Wherever else you go in Belgium, allow at least a little time for BRUSSELS, which is by any standard one of Europe's premier cities. Certainly, don't let its unjustified reputation as a dull, faceless centre of EU bureaucracy deter you: in postwar years, the city has become a thriving, cosmopolitan metropolis, with top-flight architecture and museums, not to mention a well-preserved late seventeenth-century centre, a superb restaurant scene and an energetic nightlife. Moreover, most of the key attractions are crowded into a centre that is small enough to be absorbed over a few long days, its boundaries largely defined by a ring of boulevards – the "petit ring", or less colloquially, the "petite ceinture".
First-time visitors to Brussels are often surprised by the raw vitality of the city centre. It isn't neat and tidy, and many of the old tenement houses are shabby and ill-used, but there's a buzz about the place that's hard to resist. The city centre is itself divided into two main areas. The larger westerly portion comprises the Lower Town, fanning out from the marvellous Grand-Place, with its exquisite guildhouses and town hall, while up above to the east lies the much smaller Upper Town, home to the finest art collection in the country in the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts.
Brussels is a wonderful place to eat: its gastronomic reputation rivals that of Paris, and though traditional meals in home-grown restaurants are rarely cheap, there is great-value food to be had in many of the bars. The bars themselves can be sumptuous, basic, traditional or fashionable – and are one of the city's real delights.
The city's specialist shops are another pleasure. Everyone knows about Belgian chocolates, but here in the capital there are also sprawling, open-air markets, contemporary art galleries, and establishments devoted to anything from comic books to costume jewellery. Belgium is such a small country, and the rail network so fast and efficient, that Brussels also makes the perfect base for a wide range of day-trips. An obvious target is the battlefield of Waterloo, one of the region's most visited attractions.
Brussels is a unique city composed of 19 districts and divided by two languages. Its hub is the Grand Place , which can be reached by tram or bus. This city square was once the focal point of Brussels' food markets. The surrounding streets, named after the foods for which they were famous, such as Rue Marche aux Herbes, are still home to many of the city's traditional restaurants and cafes. The markets are no longer held in this plaza, described by writer Victor Hugo as "Europe's most beautiful square," but there are 101 reasons to come here. The city has a number of interesting areas, all within easy reach by public transport or a brisk walk.
Sights such as the Cathedrale des Saints Michel et Gudule , Mont-des-Arts , and the city's main shopping complexes are also located here. The Place Sainte-Catherine used to be a fishing village, and today is known as the city's seafood district. This area is filled with great seafood restaurants. Brussels's city center is essentially pentagonal, and all roads lead to Grote Markt / Grand Place , the city's center.
An aerial view of Brussels would show a surprising amount of greenery and water, all not far from the heart of the city. South-eastern Brussels is called the upper city. The Palais Royal (Royal Palace) is the home of Belgium's kings, and exhibits 18th Century architecture and painting. The Palais de Justice was built for King Leopold II and exemplifies neo-Gothic architecture.
In the area between De Broukère and Place Rogier you'll find close to a dozen points of interest including Brussels' stock exchange, the Bourse , the fish market, Brussels' Red Light District and Parc de Bruxelles , the primary park in this district. Rue de Loi leads you to Jubel Park/Parc du Cinquantenaire , a 36.4-hectare (90-acre) park just outside of the bounds of the city center. Here is where you'll find the famous Manneken Pis , the symbol of Brussels, a small, sometimes clad, statue of a peeing boy. You'll also find Grote Markt / Grand Place here. It's considered the largest and most extensive market square in all of Europe. Spending a day exploring the unique shops and stalls here is definitely a must.
In Ixelles you'll find a serene and tranquil alcove in busy Brussels, the beautiful Bois de la Cambre forest, parks, ponds, and the Abbaye de la Cambre , which was founded in 1196 by the Sisters of the Cistercian Order. The building was rebuilt during the 17th and 18th Centuries after suffering extensive damage during the Wars of Religion. There is only one remaining section of the original church itself, which dates back to the 14th Century.
The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium is the largest museum in the country, and has exhibitions of artwork acquired from the collection of King William the first as well as pieces dating all the way back to the 14th Century. The Place du Grand Sablon is a large square with many interesting shops. There is also a statue of Minerva and several churches, among them Our Lady Church, that house excellent examples of Belgian architecture.
Avenue Louise is Brussels' Rodeo Drive or Champs Elysees, the most prestigious shopping street and a real favorite with tourists and residents alike. If you continue walking along Avenue Louise you'll come to Bois de la Cambre , near Sonian Forest, one of Brussels' best parks.
Brussels is renowned for its chic restaurants such as Loui and its cozy little cafes in which you can enjoy anything from a simple snack to a three course dinner. With so many places to eat, you might ask yourself where to begin a "culinary trip" through Brussels?
A good place to start is with a seafood restaurant, such as Sea Grill . Brussels is well known for its fresh fish and diverse dishes featuring mussels, shrimp and many other types of seafood. A high concentration of restaurants can be found in Grote Markt / Grand Place and the surrounding area, where you'll find all sorts of international cuisine such as Greek, Chinese, Spanish and, of course, French.
