With London, Frankfurt, Paris and Amsterdam all so close, each just a couple of hours by train, Brussels, Belgium, can’t really be called off the beaten path. Still, it may not be an obvious first choice for gay travellers. Sometimes, though, it’s those destinations, the ones right under your nose that few of your friends have visited, that offer the most memorable experiences.
Belgium is a cultural estuary of Dutch, French and German languages and regions, all converging in Brussels, its capital. As the seat of the European Parliament, you can feel that the city’s principal industry is administration. But as with most capitals, it is also a showcase for its people’s culture. And gay culture is a vibrant expression in that equation.
There is among Brusselians an attention to quality and detail that eludes the inmates of North American suburban sprawl. One of the things that struck me as I first explored the city is how everyone’s clothes seem to fit their bodies so precisely. There is an illusion that the people there, from every walk of life, are deliberately tailored and accessorized as a matter of course. And it is a phenomenon that extends beyond fashion.
Even the most mundane food and drink seem to taste just a bit better in Brussels. Buildings designed for grandeur and style are gorgeous. But buildings erected principally for utility bear design flourishes too, gentle nods to the good life. Aesthetics seems a design parameter of equal import to utility, safety and durability in everything created Belgian. Even if a thing is cheap, it doesn’t have to look and feel that way. And to go with that, there is a subtle and admirable sense of entitlement among the people that, no matter how thick or thin their wallets, they deserve to be pampered in myriad little ways, if only by their own hands. I want to live more like that.
The confluence of cultures makes it a bit difficult to paint in much finer detail quintessentially Brusselian personality traits, but rest assured the people are friendly, generous, variously sexy and uninhibited.
There is a huge bar, club and party scene in Brussels, conspicuous in a city its size. Many gay joints are centrally located in the Rainbow District in Le Quartier Saint-Jacques, a beautiful maze of 18th-century buildings adjacent to the famous Grand Place.
But bypassing the city’s other cultural offerings would be a travesty. Brussels positively bulges with museums and art galleries. In the 1920s the city was home to a group of surrealist artists and writers, including René Magritte. The Magritte Museum (musee-magritte-museum.be) features 200 of his works and should not be missed. There are several other art museums within a stone’s throw that boast, among other treasures, mind-bending collections of works by other surrealists.
Hungry? Check out La Brasserie de Bruxelles (Rue Montagne aux Herbes Potagères 7) for a leisurely and intimate meal. The food is delicious and the prices reasonable. For something a little higher key, La Brasserie La Royale (royalbrasseriebrussels.be) offers great fare and painfully handsome and wonderfully flirty servers. For something casual and comfortable, try Le Fils de Jules (filsdejules.be). And if you really want to splurge on state-of-the-art molecular gastronomy, try the Crystal Lounge at Hotel Sofitel Brussels Le Louise. They serve things there that will leave you doubting the honesty of your taste buds.
Bars and Clubs
Clustered on the smallish streets in Le Quartier Saint-Jacques, immediately to the southwest of Grand Place in the heart of the city, are several small but very popular gay bars and dive joints. At Le Belgica (lebelgica.be) the crowd is mostly men, but ages, shapes, sizes and nationalities are well mixed. The drinks are potent, the ambiance is — well, you have to see it — and the guys are friendly. Also check out Chez Maman (chezmaman.be), L’Homo Erectus (lhomoerectus.com) and Le Boys Boudoir (leboysboudoir.be). To the southeast of Grand Place is Duquesnoy (duquesnoy.com) for the leather and fetish aficionado. The place sports three floors of music and a titillating darkroom. Just make sure you check out the website before you go; you wouldn’t want to be turned away for dress code violations.
If you’re looking to party until dawn — or Monday — it’s best to coincide your visit with one of the Belgian statutory holidays. The way of things then is to eat late, start warming up at one of the smaller bars or dive joints around 11pm, then well after midnight head to one of the big gay dance-party venues.
La Démence (lademence.com), a monthly party event, is simply off the hook: sweaty, sexy men, crammed to the rafters and energized by some of the most famous international DJs. There can be long lines if you arrive late, but if you’re looking for a party of epic proportions in the European tradition, this is it.
Hotel Aloft Brussels Schuman (aloftbrussels.com) is just a bit out of the way but still a short taxi ride to all the action. It’s a newish mid-range hotel, perfect for young, hip travellers but also plenty comfortable for mature sophisticates. The staff are handsome, friendly and flirty, and the open concept lobby/games room/bar/lounge/breakfast bar is welcomingly stylish.
If uncompromising luxury is your bag, check into Hotel Sofitel Brussels Le Louise (sofitel.com). It’s in the heart of the swanky Avenue Louise shopping area and close to everything. The accommodations are stellar, the food is delicious, and the staff are consummate professionals. Take your extra credit card — you’ll be glad you did.
The Pantone Hotel (pantonehotel.com) is simple but incredibly cool. It carries a design theme based entirely on the Pantone Matching System. The whole place is colour coded, complete with Pantone’s six-digit colour numbers. What an amazing idea.
Getting there and getting around
Air Canada (aircanada.com) offers daily service direct to Brussels from Montreal. Flight time on that route is about seven hours. Getting to Brussels from within Europe is as easy as hopping a train (europeanrailguide.com). There is high-speed service through Brussels from Frankfurt to London and connecting at Lille to Paris. There’s also a web of inter-city and conventional rail lines — adding a visit to Brussels to your European vacation is a snap.
The city isn’t huge, so a dedicated walker can cover the highlights on foot. But taxis are plentiful and easy to find. Just be sure to get a flat rate to and from the airport — don’t spend more than 45 euros.
Big gay events
Brussels Lesbian and Gay Pride, May 13–15, 2011
Brussels Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, January 2012