Best things to do in Brussels
What is it? The city’s flagship cultural centre with exhibitions, concerts and theatre from around the world.
Why go? The beautiful Victor Horta-designed building is worth visiting even if you’re not interested in any of its hugely varied events. But with recent highlights including a season dedicated to hip-hop, a retrospective of Charlemagne Palestine’s offbeat art, an international film festival and a series of talks with African artists and curators, there’s certain to be something that tickles your fancy. Get in free with a Brussels Card, which includes public transport around the city.
What is it? A chance to discover some of the thousands of beers Belgium is renowned for.
Why go? Don’t know your lambic from your dubbel, your tripel from your trappist, your gueuze from your elbow? You will by the end of this tour, which takes in some lesser-known spots in the city with the aim of educating you about one of Belgium’s finest contributions to the world. Led by a knowledgeable and professional guide, you’ll enjoy several kinds of beer, cheese and some real local colour as you learn.
What is it? A bizarre silver structure built for the World’s Fair of 1958, designed in the form of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times.
Why go? Belgium prides itself on its quirkiness, and this is unlike any other tourist landmark. Five of its nine spherical rooms host exhibitions on subjects ranging from the history of air travel to the surrealist art of René Magritte, joined by escalators in the narrow connecting tubes (not for the claustrophobic). The surrounding parkland is ideal for picnicking, and the next-door Adamuseum has some interesting shows on the evolution of design.
What is it? A gorgeous, Unesco-listed cobblestoned square, surrounded by gilded guildhalls that were once the headquarters of the city’s merchants.
Why go? In a city that’s short on must-see landmarks, this is one you really must see. It’s been burned, bombed and rebuilt over the centuries, but has emerged as magnificent as it ever was. Once you’ve taken in the opulence (and checked out the tiny Manneken Pis just off the square), learn a little about its history in the Brussels City Museum.
What is it? A large, outdoor market in the Marolles.
Why go? This sprawling collection of vendors has everything you could possibly want, practically. Looking for unique, vintage artwork? They have that. Want kitsch crockery? They've got that too. Even if you're after a wood carving, an armchair and an art deco coffee table – you're sure to find it all here. You just have to spend enough time rummaging around the numerous stalls. Drop into Atelier en Ville for coffee and bagels, or Le Marseillais for pastis if you fancy something stronger.
What is it? A vibrant wash of colours that brighten up the streets of Brussels.
Why go? Given that Belgium is the land of Tintin, it's hardly surprising to learn that illustrators and artists are well-loved here. Numerous paintings cover entire walls around the city to advertise the fact. To find them all, stop into tourist information for a map of the colourful and quirky outdoor art trail.
What is it? A local favourite hangout in the tourist heartland.
Why go? They’ve got a very healthy beer list and there’s often live music in the bustling, crowded bar at the front, while the elegant Art Nouveau dining room at the back serves spaghetti three ways and nothing else. It’s a mixed crowd of students, tourists, serious beer aficionados and old locals. The restaurant doesn’t do bookings; if it’s full, just take a number and hang out in the bar till they can squeeze you in.
What is it? A tiny one-woman restaurant in the chic Châtelain neighbourhood.
Why go? The menu here depends on what the owner has picked up from the market that morning, and what she feels like cooking. There’s no choice, but who needs choice when everything is this fresh and delicious and the service this charming? It’s like going for dinner at a friend’s place. While you’re in this part of town, pop into Typographe just around the corner: heaven for fans of exquisite stationery.
What is it? A recent addition to Brussels’ art scene, in an up-and-coming neighbourhood.
Why go? This temple to the ultra-contemporary – they call it culture 2.0 – specialises in urban art inspired by subcultures like skateboarding and tattooing, as well as comics, advertising and abandoned spaces. It’s in a converted brewery by the canal, a previously run-down part of town that’s slowly being shown some love. A 10-minute stroll brings you to Phare du Kanaal, a coffee shop/coworking space that’s helping lead the waterside revival, serving up creative food all day.
What is it? A Friday evening market in a northern district that’s overlooked by tourists.
Why go? This is where the locals gather to welcome in the weekend with a drink and a chat. You’ll find the usual fruit, veg, cheese and deli stalls you’d expect at any market, plus food trucks and mobile wine bars, with cafe patrons spilling out on to the neighbouring terraces on sunny evenings. This is the sort of thing Brussels excels at; it’s cool, but the vibe is still very neighbourhood, and you’ll find similar events around the city on other nights.
What is it? An overgrown graveyard that’s full of charm and totally photogenic.
Why go? The cemetery closed to new burials in the 1940s, but made an exception for Hergé, the creator of local comic hero Tintin, who was interred here in 1983. For a long time it was left to grow wild, and is now home to hundreds of plant and tree varieties, as well as a fabulous collection of headstones of all kinds. To get there, take the wobbly old 97 tram through the southern suburbs to the end of the line; the journey’s an interesting way to pass the time in its own right. The rolling landscaped Wolvendael Park nearby is a good picnic spot.
What is it? Brussels’ streets are filled with the most beautiful Art Nouveau houses.
Why go? Belgium was home to some of the biggest names in Art Nouveau – the likes of Henry Van de Velde and Victor Horta – and their legacy is everywhere you look. Keep an eye out for the trademark curves and flourishes in wood, metal and stained glass, with ornate mosaics above every other doorway. Notable spots include Horta’s own house, now a museum, and the Belgian Comic Strip Center. Again, the tourist office sells maps for self-guided walking tours.
What is it? An ideal spot for those who love to club á la mode.
Why go? All the latest up-and-comers venture to Molenbeek for setif they're in Brussels. That's acts and DJs from all kinds of generes too, from hip hop to pop, punk to garage and reggae to electro. This joint has been serving up the freshest cuts in music for a good three decades now, so you can be sure to catch someone cool here on any night. Check their website before you head out if you want to know exactly who'll be down there.