Conjure up an image of a romantic European city break; filled with arts, culture and fine food, and chances are good that Brussels isn’t near the top of your list. And yet, it’s remarkable that this charming city has somehow failed to garner much attention. Little do we know of the Art Nouveau architecture, the intimate galleries, the vibrant café culture, and the buzzing restaurant scene.
With Air Belgium offering direct flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg to Brussels, the Belgian capital has never been easier to get to. Whether you’re passing through en route to elsewhere, or looking for a new European city to discover, it’s time to put Brussels on your hit list…
Colourful history, urban regeneration
There’s a palpable sense of energy on the streets of Brussels, not least in the scaffolding that seems to be sprouting across the city. Alongside the dramatic Baroque flourishes of the Grand Place or the late-Gothic spires of Eglise Notre-Dame de la Chapelle, there are urban renewal projects aplenty. Perhaps most impressive is at Gare Maritime, a short tram ride beyond the historic centre, where a former industrial railway terminus has been transformed into a multi-faceted live-work-play destination.
Beneath the original soaring steel arches modernised with glass and wood, there are public squares and open gardens that play host to public markets and open-air concerts. You’ll also find the city’s largest indoor Padel facility if that’s your thing. But the best reason to visit is the food hall, where a dozen outlets dish up everything from Korean bao to Italian classics. There’s a sizeable bar, communal tables and a wide terrace that’s popular for evening Aperols. It’s a fine place to soak up a lively local vibe. Also, look for the kitchen concept stores popping up alongside.
Tap into the arts
The Belgian capital may not be home to many landmark art museums, but what the city’s galleries lack in stature they gain in focus and character. Start at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts with a remarkable collection of Old Masters ranging from Bosch to Bruegel and Rubens. But if the city has a favoured artist, it’s the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte, and you’ll find an impressive collection of his works here, tracing Magritte’s evolution as an artist.
There’s a vibrant culture of street art here too, largely inspired by the city’s rich connection with graphic art. This is the city of Hergé and Maurice De Bevere after all, and following the trail of the two-dozen comic book murals is a good way to wander into lesser-known corners of Brussels. Avowed comic aficionados can tap into the Comic Strip Museum and the Museum of Original Figurines.
The heart of Europe
Brussels is the political centre of Europe, and the city’s European Quarter offers a fascinating glimpse into the workings of the bloc. A handy app allows for self-guided audio tours of the precinct, where the likes of the European Commission and European Parliament shape one of the world’s most important regions. To delve deeper, book a guided visit to the Parliament and Hemicycle chamber, where the key debates and historic votes are taken. It’s free of charge, but bookings are essential. Nearby, the House of European History offers an excellent deep dive into the rise and fall of Europe through the ages.
You won’t go hungry
The city boasts a surprisingly vibrant culinary landscape. For a pot of the classic moules-frites head straight for Chez Léon, which has been going since 1893. Their pots of moules are superb, especially when enjoyed al fresco in the sun-splashed cobbled alley of Rue des Bouchers. Come evening, dress up a little and discover the impressive collection of restaurants giving traditional Belgian cuisine a fine dining spin.
Comme Chez Soi first opened in 1926 and is an institution in the city, with head chef Lionel Rigolet delivering an elevated take on regional classics. For a real splash head for Bozar, where there’s a feast for the eyes and palate. The restaurant is set within the Art Deco beauty that is the Centre for Fine Arts, the last work of celebrated architect Victor Horta. At Bozar Armenian chef Karen Torosyan shows incredible artistry in his set menus of New Belgian fare. Little wonder it bagged two stars in the latest Michelin guide.
Where to stay?
There’s no shortage of fine hotels to choose from in the city. The global Radisson group ups the ante here with its Radisson Collection, a brand not yet available in southern Africa. While the Radisson Collection Grand Place offers 282 rooms and suites, it’s a hotel with plenty of personal touch points and character, from the post-modernist architecture to the intimate hotel bar beneath a seven-story atrium. Interiors are on point, thanks to a recent revamp by renowned Spanish architect Rafael de la Hoz, and it’s tops for location too; just steps from the Royal Galleries shopping arcade, and with easy connections to both overland rail services and the airport.
For a more edgy boutique stay, look to the Zoom Hotel, where each of the 37 rooms has been designed by local artists and photographers, to offer a visual immersion in the city.