Located on the Place Saint-Gery, the menu at Mappa Mundo is filled with many different selections from all over the world. La Maison du Cygne was constructed in a 17th Century building that's full of history: the country's Socialist Party was formed here in 1881. Het Warm Water used to sell warm water to locals in Old Brussels since heating water wasn't possible back then. Today it's a popular cafe that sells coffee and serves brunch. Pizzeria Mirante takes pizza-making very seriously, only serving pies made with the best quality ingredients. Comme Chez Soi is one of the city's best restaurants. It was awarded three Michelin stars. La Becasse is known for an excellent selection of lambic and gueuze (Belgian beers) and tasty sandwiches.
Bleu de Toi has an aquamarine theme and an outside terrace where guests can enjoy a variety of delectable lobster dishes. For a unique dining experience try La Tour D'y Voir , a Belgian and French restaurant set inside an 18th Century chapel. You'll also find Belgian at Au Vieux Saint-Martin , where the specialty is well-seasoned meat dishes. Au Plaisir mixes it up with Italian and French offerings and is surrounded by a Japanese garden that you can view from your table. Located not far from the Zavel is Le Perroquet , a restaurant that has a relaxed lounge atmosphere. Chao Chow City has some of the best Chinese that Brussels has to offer, with a variety of dim sum options.
Le Prevôt serves a mix of Belgian and French cuisine in an elegant dining room. Fellini was named for the famous Italian director, and the interior has been designed to reflect the atmosphere of his films. Located close to the Avenue Louise and Avenue Waterloo, Le Fils de Jules serves French cuisine in a stylish interior that is ideal for couples and business lunches. La Canne en Ville takes the inspiration for its dishes from France, Italy and Belgium, while the 75 different kinds of beer at L'Ultime Atome keep people coming back. High quality Tex-Mex can be found at Pablo's .
A walk in the center of Brussels should start from Grote Markt / Grand Place , or the main market square. If you want to get there by tube there are two stations close by. By Bourse , which stops at the old stock exchange: follow the road behind the stock exchange up to the main market square. Or if you are arriving by tube or train from Centraal Station , follow the road in front of the station's main entrance, pass the first crossroads, Europa Kruispunt, and on your left there is a little passageway that leads to the main market square.
This is the heart of Brussels, where it all started centuries ago. Face the building with the tall spectacular spire in the center. This is the Town Hall ; on the right you can see more amazing Gothic facades decorated with statues and golden ornaments. Towards the far right, on the corner of the market square and the Rue au Beurre is Le Roy d'Espagne , a very well-known old pub which has been around for years, and is an ideal meeting place. If you are still facing the Town Hall, you can find the Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate on your right.
Right next to the Town Hall is Rue de l'Etuve, a quaint cobbled street with an abundance of small lace shops. Walking further down this road and crossing Rue du Lombard you will discover the famous little bronze statue, Manekken Pis . Walk up the hill on the Rue des Bogards and Rue des Alexiens until you arrive at Place de la Chapelle. When you cross this square you can see an old medieval wall which used to be part of the old town wall in the 12th Century. Walking down Rue de Rollebeek, you arrive at Place du Grand Sablon , Brussels' center for antiques. Hundreds of objects ranging from expensive to bargains are displayed in a one-mile radius here.
The closest public transport here is metro stop Louise, situated at the end of the Avenue Louise . If you can resist shopping on this major shopping street, cross Boulevard de Waterloo and Avenue de la Toison d'Or down Rue de 4 bras and end up at Place Poelaert. Here you'll find one of the best views in Brussels. In the distance on your right you can even see the Atomium . Walk down Rue de la Regence, and 200 meters further on your right you'll pass Place du Grand Sablon , where you can find the world famous chocolatier Pierre Marcolini , the Wittamer Pâtissier , and the famous brasserie Au Vieux Saint-Martin , where Bill Clinton signed one of the tables. On the other side is the Place du Petit Sablon, with a lovely little garden designed in the 1890s and surrounded by 48 sculptures, each representing an ancient craft. A bit further down on your right at number 3 is the main building of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium . There are two museums here, the Museum of Modern Art and the Musee d'Art Ancient (The Museum of Ancient Art) . You will then come to the Palais Royal . The first street on your right is Rue Montagne de la Cour, where there's an amazing art deco building housing the Early Musical Instruments Museum . If you decide not to go in, cross the square and you will arrive at the corner of the Parc de Bruxelles , Brussels' largest park. You will find Paleis voor Schone Kunsten/Palais des Beaux-Arts on your right, and Palais Royal and the Museum of the State on your left.
If all this walking is not really your thing, the Metro is one of the cheapest ways to see Brussels. All over the city you'll see signs for the Metro with a huge white "M" on a blue background. There are 48 metro Stations in and around the city. Information bureaus are located at the Porte de Namur, Rogier and Midi stations.
A lovely way to see Brussels is by horse and carriage. These can be found at Grote Markt/Grand Place and are very popular with tourists. From the carriages you can absorb Brussels's wonderful atmosphere and get a great view of all the lovely historic buildings.