Finding the Beat of Brussels

I marched into Parking Garage #58 with confidence, punched the 10 key to the highest floor, and zoomed up. When I exited, the lot was desolate, with some late winter snow and ice remaining. What a pleasant surprise to discover one of the best views in the city: St. Catherine’s Square, a melange of Art Nouveau, gleaming corporate buildings, and a few layered church spires in all their glory. And it was free.

There’s no way I would have found this spot on my own and I have my Brussels Greeter, Martine, to thank for it.

Watch the world go by at a cafe. (Photograph by Sofie Coreynen, Visitflanders/Flickr)

Watch the world go by at a cafe. (Photograph by Sofie Coreynen, Visitflanders/Flickr)

The greeter program is free and connects locals with people who want an insider look at a city. At times, the perceived symbols of a country can be written about so ad nauseam in travel literature that I find myself bored with them before I even arrive. Not so for tiny Belgium. That’s probably because most of the nation’s icons are edible: from the decadent waffles and sinful toppings I just had to sample to the moules frites I washed down with a crisp cold beer. And everyone knows about the chocolate.

But, I was grateful to Martine for that glimpse of another side of Brussels from lofty new heights.

Brussels is far from undiscovered, but it can feel underrated. It is an easily walkable city, with evenly spaced cobblestones, and the ambiance of a merging and blended Europe. But outside the bustling Grand Place, I was comfortable as a tourist, with room to roam. Streets like Rue Lebeau curve around; you feel embraced by the city but not smothered by it. Your independence is respected but if you wish to chat, the locals are most happy to oblige.

The museums in Brussels are worth a week alone and, being an admirer of René Magritte (I have a copy of “La Clairvoyance” in my apartment back in New York), the Magritte Museum quickly became one of my favorites. His modus operandi – a jumble of text, photos, and objects that don’t seem to belong together — left me pleasantly puzzled and mildly amused. (For instance, why is Magritte’s painting of a blue sky with perfect, fluffy white clouds called “The Curse”?!)

The bookshop at the Belgian Comic Strip Center. (Photograph by Johan Martens, Visitflanders/ Flickr)

The bookshop at the Belgian Comic Strip Center. (Photograph by Johan Martens, Visitflanders/ Flickr)

At the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, which encompass ancient and modern art in one location, I was floored by the enormous Rubens room, and could almost feel the pulse of the peasants milling about in the Bruegels. On another side of town, don’t miss the Belgian Comic Strip Center, worth a stop to pay to Tintin and The Smurfs.

Locals are definitely bon vivants — people who live well and have refined taste. The Grand Sablon area hits a sophisticated note as a center for chocolate and home decor, ranging from kitschy to gilded and elegant. Surrounding the Sablon are streets worth savoring like Rue Ernest Allard and Rue des Minimes. I ducked into Claire Fontaine, a tiny gourmet shop, for spices and takeaway sandwiches. Top dining choices in the area are Restaurant JB, LOLA, and Aux Vieux Saint Martin, all teeming with locals.

Closer to the Grand Place is Galeries Royales St Hubert, a vibrant 19th-century shopping stroll that set the standard for similar arcades in London, Milan, and St. Petersburg. Here, you’ll find shops like Ganterie Italienne selling buttery leather gloves in a space where nothing has changed for decades, from the wood floors to the antique register. Nearby is La Taverne du Passage, an old-school choice for dinner, with big bowls of mussels and great wine.

Other shopping streets in Brussels include Boulevard de Waterloo, which is more like Fifth Avenue in New York, and Avenue Louise, strewn with international chains like Zara and Longchamp. But the most delightful neighborhoods to while away a day are near St. Catherine, where an old fish market has been replaced by delicious seafood restaurants. Ramble around the Dansaert, chock-full of unique, trendy shops and excellent eateries.

The Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. (Photograph by James Stringer, Flickr)

The Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. (Photograph by James Stringer, Flickr)

After all that walking, you’ll crave a good night’s sleep. There’s a huge range of accommodations, and rates are especially good on weekends due to all the business travelers departing en masse. I loved staying at The Dominican Hotel a former abbey that pays homage to its history by piping Gregorian chant into the elevators. The soaring public spaces and relaxing outdoor garden practically force guests to unwind while the thoroughly modern lounge pulsates with a diverse mix of people each night.

Or, for a completely different vibe, there is always Hotel Welcome, where each of the 17 rooms has an international theme like Silk Road or Egypt, and the gregarious owner, Michael, couldn’t be more friendly.

In places like New York, London, and Paris, locals (I’m guilty, too) feel the need to shout from the rooftops about how great their city is, perhaps to justify sky-high rents and expensive dining. You’ll find a refreshing change of pace in Brussels. They instinctively know they are fortunate enough to live the “good life” daily in a city that feels more like an inviting village than an anonymous urban expanse. Everything is close by and not too congested, rents are decent compared to other capitals, and there’s a decidedly peaceful vibe that works its way into your stride.

The only complaints I heard from locals revolved around traffic and lack of parking — and that, in my estimate, is about as good as you can get.

Annie Fitzsimmons is Intelligent Travel’s Urban Insider, giving you the dish on the best things to see and do in cities all over the world. Follow her travels on Twitter @anniefitz.

Comments

  1. Martin
    London
    March 27, 2013, 7:28 am

    Finding the best of Brussels is pretty easy. All you need to do is wander around the city centre, you’ll find a lovely or exciting spot behind every corner. And lots of chocolate, waffles and Belgian beer :)
    Here’s a few impressions: http://www.fm1721.net/#!brussels/c1jn2

  2. Yay Travel
    March 27, 2013, 1:57 pm

    Grand Place is breathtaking, I must say. I wanted to mention one or two things that I did not see in the article. First, there is a restaurant, whose name I forget, on the Grand Place itself that serves a full English breakfast (or similar). I was really grateful that one of the restaurants around the corner referred me to them. In terms of Atomium, people should go early in the morning as they sometimes close earlier – something that will not be obvious to tourists. I was very disappointed last time when I got there only to find it closed. I also found, strangely, that Brussels has possibly the most user unfriendly public transport system in any developed country I have been to. Unless one plans to spend a few days in Brussels, rather walk and take taxis, otherwise you will waste your precious time with frustration being your only reward. In terms of finding accommodation, some ideas can be found at http://www.yaytravel.com/recommended.sites.php.

  3. fabienne gauthier
    Boston Ma
    April 5, 2013, 3:55 pm

    My Annir Girl…

    I am loving you site…and so proud of you.
    Namaste…big hug
    fabienne HOLA to CarrieXX

  4. Regan Cleminson
    Boston, MA
    May 26, 7:03 pm

    Loved learning about the greeter program! I wish I had known about that when I went.

    Here are a few of my tips that I learned from my time in Brussels: http://venturetravelist.wordpress.com/2014/05/26/the-european-capital/