In this post, JohnnyK provides you with his tried-and-true tips for a successful Brussels adventure.
• Grand Place (the ultimate square!)
• Galéries St-Hubert (gorgeous covered arcade/mall – the first in Northern Europe)
• Place du Sablon (a visit to chocolatier Marcolini is a must – it is open on Sunday; also check out the patissier Wittamer for mean cakes)
• Palais du Justice (an immense building – it stands in the upper town where you will get nice views of Brussels).
• Avenue Louise (this is just 3 minutes walk from Justice; posh shopping but all closed on a Sunday; however, small pedestrian streets off Louise have some nice cafes that are open on Sunday)
• Royal Palace (boring building but beautiful park across the street)
• Place du Jeu de Balle (a must on a Sunday morning – a nice square with one of Europe’s most famous flea markets. Restaurants on the N-E corner serve traditional soups and do brisk business on that morning).
• Musée des Beaux Arts (superb collection and small crowds relative to other big cities – go there if its raining; there is a delicious cafe in there as well)
• Comic strip museum – very wacky – classic Belgium!
• Place des Martyrs (nice symmetric square off the main commercial pedestrian area of rue Neuve)
• Manneken Pis (ridiculous but a must)
Through the winding streets around Grand Place and the Galleries Saint-Hubert, including rue des Bouchers (don’t eat there, unless you go to Vincent or Chez Leon) and on the other side of the Grand Place towards the Manneken Pis (note that the bar directly across the street has an amazing beer selection and is worth a quick break, even if it is in the heart of tourist land).
Also walk west down from the Grand Place, past the Bourse (there is an excellent authentic Belgian frites place on the south side of the Bourse), across the street and into Saint-Gery. There are lots of 30-something cafes and bars there and I highly recommend you take a stroll in the evening. Further west there is the trendy street Antoine Dansaert which leads to a few more fantastic squares (I think near your hotel): Place Saint-Catherine and Place du Vieux Marche-Aux-Grains.
Get an Art Nouveau map at the tourist info centre (they cost €2 I think). The best Art Nouveau areas are just outside the city centre. Square Ambiorix has some classics and is just a quick metro ride away. It is also adjacent to the admittedly underwhelming EU district. Even better, the Horta Museum (Horta was one of the big Art Nouveau architects) is on rue Americaine, which is at the beginning of a fantastic neighbourhood with Place du Chatelain as its centre. Lots of restaurants off of this area. Beautiful buildings too.
On Sunday morning head over to Jeu de Balle to check out the awesome flea market and then walk through the streets of the traditionally working class area of Marolles. The best streets are rue Haute and rue Blaes. Both have shops open on Sunday (shocking!) and both lead you back toward the Sablon (for chocolate and the Musee des Beaux Arts!) or else to a small square (Place Breugel) where there is a public glass elevator that takes you right up to the Palais de Justice (for nice views).
Places to avoid:
Place de la Monnaie (horrible square – fortunately being rebuilt – home to famous theatre where Belgian “revolution” began).
Go for classic Belgian food! This is comprised of dishes like: carbonade (Flemish beef stew in beer), jamboneaux (the most amazing leg of pork in a mustard sauce), chicons farcis (endives – a very rich and tasty Belgian specialty), moules/frites and steak/frites, lapin a la kriek/geuze (two different types of Belgian beer), Waterzooi (nice creamy stew), and stoemp (a potato mash with huge local sausages on top). Remember, massive portions and French tastes! You will not be disappointed.
I recommend the restaurant “Fin de Siecle” near your hotel on Rue des Chartreux 9. The sign is very small and it is definitely a local scene, so look first for the big “Greenwich” café sign (the Greenwich is a famous chess café of the intelligentsia). It is right beside it. If it is too full, try right across the street in the triangle-shaped building which splits the Chartreux and Artevelde streets. If neither of those work, you can try the classic Falstaff (Henri Mausstraat 19) which is in an Art Nouveau building right across from the Bourse (and down from that frites shop). The food isn’t sensational, but it is well made and includes all the classics. On Anton Dansaert there is a trendy (interesting illuminated interior) and well known place called “Bonsoir Clara”.
There are a million other restaurants to choose from, so I leave it to you (and your tour book!). Place Saint-Catherine, also near your hotel, has some good eats.
Right off rue des Bouchers is the famous “Delirium” which has the largest beer collection in the world. It is a bit touristy on a Saturday night, but a Sunday visit could be good. There is also the bar across from the Manneken Pis. After that probably the classic – although not with a massive selection – is “A la Mort Subite” (Rue Montagne aux Herbes Potagères 7). They say it hasn’t changed in 100 years and still serves the range of Mort Subite beers (the old fashioned “geuze” is my favourite – lambic beer indigenous to Brussels). I would contemplate going there on Saturday night for a beer before heading down to the St-Gery district.
Most bars will serve at least a few interesting beers, including the best mainstream beer in the world (in my opinion), Duvel. They should always serve the beer in its correct glass BTW (a nice touch). Just don’t go for Leffe or Stella, since they’re easy to find elsewhere and don’t represent the epitome of Belgian brewing.
Other great beers (light to heavy): Saison Dupont, Geuze Boon, Kwak (just for the funny presentation!), Orval (lighter than it looks), Saint Feuillen, St Bernardus, Rochefort, Triple Karmeliet, Bush (strongest beer in the world I believe), etc etc.