Most of the time, Brussels doesn’t come across that well. The general public mostly has a bad image of the city, even within Belgium. Even though Brussels can indeed be rough, it doesn’t have to be seen that way. Brussels is sometimes raw, sometimes sweet, sometimes gritty, sometimes beautiful – and always charming. I’ll try to prove my point by showing you around this hell of a city I call home.
As your hotel will be your starting base for the weekend, let’s start here. It’s always difficult to have a lot of experience when it comes to hotels in your hometown. After a bit of research, two hotels definitely stood out from the rest. Let’s start with JAM Hotel in the Saint-Gilles neighbourhood. Located in a former art school, it already has a certain creative vibe about it. The decoration does the rest and combined with the super kind personnel, you’ve got a great combo. Not only are there rooms for up to six people, but there’s also a dorm – which is great if you’ve got a small budget. You can take a dip in the swimming pool, get your game out at the game room, or dine at the restaurant. You wouldn’t need to leave the hotel to have a great time. Although that would be a bit of a pity because as I am about to show you, Brussels has so much to offer!
Hotel des Galeries in the city centre is a bit different. A lot of the rooms look out on the historical Galeries Saint-Hubert. The interior, however, is very light and minimalistic. The rooms are bright with loads of wood and white – but the real surprise lies in the bathroom – the emerald green tiles are just too dreamy! Although I personally didn’t try it, the restaurant appears to be very refined and looks very promising.
So now that you’re settled at your hotel, let’s explore a bit of this beautiful city! Brussels is one of those cities where the atmosphere alone makes it a worthy attraction. Just take a walk, look around you, listen, and take it all in. Now you’re ready.
A beautiful day perfectly leans itself for some outdoorsy sightseeing. As far as parks go, Brussels has an enormous assortment. Making your selection is difficult, but let’s say that the history lovers will find what they’re looking for at Parc Léopold, whilst Parc Duden allows for a more natural experience. The Bois de La Cambre is huge and right next to it, you’ll find Villa Empain. It’s a perfect example of Belgian Art Nouveau and certainly don’t miss out on the pool.
Once you’re tired of seeing green, it’s time for a museum. MIMA (Millennial Iconoclast Museum of Arts) is relatively new. They organize ever-changing exhibitions on unconventional themes like the revolution of ’68.
Next, let’s cool off by taking a seat on Place Sainte-Catherine. This square lies at the centre of Brussels and whether or not you want to spend money at a café, you’re always welcome to just sit beside the water. Moving a bit more uptown you’ll find Le Petit Sablon with statues representing all the old crafts of the city. Further on, there’s Place Poelaert. This square offers a splendid view over Brussels. You can even take the elevator to make your way down. The highest point of the city, however, is Altitude Cent. The Art Deco style church is very unusual and not everyone may like the look of it, but it’s worth going and seeing for yourself.
Let’s be honest, walking around isn’t really the same as doing some activities. Even when you’re on holiday it doesn’t hurt to get some physical activity. Les Bains du Centre is a splendid pool in the middle of the former blue collar of Brussels. The flea market just in front is a perfect post-swim treat. If you don’t feel like going for a swim, La Tricoterie organizes yoga and dancing classes.
I love a good movie, but I try to avoid the big commercial cinemas. Cinema Aventure conveniently lies at the very heart of Brussels and shows popular as well as smaller productions. The screens are mini, the seats are velvet, and the tickets are relatively cheap, making it very easy to enjoy the whole experience. Last but not least, there’s Botanique for the spontaneous dancers amongst us. A cosy concert beats almost everything, especially in this stunning setting.
Don’t be mistaken, I didn’t forget your daily dose of caffeine. Brussels immediately jumped on the coffee bandwagon and there are definitely some coffee shops that won’t disappoint. Close to the MIMA I mention before, you’ll find MOK. It literally means CUP in Dutch and they serve the beverage in many ways – Cold brew, oat milk, a humbling espresso. The setting is bright and if you enjoyed your cup, you can buy some coffee to take home with you.
On the other side of Brussels, there’s Belga & Co. The best thing about this place, besides the coffee, is their small garden at the back of the building. It’s a bit gloomy inside, so some outdoor air is always welcome on a sweaty summer’s day. If you’re feeling like you could have a small bite with your caffeine fix, I’d recommend Forcado. They make mouthwatering Pasteis de Nata. You’ll know this if you’ve been to Portugal before, but they are basically small egg custard pies made with filo dough. Perfect pick-me-up at 4 pm.
A city’s flavours say a lot about it and Brussels is probably refined, exotic, simple, and filled with variation. It’s also accessible to all budgets – especially if you’re willing to go all out at noon, you can eat like a king at a backpacker’s budget.
Let’s start with breakfast. If you’re not feeling the hotel breaky, Chicago Café might be a better fit. They offer all kinds of breakfast (from French to Mexican) and their weekend brunch is extensively great. The breakfast menu lasts all day, in case you’re in need of a lie in after the night before. They also do an amazing lunch. If you’re travelling with children, they have very child-friendly entertainment, so it’s the perfect spot.
An almost cliché traveller’s spot is Le Cercle des Voyageurs. Brunch, lunch and dinner are available so choose wisely. In my opinion, it’s a great spot to transition from pre-dinner cocktails into the actual food experience. If you’re in need of some travel inspiration, this is the place to be as they offer a wide spectrum of freely accessible travel guides.
Let’s go from very modern to extremely classic. Arcadi sits at the end of the Galeries Saint-Hubert and is mainly known for its cakes and quiches. The classic Belgian dishes, beers, and coffees they offer are worth a visit as well though. Given the location, it’s not surprising that the prices are a bit higher.
And last but definitely not least comes a very recent discovery of mine. Right next to Place Anneessens sits Jour de Fête. Or ‘Holiday’ if you’d want to translate it. There are only five dishes available a day but don’t be discouraged. Fish, meat, pasta… there’s something for everyone’s taste and I have rarely tasted such fresh ingredients at a restaurant. The staff are great when it comes to advising you and not pushy at all, which is greatly appreciated. Truly a hidden gem and one I actually thought about keeping to myself!
Belgians like their drinks so it’s not that difficult to find a nice bar. Lately, the cafés in Brussels are getting a bit too fancy – and therefore too expensive. There are loads of exceptions, but you need to come across them. Starting off in the centre, you’ve got Au Soleil. It’s a typical Belgian bar with a lot of mirrors, wooden benches, and a chalkboard menu. The barmen are always smiley, and both the outside as the inside seating are as cosy as it gets.
Bar Beton, on the other hand, is way trendier. Concrete, mirrors, glass, wood, and iron create a visually pleasing environment where you could have drinks till late at night. It’s also a great spot for freelancers, who perhaps want to go straight from work into drinks.
A bit comparable is La Pompe, which is located in a former gas station. Some of the old decoration is still visible (pay attention when you go to the bathroom). They serve a great selection of beers, but if you’ve never tried one, give the Zinnebir a go. It’s a personal favourite and if you like a more bitter drink, this is definitely your jam. They also serve a daily special from all kinds of cuisines. It’s a great place to go at 5 pm and stay all night long. Alternatively, you could also finish off at Maison du Peuple nearby where they organize DJ evenings several times a week. It’s a bit of a cultural hub and you’re sure to meet all kinds of artistic people there.
To say the Brussels shopping scene is diverse is an understatement. You’ll find it all from top-notch high end to cheap ass cheap. Apart from the products itself, I love my shopping experience to be aesthetically pleasing, and a too busy shop is unappealing to me. But I’ll make an exception when it comes to plants. BRUT is a plant lover’s heaven and is covered from floor to ceiling with greens. Cute cactuses, giant palms, and never-ending hanging plants are just a small part of what’s on offer. You’ll probably spot the shop from afar, as it’s the only one in the neighbourhood with a jungle of plants in front.
A little further on you’ll find Belge Une Fois. Which is basically a blend between a vintage boutique and a very cool tourist shop. You have to understand a bit of Dutch and French to get the jokes but just ask the guys behind the counter and they’ll gladly explain. Belgian humour is questionable though, so be warned.
Blender 01 combines clothes and interior goodies. Their products come from all over the world but pay special attention to the plates with the little women – they’re from Belgian and completely adorable.
A shop where I wish I could buy all my clothes is Privejoke. The selection they make, both for men and for women, is spot on. Go in, be blown away, and ideally buy your entire closet!
Blending the pleasures of shopping and eating is Catherine– a cheese shop. As the place is tiny, people are often queueing outside. No one leaves empty-handed and especially around New Year’s, you’ll see them buying kilos of cheese! Just ask if you’re not an expert on the topic and you’ll be advised in the best possible way. And as you’ll probably want to take some Belgian beer home with you: Malting Pot stocks a selection of the best local brews, making sure you won’t buy anything too commercial. The owner wrote his dissertation on the function of beer in the Old Mesopotamia – I think that says enough.
This post was brought to you in collaboration with Spotted by Locals, an app and website which publishes guides to cities around the world full of local spots recommended by locals. We love the idea of it and can’t wait to use it on our next trip. They currently have guides to over 70 cities around the world, so go and take a look and see if they have a guide to your next destination.
IF YOU LIKED THIS POST, DON’T FORGET TO PIN IT!
Camille Van Puymbroeck is a freelance journalist living in Brussels. The city charms her on a daily basis, combining rawness with a delicate touch. Her current job at Spotted by Locals allows her to dig deeper into her hometown while also inspiring future travels. Living from meal to meal and from trip to trip she’s trying to understand the world a little better.