When it comes to tourism in Belgium, Brussels gets a bad rap.
Go to Bruges, they say, for the picturesque canals and mediaeval centre.
Go to Antwerp, they say, for world class art and hipster fashion.
Go to Ghent, they say, for more of the same plus cycling too.
Go to Ypres, they say, for WW1 history.
But Brussels? Brussels is often dismissed as little more than a hub for politicians and lobbyists.
Of course, there’s much more to Brussels than politics! Yes, Brussels is the home of the European Union, NATO and the United Nation’s European office…
…but it is also the capital of a country of two halves – the Dutch-speaking Flemish region of Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia in the South. Multicultural Brussels, the third region of the country, is bilingual though French is now more prevalent than Dutch. These days English is widely spoken as well as many other languages, indeed it’s said that as much as half the population speak neither French nor Dutch as their native tongue.
As a Londoner, one of the things I find most appealing about Brussels is this sense of multiculturalism. Although the issue of language is still a hot potato for many Belgians, especially when it comes to education and cultural identity, Brussels is a city that is very open to the world. Indeed, we chat to Pierre from the local tourist board who tells us that the people of Brussels refer to themselves as zinneke (bastard dogs), wearing their mongrel heritage with pride. Pierre is himself the perfect example – his mother is gipsy, his father Walloon and Flemish, his wife Brazilian and his sisters are married to a German, a Frenchman and a Czech, respectively!
Brussels is a vibrant city with a historic heart and a modern outlook. And the Eurostar service takes you from London St Pancras to Brussels Midi-Zuid in less than two and a half hours!
When it comes to sightseeing, you still can’t beat a good old-fashioned guide book, or the website equivalent. I won’t try to recreate that here but suggest that as well as the popular Gothic and baroque buildings of the Grand Place and surrounding narrow cobbled streets, the shiny Atomium housing a variety of exhibitions and the incomprehensibly mobbed corner where the Mannekin Pis resides you might want to look up Jeanneke Pis and Zinneke Pis – the squatting female and doggie equivalents of Mannekin, the Belgian Comic Strip Centre (and the Comic Strip walk that takes you past comics painted on the walls of a number of buildings), an amazing array of grand buildings such as the Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula, the Bourse (stock exchange), the Royal Palace, the Basilique du Sacré Coeur and the architecture of art nouveau architect Victor Horta. Lovers of literature, art, history and even cars, will also appreciate several excellent museums in Brussels.
Instead, I’m going to share my tips for some great places to eat, drink, shop and sleep.
Chocolates and Patisserie
Brussels is awash with shops selling chocolate, but much of what’s on sale is cheap, bulk-manufactured products that are hardly worth wasting suitcase space for. Here are the ones that are worth seeking out.
Laurent Gerbaud is one of Belgium’s rising chocolatiers and is fighting an uphill battle to move Belgians on from the idea of “Belgian chocolate” to an understanding of the actual origins and varieties available.
Like several chocolatiers I’ve met, Laurent was a chef first; he came to chocolate via chocolate sculpture with an artist friend, and that lead, eventually, to his current career. As a child, he developed an interest in China, perhaps because of several friendships he had with Chinese and Taiwanese families. He worked in Chinese restaurants, took courses in Chinese and, after a university degree in history, finally moved to China for a couple of years. There, he discovered that the Chinese don’t have as sweet a tooth as Europeans and he lost his taste for high sugar sweets. When he came back to Belgium, he had the obvious thought of bringing his experiences in China into his chocolate making but realised he wasn’t inspired by fusion flavours. Instead, he focused on quality ingredients, including some sourced from Asia.
Today, the Chinese influences is perhaps most evident in his logo which is an artistic interpretation of the Chinese hanzi characters for “chocolate” and his name.
Laurent is keen to make chocolate that people love to eat; he says “one of my purposes is to make junk food – you eat one and you want another because it’s really good”. Judging by the chocolates we tasted, he’s nailed it – I could have eaten a whole box of the chocolates made with dried figs from Turkey and candied oranges from Italy. His shop on Rue Ravenstein is also a boutique tea room, with plans to extend the service to offer a savoury menu too.
Tip: Of course, you can visit his shop just to buy some of his excellent chocolate, but for a more personal experience, book a chocolate tasting or chocolate making workshop.
Pierre Marcolini is one of the few Belgian chocolatiers to make chocolate from bar to bean, before then using it to make a range of chocolates. His chocolate shop at 2 Rue de Minimes is certainly full of temptation but what I recommend above the chocolate is a visit to the address around the corner at 39 Grote Zavel, where his spectacular patisserie is sold. I found the macarons surprisingly disappointing but a glossy strawberry patisserie was a winner.
