Brussels is as textured as the tapestries that put it on the medieval map. Never culturally isolated, this historic trade center in the heart of tiny Belgium now serves as the seat of the European Union and continues its age-old tendency to define itself by its global influences. Speaking two official languages—Flemish and French—with nearly one third of the population foreign born, it might be a metaphor for Europe itself. As other more staid capitals have lost their luster, this one continues to thrive. Creativity and invention explain it. Brussels has had so much innovation: surrealism, art nouveau, the comic strip, the haute couture of Olivier Strelli, beer, chocolate, waffles, and—naturellement—the Belgian fry.
48 Hours in Brussels
Text by Becca Hensley
With new museums, fresh fashions, and a grand square, this city surprises.
1. Cavort on the Catwalk Wander the cobblestone streets of the Dansaert district to discover why Brussels' a la mode design lures fashionistas from across Europe and as far away as Japan. Once the site of a 10th-century fortification, built on a river that served the textile trade, the area's now the lair of both emerging and established designers, many of them graduates of La Cambre, Brussels' acclaimed fashion school. The boutiques and ateliers beg to be explored. Find colorful but minimalist furniture by Xavier Lust; clinging Hollywood-heyday boudoir dresses by Nicolas Woit, vintage hats by Christophe Coppens (who designs for the Belgian royalty); and diaphanous travel pieces by African-influenced Olivier Strelli—whose clients include Mick Jagger and Brigitte Bardot.
2. Flee to the Markets Bring a shopping bag and join the throngs between rue Haute and the rue Blaes on the Place du Jeu de Balle, where a flea market—with every manner of treasure—has been held every day since the 1870s. Afterward, roam the streets and vintage shops of this district known as the Marolle. Revive with a coffee in De Skieven Architekt, an old world café that serves breakfast starting at 5 a.m. Then, take a short walk to the Sablon, an upscale area that divides Upper Brussels from Lower. Noted for its antiques shops, the Sablon features Brussels' best chocolatiers. Try the ganache-filled creations at century-old Wittamer; then, cross the street to sample the sublime truffles of his one-time protégée, Pierre Marcolini.
3. Inhale From a Green Lung You can ramble or bike through Brussels on a green trail that winds some 37 miles from park to park. The city's self-service bike rental program, Villo, has placed 2,500 bikes across the city in various train and bike stations and in most parks. The bikes can be rented for a modest fee (1.5 euros daily). The Gare du Nord station not only rents bikes but also repairs them. Join an organized bike tour, such as Pro Velo's Brussels for Beginners trek or their Beer and Breweries expedition, both lasting about four hours (www.provelo.org).
4. Quench Your Thirst "This is my headquarters," says tour guide Didier Rochette, sipping a day's end beer in the dark, smoky L'Image Notre-Dame, a typical estaminet (small café) down an alley near the Grand Place. "Estaminets are better than bars because they offer more variety," he explains, noting that they also have their beer brewed locally and offer types that aren't available at regular bars. Do try some strong Trappist beer, as well as kriek, a fruity concoction infused with bitter cherries, at La Morte Subite, a pub whose name means Sudden Death.
5. Climb an (Art) Hill Museums galore cover the Mont des Arts, literally Art Hill. Opened in 2009, the Magritte Museum deconstructs native artist René Magritte's life with letters, photos, and never-before-seen paintings and drawings, while connecting him to his artistic peers. Next door, at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, the Brueghels alone are worth the $12 admission price. Music buffs will be fascinated by the old instruments displayed in the Musical Instruments Museum.
6. Mussels in Brussels No meal more evokes Brussels than moules: that is, mussels cooked in broth and served with a side of crispy frites. Restaurants offering them abound, each putting their spin on the dish. Try the family-operated cafés opposite St. Catherine's Church near the old fish market—like La Villette or L'Huiterie.
Fast Facts A compact capital with approximately one million inhabitants, Brussels sits in the center of Belgium, a country nearly the size of Maryland that's bordered by Germany, France, the Netherlands, and the sea. Fast trains, such as the Thalys, provide easy access from the rest of Europe (Liège and Bruges, Belgium; Paris and Lille, France; and Amsterdam are less than two hours away). A visual feast, see the city's Renaissance-baroque central square called the Grand Place (now a UNESCO World Heritage site) and the elegant 15th-century Town Hall (Hôtel de Ville) with its recently renovated 310-foot tower.
Brussels Hotel Finder: Four Insider Picks
The Amigo Built on the grounds of a 16th-century prison, the Amigo sits just behind the 17th-century town hall, steps from the Grand Place. Elegantly refurbished by the family-owned Rocco Forte brand, it's filled with items that reflect the city's history: tapestries, linens, African art, Magritte prints, and framed posters of beloved cartoon hero, Tintin. Nice touch: Amenities include laminated cards with jogging routes. From $260.
Welcome Hotel Brussels Owned and run by Michel and Sophie Smeesters, this friendly hotel cossets patrons in rooms designed to celebrate the city's diversity. Each room conjures the mood of a different locale (from the Belgian Congo to Istanbul) and is adorned thematically with site appropriate artifacts, such as indigenous drums, Turkish carpets, and Moroccan lanterns. Ideally situated just off the Place St. Catherine, it offers free Internet, a homemade buffet breakfast, and an affable atmosphere. From $175.
The White Hotel A nod to the Brussels high fashion scene, this hotel is uber trendy, done in—you guessed it—a lot of white. Located in the Avenue Louise area, an upscale shopping district that recalls the Champs-Elysée, it's just a 20-minute walk from the historic districts downtown. From $130.
Hotel Café Pacific This artistic hotel exudes the poetry and chic of the Dansaert fashion district where it lies. All clean lines and minimalism within, this 12-room hotel's entrance is through its original 1890s stained glass door. From $139.
Published in the March 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler
By Meg Beasley
Not only is Brussels the capital of Belgium, but as the administrative center of the European Union, Brussels also claims the title of capital of Europe. The city’s Flemish and French roots are complimented by an increasingly cosmopolitan vibe. It is fitting that the center of the EU showcases the duality between history and modernity that is so central to European identity. But don’t think that Brussels is merely a collection of Europe’s best; the city is famous in its own right for beer, chocolate, and frites known around the world.
Here you can take a photo tour of Brussels before your plane even leaves the tarmac. There is also a practical guide with the contact information for emergencies, transportation, parking, help by phone, and general information.
Essentially an encyclopedia for Brussels, this site is a well-organized trove of links, guides, and interesting facts about the city. Learn about the city's air quality or its tallest buildings.
This site has something for everyone, with indices for travel, entertainment, attractions, and current news. One especially nice feature is a succinct section about travel requirements and visas.
The complete guide to any and everything happening in Brussels, from ballets to heavy metal concerts. You can search for an event and buy tickets to it on this Belgian equivalent of Ticketmaster.
This official website of the Brussels tourism board offers a wealth of resources. Find maps and MP3 guides to theme walks such as the Comic Strip Trail, Brussels Art Nouveau, and the European District. Use the Gourmet Guide to find the perfect restaurant. Or browse the site to learn the latest goings-on in the city's social scene as well as topics of political discussion.
This website is divided into five categories, Nightlife & Fun, Low Budget, Europe, Art & Culture, and Students, each manned by a unique guide. For example, Brussela Cheraton, a 19-year-old French woman who is "your ticket to the craziest and most exclusive parties in town," offers advice in the Nightlife & Fun section while Poco, a 28-year-old Spaniard skilled in the art of low budget travel, shares tips on experiencing Brussels without breaking the bank.
The tag line "If surreal had a nationality, it would be Belgium" says it all. This blog highlights quirky events and experiences in Belgium's capital.
Live from Brussels chronicles the thoughts and observations of Maarten, a dad working from home in Brussels. His musings touch on everything from popular television shows to current events.
For insight into the political issues Belgians are talking about, visit Chasing Brussels. This English-language podcast by a group of Eurobloggers hopes to make prescient political issues more accessible and interesting. Discussions include issues facing the European Union and Europe in general, with recent topics such as language barriers throughout the continent or gender politics.
The BBC offers language tutorials for French and Dutch through a variety of media including podcasts, videos, games, and television transcripts.
For short English-Dutch podcasts, visit the Dutch Grammar Podcast. Here you can learn how (and when) to say Dutch jokes or practice words commonly used in sollicitatie, telephone conversations.
Newspapers and Magazines
This self-described "voice of conservatism in Europe" is a publication aimed at challenging what the publishers feel is the consensus culture in European thought. Topics include the historical (the Flemish influence on American Thanksgiving) as well as modern (the Lisbon Treaty's creation of the European Union as a state).
This weekly newspaper, published by the Economist Group since 1995, is not tied to or based in any country, giving it a unique perspective on social and political thought in Europe.
In circulation since 1962, the Bulletin bills itself as "continental Europe's most successful English-language publication." It is geared towards expats living in Brussels, offering updates on news, arts, community events, job listings, and more, but is a great resource for visitors as well. Free salsa lessons anyone?
A twice-yearly publication put out by the Bulletin, Newcomer is packed with vital information to help new arrivals in Belgium. Hints and tips guide you through the settling-in process, including how to get through the red tape on your arrival and advice about the practical aspects of living in Belgium.
Published annually, Brussels Insider is a handy, pocket-sized guide to shops, restaurants, and gyms in the capital of Europe.
This collection provides links to a variety of maps, depending on your needs. Do you want to calculate travel time or orient yourself with an aerial map?
Offers detailed but easy-to-read maps of Brussels's various districts.
Anglo-Info adapts Google maps for easy use by English speakers in Belgium.
The Adventures of Tintin by Herge
This classic series of 24 comic strip albums feature the young reporter Tintin as the hero in an epidemic of petty crimes around Brussels. Written and illustrated by Georges Remi under the pen name Herge, the first strip appeared in 1929 and over the subsequent 50 years the capers have been reprinted in newspapers, magazines, and books around the world as well as adapted for film and theater.
Villette by Charlotte Bronte (1853)
Charlotte Bronte's final novel is set in Brussels, where she lived and taught for two years. Bronte's novel does not portray Brussels in a flattering light, instead reflecting her personal experiences of loneliness, cultural alienation and unrequited love. Still, Villette paints a moving picture of 19th-century Brussels through Bronte's heroine Lucy Snowe.
This film is based on the experience of director Samy Szlingerbaum's parents in the 1940s. They traveled to Brussels from Poland with a limited travel visa but stayed longer, moving from neighborhood to neighborhood, never quite feeling at home.
Starring Brussels native Jaun-Claude Van Damme as himself, JCVD paints Van Damme as an out-of-luck actor on the losing end of a custody battle who returns to his native Brussels where he is still hailed as an icon. The plot takes a twist when Van Damme finds himself in the middle of a hostage situation for which the police mistakenly hold him responsible.
In Bruges (2008)
Though not set in Brussels, In Bruges offers a wonderful glimpse into life in the well-preserved medieval city of Bruges, renowned for its gothic architecture, canals, and cobblestone streets. Two hit men are ordered to the quaint town after a job gone wrong to await their next orders. As they live the lives of tourists in this dark comedy, the pair begin to question their line of work but must make a decision when their instructions arrive.