Veer sharply left by the Chanel store on Boulevard de Waterloo and you’ll find yourself in a tiny oasis among Brussels’ busiest shopping streets. The gardens of the elegant Egmont Palace (now the home of Belgium’s foreign ministry) are a public park, one of the most secret in Brussels. It’s home to a charming little statue of Peter Pan, a gift from the children of Britain to the children of Belgium, and the palace’s former orangery is now a cool, modern restaurant, La Fabrique en Ville, that boasts Brussels’ best terrace for brunch in the sun. Poached eggs and homemade hollandaise on an English muffin is on the expensive side at €13.50, but well worth it for brunching like a king in the grounds of a former palace.
Street art, Sainte Catherine
For a few years now, the area around Brussels’ old fish market, by the Sainte Catherine church, has become the open-air studio of French street artist OakOak. Playing cheekily with features of Brussels’ urban environment, OakOak transforms drain covers, doorsteps and street signage into humorous works of art. Ranging from manhole covers being swallowed by giant frogs to love stories between zebra crossing stripes, the artworks were commissioned by Brussels’ culture minister to make people look at the city in a new way.
• Map downloadable at: centrale.brussels/oakoak-parcours-street-art
This Aladdin’s cave-style restaurant near the Ixelles étangs (ponds) does an incredible fusion of Moroccan and Jewish cuisine. Golden tagines in heavy clay pots and carafes of ruby-coloured Middle Eastern wines emerge from the kitchen, along with the most intoxicating smells. Take a post-dinner stroll round the lush green ponds to work off your meal and the jewel-like pistachio pastries, dripping in honey, that the waiters present you with as you leave. A large tagine with couscous is about €16.
• Square de Biarritz 1, +32 2 644 18 10, no wesbite
One of the best places to discover Brussels’ edgy underbelly is this turn-of-the-century former design academy, now a fashionable hotel. Keep warm under a sheepskin by an open fire in the rooftop bar or take in an unbeatable view of the Brussels skyline from its balcony. Peer over the railing to see the steam rising from a long, narrow outdoor pool on the balcony one floor below. An evening at the Jam Hotel – named for owner Jean-Michel André’s wish to jam together all his favourite things – can include anything from playing vintage arcade games to joining locals for table tennis, craft beer and sourdough pizza from the hotel’s restaurant. Bunks in the industrial-style dorm are €25 a night, but there are also singles from €49 and doubles from €84 room-only.
• Chaussée de Charleroi 132, jamhotel.be
The grey buildings of Rue d’Arenberg are suddenly interrupted by a bright street art mural and vintage sign announcing Cinema Nova. Part of a project to save an abandoned cinema from demolition, it has peeling walls, red seats and a programme that transports you back 50 years to the golden era of film. It’s a non-profit, art-house cinema, run by volunteers, and shows only independent films. It welcomes creativity of all types, also often hosting local DJs and photography exhibitions.
• Rue d’Arenberg 3, nova-cinema.org
Cook & Book
On a sunny day, grab one of the city’s Villo! rental bikes for a ride through the sweeping Parc du Cinquantenaire arch and on east for 10 minutes to Cook & Book, in a new shopping development in Woluwe-Saint-Lambert. It’s a bookshop the size of a supermarket with nine departments (including a music section)across two buildings, each with its own themed eatery. Enjoy brunch in an old campervan as you flick through the pages of a guide to Flanders in the travel department, or immerse yourself in some Jane Austen while taking tea and cake under the chandeliers of the English literature section.
• Place du Temps Libre 1, cookandbook.be
Flagey Sunday market
On Sundays the whole of Brussels’ trendy Ixelles quarter comes out in force to promenade and peruse the stalls at Place Flagey. Grab a sunny seat outside one of the square’s cafes to watch children splashing in fountains and people gorging on slices of fresh mango or wandering in and out of bars with paper cones of freshly fried chips from the famous Frit Flagey hut. For something more sophisticated, join the locals enjoying €2 glasses of bubbly and €1 oysters on their shells while perching on stools by the van they’re sold from.
• Place Flagey, Sunday, 7am-1pm
On this road in the vibrant Matonge quarter, you walk past Congolese hairdressers and greengrocers spilling over with mangoes and plantains, and suddenly find yourself facing glossy gold lettering spelling out Maison Renardy. This prim-and-proper patisserie, somewhat at odds with its surroundings, is one of the best places to pick up handmade Belgian chocolates or a perfectly flaky praline croissant. The elegant Françoise will come round with her silver tray to serve your choice of 21 artisan coffees or 36 loose-leaf teas – always with an individual chocolate and a timer to ensure the perfect brew. Arrive early (before 3pm) or all the best pastries will be gone.
• Chaussée de Wavre 111B, 1050
Goupil le Fol
Photograph: Getty Images
Kitsch decor covers every inch of wall space in this former brothel, now one of Brussels’ coolest bars. Expect to find anything from a politician’s bust to a rusty bicycle in Goupil’s three-storey boudoir. Sink into a chintzy velvet sofa among the candles and sip on the house speciality: secret-recipe hazelnut wine, served ice-cold in a huge glass. If you’re feeling brave, head up to the third floor to join couples smooching to the sounds of old French jazz on the record player.
• Rue de la Violette 22, goupillefol.com
Part concept store, part social enterprise, Urban Therapy is the place to discover up-and-coming Belgian designers and craftspeople. It also has a community wall for people to paint on, and its own miniature jungle of around 50 terrariums. Come along for a make your own terrarium workshop, a pianist-accompanied brunch, or just to enjoy a free cup of herbal tea offered to you by the owners as you browse. Many of the products exist thanks to Anis and Céline, the team behind Urban, who sponsor local creative types to realise their visions.
• Rue de Flandre 84, urbantherapy.be
The closest foreign capital to London, Brussels is easily reached by Eurostar from London St Pancras (from £29 one-way). Airlines that fly to Brussels from the UK include BA (Heathrow, Manchester) and Brussels Airlines (Heathrow, Manchester, Birmingham). Ryanair flies to Brussels Charleroi, 60km away, from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Manchester.
When to go
Although the weather is less predictable, Brussels is best visited in late spring and early autumn, when evenings still tend to be long and sunny, and the city hosts many vibrant festivals – such as Belgian Beer Weekend (7-9 Sept).