Beer, chocolate and Moules & Frites may be a cliché but food and drink is certainly a main event of any visit to Brussels.
Belgian food is possibly the best I have eaten, fresh ingredients lovingly prepared and served. The iconic Belga Queen, housed in an eighteenth century bank, is a chic brasserie utilising those wonderful Belgian beers in many of its dishes. Elsewhere, some local dishes I enjoyed include Garnallen kroketten, a snack made of tasty North Sea shrimps, and Waterzooi, Flemish fish stew.
But on virtually every street you will find an atmospheric cafe to sip those, reputedly, 1150 beers, places like ‘À la Mort Subite’ or the Art Nouveau grandeur of ‘Falstaff’. If you like Art Nouveau architecture, Brussels will delight you with its stunning buildings by Victor Horta. This was the centre of the Art Nouveau movement at the end of the 19th century.
Brussels is a chocoholic’s dream and, being married to one, I am reliably informed that the best place to buy chocolates is at ‘Mary’; indeed the husband took himself off to a ‘Mary’ chocolate-making workshop and the results were scrumptious.
Head down to the ultra-chic Galeries Royale Saint-Hubert, a 19th century glazed shopping arcade and ogle the windows of the chocolate shops and much else besides – a great refuge in the fairly frequent rainy days.
Close to the Galeries is Brussel’s most famous and quite breathtaking square, the Grand Place/Grote Markt, the medieval core of the city with its Town Hall and opulent guildhalls. This is the most memorable site and it’s worth taking time to sit in the many pavement cafes to study the architectural detailing – well that’s my excuse for another beer sampling.
The Place du Grand Sablon, dominated by the fine Notre dame du Sablon, is about a 15 minute walk from the Grand Place. A great place to sit with a coffee and do a bit of people watching; on Saturdays and Sundays there’s a wonderfully tempting Antiques Market in the square.
There are smart shops to wander through, a splendidly housed ‘Ladurée’ with its tempting macarons; and the best cakes ever, to be found at ‘Wittamer’. Close by is the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts and the Magritte Museum, so you can walk off those extra calories, whilst soaking up centuries of Belgian culture.
There are many city parks to stroll in – Brussels is one of Europe’s greenest cities, as you see when you fly in over tracts of woodland and greenery. The City of Brussels actually pays a bonus to those who construct green roofs on their property.
If you’re planning a trip in Spring, and you’re horticulturally minded, try to include a visit to the lovely ‘Floralia’ (6th April-6th May 2016) at Groot Bijgaarden, a bus or train ride away, with a million spring flowering bulbs in the grounds of a pretty Château.
Other sites on the tourist trail are the Mannekin Pis, a short walk from the Grand Place and disappointingly small, and the extraordinary Atomium which would make a great backdrop to 1960s fashion shoots or old science fiction films.
Every two years, around the 15th August, the spectacular Flower Carpet is laid in the Grand Place, constructed by volunteer gardeners using 600,000 flowers. Climbing up to the balcony of the Town Hall gives a good overview of the pattern, changed on each occasion.
Later in the year, The Christmas Market, which begins in the Grand Place and stretches for 2km, is great fun with a Son et Lumière show; it can be horribly busy but it’s a great way to get into the Christmas spirit, armed with a little glühwein perhaps – I did say food and drink were an essential part of a visit to Brussels!
Brussels Christmas Market : 27th Nov 15 – 3rd Jan 16.