This tiny city of less than 200,000 people likes to think of itself as the capital of Europe. A good chunk of that, about 50,000 people, are temporary workers.
It’s famous for its architecture and Grand Place has a well deserved reputation for beauty. While I can attest to the museums and galleries being interesting, it’s a city best experienced by eating, drinking, and walking your way through it.
Drinking & Eating
Bar des Amis might have been my favorite spot in Brussels. It’s a standard hipster bar with a Belgian flair.
Le Coq is your classic dive bar, only it’s in Belgium so all the beers are cheap and the best thing you’ve ever had.
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L’Archiduc is notable for its decor, not its drinks. This is art deco, all the way. You have to ring a bell to get in and the entryway is a gorgeous glass bubble. Things are authentic, which means timeworn. If you’re lucky, you can get a seat on the mezzanine and enjoy people watching. This ‘cocktail bar’ has a Long Island iced tea on the menu. Let’s just say it wasn’t the best martini I’ve ever had.
Delirium Cafe has the largest selection of beers. It’s a dive with bad service, but it’s also a beloved local tradition. It gets better after your second round.
Au Bon Vieux Temps is the slightly hidden alleyway bar you’re dreaming of finding. They carry beers that are unusual, even in Belgium, and have all the wood and stained glass you could ever hope for.
We went to Manhattan Burger for a laugh, but they were actually pretty good.
Most of the shops in Belgium are either luxury chocolate stores or offering dozens of variations of statues of things peeing. Or an unfortunate mashup of the two.
Urban Therapy has a whole selection of tantalizing terrariums and plants. Maybe it’s not the most practical souvenir (good luck getting that past airport security!) but they’re so charming.
If you want a thank you gift (perhaps for your Guest to Guest host), Ergon has a great selection of Greek specialties, as well as a cafe in the back.
Things to see
The first time I went to Brussels I spent my whole time in the museums and galleries. They’re lovely, but if you’re not an art nerd or particularly called by an exhibit, give yourself permission to skip the museums and experience the city itself.
One of the few cities to escape the war virtually unscathed, Brussels has amazing architecture. You can wander the city and stumble upon some great finds or play it safe and follow the city’s architectural walking tour.
Brussels is famed for its comic book walk. Non comic book murals tend to be pretty gory. I was surprised by a number of things that would not be acceptable by Canadian standards. Aside from murals, almost all of the graffiti is low quality tagging.
The first time I visited Brussels I didn’t make it out to the Atomium. I finally corrected this mistake on this trip. We walked from the city centre, which I would not recommend. The subway will take you right there.
Everyone else will rave about the Gare du Midi market scene. To each their own. As minimalists, we were more fascinated by the scene of competitive scavenging among all the trash the merchants left behind. Stand back or they’ll run you over.
Saint-Gilles began as Obbrussel, or Upper-Brussels, and you can now take an elevator there if you’d like. It’s now known for its patron saint, rather than its geography.
While Saint-Gilles was founded in the 7th century, it was a rural hamlet known for its cabbage growing until Belgium was founded in 1830. The new suburb boomed, which is why most of the buildings date from 1830 to 1910. It was a good time for architecture.
The heart of Saint-Gilles just might be Pianofabriek. Check their schedule before you go.
The Little Green Shop is a flower store that serves brunch and has two resident pups. What more could you want?
Hinterland might be the most Instagrammed place in Brussels. It’s just about impossible to get a table on a weekend.
If you can’t get a table at Hinterland, step over to Poz Cafe where they’ll provide for all of your caffeine, wifi, and snack needs.
Ixelles & Quartier Europeén
Ixelles is the city that sprung up around the Abbey of La Cambre, founded in 1196. It got its first hostel in 1300, when it was still a forest. Like Saint-Gilles, it grew from a village into a city after the founding of Belgium. As a more upscale neighborhood, it has a rich collection of art nouveau and art deco architecture.
Workshop Cafe is, unsurprisingly, the perfect spot to get some work done. It’s like your office, only better.
Cafe Belga is the classic Ixelles hangout. It’s the heart of Place Flagey and as such, gets very crowded.
Is it in poor taste to have a Titanic themed bar? I hope not, since I was charmed. It’s larger than it looks. It’s one of the few places we found with a curated beer list, so you can avoid decision fatigue.
Things close early in Belgium, but Brussels has plenty of Night Shops to take care of you.
Brussels couldn’t be easier to get to. It’s connected by train and plane to everything in Europe. This makes it an excellent home base for day trips.
You can get around Brussels easily on foot. Everything you want to go is within a 30 minutes walk, save for the Atomium. For that, you can take the metro, which is fast and easy to use.
Where to stay
We stayed in an apartment through Guest to Guest. Having an apartment means you can take full advantage of weird (delicious) things at the grocery stores and the freakishly cheap wheels of cheese and bottles of trappist beer.
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Where not to go
I wouldn’t say Brussels isn’t safe, but it’s not the most comfortable city to be a young woman in.
Quite a few women will make comments about how they’re not afraid to live in the city, they just know not to go out alone or wear a skirt or look lost. These are the hallmarks of a city where women aren’t welcome. We noticed quite a few neighborhoods where there were no women under the age of 80 out on the street without a man.
Stick to the downtown, Saint-Gilles, and Ixelles. If you’re going outside of those areas, take transit instead of walking alone. It seems doubtful that anything would happen that would require a police report, but it’s not a very welcoming place.