The Cinquantenaire Arch is just one of Brussels' rich array of unmissable sights

First stop in Brussels must be the Grand-Place, one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. Thereafter, you are spoiled for choice amidst a maze of cobbled lanes and slender squares dotted with inviting pavement cafés. There’s an appealing quirkiness to Brussels too, as befits the home of René Magritte: no other city has a museum devoted to the comic strip and none has a mascot like the cheeky Manneken Pis. Whenever you visit - and Brussels is an all-year destination - you will eat and drink well: the city is famous for its delicious cuisine and flavoursome beers.

The best neighbourhoods to visit in Brussels

The Lower Town

The Grand-Place, Brussels
The Grand-Place is a simply exquisite main square rightly ranked as a UNESCO World Heritage site

Right in the centre of Brussels, Belgium’s capital city, is the Grand-Place, a simply exquisite main square ranked as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Fanning out from the square are the narrow lanes and alleys of the Lower Town, where a humming café, bar and restaurant scene carries on till early in the morning. This neighbourhood is where you’ll find Chez Léon, arguably the best restaurant to try the quintessential Belgian dish of moules-frites – a bowl of succulent mussels in a wine-laced sauce, served with a pile of fries.

There is much to enjoy in the Lower Town and many places to visit. There’s the amiable cheekiness of the Manneken Pis, the sleek shops of the Galeries St-Hubert and an inventive museum devoted to the singer Jacques Brel. Brussels is also the home of Tintin, who is celebrated in style at the city’s dedicated comic strip museum - one of several unique things to do in the city. Seafood lovers will want to head on to the place Ste-Catherine, where there are several great places to eat – with bouillabaisse being one of the main dishes to try. Stay the night in the centre of the action at either The Dominican, Brussels, a Member of Design Hotels, a cool and very stylish hotel on a discreet square, or at the refined Brussels Marriott Hotel Grand-Place.

The Upper Town

Palais Royal, Brussels
The Upper Town's Palais Royal (Royal Palace) features a magnificent Throne Room and gorgeous gardens

Traditionally, the city’s upper classes lived in the Upper Town, whose long and wide boulevards are framed by elegant townhouses. This is Brussels at its most dignified and, of all the interesting things to do in this part of the city, the most unmissable is the cathedral with its cavernous triple-aisled nave and exquisite stained-glass windows. There is also the Palais Royal – the Royal Palace – with its magnificent Throne Room and the Musée BELvue, which delves into the intricacies of Belgian culture. Exploring the maze of old tunnels beneath the Coudenberg Palace is a fun thing to do, but spare time also for MIM, a musical instrument museum par excellence – they have recordings of every type of medieval music you can imagine. Also well worth your time are the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts, holding one of the world’s best collections of medieval art, and the adjacent Musée Magritte, which showcases the key paintings of that ever-so-enigmatic surrealist René Magritte. Visiting these galleries are two of the best things to do in the city. At the end of the day, there are several great places to stay near the Upper Town but it’s hard to beat the comfortable elegance of the Brussels Marriott Hotel Grand-Place.

Ixelles

Ixelles
Lying just south of the city centre, Ixelles is an intriguing, fashionable neighbourhood

Just to the south of the city centre lies Ixelles, an intriguing and ultra-fashionable neighbourhood, whose tiny squares and cramped streets are sprinkled with great bars, restaurants and the much-loved Frit Flagey, a simple kiosk (known as a friterie or fritkot) where you can sample some of the city’s finest fries. Sample the neighbourhood’s arty, boho vibe in the vicinity of the Marché de la Place du Châtelain and then pop over to the Musée Victor Horta, dedicated to Europe’s leading proponent of the Art Nouveau. If this whets your architectural taste buds, you might stroll between the ten fantastic Art Nouveau houses in Ixelles, a delightful way to spend a couple of hours. Stay the night in Ixelles too, at the Moxy Brussels City Center, a modern and inviting hotel in a cheerful modern block – and with an eye-catching video wall in the lobby.

The EU Quarter

The EU Quarter, just to the east of the city centre, is perhaps best-known for its Parliament building, a magnificent glass, stone and steel structure that rises high above its surroundings. Yet, this Brussels neighbourhood has much more to offer, from the leafy delights of Parc Léopold and the giant applied and fine art museums of the Musées du Cinquantenaire through to the Muséum des Sciences Naturelles, whose dinosaur gallery is tremendous: a whole herd of iguanodon skeletons have been retrieved from the coal mines of Belgium to frolic across the museum to stunning effect; it’s one of the most fun things to do in Brussels. If you’re hooked by now on the city’s excellent fries, be sure to visit Maison Antoine while you’re in this area. It’s another of Brussels’ friterie kiosks and has been serving fabulous Belgian fries since 1948. Two of the best places to stay in the EU Quarter are the well-designed and tastefully decorated Renaissance Brussels Hotel, which also holds an excellent restaurant, or the sleek and modern Courtyard Brussels EU.

St-Gilles

The crowded streets and busy squares of the St-Gilles neighbourhood lie immediately to the southwest of the city centre. The bars and restaurants here are some of the best in the city – and so are the sprawling open-air markets, offering everything from bric-a-brac to organic, home-grown vegetables. To savour the atmosphere wander south along the chaussée de Waterloo from the Porte de Hal to the Parvis Saint-Gilles, the neighbourhood’s most agreeable square. Where to go from here is wide open, but you could press on to the Parvis Saint-Gilles with its elegant terrace houses and fine old church.

Go deeper

Drinking a beer in Brussels is to be taken seriously. Every reputable bar has a beer menu offering scores of brews from wheat and fruit beers through to dark abbey beers and light, lager beers. You really are spoilt for choice. In north Belgium, in Flanders, the Flemings speak Dutch, whereas in the south, in Wallonia, the Walloons speak French. So, to make every Belgian feel at home in their capital city, Brussels is bilingual: all street signs are in both languages as are the names of the train stations – for example ‘Bruxelles-Midi’ and ‘Brussel-Zuid.





Published: July 26, 2022

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