Michelle Mannion uncovers quirky statues, energy food and surrealist art in the capital city of the European Union
1. Manneken Pis
Whoever said Brussels was humourless? Start your tour at this small fountain, perplexingly one of the city’s most celebrated sights, and get an idea of the quirkiness beneath the sober exterior of Europe’s capital. Manneken Pis means “little pee man” and that’s exactly what this is – a pint-sized statue of a naked boy relieving himself into a font below. Legend has it the wee hero it depicts saved the city in the 14th century by neutralising a bomb with his jet stream. The monument has had a few scrapes itself – the original version was retrieved after being stolen by the English, but then disappeared after French forces swiped it, to be replaced by the current bronze form in 1619.
It’s said Louis XV was so contrite about his troops’ behaviour that he gave the sculpture a gold costume, and since then the dapper little dude has accumulated about 800 outfits from around the world, many of which are on display in Brussels City Museum on the Grand Place. He’s dressed up a few times a week in everything from a lifeguard suit to the Venezuelan national costume, and whenever he gets a new outfit he pees beer. A bit of a cottage industry has grown up around him too – opposite is the Manneken Pis pub, and next door is an eponymous chocolaterie, where you can buy toxic-looking yellow- and red-coloured creations in his image. The statue is located at the corner of Rue de l’Etuve and Rue du Chêne.
2. Royal Galleries of Saint-Hubert
From the ridiculous to the sublime – cut up Rue de l’Etuve to Brussels’ main square, the Grand Place, and take a moment to soak in the lively atmosphere and suitably grand buildings that border it. These include the Gothic-style town hall with its 96-metre high spire, a good landmark by which to get your bearings. Take Rue de la Colline and at the top you’ll see your next stop, the Royal Galleries of Saint-Hubert. Two elegant shopping arcades built in 1846 in Italian Renaissance style, they are reminiscent of Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and feature a beautiful glass domed ceiling. Browse among the marble-fronted shops, which sell everything from chocolate and lace to antique jewellery and designer handbags, then reward your efforts with a Belgian beer or coffee at the Café Deville – a great spot for people-watching.
3. Rene Magritte Museum
From here, it’s a short walk to the Mont des Arts and Brussels’ cultural quarter. A plethora of museums are located in the area around Place Royale and Place du Musée, from the Royal Museums of Fine Arts to the Museum of Musical Instruments. The latest addition, open since June, celebrates the work of Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte and is housed in a neoclassical building on Place Royale. It contains 250 works by the artist as well as an atmospheric set of portrait photos by Duane Michals that hint at the character of the man in the bowler hat. There’s also a film called Magritte, Day and Night that provides an “overview of the life of the artist and the man” – but as it’s 52 minutes long, it might be a stretch for this particular four-hour tour… Open Tue-Sun 10am-5pm (8pm Wed). Entry e8 (as it’s newly opened it’s very popular, so be prepared to queue). 135 Rue Esseghem; tel +32 2428 2626; magrittemuseum.be
Take Rue de la Régence to Sablon, one of the most well-heeled areas of the city. It comprises two parts, separated by the late-gothic Church of Our Lady of Sablon – to your left is Petit Sablon, a pretty garden with a fountain in the middle topped by statues of Count Egmont and Count Hornes, beheaded in the Grand Place in 1568 for demanding religious freedom. Around the park are 48 statues depicting the medieval crafts of Brussels.
To your right is Grand Sablon, a tree-lined cobbled area lined with antique shops, restaurants and furniture stores – an antique market takes place here on the weekends. In the centre sits the Minerva Fountain, a gift to the city from English lord Thomas Bruce, a political refugee in the 18th century. He’s said to have introduced high tea to Brussels, and you can partake of it in Wittamer, a family-owned bakery, chocolaterie and tea room, and Flamant, a homeware and jewellery emporium. Pay a visit to Pierre Marcolini’s flagship store at the bottom of Grand Sablon – one of the most well-regarded chocolatiers in Belgium, his creations are artworks in themselves.
5. Palace of Justice
If you continue down Rue de la Régence you can’t miss the colossal Palace of Justice with its gold dome and towering columns. Built between 1866 and 1883, the iron and stone structure is bigger than St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. A combination of Greek, Roman and Egyptian styles, it was a labour of love for architect Joseph Poelaert, who was driven mad by the project and died three years before it was completed. Maybe this was down to the snowballing cost – paid for by the taxpayer, it went five times over budget. As it’s still the supreme court of Belgium, you can go in and have a look around for free – in the morning the main room buzzes with lawyers talking to their clients at the wooden benches around its edges. There’s also a lift next to the building that provides a great vista of the city.
6. Rouge Tomate
By now it’s probably time to refuel, so make your way down Avenue Louise to Rouge Tomate for a meal with a difference. The restaurant’s concept is healthy cuisine with a gastronomic focus, but this is not merely jumping on a trendy bandwagon – the menus are drawn up with dieticians to provide nutritious, energising meals (no cream or butter, plenty of vegetables), exquisitely presented.
The décor is similarly fresh, with a cream and red palette, close-up prints of luscious-looking vegetables, and floor-to-ceiling windows looking on to the secluded garden at the back – a good place to sit in warm weather. Try one of the speciality juices – the celery, apple and mint combination is particularly good – and if you’re here at lunchtime, the “balanced business lunch” is a good shout, with a set starter, main and coffee for €22. There is also a Rouge Tomate in New York. 190 Avenue Louise; tel +32 2647 7044; rougetomate.com