36 Hours in Brussels
By ELAINE GLUSAC
Copyright by The New York Times
Published: June 3, 2010
AS the seat of the European Union, Brussels gets its share of gray suits pouring off the Eurostar. Luckily, the ties come off after work. Beneath the buttoned-down facade is a lively capital that follows its own sartorial trends, indulges in decadent flavors (especially when it involves beer) and exhibits a witty, even wacky sense of humor. What other city would erect an entire museum to a single comic book series? Or to an artist famous for painting faceless men in gray suits?
1) HAUT CHOCOLATE
The city is known for chocolate, and you can’t go a block in the historic center without encountering a confectioner. Follow your nose to La Maison des Maîtres Chocolatiers (Grand Place 4; 32-2-888-66-20; mmcb.be), a new boutique that gives 10 master chocolatiers the celebrity chef treatment. Their styles vary wildly. Laurent Gerbaud creates rustic-looking bonbons that are studded with whole pistachios and Persian red berries, while Jean-Philippe Darcis makes elegant, almond-hazelnut pralines with his name signed in pink. Stop in for free samples, or take home a souvenir sampler box (22 euros, or $26 at $1.20 to the euro).
2) CAVIAR AND ART
Paris is an hour away by train, but the new Kwint restaurant (Mont des Arts 1; 32-2-505-95-95; kwintbrussels.com) is even closer. A joint venture by two Parisian purveyors — Caviar Kaspia and La Maison de la Truffe — the restaurant spotlights rich ingredients like a truffle-poached egg (9 euros), a wild Baltic smoked salmon (18 euros) and mussel casserole with truffle cream (24 euros). The cathedral-like dining room is framed by handsome archways and a billowing metallic sculpture by the Belgian designer Arne Quinze, offering a dramatic backdrop for Eurocrat power diners and well-heeled foodies alike.
3) BEERS BY THE THOUSANDS
Belgium has been a brewing stronghold since the Middle Ages. Among the newest well-stocked fortresses is the Délirium Café (Impasse de la Fidélité, 4A; 32-2-514-44-34; deliriumcafe.be), situated in a dead-end alley behind the Grand Place. The smoky, subterranean bar, which opened in 2004, has expanded two stories up for a total of about 2,000 beer selections. If you can’t choose, try the citrusy Rulles Blonde on tap for 3.50 euros. Expect a college-age crowd mobbed around beer barrel tables and jostling for the bartender’s attention.
4) BOWLER HATS GALORE
Appearances can be deceiving in this town. Case in point: a 19th-century neo-Classical building housing an homage to absurdity. The Musée Magritte Museum (Rue de la Regence 3; 32-2-508-32-11; musee-magritte-museum.be), which opened in 2009, is a riot of bowler hats, strange birds and other icons associated with René Magritte, the Belgian Surrealist who lived in Brussels for much of his life. Though many famous paintings are missing, it is one of the world’s largest collections of the artist’s work, spanning some 250 artworks. There are also wacky artifacts, like a homemade film showing the artist and friends acting out “Alice in Wonderland.” Unless you’re an art historian, ignore the prescribed route, which starts on the second floor and winds its way down five levels, and go straight to the basement level, where a clever 45-minute film expands on Magritte’s life and artistic milestones.
5) TWO-STEIN LUNCH
Since 1928 residents have gathered at À La Mort Subite (Rue Montagne aux Herbes Potagères 7; 32-2-513-13-18; alamortsubite.com), an Old World cafe that means “sudden death” in French, and named for a card game that cut off midday revels, sending bankers back to their tills. It is now better known as the name of the house lambic beer, but office workers and arty post-grads file in each afternoon for open-face sandwiches known as tartines (beef tartare, 5.20 euros), and a quiet glass of kreik, or cherry-flavored beer (4.10 euros).
6) FASHION STROLL
Though Brussels is well behind Antwerp when it comes to fashion, the Belgian capital has its own clutch of homegrown designers, conveniently aligned along Rue Antoine Dansaert just a few blocks from the Grand Place. Olivier Strelli (Rue Antoine Dansaert 44; 32-2- 512-78-53; www.strelli.be) sells filmy, romantic dresses for women and crisp khaki jackets for men. Nicolas Woit (Rue Antoine Dansaert 80; 32-2-503-48-32; nicolaswoit.com) carries romantic 1940s-inspired skirts and frocks (from 160 euros). Christophe Coppens (Rue Leon Lepage 2; 32-2-512-77-97; christophecoppens.com) makes statement hats and accessories like oversize lapel pins (165 euros). And the loftlike Stijl (Rue Antoine Dansaert 74; 32-2-512-03-13) showcases better-known designers like Dries van Noten from rival Antwerp.
