There are cities where you feel compelled to do everything, where you rush about trying to see it all, pre-booking tickets and standing in line for hours. But not in Brussels. Here, the only queue you’ll find is for a freshly cooked waffle by the Manneken Pis.
It might seem absurd that this small, garden-variety statue of a cheeky kid peeing is the iconic symbol of the city, but in many respects it’s a perfect symbol of the easygoing and playful nature of the locals. They don’t take life too seriously; and when visiting Brussels, you don’t need to either.
Brussels has always been an easy place to run away to, with good food, great beer and a seemingly endless supply of chocolate. However, its status as home to the vast majority of the European Union’s institutions, and lack of big-ticket iconic attractions, means some travellers have dismissed Brussels as a Monday-to-Friday sort of city.
For those in the know, Brussels makes for a supremely easy, and affordable, weekend away. The legacy of its business-oriented roots, for travellers is a handy one: come Friday night, hotel prices plummet as hoteliers try to fill empty rooms. Adding to the city’s appeal is the fast, effortless Eurostar connection, bringing you direct from London in just under two hours.
The truth about Brussels is it rewards a savvier kind of traveller — one who’s willing to venture past the obvious tourist hotspots like the Grand Place and Lower Town. By doing so, the determined will discover quirky attractions that take a little bit more work to uncover; like the Royal Theatre Toone, a 183-year-old puppet theatre above a bar that stages classic plays, or the rambling restaurant tram, serving up haute cuisine.
Architecture fans will love the Art Nouveau and Art Deco Biennial Event, which takes place over each weekend this October, with dozens of private homes and public buildings opening up for guided tours of their ornate interiors.
Across the city, there’s always something going on — a flower carpet laid out in the main square, say, or a beer and jazz festival drawing a crowd. But the best thing about Brussels, perhaps, is it’s so relaxed you don’t feel guilty about bypassing any of this. Here, it’s perfectly acceptable to sit on a terrace in the sun with a local brew and while away a few hours doing not very much at all.
Manneken Pis: This bronze fountain sculpture may be small but since the 17th century the naughty little boy has grown to become emblematic of the city’s cheerful, easy-going nature. Located two blocks from the Grand Place amid waffle and chocolate shops, he’s frequently dressed in one of over 800 specially-made oufits, casting him as, among other things, a Tour de France rider, Dracula, Obelix and a sword-wielding samurai.
Comic book heritage: Brussels’ playful nature is reflected in its strong comic book heritage. Tintin fans should check out the Musée Hergé, which opened in 2009 an hour’s train ride from the city. Closer to the centre, over 50 comic strip murals grace otherwise dowdy walls along the Brussels’ Comic Book Route. museeherge.com
Brew it: Belgium’s beer is widely regarded as among the world’s best. The Cantillon Brewery specialises in lambic beer (traditional to the Pajottenland region). It also hosts public brewing sessions twice a year (March and November) and is home to the Brussels Museum of the Gueuze (a lambic beer). cantillon.be
Get into the swing: Brussels has a long history as a musical hotspot and is filled with vintage record stores and jazz clubs. Get a feel for the scene at the Musical Instruments Museum, where visitors are given sensor-enabled headsets that automatically play the music of the instrument they’re standing closest to. mim.fgov.be
Art nouveau: Brussels’ art nouveau movement flourished between the 1890s and 1920s, leaving a stunning decorative mark on its architecture, gardens and art. Aficionados can visit the Horta Museum — once the home and studio of one its key architects, Belgian Victor Horta; meanwhile, the tourist office has created a walk showcasing over 200 highlights. hortamuseum.be visitbrussels.be
Grand Place: Brussels’ touristy Grand Place is worth a visit if you can bear the crowds, expensive terrace cafes and overpriced chocolate shops. Lined with gold-gilded buildings and laid with high-heel-busting cobbles, the square’s centrepiece is the Town Hall, with its imposing 315ft-high tower.
Retro performances: Watch old black-and-white silent movies accompanied by live piano at Cinematek, in the Bozar arts complex, or catch a marionette puppet performance featuring anything from Hamlet toCarmen in the Royal Toone Theatre after a drink in its bar downstairs. cinematek.be toone.be
Chocolate: There’s no shortage of chocolate shops in Brussels; among the best are Pierre Marcolini — for handcrafted creations — and Laurent Gerbaud, who specialises in blending chocolate with fruits and spices.marcolini.be chocolatsgerbaud.be
Royal Galleries of Saint-Hubert: These two elegant, 18th-century glazed shopping galleries are perfect for a rainy-day stroll. Here you’ll find designer boutiques, elegant tea shops, cafes, restaurants and even a cinema and theatre. galeries-saint-hubert.com
Antiques: Brussels is renowned for its antique shops; a good spot for a bargain is the weekend antiques market at Place du Grand Sablon. A few blocks away, Stef Antiek has a vast array of quirky collectables, from model boats to vintage motorbikes. stefantiek.com
£ Maison Antoine: The city is known for its cones of frites, served with lashings of mayonnaise. Avoid the poor-quality offerings sold around the Grand Place and instead trek to Maison Antoine, a small takeaway outlet in Place Jourdan, in the EU district. maisonantoine.be
££ Brasserie du Jaloa: This haunt is popular with locals for its three-course menu du marché and beautiful garden terrace. The restaurant offers an oyster bar and the menu focuses heavily on fish and other traditional Flemish ingredients. brasseriejaloa.com
£££ Comme chez Soi: Widely seen as the best restaurant in Brussels, Comme chez Soi focuses on a seasonal French menu, with dishes such as marinated mackerel fillet with green anise seeds. commechezsoi.be
£ Hotel Metropole: Lovers of old-world elegance will fall hard for the Hotel Metropole, with its sumptuous lobby, superlative service and lavish rooms, each with a free mini-bar. metropolehotel.com
££ Taptoe Bed & Breakfast: Located near Manneken Pis, this seven-room B&B is run by artists with a studio and gallery nearby. Its individually decorated rooms share a communal area with kitchen; the most expensive room is around €129 (£110) a night. mybedinbrussels.com
£££ Hotel Bloom!: With over 300 rooms (decorated by artists), Hotel Bloom! is huge. On weekends, prices are slashed (especially if you book in advance) and guests are privy to discounted tickets for the concert hall next door. A handy 10-minute walk from the centre, plus rooms have free wi-fi. hotelbloom.com
Like a local
Hidden gems: Stacks of junk conceal treasures at the Place du Jeu de Balle flea market, which features in Tintin’s adventure The Secret of the Unicorn. Held every day, from 7am to 2pm, in the Moralles district.
Go Greek: With so much beer around comes the need for a kebab. Just back from the Grand Place is Rue Marché aux Fromages, known locally as the Rue Des Pittas, where around a dozen Greek cafes serve great gyros and kebabs. Thessalonique is among the best.
Comic relief: Hidden behind the souvenir store is the Belgian Comic Strip Center’s greatest treasure: a comic book library and reading room (open Tuesday to Saturday). Entry to the world’s biggest comic collection, with everything from the Smurfs to Tintin, is just €1.20 (£1). comicscenter.net
Delirium Café: In 2004, this iconic bar set a Guinness World Record for offering more beers than any other bar on the planet (2,004; a figure that’s now nudging 2,500). The venue, which attracts a youngish crowd, also offers a huge selection of vodka, genever and absinthe while its Thursday jam sessions are worth a visit. deliriumcafe.be
Fleur en Papier Doré: Originally a convent, this bar was once a favourite haunt of artists and writers, who often paid their bar tabs with artworks or musings. Despite being well-known, it remains a relatively low-key place to enjoy a beer, soak up the creative vibes and scan the walls filled with sketches and scribblings. lafleurenpapierdore.be
L’Archiduc: Nat King Cole and Miles Davis have played at this art deco jazz joint near the Bourse, where the music gets going late and the crowd sips cocktails and whiskies around the central grand piano until dawn. Open daily from 5pm. archiduc.net
British Airways flies from Heathrow to Brussels, while Brussels Airlines flies from Birmingham, Edinburgh, Heathrow and Manchester. Ryanair flies to Brussels Charleroi from Edinburgh and Manchester. ba.com brusselsairlines.com ryanair.com
Average flight time: 1h5m.
It’s also possible to connect via Eurostar, which runs nine times daily from London St Pancras to Brussels. 1hr 51m. eurostar.com
When to go
At weekends, hotel prices dip sharply. Summer can be crowded due to beer, flower and music festivals; winter is a good option for Christmas markets and hearty Flemish food.
Need to know
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.16.
International dial code: 00 32 2.
Time Difference: GMT +1.
How to do it
Railbookers offers two nights at the four-star Hilton Brussels City from £179 per person based on two sharing, including a Eurostar return from London St Pancras. railbookers.com
Frommer’s Brussels & Bruges Day by Day. RRP: £8.99.
Lonely Planet Pocket Bruges & Brussels. RRP: £7.99.
Bradt Travel Guides Flanders: Northern Belgium. RRP: £15.99.
Published in the October 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)