Old Town at sunset in Brussels, Belgium

Brussels, that most delightful of cities, comes into its own at springtime. The last of the winter’s leaves are being brushed away and green-fingered Bruxellois can’t wait for the reopening of the magnificent Royal Greenhouses in Laeken. Cinema lovers right across the country are preparing to hit town for the International Fantastic Film Festival (April 11–23), and Brussels' celebrated chocolate makers are finessing their Easter eggs in chocolatiers from Jette to Uccle. As Brussels springs into life, here's how to spend a memorable weekend in the Belgian capital.

Friday evening: savour the sights and sounds of the Grand-Place

Brussels

Brussels' magnificent Grand-Place, one of the most beautiful main squares in Europe, is a wonderful place to spend time on a fine evening (Photo: Getty Images)

Start your weekend in style at the Grand-Place, the very heart of Belgian capital Brussels and one of the most beautiful main squares in Europe. Linger over a coffee at one of its cafés and watch the world go by – the antique Le Roy d’Espagne is a fine choice. Stretching out from the Grand-Place are the narrow lanes and alleys of the Lower Town. It’s here you’ll find a statue of the Manneken Pis, the city’s mascot, the deluxe Galeries St-Hubert shopping arcade, a museum devoted to the famous chanson singer Jacques Brel, and the Comics Arts Museum, dedicated to that distinctively Belgian art form, the comic strip. One of the best hotels in Brussels is in this part of town: the handsome Brussels Marriott Hotel Grand Place, which offers superb city views from some guest rooms. Another great choice in this neighbourhood is The Dominican, Brussels, a Member of Design Hotels, a cool and stylish hotel on a discreet little square.

Saturday morning: make a Royal connection

Brussels's Royal Palace

Famed for its magnificent Throne Room, Brussels's Royal Palace also has impressive grounds to explore – they're especially beautiful in springtime (Photo: Getty Images)

A leisurely morning stroll around Brussels’ Upper Town is a great way to start the day. For centuries, this was where the city’s upper classes lived, hence the dignified boulevards and elegant town houses. The first port of call here should be the majestic Cathedral, where Belgian royals get crowned and married, followed by the Royal Palace – the Palais Royal – famed for its magnificent Throne Room.

One part of the Royal Palace now holds the Musée BELvue, which burrows into the intricacies of Belgian history, and then there is the intriguing maze of old tunnels beneath the Coudenberg Palace, parts of which give a real sense of the sheer size of what was once the Emperor Charles V’s headquarters. Visitors can then follow in the steps of royalty by strolling the tree-lined footpaths of the Parc de Bruxelles, or make their way to the place du Grand Sablon, where Au Vieux Saint Martin offers an outstanding, very Belgian menu – think crevettes from Ostend and wild boar from the Ardennes.

Saturday afternoon: find inspiration in great art and music

Musée des Instruments de Musique

Brussels' Musée des Instruments de Musique (MIM) has recordings of every type of medieval music you can imagine (Photo: Getty Images)

Ensconced in the Upper Town are the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts, which together hold one of the world’s largest and finest collections of European art, from Rogier van der Weyden through to Rembrandt. It’s a fabulous collection that could absorb you for hours. There’s also the adjacent Musée Magritte, which showcases the keynote paintings of that enigmatic surrealist René Magritte, who spent most of his life living here in Brussels. Famous painters are one thing, but the city’s street art is another with murals and installations dotted across the city; you can’t fail to notice some of them, but there are street art walking trails too – check out the official Parcours website

For something artistic but in a quite different way, head to MIM, an intriguing musical instrument museum, where they have recordings of every type of medieval music you can imagine. Stay the night in the EU quarter, just to the east of the city centre, at the smart Renaissance Brussels Hotel, with its heated pool and spa treatments; the well-appointed Aloft Brussels Schuman Hotel; or the funky Moxy Brussels City Centre Hotel in Ixelles, where some guest rooms have private balconies and fabulous views.

