent art galleries.
The Atomium – Brussels´Masterpiece from EXPO 1958
Don´t miss it! Take the streetcar or subway from downtown (approx. 20 minutes, EUR 2.10 per trip as per April 2019) to the Heysel Stadion and you will spot this cool landmark. The Atomium is a giant enlargement of an iron molecule, a symbol for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. 102 m high with 9 sparkling globes. Take a very instagrammable photo under the Atomium. I did not go inside – some people say it´s not worthwhile. So I preferred a walk in the nice park close by.
Photo: The famous Atomium in all its splendour
See the European Institutions (Institutions Européennes)
Don´t miss it, in particular if you are European. As much as we may be fed up with all the politics, when strolling through the area you will see big signboards which remind us of our European values such as democracy and freedom. So important. In principle, I am a true believer in the European idea, especially in times like these. Get an overview of all buildings at the “Station Europe” with friendly hostesses. From there, have a look at the Parlamentarium or the House of European History. Modern architecture all over the place. A square with cafés and restaurants and nice parks just close by. Vive l´Europe!
Photo: Rising high in the European district
My secret Tip for Art Déco Lovers
If you are into Art Déco, visit Villa Empain, an architectural masterpiece (built in 1930) on the elegant Franklin Roosevelt Boulevard with many Embassies located in stunning buildings. There are interesting exhibitions, a beautiful garden and a park just next door for some nice walks.
Photo: A hidden gem - Villa Empain
Where to find the “real” chocolate in Brussels
Are you into chocolate? Seriously, who is not? Once you have seen loads of “chocolateries”,it is time to get to know a real chocolate maker, a “faiseur du chocolat”. Björn from Germany and Julia from Russia are running a cozy little place called “Mike & Becky” on Avenue Brugmann (you can easily get there with streetcar no. 9). Björn is a former lobbyist for children´s rights and Julia used to be a classical dancer in Moscow. And now they produce chocolate and know EVERYTHING about this delicacy. They get their cocoa from organic plantations in Belize, the Dominican Republic, India, Congo, and Peru.
“Chocolate is kind of a luxury product. Make sure to buy the best organic quality with a cocoa share of at least 70%”, says Björn. In one hour, I learn a lot about chocolate and … Brussels. This guy knows so much about his host city, amazing. Look out for events at “Mike & Becky”, sometimes with opera singers, wine or simply chocolate tastings. In one of my next blog posts, I will talk about … chocolate!
Photo: Björn and Julia aka Mike and Becky in their lovely café
Photo: Street wafle ("gaufres") vendor
How to get to Brussels
For me, the most comfortable way is by Thalys, a fast train that runs from some cities in North-Rhine Westphalia to Lièges, Brussels, and Paris (where I went earlier this year, have look here). It took me just a bit more than two hours from my home city Düsseldorf to Gare du Midi in Burssels. The Premium Lounge is absolutely worth a few Euros more. A very friendly service and great meals, you can choose between three options (including a veggie one). And it helps to reduce your carbon footprint, contrary to taking a plane. Should you plan a trip to a few European cities, I strongly recommend the Thalys as your preferred means of transport.
Where to stay
I had a wonderful time at the “Made in Louise”, a real “hôtel de charme” in Louise, a friendly and quiet neighborhood. Oh yes, I fell in love with this little hotel gem. Stay tuned for my blog about this lovely boutique hotel, with many tips for excursions and a few cool coffee shops in the area.
Photo: I loved my home away from home, the boutique hotel MADE IN LOUISE
Tips from Locals
Lucia is an Italian yoga teacher (she is giving her lessons here) and has been living in Brussels for the past four years. Her home is in the Châtelein area, a very popular district for restaurants, shopping and people watching. Expats and locals like to hang out on Place du Châtelein having dinner or just a drink, there are also many art galleries and a very crowded weekly market.
Here are her tips for dining in this area, with special attention to people who like to eat plant-based food:
TAN - Rue de L’Aqueduc 95
Tan is an organic shop with a very chic restaurant upstairs. All their dishes are organic and they offer many plant-based options. Their cuisine is very creative and delicious.
LA PIOLA - Rue du Page 2
Authentic Italian restaurant with grandma portions of pastas and other specialties. You can also visit their sister spots La Piola Libri – a wine bar with a library located not far from the European Institutions, and La Piola Pizza in Saint Josse district.
LA CHATELAINE DU LIBAN- Place du Châtelain 7
A modern Lebanese restaurant which also offers a take-away option. You can find many delicious mezzes and main courses for everybody, including vegans and vegetarians.
LA QUINCAILLERIE - Rue du Page 45
Located in a former ironmonger’s shop and designed by a student of Victor Horta (key Belgian Art Nouveau architect), this restaurant is the right place for fish lovers. They have some vegan/vegetarian options ontheir menu. The restaurant is quite big, so it can be used for groups too.
BELGA & CO - Rue du Bailli 7A
A cozy café where you can enjoy a nice selection of coffees, organic teas, and other drinks. They serve breakfast and quick lunches, but I like it more as a place to hang out with my friends in front of a cup of tea.
Among the places where expats and locals like to hang out in Brussels are the weekly markets. The one in the Châtelain Square is every Wednesday. You can shop there and also enjoy a meal or a drink at different stalls or food trucks. There are some who offer oysters and champagne, different ethnic food stalls and for vegans, I recommend the Sin Street Foodburgers. You might find the same food trucks and “movida” in different weekly markets, the ones I know of are in Place Jourdan (in front of the European Parliament) on Tuesdays and Place Flagey on Sundays. The market near Gare du Midi on Sundays is also interesting for the variety of products offered, mirroring the cultural mix of this city.
Other “coups de coeur” outside the Châtelain area:
BEST PIZZA: LA BOTTEGA DELLA PIZZA
Best Pizza in town according to many Italians. They have two outlets, one near the Sablon church and one in St. Gilles. The places are very small and crowded, so reservations are highly recommended.
BEST INDIAN: SARAVANAA BHAVAN
This restaurant is part of an original Indian chain and is the only place in Brussels where you can get a dosa.
They offer a wide variety of original Indian dishes and some Chinese options, at very decent prices. All their dishes are vegetarian with many vegan and gluten-free options. I go there almost every week!
BEST ETHIOPIAN: KOKOB
Located walking distance from the Grand Place, this restaurant is very popular for its discovery menus which you can share between 2 or more persons. Many plant-based options are available.
BEST “FRITES”: MAISON ANTOINE
I am not particularly fond of “frites”, but I know that if you wish to try the best original Belgian fries, this is the place to go. Expect long waiting lines. Rumors say that even Angela Merkel left a European summit to go and try their “frites”. If you are vegan, be aware that in Belgium they fry in animal fat...
Photo: A visit to Brussels without "Frites"? No way! - Maison Antoine