Brussels is as textured as the tapestries that put it on the medieval map. Never culturally isolated, this historic trade center in the heart of tiny Belgium now serves as the seat of the European Union and continues its age-old tendency to define itself by its global influences. Speaking two official languages—Flemish and French—with nearly one third of the population foreign born, it might be a metaphor for Europe itself. As other more staid capitals have lost their luster, this one continues to thrive. Creativity and invention explain it. Brussels has had so much innovation: surrealism, art nouveau, the comic strip, the haute couture of Olivier Strelli, beer, chocolate, waffles, and—naturellement— the Belgian fry.
FAST FACTS A compact capital with approximately one million inhabitants, Brussels sits in the center of Belgium, a country nearly the size of Maryland that’s bordered by Germany, France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and the sea. Fast trains, such as the Thalys, provide easy access from the rest of Europe (Liege and Bruges, Belgium; Paris and Lille, France; and Amsterdam are less than two hours away). A visual feast, see the city’s Renaissance-baroque central square called the Grand Place (a UNESCO World Heritage site) and the elegant 15th-century Town Hall (Hotel de Ville) with its 310-foot tower.
Cavort on the Catwalk. Wander the cobblestone streets of the Dansaert district to discover why Brussels’ a la mode design lures fashionistas from across Europe and as far away as Japan. Once the site of a 10th-century fortification, built on a river that served the textile trade, the area’s now the lair of both emerging and established designers, many of them graduates of La Cambre, Brussels’ acclaimed fashion school. The boutiques and ateliers beg to be explored. Find colorful but minimalist furniture by Xavier Lust; clinging Hollywood-heyday boudoir dresses by Nicolas Woit, vintage hats by Christophe Coppens (who designs for the Belgian royalty); and diaphanous travel pieces by African-influenced Olivier Strelli—whose clients include Mick Jagger and Brigitte Bardot.
Flee to the Markets. Bring a shopping bag and join the throngs between rue Haute and the rue Blaes on the Place du Jeu de Balle, where a flea market—with every manner of treasure—has been held every day since the 1870s. Afterward, roam the streets and vintage shops of this district known as the Marolle. Revive with a coffee in De Skieven Architekt, an old world cafe that serves breakfast starting at 5 a.m. Then, take a short walk to the Sablon, an upscale area that divides Upper Brussels from Lower. Noted for its antiques shops, the Sablon features Brussels’ best chocolatiers. Try the ganachefilled creations at century-old Wittamer; then, cross the street to sample the sublime truffles of his one-time protege, Pierre Marcolini.
lnhale From a Green Lung. You can ramble or bike through Brussels on a green trail that winds some 37 miles from park to park. The city’s self-service bike rental program,Villo, has placed 2,500 bikes across the city in various train and bike stations and in most parks. The bikes can be rented for a modest fee (1.5 euros daily). The Gare du Nord station not only rents bikes but also repairs them. Join an organized bike tour, such as Pro Velo’s Brussels for Beginners trek or their Beer and Breweries expedition, both lasting about four hours (www.provelo.org).
Quench Your Thirst. “This is my headquarters,” says tour guide Didier Rochette, sipping a day’s end beer in the dark, smoky L’lmage Notre-Dame, a typical estaminet (small cafe) down an alley near the Grand Place. “Estaminets are better than bars because they offer more variety,” he explains, noting that they also have their beer brewed locally and offer types that aren’t available at regular bars. Do try some strong Trappist beer, as well as kriek, a fruity concoction infused with bitter cherries, at La Morte Subite, a pub whose name means Sudden Death.
Climb an (Art) Hill. Museums galore cover the Mont des Arts, literally Art Hill. Opened in 2009, the Magritte Museum deconstructs native artist Rene Magritte’s life with letters, photos, and never before seen paintings and drawings, while connecting him to his artistic peers. Next door, at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, the Brueghels alone are worth the $12 admission price. Music buffs will be fascinated by the old instruments displayed in the Musical Instruments Museum.
Mussels in Brussels. No meal more evokes Brussels than moules: that is, mussels cooked in broth and served with a side of crispy frites. Restaurants offering them abound, each putting their spin on the dish. Try the family-operated cafes opposite St. Catherine’s Church near the old fish market—like La Villette or L’Huiterie.