When planning a European holiday, capitals such as Paris, London and Barcelona may readily come to mind. But unbeknownst to many, Brussels features superb shopping and a rapidly evolving F&B scene, on top of its already world-famous architecture and famed exports. Look beyond Brussels’ chocolate and waffles to find out what else the city offers, whether it’s natural wine bars or Michelin-starred plant-based dining.
Most of your time will be spent exploring the city centre, which is divided into the stately Upper Town – home to museums and government buildings – and the thriving Lower Town, home to the city’s commercial quarter and medieval square Grand-Place. But you’ll also want to venture further afield to the happening communes (neighbourhoods) of Ixelles and Saint-Gilles. The best bit is that owing to its compact size, exploring such riches on foot is a breeze.
Singapore Airlines will fly to Brussels four times a week, starting 5 April 2024. Take a peek at what you can expect from the city, and where to plan your stay.
Where to stay in Brussels
Between its setting on a Neoclassical city-centre square and its majestic white façade, newcomer Juliana Hotel – part of the Small Luxury Hotels group – certainly makes a big first impression. The interiors quickly confirm its ambitions in the style stakes too: here a Philippe Starck mirror, there an Hermès-inspired corridor and everywhere a dramatic colour palette. The peacocking doesn’t stop in the spa (replete with hammam) either, as guests can do laps while admiring the Le Corbusier-esque murals bedecking its walls.
The Hoxton, Brussels
Occupying an impressive Brutalist building – IBM’s former headquarters – in the city’s botanical garden, the fashionable London-born chain’s first Belgian outpost has been shaking up the local scene since its June 2023 opening. The Hoxton’s interiors do that ’70s thing (think velvet sofas, and circular baths in some rooms) while the food slants Latin American. Downstairs is a Peruvian joint offering punchy plates and a raw bar, while the stunning rooftop restaurant is the place for Mexican tacos and mezcal-based cocktails.
Part of the Rocco Forte empire, the city’s reigning grande dame sits on the former site of a prison – but these days everyone from politicians to stars is lining up to check in. Hotel Amigo’s ultra-plush rooms and suites tap Belgium’s heritage, from Magritte-inspired objets d’art to a suite fêting homegrown fashion icon Diane von Furstenberg. Add in a fine Italian restaurant and a location yards from the Grand-Place, and it’s easy to see the appeal.
Where to eat in Brussels
Near the Brussels Canal, chef Grégoire Gillard (formerly of local icon Comme chez Soi, among others) is behind Barge, a trendy one-Michelin-star restaurant with exposed-brick walls and an impressive commitment to sustainability. Produce from Brussels and the region feeds into tasting menus (and a more affordable Friday lunch) which are notable for their intense flavour combinations. Stars include trout with verbena tzatziki, cucumber scales, gooseberry, ice plant and borage, or their celebrated fusion of artichokes and truffle.
Humus x Hortense
The upmarket Ixelles quarter makes a fittingly elegant backdrop to this game-changing establishment: the first 100% plant-based restaurant in Belgium to get a Michelin star. To describe Humus x Hortense as vegan would be to undersell visionary founders Nicolas Decloedt and Caroline Baerten’s self-dubbed “botanical gastronomy”, where foraging-happy tasting menus are abetted by zero-waste cocktails. Given that meat features predominantly in Belgian food culture, its focus on meat-free cooking and sustainability is all the more revelatory.
Visiting one of Brussels’ fries kiosks (fritkots) is a joy, but for a classier spin on the genre, try Frites Atelier, by chef Sergio Herman (formerly of three-Michelin-star Oud Sluis fame) in foodie hub Sainte-Catherine. As few know, the Belgians invented fries. Here, Herman reinvents them, adding gourmet toppings like Flemish beef stew or Indo peanut to the mix. While the fries are the obvious go-to when here, they also serve burgers and other snacks.
Where to drink in Brussels
Classic Flemish bruin café, or “brown bars” such as Au Daringman typify the bar experience in Brussels. Named for their tobacco-stained walls, these bohemian hang-outs exude a certain Old World charm. But if you’re looking for something that hits a little different, the following are some solid options:
A former fashion house on the stylish Rue Antoine Dansaert, Arthur Orlans has morphed into one of the city’s most glamorous speakeasies. Ring the bell for entry and be wowed by the eclectic interiors – not least the Tartan carpet. The limited cocktail list (often gin-based) is superbly creative, with libations like “Mexico to Marseille” seamlessly blending mezcal and Noilly Prat vermouth (you can also order off-menu without a problem if nothing tempts). Bonus points for the music: on-point and not too loud for a chat.
Brussels Beer Project
Sidestep the tourists packing out the famous Delirium Café in favour of this upstart, whose dynamic Dansaert outpost is the pick of their growing local empire. The Brussels Beer Project taproom offers 24 beers – a mix of their greatest hits, specials (they’re known for collaborations with equally hip international brewers) and Lambic beers. If you’re intrigued, you can do a flash tour of the cellar to learn about Lambic brewing and Gueuze blending. There’s also a shop stocking their beautifully packaged wares.
Currently the city’s most intriguing neighbourhood for nightlife, Saint-Gilles has an embarrassment of superb bars – including natural wine specialists like this corner joint. The photographer and graphic designer who launched it have gone for appealing French bistro stylings: grab a seat at one of the red tables and peruse the blackboard, advertising a dozen wines by the glass and tried-and-true snacks like charcuterie and cheese. For a bar crawl, fold nearby wine bar Rubis and beer icon Moeder Lambic Original into your plans.
Where to shop in Brussels
Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert
Ideally situated between Central Station and the Grand-Place, Europe’s first shopping mall Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert is actually three separate glazed arcades: the King’s Gallery, Queen’s Gallery and Princes’ Gallery. Completed in 1847, the ultra-genteel spot has shopping to match – be it Belgium’s top leather house, Delvaux; chocolatier Neuhaus, inventor of the praline no less; or trendy shoe brand Camper. The superbly stocked bookstore Tropismes is another must-visit, and there’s also an arthouse cinema if you want to linger.
In the fashion-forward Rue Dansaert – and partly responsible for its rise – this pioneering boutique was one of the early purveyors of Belgian cool. Today Stijl’s razor-sharp edit of womenswear continues to favour the so-called Antwerp Six: a group of avant-garde designers who stormed the fashion world in the 1980s, including the famed Dries van Noten. You’ll also find clothes by newer waves of Belgian grads and likeminded experimentalists such as Rick Owens.