Brussels, Belgium is known for beer, chocolate, and being the capital of the European Union. Many people stop right there.
But for a unique Brussels experience (including beer and chocolate, of course), savvy travelers know to go where the locals go, and discover what you won’t find on the brochure—from evenings filled with stilt-walkers on the streets, to chasing underground art, to a bevy of Belgian gems just waiting to be uncovered.
OUT AND ABOUT
Ommegang, or “walkabout” in Flemish, is a medieval-style historical procession, exploding into a national celebration on the first Tuesday and Thursday of every July. Ommegang recreates the grand theatrical festival of 1549 staged to dazzle Emperor Charles V and his royal family.
Expect elaborate period costumes in action as flag throwers, jesters, nobles, peasants and fire-eaters all walk together from Sablon to Grand Place, where a mounted cavalcade and jousting tournament commence the enormous event. Hold your breath for a diabolical fight performance by precariously tall stilt-walkers teetering in front of the Hôtel de Ville, Brussels’ celebrated town hall.
For an adventurous experience, try the Place Jeu de Balle in the afternoon before the event, where stilt-walkers practice fights. If you ask them nicely, you just might find yourself on stilts, six feet up in the air and joining the parade. Airborne or not, Ommegang is an event rich in color and tradition—opulent enough for an Emperor. This should not be missed. www.ommegang.be
Check out scenes from the Ommegang:
Flagey is a former radio broadcasting empire-turned-arts center hotspot that dominates Place Flagey in Ixelles. The ship-like silhouette houses five separate state-of-the-art studios to create a factory of cool. Set in the renovated 1938 Art Deco radio landmark, Flagey tantalizes locals with art-house cinema, festivals and live music venues from classical and jazz to contemporary. Some signature events include regular performances by the Flemish Radio Symphony Orchestra, jazz documentary film screenings, and recent performances by African blues crooner Vieux Farka Touré. www.flagey.be/flagey.htm
Café Belga, hip café by day and bar by night, inhabits Flagey’s ground floor, making it great for drinks after a film, concert or festival. With massive windows and warm, natural light, you can sip coffee on the weekends and write your memoirs while watching the world pass you by.
At night, all tables are pushed aside—and behold the transformation! The DJ and live music entertain crowds, spilling fervent hipsters out onto the sidewalk. It’s the same artsy crowd by day, just turned up a couple of notches. Walk along the Ixelles Pond for a serene moment, or even just to admire the graceful presence of swans in a particularly grey and urban part of the city. Place Eugène Flagey Plein, 02-640-35-08
BEER AND ART NOUVEAU
Sudden death? A taste like the devil? Don’t fear, it’s just beer!
Fin de Siècle boasts an impressive list of Belgian beer. From Mort Subite, (“sudden death” in French) to Duvel, (“devil” in Flemish) to the sublime Leffe, this cozy local hangout is the place for enjoying Belgian specialties. Sip Hoegaarden outside during the summer, and watch the sun pour through the Art Nouveau windows. It’s first come, first serve, so grab your table fast, and devour the inexpensive Belgian fare with flair. Try the moussaka–it goes surprisingly well with a blonde. Beer, that is. 10, rue des Chartreux
Set on a busy intersection in the St Gilles neighborhood, SiSiSi is a divine spot for sipping a Chimay and people-watching. An artsy café with red velvet curtains and a Mediterranean feel, it offers a strong Belgian beer menu and hearty coffee. This is an excellent place for an apéritif before walking around the corner to bask in the detail and grandeur of Musée Horta, Victor Horta’s Art Nouveau masterpiece. Sisisi, 174, chaussée De Charleroi, 02-534-14-00, Musée Horta, 25, rue Américaine, 02-543-04-90
Jeu de Balle flea market in the Marolles district continues to be a local staple for bargain shopping, and although the market is well-known, there are always new diamonds waiting to be found in this rough. From 6 a.m.-2 p.m. daily, sellers peddle their wares, from old to new, junk to funk, and strange to sublime. Haggling is a must. Wait until closer to 2 p.m. to seal the deal and make sure to brush up on your French numbers. For a post-market stroll, look for vintage hats on Rue de Blaes, and a surplus of designer boots on Rue du Chevreuil.
Rue Antoine Dansaert is the street for Belgian designers and eclectic shops. For one-of-a-kind jewelry design, admire Marianne Timperman’s unusual filigree and granulated creations, from orb-shaped silver rings, to sculpted silver necklaces. For hard-to-find designer vintage, Idiz Bogam takes the cake with a clothing and shoe collection that would make the 1960s envious. Marianne Timperman, 50 rue Antoine Dansaert, 02-675-53-82; Idiz Bogam, 76, rue Antoine Dansaert, 02-512-10-32
Brussels is not known as a bargain city, however if planned right, you can arrive during the two sale periods of the year (January and July) where “Soldes” or “Solden” signs pepper window displays from high end designer street Avenue Louise to Rue Neuve, the less expensive shopping area in Brussels. The English weekly magazine Bulletin is also an excellent resource for shopping events and trends in the city.
