GRAND PLACE – One of the world’s great urban spaces, the enclosed cobblestone square is only revealed as you enter on foot from one of six narrow side alleys. It’s crammed with 15th- to 18th-century guildhalls that are unashamed exhibitionists. Magically lit at night, it’s alive with classic Belgian cafes and hosts a flower market on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings.
MUSSES ROYAUX DES BEAUX-ARTS – This prestigious mega-museum incorporates Brussels’ museum of Old Masters, where the 15th-century Flemish Primitives are well represented, its Modern Art museum, an Art Nouveau museum and the purpose-built Musee Magritte, which holds the world’s largest collection of the Belgian Surrealist’s.
PALAIS DE JUSTICE – This hilltop complex of law courts was the world’s biggest building when it was constructed (1866-83). The main lobby, beneath a giant dome and watched over by forbidding statues, is open to visitors but receives far fewer than it deserves. Behind the building a terrace offers wide panoramas over Brussels and a free glass elevator leads down to the Marolles.
COMIC-STRIP MURALS – Belgium’s vibrant comic-strip culture (Herge and Tintin came from this neck of the woods) is writ large on the streets of Brussels where dozens of comic-strip murals enliven alleys and thoroughfares throughout the old city centre. The tourist office on Grand Place has a ‘comic strip trail’ pamphlet showing the locations of more than 50 murals with commentary.
PLACE DU JEU DE BALLE FLEA MARKET – This chaotic flea market, established in 1919, and spilling over with brocante (bric-a-brac), is a favourite with local shoppers. Haggling for a bargain here is a quintessential experience in Brussels’ once resolutely working-class Marolles quarter. It’s at its liveliest on weekends – get your elbows out – but the best bargains are to be had early mornings midweek.
BREWERY TOUR – Brasserie Cantillon is Brussels’ last operating lambic brewery (the beer is produced by spontaneous fermentation), and an atmospheric brewery- museum where much of the 19th-century equipment is still used. Take a self-guided tour, including the barrel rooms where the beers mature for up to three years in chestnut casks. The entry fee includes a glass of one of Cantillon’s brews.
MAISON ANTOINE – Maison Antoine is a classic little fritkot (takeaway chip kiosk) in the EU quarter, with a reputation for some of Brussels’ best frites. Such is its popularity, that cafes on the surrounding square (including beautifully wrought iron-fronted L’Autobus) allow frites eaters to sit and snack so long as they buy a drink.
CARE DU MIDI MARKET – This Sunday market is said to be the biggest in Europe and it’s a good place for cheap eats. Its sprawl of colourful stalls has an international flavour, with exotic North African and Mediterranean spices, cheeses, meats, and food stands selling bites such as Moroccan crepes. Come early and you’re likely to see clubbers emerging from a long night out.
DE ULTIEME HALLUCINATIE – at this Schaerbeek bar, you’ll get to spend some time ogling a magnificent Art Nouveau timewarp. It is located in a classic townhouse refitted with Art Nouveau interiors in 1904 that have barely changed. The salon has original lamps, brass radiator covers and stained glass.
TRANSPORT – The most direct flight is on Qatar Airways via Doha from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur; the airport is 20 minutes from the city centre. The airport is serviced by bus and train; Airport City Express trains run to the city’s three major train stations. Brussels has an integrated bus-tram-metro system and tickets are cheaper if you buy before boarding (single US$2.10). Unlimited one-day passes cost US$7.50.
WHERE TO STAY – The design-driven Pantone Hotel is located in central St-Gilles, and is modern, stylish and surprisingly affordable. Some of the larger rooms come with a balcony or terrace.
Housed in a 17th-century Pantone Hotel is designed with a scheme of contrasting colours mansion, The Captaincy Guesthouse is an idiosyncratic, boutique hostel, which features an especially lovely double room and en suite four-bed female dorm.
Chambres d’Hotes du Vaudeville is a classy b&b with an incredible location. Larger front rooms have claw-foot bathtubs and street views; back rooms are quieter.