Other famous chocolate brands in Brussels include Wittamer (a long standing bakery and chocolate business) and Frederic Blondeel (a chef turned chocolatier who also makes chocolate from bean to bar).
Speculoos, hailing from Belgium and The Netherlands, are spiced shortcrust biscuits that were originally associated with the feast of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) in early December. Made from flour, brown sugar and butter with a spice mix that usually includes cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamom and white pepper, these days they are popular and available all year round.
Maison Dandoy, established in 1829, makes a range of sweet bakery products but is best known for its traditional speculoos and gingerbread biscuits. These days, it has a handful of shops in Brussels, but its worth making a trip to its oldest remaining store at 31 Rue au Beurre, to admire the beautiful wooden biscuit moulds lining the shelves. The Tea Room on Rue Charles Buls (also known as Karel Bulsstraat) is larger, offering the opportunity to enjoy a wide range of biscuits, pastries and drinks inside. There are an additional four shops in Brussels, plus one in nearby Waterloo.
Having tried several supermarket brands of speculoos biscuit, I was surprised to discover that it’s not just a case of fancy shops and branding – the Maison Dandoy speculoos biscuits are definitely superior!
We also tried Dandoy’s pain à la Grecque, a crunchy bread-cum-biscuit coated with pearled sugar crystals. I was more fascinated by the origins of the name than the biscuit itself – over two centuries ago, the monks of a local Augustine abbey used to support the city’s destitute by giving them bread. The abbey was located near a place known as Wolvengracht (Wolves Ditch); the gracht pronounced grecht in local dialect. Over time, pain a la grecht morphed into pain à la Grecque, confusing generations of shoppers with its erroneous suggestion of a Greek origin.
Tip: If you’re as huge a fan of speculoos biscuits as we are, make a quick visit to a supermarket to pick up a couple of extra large packs of mass-produced biscuits as well. There’s a mini supermarket in Brussels Midi Station.
I first fell for cuberdons over two decades ago, and if anything, I love them even more today. A purply-dark red colour and conical in shape, the cuberdon is a raspberry-flavoured gummy sweet, firm on the outside with an oozing interior. In Dutch, it’s known as a neus (nose), in French it’s called a chapeau-de-curé or chapeau-de-prêtre (priest’s hat).
You can find cuberdons in quite a few sweet shops in Brussels, several of which sell multiple colours and flavours, a relatively recent phenomenon. But we’ve found that the best prices for regular raspberry cuberdons is from the Cric-Crac sweet shop inside Brussels Midi station, which sells by weight.
Tip: These sweets are best eaten within a couple of weeks of purchase, as the liquid centre can crystallise and harden if left for too long.
Belgian Waffles fall into two types.
Firm, rich and chewy Gaufre de Liège (Liège Waffle) are made from an adapted brioche-dough and work well both hot and cold. These are usually oval in shape and have a slightly crunchy exterior from the crystallised sugar that has caramelised against the waffle iron. They’re great for eating on the hoof as they’re traditionally eaten plain (though you can buy them with toppings too if you prefer).
Rectangular Brussels Waffles are made with a leavened batter, resulting in a much lighter and airier texture and are definitely at their best enjoyed hot, fresh from the waffle iron. Traditionally, Brussels waffles are served with a dusting of icing sugar but these days you can choose from a wide selection of toppings including ice cream, chocolate sauce and fruits. But I suggest you ignore all of those and ask for your waffle with a generous dollop of speculoos paste. With a texture much like smooth peanut butter, this sweet spread is the same flavour as the famous biscuit and melts wonderfully into the indentations of a freshly-cooked hot waffle.
Tip: You’ll find waffles on sale all over Brussels, often from hole-in-the wall vendors, but if you want to sit down and eat, try Maison Dandoy’s Tearoom.
Beer & Bars
Belgium is world famous for its beers and rightly so, with a rich tradition that goes back many, many centuries. The range of beers produced by Belgian breweries is impressive, including pale, golden, amber, red and dark ales, dubbels and tripels, Flemish sour brown, Champagne beers (which receive a second fermentation using the method now most strongly associated with Champagne), wheat beers and lambics (spontaneously fermented with wild yeasts that are native to the brewery, as opposed to the addition of cultivated yeasts).
Both Pete and I absolutely love what owner Jean Hummler is offering at his two bars, Moeder Lambic and Moeder Lambic Fontainas, located at 68 rue de Savoie and 8 place Fontainas, respectively. He started the first bar less than five years ago, after a career working for industrial food businesses in France.
