Travel
11 min

Beyond Brussels: Belgium’s smaller cities have bustling gay scenes

After visiting Brussels, set out to discover Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent

A Brussels city square features an illustrated wall, alongside heritage buildings. Credit: Matt MIlls

By believing in his dreams, man turns them into reality.” — Hergé, author/illustrator  of The Adventures of Tintin. 

BRUSSELS
Whether you’re shooting up a 115-metre shaft at the quasi-futuristic Atomium, following in the footsteps of perennial comic book twink Tintin, or feasting on the steel-encrusted Art Nouveau architecture of Victor Horta, Brussels is a city that embraces the confluence of art and science, form and function, and the sense that the imagination is the portal into reality.

This can be seen in both practice and policy. Belgium is the second country in the world to legalize gay marriage, celebrating its 10th anniversary in June 2013; Brussels and the country’s smaller cities have bustling gay scenes, and while many North American gay clubs struggle to stay afloat, the La Demence party will celebrate its 24th anniversary in October 2013, every month drawing thousands of revellers from Amsterdam, Paris, Germany and, of course, Belgium, to this European capital.

These modern-day successes are built on a rich legacy. Long before tweaked-out party boys bounced around to La Demence’s circuit beats, the city (and the country’s strong defence of freedom of speech) gave refuge to such political refugees as Karl Marx and Victor Hugo (it was in Brussels that Hugo wrote parts of and published Les Misérables).

“It’s like the American dream. In France, people are always complaining,” explains Frédéric Boutry, of Visit Brussels, who is himself French-born and -raised. “But here in Brussels, there is still a sense of that dream . . . a feeling of a time where anything is possible.”

Atomium
Perhaps the grandest display of this optimism is the city’s towering Atomium, looming large over parts of the skyline. While the Grand Place (which Hugo called home for more than six months) made it to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites of exceptional value because of its artistic, architectural and historical significance, the Atomium is a shiny, aluminum, sci-fi wet dream come to life. Composed of nine spheres connected by shafts and held up by girders, it’s the atomic shape of an iron crystal blown up 165 billion times. It was built for the 1958 World’s Fair in the spirit of a peaceful atomic age, representing an “optimistic vision of the future of a modern, new, super-technological world for a better life for mankind.” It was supposed to be torn down at the end of the exposition, but people liked it so much it’s become a favourite of locals and tourists alike. At the top of the building is a restaurant with a 360-degree view of the city.

Working the strip
As if the Atomium weren’t enough to make Brussels geek heaven, it’s also the comic-book capital of the world. There are comic-book shops seemingly around every turn, and it’s hard not to put a queer spin on Belgium’s comic-strip exports, from preppy boy Tintin to ginger hero Spirou, in his red bell-boy outfit (thank goodness for his Fight Club spirit or that ensemble would’ve gotten him bashed long ago), to the Smurfs’ fraternal (and perpetually shirtless) mushroom village, with drag queen Smurfette thrown in to host wet long-john contests. With comic murals and giant statues dotting the city (grab a map from the tourist bureau for a self-guided tour), the city is an Instagram gangbang waiting to happen. A highlight is the Comic Strip Center, both for the content and the beautifully restored Horta building housing the collection of artwork and life-sized statues, and, if you’re a Tintin fan, the Hergé Museum is a short train ride from Brussels.

Streetcar named delicious
Fine dining and city transit don’t often go hand in hand, unless you count catching the bus and eating a Big Mac, but the city of Brussels has transformed one of its trams into a gourmet delight. The Tram Experience was a hit of Brusselicious, and now it’s back with Michelin-starred chefs from across the city. The jerkiness of the tram takes a bit of getting used to — but this eases off by the first course, and the conversation at my table often made us forget to look at the sites as we passed by — but it is a fun novelty experience. A veggie menu is available.

Tinkle town
“Chocolate and piss — the symbols of Brussels,” Boutry says with a laugh. He’s joking (sort of), but one of the city’s most iconic statues is a playful reflection of the people’s irreverent spirit. The centuries-old Manneken Pis (literally “little man pee”) draws huge crowds of tourists to the corner of Rue de l’Étuve and Rue du Chêne (a couple minutes’ walk from the Grand Place). There are also two lesser-known peeing statues: one of a little girl, Jeanneke Pis, erected in 1987 at the dead end of Impasse de la Fidelité, and my favourite, the peeing dog Zinneke Pis. The adorable mutt was erected in the late 1990s and was quite alone when I went to get a picture of him, so if you want to avoid crowds, he’s your mongrel (Rue des Chartreaux and Rue de Vieux-Marche).