Saturday evening: discover Ste-Catherine and gourmet Brussels

Spend a while gazing up at the handsome church of Ste-Catherine, the stand-out feature of Ste-Catherine square (Photo: Getty Images)

The inhabitants of Brussels, the Bruxellois, are real gastronomes. Seafood lovers should head for the place Ste-Catherine neighbourhood, where, among many great dining options, you’ll find Le Vismet, a neat, bistro-style restaurant offering a delicious range of fish and shellfish. In season between October and March, moules marinières (mussels) appear regularly on many a menu hereabouts, prepared in a variety of ways, though it’s hard to beat the classic garlic and wine. The other advantage of Ste-Catherine is its proximity to rue Antoine Dansaert, home of an outstanding bar and microbrewery, the Brussels Beer Project.

For the carnivores, there are several traditional restaurants near the Grand-Place offering dishes and cuts you don’t often see elsewhere – the likes of pigs’ trotters, fricassée of rabbit and steamed eels. One of them is La Roue d’Or, a second is Restaurant de L’Ogenblik. Further afield, near the Bourse, Nuetnigenough prepares exquisite rabbit cooked in beer, whilst Au Stekerlaplatte, down in the Marolles, does an outstanding dish of veal kidneys in a Dijonnaise sauce. Speaking of all things traditional, there are several ancient bars near the Grand-Place too, most memorably Au Bon Vieux Temps, a charming little place tucked away down an alley, Sint-Nikolaasgang.

Sunday morning: explore the bohemian side of Ixelles

On a fine spring day, take a leisurely stroll around the gardens of the Abbaye de la Cambre in Ixelles (Photo: Getty Images)

Ixelles is the most bohemian of the city’s inner suburbs. On Sunday mornings its citizens gather at the area's myriad cafés to mull over news and events – and there’s nowhere better to join them than the Café Belga, in the Art Deco Flagey Centre Culturel. Ixelles is also well-known for its exquisite Art Nouveau mansions, one of which – the superlative Musée Victor Horta – is a must-see.

Afterwards, it’s tempting to wander through the Marolles district, where the place du Jeu de Balle hosts the city’s most famous flea market, with no fewer than three hundred stalls. On the edge of the Marolles, as you head back into the city centre, look out for an especially handsome church, Notre Dame de la Chapelle, and an outstanding restaurant, Les Brigittines, where the menu is very Bruxellois.

Sunday afternoon: breath deeply in green Laeken

The Royal Greenhouses of Laeken are one of the major highlights of any springtime trip to Brussels (Photo: Getty Images)

To round off your weekend in more bucolic surroundings, there are easy woodland walks – as well as a picturesque former abbey – in the Bois de La Cambre, at the southern tip of Ixelles. This was once a royal hunting ground and is now a forested tract of land latticed with footpaths.

When visiting Brussels in springtime, the highlight must be the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken. Open to the public for just three weeks every year, these greenhouses, some of which are heated, some not, are absolutely absorbing, comprising an enormous complex set in a royal park. The greenhouses are on the northern edge of the city, but easy enough to reach by public transport.

Extending your stay – and your horizons

The beguiling city of Ghent makes a fantastic trip out of Brussels (Photo: Getty Images)

Belgium is a small country with an efficient rail network, which brings a wealth of lovely old towns and cities within easy reach. An obvious target is Bruges, probably the most perfectly preserved medieval town in Europe, but there’s also the university town of Leuven and cosmopolitan Antwerp, with its fine medieval buildings and riverside setting. And there’s more: a long sandy beach stretches for mile after mile along the North Sea coast and the Hallerbos forest is famous for its springtime bluebells. If you target Antwerp, there’s a great hotel there in the shape of the chic Sapphire House Antwerp, Autograph Collection. Last but not least, there’s the beguiling city of Ghent, which boasts great restaurants, a humming nightlife and a hotel that sits at the very centre of things, the Ghent Marriott Hotel. Should Ghent capture your heart, linger a while at Residence Inn by Marriott Ghent. The property's spacious apartment suites – not to mention the complimentary grocery delivery service – lend themselves as much to extended stays as to a comfortable overnight.

Published: March 31, 2023

Article Tags:  Belgium , Brussels

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