He starts off by telling us why he wanted to do something different; “most places are not very selective, they sell coca cola and junk food” and their beer selection is not very inspiring either. He is committed to selling only quality produce and that applies to the beers, the food and even the soft drinks. He has two key criteria, the way a product is made and how it tastes. “Making money and brewing great beer are often not the same job”, he laughs. He looks for products that are made by hand, adding that he doesn’t want “industrial anything”. For a beer to be selected it must be made with craft and it must pass the taste test – it must taste good! Right now, he has approximately 150 beers on the menu of which 46 are on tap. These include beers from around the world, including a number from the UK.
The same principles apply to his sourcing of cheeses and charcuterie (which form the main thrust of the simple menu) and the non-beer drinks menu (which includes some delicious farmhouse apple juice, for those less interested in the beers).
The cheese selection (€12.5) is utterly wonderful; all are raw milk cheeses and range from soft and mild to fantastically pungent, each one a genuine delight. In the centre of the serving board is a bowl of pottekees – a blend of fresh white cheese, onion, pepper and lambic beer. Just as excellent is the meat selection (€12.5) which includes garlic sausage, French sausage, paté made with geuze beer, hâte levée – pork cooked slowly in bouillon with garlic and spices, Tierenteyn mustard, Belgian pickles (which are a lot like piccalilli). Both plates are served with a basket of bread and a superb raw milk butter.
As he introduces each item on the plates, his enthusiasm for the producers and their products is self-evident; “The idea is to offer another selection, another quality, another explanation that most people don’t know exists”.
Two other key policies for Hummler are ensuring that all his staff know and love the product range, and establishing strong relationships with each supplier – and one (of many) ways he furthers both is the Moeder Fucker series of beers brewed by Le Paradis microbrewery not far from Nancy, in France. For each beer he sends two of his staff to the brewery to help make it; they decide which style of beer to make and work with the brewery team to create their vision. During our visit, Moeder Fucker IV was on tap.
As we talked, Pete tried five beers, guided by Hummler through the staggering range available. He drank Taras Boulba by local Brasserie de la Senne (Belgium), Moeder Fucker IV by Le Paradis (France), Mozaic Black by Mont Saleve (France), Cuvée De Ranke by Ranke (Belgium) and Fièvre de Cacao by Thiriez (France).
In the end, Hummler is a man after my own heart. “We all have to decide. Each citizen has to decide what they want to do with their life. I decided for myself that I wanted to eat very good food. I eat less and less meat, maybe once a week but what I eat is very good, like the chicken that is aged 120 days on a small farm. Taste is very important to me.”
Tip: Ask staff for guidance in selecting beers for your own beer flight.
Small and traditional pub La Fleur en Papier Doré was the perfect place to meet local friends for an evening drink. At 55 Rue des Alexiens, it was very close to our bed and breakfast, and also easy to reach by local bus. The menu shares a little of the history of the bar, housed in a small maisonette that dates from the mid 18th century. In the past it housed a convent, which moved to a new home in the middle of the 20th century. As a pub, it became the favoured meeting place of the Surrealist cultural movement with regulars including René Magritte; a few decades later it was a focus point for the Cobra (avant-garde) movement, creators of experimental art and philosophy. Mementos of both remain on the well-worn walls of the cosy pub, protected (along with the façade, the ground floor rooms and some of the furniture) by the local government which has decreed them of historical value.
Stop for a few beers (and some charcuterie) or for a simple meal.
The Cantillon Brewery welcomes visitors for brewery tours (7 Euros including a beer) or to buy beer. You can buy to drink in or takeaway; lovers of lambic will particularly enjoy a visit. The address at 56 Rue Gheude is only a short walk from the central tourist district.
My first recommendation for a light lunch is the cheese plate and charcuterie selection at Moeder Lambic, above. Super quality, and each provides a generous portion for the price.
Another great option is recently opened Peck 47 (amusingly named for its address at 47 Rue Marche Aux Poulets). This all day cafe offers a short menu of home made sandwiches, salads, soups, cakes, fresh juices, smoothies and a small selection of local beers. For just €8, my poached eggs on sourdough with smoked salmon and homemade relish was far more generous than I expected and all the items were of excellent quality. The eggs were perfectly poached, the salad nicely dressed and the home made relish very good indeed. Pete’s sandwich – roast chicken, rocket, lemon and basil mayo and slow roasted tomatoes – also impressed, for €5.
Tip: A particularly nice touch is that the free tap water is stored in the drinks fridge in large bottles stuffed with mint. Ask for some!
A Traditional Dinner
I have to say from the off – don’t go to Restobieres if you’re looking for great service. The three staff on duty ranged from friendly but incompetent through utterly disinterested to downright sullen. That usually stops me from recommending a place but Restobieres is a good option if you’re keen to try traditional Belgian dishes alongside a range of Belgian beers.
