Welcoming yet chaotic, confusing yet bureaucratic, Brussels is a city of contradictions. Along with the Belgian government, the region hosts the headquarters of the European Union, NATO and numerous other international organizations. But the city of just over a million is a far cry from the uptight, squeaky-clean appearance of most capitals. Endless dining options, a thriving nightlife and an extensive gay scene make it a great getaway.
The most popular place to start any tour is Grand Place. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, the large open square not far from the central rail station plays host to all manner of events. Outdoor festivals, markets and food tastings fill the square at various points throughout the year. To fully appreciate its beauty, visit after dark when the buildings are illuminated by strategically placed lights.
Belgians take food as seriously as the French, and just off the square you’ll find Petite Rue des Bouchers, a pedestrian strip chock full of Italian, French and Greek restaurants. Large protruding awnings make it a great place to escape the rain, while proprietors try to entice you inside with the promise of free appetizers and warm fireplaces.
Probably better known for desserts than for dinner, Belgians make sweets a true art form. Shops selling chocolate, ice cream, cakes and waffles can be found on nearly every side street off the square, particularly Rue de l’Etuve. Also worth a stop is Moka Espresso Bar, a tiny coffee house where locals knock back some of the finest java and hot chocolate in the city, while listening to Motown on vinyl records.
Beyond food, Belgium is world famous for beer. With so many beer bars and breweries throughout the city, it’s hard to choose one. But Moeder Lambic makes a great destination for connoisseurs and amateurs alike. Both locations feature hundreds of brews on tap and by the bottle, as well a “guest list” of special suds available for a limited time and various appetizers.
Brussels also makes an excellent destination for culture vultures, with numerous venues for theatre, dance and visual art. Both the Kaaitheater and the Beursschouwburg host dozens of performance acts a month, featuring some of the world’s top-tier talent. For visual art, Wiels Contemporary Art Centre is one of the best. Built inside a converted brewery, the multilevel space also features an excellent café and a shop that sells art books. Government subsidies mean admission to most art events is quite reasonable, and many places offer student discounts.
Gay life is concentrated largely in the city centre, and there are plenty of bars to choose from. No trip would be complete without a visit to La Reserve. Considered the city’s oldest gay bar (though no one seems precisely sure when it opened), the tiny joint with stained glass windows and a wood-panelled interior is always packed. Though it’s considered a bar, Le Dolores is more like a year-round patio. The tiny haunt is typically so jammed the party takes place mostly on the street out front. Live DJs spinning most nights provide a great background for mingling with locals to find out what’s hot for that evening. Also see our feature Cruising for sex in Brussels.
A few important practicalities: Brussels is a bilingual French- and Flemish-speaking city, though nearly everyone speaks English as well. This can get a bit confusing with addresses, however, as each street has both a French and a Flemish name, which don’t always mean the same thing. Though it’s generally a safe city, the more touristy areas are known for pickpockets, so keep your wits about you and your wallet safe.