Art nouveau bike tour
With all its utopian dreamery, Brussels is, surprisingly, not as bike-friendly as cities like Antwerp, Copenhagen or Amsterdam, but cycling remains a great way to get to the many examples of Art Nouveau architecture spread throughout the city centre, designed by the likes of architect Victor Horta. Tours and bike rentals are offered by Pro Velo. If you opt for a tour, ask the guide to set aside time to go through the Horta Museum to see the inside of one of these remarkable buildings, which in this case was also the architect’s private residence.

La Demence
Started 24 years ago, this monthly club night has everything: trans girls in lingerie, strippers on the hour, a dark room with a dedicated bar and DJ just outside, pickpockets, a bearded man in a bridesmaid’s dress, muscle queens, a guy with light-up bunny ears, Borat look-alikes, and sufamos. What’s a sufamo? Sun-faded homos in leather harnesses with dilated pupils. Seriously, this place was born of an SNL Stefon monologue and should be in New York, yet the complete mashup of characters makes it quintessentially Brussels. Who was there? Everybody. All three floors of grungy Fuse nightclub were packed, drawing about 2,000 electro music fans from Amsterdam, Paris, Cologne and beyond even on a night that overlapped with Barcelona’s mega 10-day circuit event. On a busier weekend, I’m told, it’s almost impossible to move. Twice a year, at Easter and their anniversary (end of October/beginning of November), it draws more than 4,000 people for their weekend-long extravaganzas.

Maps
If you want to save on guidebooks, or just want supplemental material, the city’s tourism bureau has produced some great maps for self-guided tours (there’s a half-euro charge per map), or you can download the free app, which promises to be 100-percent offline (so you won’t incur roaming charges). Check out their website for the full details. My favourite maps include one for lesbian and gay visitors, a contemporary art map and the guide for all things Tintin. 

For the most up-to-date travel information on gay Brussels, see our City GuideListings GuideEvents Guide and Activities Guide.

• • • • •

ANTWERP
Antwerp is not about modesty,” promises official city guide Rick Philips, and with good reason. Although the Belgian city has only half a million inhabitants, it boasts 174 nationalities, earns billions of dollars per year in the diamond trade, has one of the busiest ports in Europe, and is the “gay capital of Flanders.” 

“Why should we be humble?” Philips says with a laugh.

He says Antwerp’s gay street cred is intertwined with the city’s cosmopolitan spirit, which took root in the 1960s and includes a major fashion scene. “We are the most important shopping centre in the Benelux” (ie, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) “and one of the most important in Europe.”

When Forever 21 came to the continent, it “first opened in London and Antwerp” Philips says, a sign of “how important we are in the fashion and shopping scene.” Antwerp has a huge pedestrian-friendly shopping strip that stretches for block after block and is home to usual suspects H&M and Disney (housed in a fairy-tale building with fanciful steelwork) alongside small boutiques (fashionistas will enjoy Your Antwerp, at Kloosterstraat 90, and David Mayer Naman, at Nationalestraat 64), while foodies will drool over the chocolatier in a former palace of Napoleon, the “most beautiful chocolate shop in the world.” In a city that’s been bombed as many times as Antwerp (by the Dutch, the Swedes, the Spanish and during the First and Second World Wars) the juxtaposition between old and new doesn’t seem out of place, where reconstruction has positioned Rococo buildings next to Art Deco.

This shopping haven is centred on The Meir, which also pays homage to local heroes of art with a series of statues along the strip. This includes Antwerp’s most famous painter, Rubens (check out The Rubens House), but there’s also Antoon van Dyck, who “may have had a special relationship with the king or another noble at court,” Philips says with a wink, “and special relationships with archbishops in Italy.” Van Dyck’s paintings were “different” from other Baroque painters, paying “a lot of attention to detail for fashion, diamonds, pearls and other accessories.”

And while van Dyck’s proclivities remain a matter of conjecture, the city spawned its own version of Oscar Wilde in the form of French-speaking author Georges Eekhoud (1854–1927). His tale of l’amour entre hommes in his novel Escal-Vigor resulted in a lawsuit in 1900 for lines like “Guidon and Henry shared their breath in a supreme kiss.” Eekhoud was ultimately acquitted, and the book received several positive reviews.

Getting there
There are no direct flights to Antwerp from Canada, but Jet Airways flies nonstop from Toronto to Brussels. You can take the train from the capital to Antwerp, but I found the bus directly from the airport more convenient. Either way, you will be dropped off at the Antwerp central train station, which was ranked by Newsweek as the fourth nicest in the world. According to Philips, it was built “to show off” and is well worth walking through.

Getting around
Antwerp has a vast public transit system, and a 10-ride ticket sells for 9 euros, but I loved getting around on the city’s public Velo bike system for 4 euros per day. You can register on the website, or better yet, some hotels offer convenient swipe cards at their front desks. Taxis are quite affordable but generally have to be ordered rather than hailed. An Antwerp taxi app can be downloaded from m.taxi4me.net/antwerp.

