Brussels is a destination that really surprised me when we visited recently. My initial impression was that it was mostly a connection city for travelling to Bruges or Ghent and must be super-serious and business-like as the centre of the European Union.
Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Firstly, the Belgian capital city wins points for its enthusiasm for chocolate, waffles and really good beer, but after spending some time there, I was also charmed by its history, grandeur and friendly culture.
Our visit came at a time of intensity in Brussels and fortunately we were back in London before the devastating attacks. During our stay, there was a reassuringly strong security presence on the streets and the weekend revelry carried on in a fun, good-natured way.
We were kindly invited by Accor Hotels for this weekend city break in Brussels and we had the most fantastic time exploring the city. Our base for two nights was the shiny new four-star Mercure Brussels Centre Midi, located conveniently close to the Eurostar terminal at Gare du Midi and a short 15-minute walk into the heart of Brussels. While I always plan my Eurostar departure meticulously, I’ve been known to scramble like a madwoman to make the train back home with mere minutes to spare, so I found the hotel’s location handy for that last-minute dash.
The Mercure Brussels Centre Midi is contemporary and sleek with stylish interiors. We found our Double Room very comfortable with a plush bed, large LCD TV, tea and coffee facilities and a spacious, modern bathroom.
A special perk of staying there is the relaxing spa with a well-maintained sauna, steam room and whirlpool. It was the perfect way to unwind after a day of sightseeing before heading out to dinner.
Breakfast is also a real treat with everything you could possibly want for breakfast, including hot dishes, smoked salmon, mini pastries, freshly-baked waffles, crepes, charcuterie, Continental cheese and squeeze-your-own orange juice. There’s even a slab of Belgian chocolate to be cracked with a hammer, if you want to start the day on a sugar high – you’re on holiday, after all!
There are so many things to see and do in Brussels and there are still a number of sights and neighbourhoods still on my list, but here are some of the highlights of our weekend trip…
The Grand Place & Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert
The most iconic spot in Brussels is the Grand Place (Grote Markt), a majestic square lined with exquisite gold-embellished guildhalls dating mostly from the late 17th century. The UNESCO World Heritage Site houses the city’s Town Hall and the Museum of Brussels and in August, the centre becomes a spectacular Flower Carpet.
Just off the Grand Place is the beautiful Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert – an elegant shopping arcade filled with designer boutiques, cafes and plenty of chocolate shops. For unique gifts, check out the charming Belgian lace and Italian glove stores and be tempted by the tantalising window displays at artisan chocolatiers Pierre Marcolini and Mary.
One character you won’t be able to miss in Brussels is local hero the Mannekin Pis (‘the little pissing boy’). You can find him relieving himself in front of a crowd in the centre of old Brussels and every day he wears a different outfit.
Poechenellekelder bar is just opposite the statue, serving Belgian beers in horn glasses with meat and cheese plates, so it’s a great spot to have fun.
Museum of Costume and Lace
Brussels has been world-renowned for its unique hand-made lace since the 15th century and the Museum of Costume and Lace pays tribute to this traditional craft.
We visited for the Crinolines and Cie exhibition, which featured two floors of exquisite costumes, including an ethereal, contemporary crinoline by the talented Belgian designer Olivier Theyskens.
It’s worth venturing out of the centre of Brussels to visit The Atomium in the north of the city. We took the Hop On Hop Off Bus straight there and marvelled at the stunning Laeken Estate with its Royal Palace, Royal Greenhouses, Chinese Pavilion and Japanese Tower.
The striking building was originally constructed for Expo 58 and the top sphere offers panoramic views over Brussels (not for us, sadly, as access was restricted due to a national football match).
Palais des Beaux-Arts
A must-see for art lovers is the impressive Palais des Beaux-Arts (also known as BOZAR) in the museum district. It hosts an overwhelming number of exhibitions, but we only had time to see Theo Van Doesburg (running until 29th May).
It was an extensive survey of the works of the lesser-known co-founder of the art movement De Stijl, alongside key pieces by his contemporaries Piet Mondrian and Bart van der Leck, the Dadaists and the later Bauhaus architects. I really loved this multi-disciplinary arts centre and will definitely be keeping an eye on future exhibitions for an excuse to return.
Waffles, waffles, chocolate and cake…
The place to indulge your waffle craving in Brussels is the original Maison Dandoy tearoom on Rue au Beurre, just off the Grand Place. Established in 1829 by young baker Jean-Baptiste Dandoy, this historic maison is famous for its hand-made speculoos biscuits, but we were in the mood for a delicious Brussels waffle smothered in rich chocolate with a pot of Chantilly cream (there’s also a choice of the sweeter Liège waffle).
A real highlight of our trip was afternoon tea and cake at Meert in the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. This bijou patisserie and tea room is absolutely dreamy with marble counters, sumptuous red velvet banquets and an unbelievable selection of meticulously-crafted cakes.
It’s all about the small details at Meert, from the charming and elegant service to the monogrammed china – and of course, the cakes are out of this world.
We always manage to find the hipster neighbourhood in every city we visit and I wish we’d had more time to stroll around Sainte Catherine, home of the wonderful Chicago Cafe. With just a few hours before taking the Eurostar home, we popped by for one last waffle, topped with molten chocolate and sliced fruit.
If you have more time to enjoy a leisurely lunch or brunch, there is a tempting menu of enormous gourmet salads, tartines, croques, quesadillas and burgers. It’s super-friendly for kids too!
For the two nights, Mercure kindly booked us in for dinner at L’Escale, a wonderful local brasserie just a short walk away – it’s quite the hidden gem (and is recommended by Guardian). We enjoyed Belgian specialities such as Beef Carbonade, Waterzooi (a rich, creamy chicken stew), shrimp croquettes, fried Brie wedges, Flemish meatballs and rotisserie chicken.
The food was so delicious and comforting and the portion sizes were hefty, to say the least. It’s perfect if you want to try authentic Belgian dishes in a friendly, neighbourhood setting – the staff take good care of you too.
Brussels is a city that seeks to impress and we were thoroughly charmed by its beautiful sights and cool culture. It certainly leaves you wanting more – I can’t wait to return to explore the neighbourhoods of Ixelles and Louise, visit more museums and discover more of its eateries.
Exploring the city was made so much easier with the fantastic Brussels Card. There are so many museums, attractions and tours to experience with this card and you can use it for 24hrs, 48 hrs or even 72 hrs. Just be sure to carefully examine the opening times in the handy booklet, as many Brussels museums can be closed on Mondays.
For more information and booking, visit: www.mercure.com
All photos by Chérie City
Thank you to Accor Hotels, Visit Brussels and L’Escale for making this trip possible