A halfway point between the elegance of Paris and the mercantile savvy of Amsterdam, Brussels, like both of these neighbouring capitals, caters to thoroughly international and discerning visitors. Like many smaller European cities, it’s been conspicuously smartened up during the past 20 or 30 years. The city is conscious of its assets (comfortable size, central geographic location, lively history, prominence in the European Union administration) and has capitalised on them. Brussels deserves more attention from travellers, and Visit Brussels, the official agency promoting the city, is exceedingly helpful and efficient at making it an easy and appealing destination.
The agency produces an invaluable set of miniature pocket map guides, each dedicated to a specific interest such as museums, galleries or monuments, which allow visitors to plan a tailor-made walking (or taxi) tour.
If possible, the city should be seen on foot – the centre is very safe. There’s still plenty of scruffy charm, but many of the narrow inner city streets are now lined with excellent cafés, and small, imaginative retailers. Designed in the middle ages, the centre has retained the normal town planning of the time, based around a magnificent central square, Grand-Place, with multiple small satellite squares for individual markets. Outdoor markets are still held in some of them, but the main attraction now is sitting at a table to eat, drink and observe.
One of the principal reasons that it’s a perfect walking city is the wonderful quality and variety of architecture here. Some of the sights are spectacular, like the forbidding medieval Porte de Hal fortress and the wildly sci-fi Atomium built for the 1958 World’s Fair (it has a restaurant in its highest silver sphere, 100 metres up in the air, with a slightly sci-fi minimalist décor befitting the location, and serious food). Brussels, however, works best as a city of precincts. Nothing can really beat the vast and gilded Grand-Place and the surrounding streets for splendour, combined with beguiling small-scale details that you discover as you explore the fringes. Palace Royale is at the heart of the principal art museums district. This area is remarkable for the elegant uniformity of white 18th and 19th century neoclassical public buildings. The effect is tremendously impressive, and you feel rather like an ant might feel creeping through a display of wedding cakes.
Anyone with a weakness for art nouveau extravagance recognises Brussels is an essential destination. Whether you regard the loopy forms as an aberration or the progenitor of modern steel and glass architecture, the radical innovation of the style is exciting to see. The best place to start is the home and studio of the celebrated architect Victor Horta. It’s now the Horta Museum and probably the only place where the general public can have the full immersive experience of that relentlessly dynamic style in an intact original interior. From here you can walk to the city’s grandest boulevard, Avenue Louise, constructed in imitation of Haussmann’s Paris. Think of it as the Champs Elysées of Brussels. On the way you pass countless and nameless but beautiful art nouveau townhouses and Horta’s masterpiece, the Tassel House, which lies along the same route.
Avenue Louise has the full complement of fashion houses and jewellers you expect to see at comparable locations in other parts of the world, but you can hunt for bargains around Rue Neuve. There are luxurious shops at the magnificent glass-roofed Galeries St-Hubert, the first shopping arcade in Europe. A visit here is obligatory, whether you want to shop or not, because the setting is so delightful. Or you can order huge black pots of mussels cooked with wine and garlic at La Taverne du Passage, renowned for its understated bon ton.
One of the disadvantages of walking around Brussels is that you’re likely to eat more. Belgium makes the world’s best chocolate, so the world’s best chocolate shops are in Brussels. Many of them have lovely traditional interiors and irresistible gem-like displays of the merchandise. The aroma of waffles, pastries, cookies and other freshly baked treats can be a persistent companion on the street. Belgian beers are superb and each is served in individually designed glasses bearing the maker’s crest. For connoisseurs, it’s possible in some bars to snack on the malted grains from which the beer was made.
It’s easier to get into the swing of Brussels than most of the other European capitals I’ve visited. When you’re there to absorb atmosphere, strategic sight-seeing is purely optional, but highly rewarding.
Brussels’ Musical Instruments Museum