Herve Cheese Croquets (€10) were a tasty comfort food, served hot and freshly fried. Homemade paté with Rochefort and foie gras (€12) was a generous slab; light on the foie gras but tasty nonetheless. My calf’s liver with shallots and Chouffe (€20) was decent; I really liked the beer and shallot sauce. Pete had satisfactory steak and chips with another good sauce and a generous well-dressed salad. The star of the mains was our friend’s bloempanch blood pudding (€12) which was both tasty and generously portioned for the price.
The only duff note (with the exception of the service) was a scoop of speculoos biscuit ice cream (€4) which we decided could only possibly have been made by a chef who’d never tasted speculoos (and not bothered to look up a recipe for the spices usually used). The texture was unpleasantly gritty too.
Located at 9 rue des Renards, not far from the Jeu de Balle flea market.
Brussel’s Modern Dining Scene
I already explained how much we liked the multicultural vibe in Brussels. This goes equally for the food scene, which has some great restaurants to explore. One such place launched just a few weeks before our visit; located along very trendy Rue de Flandre in the Sainte Catherine district, Gramm is a restaurant offering bold, inventive and modern food. It’s headed up by Chef Erwan Kenzo Nakata, who grew up in Brittany to a French father and Japanese mother, thus explaining some of the eclectic Japanese touches to otherwise modern French cooking.
The evening offering is a fixed tasting menu, 6 courses for €38. Although the courses are individually quite small, we felt very satisfied at the end of our meal, having enjoyed the array of tastes, textures and colours in Nakata’s self-assured dishes.
While I felt the food was good value, I was less impressed with the drinks pricing, for wines, beers and soft drinks (which were served in shockingly tiny glasses) so if you’re on a fixed budget, keep an eye on your drinks orders to avoid a shock at the end of the evening. Also, do set aside plenty of time. Service is very warm and friendly but the wait between courses, even in a nearly empty restaurant, is a little longer than ideal.
Tip: Don’t be shy about asking for more of the excellent bread and butter, by the way, it’s great for mopping up some of the juices and sauces!
The Marolles Flea Market
Usually, I’m not much of a shopper but offer me the chance to browse a car boot sale or flea market and I’m instantly excited, so I was very keen to return to the famous Marolles Flea Market held daily in the Place du Jeu de Balle. On sale is a charming mix of cheap tat and more expensive “antiques”; it’s definitely a case of one man’s rubbish being another man’s treasure. With my love of retro kitchenware, I was in heaven as there’s plenty of it here, at very bargainous prices. It’s actually a miracle I came away with only a couple of ornate old teaspoons and two Nestle branded cups and saucers in amber glass – there was, I think, a complete set of six in the box but most were too chicken-shit-and-feather covered to assess very well, so I just bought the two cleanest ones for a whopping €1!
The market runs every day of the year. Official start times state that it starts at 6 am and finishes at 2pm on weekdays, 3pm on weekends.
Tip: Take lots of small change with you and of course, be prepared to haggle!
Brussels has many more markets to visit including markets for art, food, flowers and vintage clothes.
An Elegant Pillow
X2B Brussels is a family run luxury bed and breakfast in the heart of Brussels, just a few minutes walk from the Grand Place. The three guest bedrooms are each on a different floor – we booked the first floor double and were delighted to discover a vast room with soaringly high ceilings, simple and elegant furnishings and a very generous en-suite bathroom. Do note that none of the rooms have step-free access and, as you’d expect in a private home, there is no lift. Guests are welcomed either by owner Xavier or his mother Monique, who sit down with guests on arrival to share tips for visiting Brussels, personalised to their guests’ interests. Breakfast is excellent: a basket of fresh bread and pastries with an enormous selection of jams and spreads, cheese and cold hams, yoghurt, eggs however you’d like them, rounded off by coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice. The hot freshly made raisin bread pain perdu is a lovely touch. Free wifi is also a boon, for those of us who like to stay connected. From £160 a night including breakfast.
Tip: make sure you jot down the house number as well as the street name; there’s no obvious sign on the outside so we walked up and down the same stretch of road several times, eventually identifying the B&B only by peering at the tiny labels for individual doorbells.
In terms of getting around, the key sites in Brussels are within a fairly small area and its certainly possible to walk. But you can also make use of the metro and tram network, as well as local buses. The Brussels Card gives unlimited use of public transport, free entry into some attractions, discounted entry into many more and discounts in shops and restaurants too. You will also be given a free city map. Available for 24, 48 or 72 hours for 24€, 36€ or 43€.
With thanks to Eurostar for the complimentary return tickets between London and Brussels and thanks to the Brussels Tourist Board for their assistance in planning some of our sightseeing highlights and their insight into historic and modern Brussels.