Brussels has a reputation for banality, but inquisitive visitors will find a fabulous array of temptations for foodies and fashionistas in the Belgian capital. John Brunton reports.
1. Le Chatelain Market
Avenue Louise is known as the Champs-Elysées of Brussels, and just off this elegant boulevard are two lively, uptown neighbourhoods, Le Châtelain and Saint-Boniface, where the visitor can discover chic boutiques, gourmet restaurants and stylish bars.
The neighbourhood around Place du Châtelain is like a hidden, but fashionable, village right in the heart of Brussels. During the day, in-the-know shoppers are drawn to this leafy square to check out the latest creations by fashionable Belgian designers in boutiques like Mia Zia and Mais il est où le Soleil, or avant-garde ceramics exhibited in the contemporary art gallery, Puls.
Every Wednesday evening, Place du Châtelain is transformed into a giant night-market, teeming with colourful stalls and shoppers, while the pavements are turned into impromptu bars. After shopping for delicious cheeses and charcuterie, or sampling a plate of oysters accompanied by a chilled glass of crisp Muscadet, join the crowds partying inside Le Châtelain, an old-fashioned tavern. Alternatively, take a seat with the chicer set at the excellent wine bar, Quentin.
2. Rue du Bailli
A couple of minutes’ walk from Place du Châtelain, the rue du Bailli runs all the way to Avenue Louise. Begin with a visit to the opulent baroque Eglise de la Trinité, then just nearby, either stop off at Dédée K (an Aladdin’s cave of fantasy costume jewellery, all unique pieces using semi-precious stones like amethyst and smoky quartz) or settle down on a comfy sofa with a sweet mint tea in Le Passiflore, an exotic salon de thé.
Anyone with a sweet tooth should head straight to Irsi Pralines, which started making its famous sugared almonds and cream-filled chocolate manons back in 1929. And gelati-lovers must stop off at Le Framboisier Doré, an old-fashioned ice-cream parlour serving 200 flavours of homemade ice creams and sorbets. After the shops close, you can join the after-work business crowd in Banco, a bank transformed into a funky brasserie, or try a traditional estaminet like the Supra Bailly, which serves a great selection of beers.
3. Hotel Hannon
Brussels is one of the great art-nouveau cities of Europe, with scores of wonderfully preserved buildings. As Gaudi made his mark on Barcelona, so in Brussels it was the architect Victor Horta who designed many of the finest landmarks. Tour groups make a pilgrimage to the house Horta built for himself here in Le Châtelain (rue Américaine 23-25), and although this is a fascinating museum to visit, the place can get a bit crowded.
A much better cultural stop-off, just nearby, is the little-known Hôtel Hannon at Avenue de la Jonction 1. This sumptuous mansion was designed by one of Horta’s contemporaries, Jules Brunfaut, in 1903, and today houses an avant-garde photography museum whose minimalist exhibitions contrast wonderfully with the classic decorative art-nouveau interiors. Prepare to be dazzled by the romantic frescoes, swirling staircase, graphic mosaics and exquisite stained-glass windows.
4. Au Vieux Bruxelles
While Brussels rightly has a reputation for creative gourmet restaurants, every visitor, at one time or another, ends up trying the country’s national dish – the not terribly gastronomic moules frites, a mountain of piping-hot steamed mussels accompanied by a huge plate of thinly-cut French fries. But this can still be a memorable dining experience if you reserve a table at Au Vieux Bruxelles (rue Saint Boniface 35, tel +32 2503 3111).
Situated in a narrow backstreet in the ultra-trendy Saint-Boniface quarter, it is the oldest moules-frites eatery in town, having opened its doors back in 1882. With its red-checked tablecloths and faded frescoes, virtually nothing has changed since the 19th century. You’ll find every traditional Belgian dish on the menu – carbonnade de boeuf à la Gueuze (beef slowly stewed in beer), creamy vol-au-vents, Ostend sole and, of course, more than a dozen ways to eat mussels. Although it is difficult to beat the classic – steamed in white wine – other temptations include blue cheese, tarragon, garlic and curry sauce, which probably wasn’t on the menu in 1882.
5. Nina Meert Boutique
Nina Meert is one of the country’s most famous fashion designers, and has dressed Belgian royalty along with movie stars like Meryl Streep and Isabelle Adjani. She has couture boutiques in France and Italy, but in her hometown, instead of choosing an exclusive location around Avenue Louise alongside the likes of Hermès, Ralph Lauren and Gucci, she decided to open her showcase boutique in the more trendy Saint-Boniface (rue Saint-Boniface 1). What’s more, she owns the whole house and lives above the shop, so if she isn’t travelling, surprised shoppers often find her standing behind the counter. This is typical of laid-back Brussels, as you’d never catch Jean-Paul Gaultier or John Galliano hanging around their Paris boutiques.
Another address to check out is nearby Cocoon (rue de la Paix 41), a minuscule store which stocks only one-off designer outfits – think Dries Van Noten and Christian Lacroix – at around 50 per cent of their usual price.
6. Place Saint-Boniface
Every evening, the quiet Place Saint-Boniface is transformed into the vibrant heart of this hip neighbourhood, popular with fashionable locals, expat businessmen and bureaucrats from the EU offices. With bars and restaurants filling the pavement with tables, the place becomes like one big street-party. Everyone’s favourite meeting place to start the night off is L’Ultime Atome at number 14, a sprawling, industrial-like space which manages to be a café, cocktail bar, brasserie and live-music venue all combined.
To eat out on the Place itself, choose between Belgo Belge (rue de la Paix, tel +32 2511 1121), an elegant, arty restaurant whose speciality is a traditional chicken waterzooi stew, the funkier Thai-fusion cuisine served at Deuxième Elément (number 7, tel +32 2502 0028), or the bustling Italian trattoria, Mano à Mano (number 8, +32 2502 0801).