MUSEUMS (SORT OF)
Emery & Cie, the interior design headquarters of Agnes Emery, feels more like a museum than a showroom. Exploding with color inside two converted turn-of-the-century houses, spiral staircases and narrow hallways direct you to Emery’s awe-inspiring designs. Each room presents wildly different styles and patterns of hand-painted tiles, wrought-iron furniture, pottery, printed textiles and vibrant pigments of paint. Most everything here has been designed by Emery—an incredible body of work. Although it may feel like a museum, you can look, touch and sample everything, and of course buy the lot (they ship to the U.S.). 27, rue de L’Hopital, 02-513-58-92
L’art Dans le Metro, or “Art in the Metro” was a project conceived during the metro (subway) development in the 1960s, to give each station in Brussels a unique artistic theme—creating an experience for the traveler that was both engaging and functional. Now with nearly 60 works of art, the Brussels Metro stations represent a massive underground gallery. Grab a guide, pay for a single metro fare and ride deep below the city, embarking on an adventurous art hunt.
Expect to see sculptures, mosaics, paintings, photographs, stained glass and architectural design made with wood, glass, bronze and steel. A few special pieces worth seeing are “L’Odyssée,” a bronze sculpture by Martin Guyaux at Metro Botanique, “Cohérences,” a cable wall installation by Thierry Bontridder at Metro Delacroix, and “Notre Temps,” a wildly colorful mural painted on the metro walls by Roger Somville at the Metro Hankar.
A brochure costs €5 at the STIB Bureau: 14, avenue de la Toison d’Or, (Porte de Namur) or 2, rue de l’Evêque (De Brouckère). The “L’art dans le metro” brochure can be downloaded at www.stib.be/kunst-metro-art.html?l=fr
Can’t stop starting at those glimmering steel balls in the sky? The Atomium was built for the World Fair of 1958 by engineer André Waterkeyn as a representation of an iron crystal, magnified 165 billion times— towering over Brussels at 335 feet tall.
Although not a local secret, this is such a bizarre part of Brussels’ history that it is definitely worth a visit, especially for the expansive view. Ride the speedy elevator to the highest sphere to catch this rare glimpse of Brussels–although don’t get confused when you also see the Eiffel Tower directly below you (more on that below). www.atomium.be
Mini Europe, an amusement park developed near the base of the giant Atom, presents highly detailed miniature replicas (scale of 1:25) of EU landmarks. With Big Ben, The Berlin Wall, and a volatile Vesuvius, this feels a bit like putt-putt golf without the putt, yet still a clever way to observe the vast differences in architectural style within the ever-expanding European Union. The buildings have excellent detailing and craftsmanship—some of the newer replicas include The Blue Church in Bratislava, The Kourion Theatre in Cyprus as well as Prague’s Astronomical clock. www.minieurope.com/en/index.html
CAFES AND RESTAURANTS
Interested in sipping an espresso while examining a vice grip? Le Beau Soleil is an actual violin making workshop and café, so expect to dine among tools and violin parts. This creation is beautiful to watch as the craftsman sands each piece of wood with delicate strokes. Le Beau Soleil seats around 14–a small and unusual setting for a delicious experience. 7, rue Joseph Lebeau, 0479-42-03-82
La Cuisine is a tiny spot with a big personality. With a flower print wall and one long communal table, traditional Italian piadinas (unleavened flat bread from Romagna, Italy) are grilled right in front of you. Choose from sweet or savory ingredients. Try the piadina with bresaola (air-cured beef), parmesan, arugula and sun-dried tomatoes. Once your hands are wrapped around this melted delicacy, shouting “Bravo!” is entirely appropriate. 9, rue Francart, 0495-51-09-66
Le Bonne Humeur is truly one of Brussels’ best-kept local secrets, standing proud in the multicultural neighborhood of Chaussée de Louvain. A family operation, Le Bonne Humeur (“the good humor” in French) is everything you want a restaurant to be: warm, friendly, inviting and likely to put you in a good mood, because everything on the menu is excellent. This place is not fancy, with wooden paneling and original Formica tabletops–but saves the grand presentation for the food. The succulent moules marinières are served in a black steaming cast iron pot, teeming with chopped onions, celery and a side bundle of frites perfection. Golden and crisp. The steak au poivre with frites is so good you might be tempted to lick your plate. There is a reason the locals call this the best Belgian fare in Brussels. 244, chaussée de Louvain, 02-230-71-69
Hidden in the Bourse district, Les Ateliers de la Grande Ile is not easy to find, but packs a wallop once you arrive. Set in an old tin smelter of the 1830s, follow the Hungarian gypsy music to the candlelit entrance and take a break from beer for a night to sample the overflowing vodka. Try Russian specialties from borscht, caviar, blinis, as well as other fare from Hungary, Bulgaria and Ukraine. This place is a riot, and whatever you do, don’t say no to the vodka. These Russians take drinking as seriously as the Belgians. The more the merrier. 31-33, rue de la Grande Ile, 02-512-81-90
By Margaret Emery for PeterGreenberg.com. Margaret Emery lived, worked and developed a mild frites addiction in Brussels last year.
Check out the rest of our Off the Brochure Travel Guide series with this map: