Brussels is most famous these days as the home of the European Parliament, host to Brexit negotiations, moules et frites. So when I was recently scanning a map of nearby European cities for a last minute, I’ve-gotta-get-out-of-London weekend break, it didn’t really jump out at me as a very glamorous or sexy destination.
But anyone who has read previous posts here on Second Sister knows that I do enjoy a challenge. Could I go to Brussels and have a fabulous time? I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but yes, I discovered that Brussels has a vibrant restaurant scene, quirky markets, old-school European charm and a fabulous cocktail called the “Spicy Belgian”.
Here is my Brussels weekend diary, for you to consider when planning your next city break..
Friday Night in brussels
In the vibrant Ixelles neighbourhood just south of the city centre is La Villa Emily, a restaurant I’ll remember fondly for some time. The interior is all sleek, dark wood panelling and parquetry floors. And hanging from the upstairs dining room down into the chef’s kitchen and bar seating is a magnificent 5m Venetian chandelier.
The menu consists of French style dishes with an Italian influence, a mix that results in the most delectable meal you could wish for as a start to your Brussels extravaganza.
Post dinner, we headed into the city centre. I generally try to avoid tourist cliches, but a visit to La Grande Place, Brussels’ central city square (surrounded by guildhalls, the Town Hall and the King’s House museum of Brussels), is really quite spectacular in the evening.
As a brunch enthusiast, I did some research in advance to find an interesting brunch venue, and was not disappointed by Le Local. I love any place where the people are innovative and passionate about what they do. And at Le Local, the owners have created a space based on an environmentally sustainable ethic and they love what they do.
The light, pastel-hued interior is made completely from recycled materials. The kitchen uses an innovative low-energy consumption refrigeration system and works on a zero-waste basis. Not only that, the breakfasts are delicious (I recommend the scrambled eggs).
Sufficiently sated, we headed up to one of my favourite areas of Brussels: Rue Antoine Dansaert. Here you can find a fascinating mix of quirky concept stores, fashion (both new and vintage), as well as beautiful Belgian design. On Rue Antoine Dansaert can be found all the French High Street faves of BA&SH, Sandro, IKKS et al. But venture further from the city centre, and branch off the side streets of Rue Leon Lepage and Rue de Flandre for true local character.
Highlights for me included Stijl, for its cutting edge fashion and extensive collection of local designers such as Dries Van Noten, Essential Antwerp for its fun and riotously colourful approach to fashion, Maison Margiela Brussels boutique and Urban Therapy concept store for its unique, locally designed treasures.
For lunch, we sloped off the Rue Antoine Dansaert to the Place Sainte Catherine to what is becoming a bit of a Brussels institution: De Noordzee. It’s a fishmonger turned fish bar, where dining is al fresco under the gaze of the grand Eglise Sainte Catherine. We dined on the freshest of oysters, while others went for the famous shrimp croquettes (which looked delicious). All washed down with a cheeky coupe de champagne of course.
The charming neighbourhood of Le Sablon is a delightful spot to wander around of a Saturday afternoon. We started at the Place du Grand Sablon, where there is an antiques market every weekend.
After picking through gorgeous antiquities and wishing we’d brought bigger suitcases, we headed down the square and got our chocolate fix at the most exquisite chocolate shop you can imagine: Patrick Roger. One of Belgium’s most famous chocolatiers and chocolate sculptors, you need to visit his store on the Place du Grand Sablon. The interior of the store itself is enough reason to visit, but the chocolate is the reason to linger. If you’re not great at decisions, then plan for some extra time here. The chocolatey choices are almost too much.
We started the evening at LIB cocktail bar on Rue Antoine Dansaert. LIB (or “Life is Beautiful”) is one of those cosy little spots, devoid of tourists, but frequented by a friendly yet very cool crowd enjoying an aperitif or two. I highly recommend the “Spicy Belgian” cocktail. Delicious!
From there we Ubered across town to Amen Restaurant in Ixelles. Amen is one of those restaurants where the friendly and knowledgable staff, light and airy interior, exquisite food and impeccable wine list, all combine and form the perfect dining experience, as good as – if not far better than – any you will find in Paris.
Speciality coffee is alive and well in Brussels. We started off our day at Belga & Co with a coffee-snob-worthy flat white and light viennoiserie.
From here, we legged it over to the flea market at the Place du Jeu de Balle. It’s located in an eclectic neighbourhood and draws an equally eclectic local crowd. It is a fascinating place to rummage around only to find that little treasure about which you’ll forever be able to say, “Oh this? It’s just a little treasure I found in that little flea market in the Marolles district in Brussels..”
From the market we headed down Rue de Blaes for its extensive array of vintage stores, and then ducked into nearby Le Winebar des Marolles, another local institution serving up excellent traditional french cuisine with a laid back vibe.
As most shops close on a Sunday, we headed into the Musee des Beaux Arts, Magritte Museum and Musee Fin de Siecle. All three museums are connected, so we purchased an all-museums ticket to get our culture fix on. You may recall from previous posts, that I’m not huge on culture when there’s eating, drinking and general mooching to be done (aka basic AF), so this wouldn’t be my favourite activity of the weekend. However it’s worth a squiz for the Old Masters and more recent works. The Magritte museum does give a good retrospective of the artists’ life, but his best works are exhibited at other museums around the world.
I will be returning to Brussels as there is so much more to see in this highly underrated city. I got the feeling we only scratched the surface during our weekend. I am also now inspired to return so that I might write a guide to the best french fries, mussels and chocolate. That will be tough…