Off the beaten path
Although Antwerp celebrates its Cathedral of Our Lady for its gothic splendour, on a sunny day I’d suggest hopping in a cab or biking to the Middelheim museum’s outdoor sculpture park for melting sailboats and giant decapitated sausages with unhappy faces. If it’s raining, umbrellas can be borrowed free at the gift shop. 

Where to eat
Expect to chow down on plenty of pomme frites (French fries) throughout Belgium, and mussels are a favourite (even if they’re mostly imported from Holland). For a fine version of both, along with fish and steak dishes, check out Grand Café Horta (Hopland 2), located in a modern ode to Art Nouveau, with sweeping floor-to-ceiling windows and refurbished steel girders high overhead. Order the cherry beer for the gayest brew ever, 

For the most up-to-date travel information on gay Antwerp, see our City GuideListings GuideEvents Guide and Activities Guide.

For more on Antwerp, visit visitantwerpen.be 

• • • • •

BRUGES
This tiny town is a train ride away from both Antwerp and Brussels and is overrun by tourists — for good reason. Its cobbled streets and winding canals are full of medieval charm. Seriously, a Disney princess could’ve barfed it up. Look for the gay map — though it consists of gay-friendly pubs, hotels and shops rather than a hopping nightlife — put out by the city’s queer youth organization. It’s a testament to the country’s queer-friendly nature that a town of this size has an LGBT youth group. What’s really interesting from a queer-history perspective is the Beguinage of the Vineyard. It was once a haven for single and widowed women who had chosen a religious life, whether because so many men were off in the Crusades or these women were simply emancipated. They were very self-sufficient, with their own brewery, school and chapel. They paid a member of the clergy for mass, but he was not allowed to live on site. Sons were allowed until they reached the age of 14 and daughters until they were 18, at which point daughters could make the decision to join or leave. I’m not saying this made it a hotbed of lesbian activity. I’m not saying that. The public baths (once located on Stoofstraat), on the other hand, were mixed sex, my guide tells me. “You can imagine what happened.” Back in the day, Amélie, “with her very hot stove,” advertised 10 hot baths and 17 beds. Now you’ll find souvenir shops and chocolatiers.

Where to eat
If you’re looking to evade the tourist traps, I highly recommend the restaurant Patrick Devos (Zilverstraat 41). There’s an innocuous sign, and you have to walk down a hallway to find the restaurant itself, but it’s well worth finding. There’s a crisp back garden where you can take your appetizer with an apéritif, then for your main come inside to enjoy the rich wood details and stained-glass Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles of the early 1900s.

Where to stay
For those wanting to extend their stay beyond a day and looking for a quaint guest house steps from the city centre, check out the Hotel Maraboe (Hoefijzerlaan 9).

• • • • •

GHENT
Ghent is a larger, more cosmopolitan version of Bruges, with canals and plenty of medieval and gothic architecture of its own, from its trio of towers (belonging respectively to the city’s belfry, church and cathedral) to the Korenmarkt (check out visitgent.be). My favourite story from my tour of the city involves the city’s Castle of the Counts, briefly home to a count of Flanders. I’m told it saw only one battle, in 1949, when a group of university students stormed the castle, carrying with them rotting vegetables, which they pelted at police. They were protesting the cost of beer rising from 2 francs to 3 francs. Apparently, the takeover was easy, with only one handicapped security guard to overcome, though the castle was soon liberated, with the help of firefighting ladders to get over the walls.

Where to pick up
For cruising, the folks at the Casa Rosa queer community centre suggest checking out Citadel Park. And they willingly share the most frequently asked question from tourists: “Is there a gay sauna?” Answer: “Yes, [spades4our.be] close to central station. It’s the only one in the region, so it gets pretty busy.” Despite the city’s small size (about 250,000 people), there’s an active gay nightlife, in part because of a huge post-secondary student population, an additional 68,000 people. Casa Rosa puts out a gay map for the city and hosts its own parties/events in its ground-floor space — their lesbian night during the city’s 10-day Gentse festival is the most profitable. Ghent ladies apparently like to drink.

The Pink Tour
Casa Rosa also does a pink walking tour (be sure to book ahead of time ), some of which is morbid, like the bit about the burning of witches in the Friday Market and the stone carver who was put on trial for ordering the boys who worked for him to touch his privates. His artistic work can be seen on the memorial of Bishop Triest in the city’s cathedral.

A bit of bite
On a more savoury note, if you’re looking for a gustatory treat, forget chocolate. For something unique check out Tierenteyn-Verlent, a mustard shop that’s been in operation since 1790 where you can watch them ladle the spicy mustard into a bottle from a keg right in front of you.