Katharine Cooke explores the oldest and the newest sides to the EU capital, and pays particular attention to sampling its two most famous exports, beer and chocolate
1. EU Parliament
The best place to start your tour is the modern European quarter. From metro stop Schuman it’s a 10-minute stroll via Rue Froissart to the shiny pile of geometric shapes that is the EU Parliament building, where you can take a free half-hour tour. An audio machine supplies a cheerful and informative commentary about the EU as you walk to the debating chamber, where representatives from 27 countries discuss the issues of Europe in 23 languages. At these meetings, MEPs have up to 10 minutes of speaking time if they’re lucky – when the president has had enough he simply switches off the microphone. It’s also possible to attend a plenary sitting of Parliament; check the calendar at europarl.europa.eu. Tours are available Mon-Thurs 10am and 3pm, Fri 10am; take photo identification with you to gain entrance. Rue Wiertz, tel +32 2 284 21 11.
2. Autoworld Museum
Having soaked up the atmosphere of the Parliament, walk back to the Schuman roundabout and up the hill through Parc du Cinquantenaire. On your right, under the huge archway, is Autoworld, a museum showcasing the evolution of the car. It’s a manageable size for a short visit, as almost everything is laid out on one level. All the models are arranged by era, so as you walk around the car design appears to evolve right in front of you. You don’t have to be a car connoisseur to appreciate the sleek, well-preserved examples of automobiles from every decade back to the late 19th century. The text on each display is limited to just a couple of sentences, so there is no lengthy standing around while you read everything – you can enjoy it as a purely visual display. And if you want to take a souvenir home with you, the gift shop is stacked to the rafters with miniature cars. Open 10am-6pm in summer (closes 5pm in winter). Parc du Cinquantenaire 11, tel +32 2 736 41 65, autoworld.be. Entrance €6.
3. Restaurant Falstaff
For a bite to eat to re-fill your engine, take the Metro from Mérode (line 1A or 1B towards Roi Baudouin/Erasme) to De BrouckÃ¨re. Switch to the underground tram (the dark blue line) and head towards Midi, alighting at Bourse. On Rue Henri Maus, a side street alongside the historic Stock Exchange, you’ll see the huge red awning of Restaurant Falstaff. An art nouveau-style brasserie, Falstaff is packed with mirrors, curly brass adornments and wood panelling on the inside, and has a large, covered outside seating area. When in Brussels, you must sample moules frites, and here are several combinations, including mussels with cream and garlic (€23.50) or mussels with gueuze, chicory and cream (€25.50). The dishes may be pricey, but you get a huge plateful of mussels in a delicious sauce with chips included. There is also a decent selection of Belgian beers. Open for lunch and dinner. Visit falstaff-brussels.be.
4. Grand Place
From the restaurant, walk round the back of the Stock Exchange, past the Church of Saint Nicolas and along the short cobbled street, and you’ll spot the spires of Grand Place (main picture). This square is at the centre of the city’s tourist trail and for very good reason: the dramatic gothic and baroque faÃ§ades of the guild houses and the Town Hall’s towering spire make this Unesco World Heritage Site one of the most stunning squares of any European city. The Town Hall was built in 1402, and was the only building to escape destruction in a bombardment by the French in 1695. Look closely, and you’ll see hundreds of small statues clinging to the faÃ§ade, representing the dukes and duchesses who ruled the duchy of Brabant. Stop for a drink at any of the atmospheric bars and café around the square to take in the architecture and watch the world go by.
5. The Museum of the Belgian Brewers
A few doors to the left of the Town Hall is the Museum of the Belgian Brewers. Little effort has been made to signpost it, so you feel as though you’re walking into someone’s house, but down the wooden stairs is a cavernous underground room which has been transformed into a small museum and bar. For €5 you can look at the old wooden vats and paddles which were once used to make beer, plus examples of today’s shiny stainless steel cylinders and temperature gauges. Wall posters describing the brewing process and computer touch-screens lead you through its history. Beer was first brewed 10,000 years ago, and for a long time was an important source of food, being viewed as a kind of “drinkable bread”. Once you’ve worked up a thirst walking round, you can enjoy some of your own drinkable bread, as a refreshing glass of Pils is included in the entry fee. Brewers House, Grand Place 10, tel + 32 2 511 49 87, visit beerparadise.be.
6. PlanÃ¨te Chocolat
From Grand Place, it’s just a short walk up Rue de l’Etuve to PlanÃ¨te Chocolat, one of a number of chocolatiers in Brussels offering a good example of the high-quality, handmade chocolate for which Belgium is known. On Saturdays, there is a 4pm demonstration and tasting to watch how pralines (the term used for the individual chocolates) are made. If you’re travelling with colleagues you can call to arrange a tasting session. It costs €7 per person and includes a cup of hot chocolate made to PlanÃ¨te Chocolat’s recipe, which is divine. Otherwise, there’s plenty in the shop, which is ideal for gifts, from truffles to big chocolate “bouquets”. Mon-Sat 10am-6.30pm, Sun 11am-6.30pm. Rue du Lombard 24, tel +32 2 511 07 55, planetechocolat.be.