7) SANCTUARY CYCLE
Atone for your indulgences — and prepare for future rounds — by exploring the shady Parc de Cinquantenaire on two wheels. The 74-acre greensward, laid out in classical style to celebrate 50 years of Belgian independence, has hedge-bordered pathways for cycling free of cars. Hop on a yellow Villo bike (www.villo.be), part of a bike-sharing program started in May 2009 with 180 locations around town. A one-day pass costs 1.50 euros, plus 1.50 euros for the first 90 minutes of calorie burning (additional charge per each half-hour after that).
8) ROYAL FEAST
Over-the-top Belgian design and food meet in the aptly named Belga Queen (Rue Fossé aux Loups 32; 32-2-217-21-87; belgaqueen.be). The owner, Antoine Pinto, runs a stylish string of successful restaurants. And Belga Queen, his flagship, opened in 2002 under the vaulted ceiling of a 19th-century bank favored by the see-and-be-seen set. The menu celebrates indulgence: a medley of duck prepared three ways, including an earthy terrine and foie-gras style seared liver (23 euros), and Namur snails in a cream sauce, served over puff pastry (22 euros). Between courses, you can pop into the basement, where the former bank vault now holds a cigar club.
9) SWING TIME
Ring the doorbell to get into L’Archiduc (Rue Antoine Dansaert 6; 32-2-512-06-52; archiduc.net), a cozy lounge that feels like an Art Deco jewel box, with a polished wood bar, patterned banquettes and filigreed metal balcony. Live music mixes jazz with country and Creole. For a clubbier scene, squeeze past the doorman into the trendy Mappa Mundo (Rue du Pont de la Carpe 2-6; 32-2-13-51-16), social epicenter of the cafe-filled Place St. Géry. This is where the bohemia of Brussels, lounging on cushioned banquettes, blows smoke rings, and the worldly play list zips from house to Latin.
10) COMIC STRIPS
The city can’t seem to get enough of cartoons. The Smurfs were born here, colorful murals are splashed all over the city and now there’s another museum devoted to the cuddly art form. Tintin, the fictional young reporter with a zany tuft of orange hair, is the subject of the Musée Hergé (Rue du Labrador 26; 32-10-488-421; www.museeherge.com), a three-story museum named for Tintin’s creator, Georges Prosper Remi, who used the pen name Hergé. The modern museum, which opened last year in the nearby town of Louvain-la-Neuve, winds chronologically through his career, from advertising to the head of a small empire devoted to all things Tintin, from live action films to souvenir key chains.
11) VINTAGE THREADS
There are lots of antiques markets around town, but the most diverse may be the flea market at the Place du Jeu de Balle in the Marolles District. The daily market, held in a concrete plaza, swells on Sundays and is stocked with everything from refrigerators and wheelchairs to vintage clothing and cut glass. If you tire of rifling through boxes of oil paintings, walk up adjacent Rue Blaes, a scruffy, shop-lined street where a number of antiques dealers, including Stef Antiek (Rue Blaes 63 and Place de la Chapelle 6; 32-2-540-81-42; stefantiek.com), have efficiently done the sorting for you, as a city known for bureaucrats might do.
IF YOU GO
Many airlines — including American, Continental, Delta, Jet Airways, KLM and United — fly direct from New York City to Brussels. A recent Web search found round-trip fares in July from $988.
The 173-room Hotel Amigo (Rue de l’Amigo 1-3; 32-2-547-47-47; hotelamigo.com), just behind the Grand Place, has the feel of a luxury pied-à-terre, with splashes of humor, like Tintin prints on bathroom walls. Rooms from 199 euros, about $240.
Opened in October, the eight-room Odette en Ville (25 rue du Châtelain; 32-2-640-26-26; chez-odette.com) is a chic boutique hotel near the high-end shopping street Avenue Louise. Rooms from 250 euros.
For style at a price, the funky Welcome Hotel (23 Quai au Bois à Brûler; 32-2-219-95-46; hotelwelcome.com) models each of its 17 rooms after a country, from Congo to Vietnam. Rooms from 95 euros.