48 hours in: Brussels, Belgium
This month's re-opening of the Royal Greenhouses makes it the perfect time to visit the Belgian capital – and there are some chic new hotels to stay in too, says Henry Palmer
Belgium's capital is enjoying an injection of cool new development, not least with the opening of several ultra-chic hotels within the last year.
The city is also gearing up for a vibrant crop of spring activities, from artbrussels, one of Europe's most lively modern-art fairs (18-21 April; www.artbrussels.be ), to the international contemporary- music festival Ars Musica (8-25 April; www.arsmusica.be ); and, north of the city centre, the annual three-week opening of the impressive Royal Greenhouses of Laeken, displaying more than 5,000 plants (19 April-12 May; www.monarchie.be ).
Eurostar trains (08705 186186; www.eurostar.com ) from London St Pancras and Ebbsfleet take under two hours to reach Brussels Midi (1), south-west of the centre, with return fares from £59; this covers travel to any other station in Belgium.
By air, British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com ) flies from Gatwick and Heathrow; BMI (0870 6070 555; www.flybmi.com ) from Leeds, Edinburgh, Heathrow and Nottingham; Brussels Airlines (0905 6095 609; www.brusselsairlines.co.uk ) from Birmingham, Bristol, Gatwick, Heathrow, Manchester and Newcastle; and Flybe (0871 700 2000; www.flybe.com) from Birmingham, Bristol, Exeter, Manchester, Newcastle and Southampton. Trains from the airport serve Brussels Central (2) and Midi (1); the 20-30 minute journey costs €2.90 (£2.20).
GET YOUR BEARINGS
The inner city is easily navigable on foot, with most tourist areas well signposted, and the efficient metro and tram service will whisk you to neighbourhoods further afield. The central area is defined by a ring road where the old city walls once stood. At the city's heart lies the Grand' Place (3), probably Europe's most spectacular square, lined as it is with gloriously ornamented guildhalls. In the old town hall, on the west side, is the main tourist office (00 32 2 548 04 52; www.brusselsinternational.be ), open 9am-6pm daily.
Just north-west of the Grand' Place is the foodie Ste-Catherine neighbourhood in the old fishmarket area; while immediately south-east of the Grand' Place is the main museum district. East, just beyond the ring road, lies the European quarter. The names of all streets in bilingual Brussels are in Flemish and French, but for ease of reference, the names given here are in French.
Hotel prices in Brussels fluctuate dramatically according to demand; when the Eurocracy is here in force, rates are very high, but at weekends and other times, there are some excellent deals. Typical rates when booked online for April are shown below.
Since it opened last May, Hotel be Manos (4) at Square de l'Aviation 23 (00 32 2 520 65 65; www.bemanos.com ), has become very fashionable. A five-star boutique hotel, it combines comfort with retro-hip flourishes. The 60 rooms are generously sized, and the decor striking: black and grey offset by lime-green and silver. Doubles from €180 (£138), including breakfast.
Alternatively, check in to The Dominican (5) at rue Léopold 9 (00 32 2 203 08 08; www.thedominican.be ), which opened last October. Close to the Grand' Place and opposite the opera house, this historic building is on the site of a Dominican monastery. It now offers beauty and opulence in its 150 rooms. Doubles from €150 (£115), not including breakfast.
Hotel Bloom (6), north of the central area at rue Royale 250 (00 32 2 220 66 11; www.hotelbloom.com ), opened last September. It has 306 bright, funky rooms with features such as murals and ergonomic workspaces. Doubles from €140 (£108), not including breakfast.
TAKE A HIKE
For a walk that takes in some of the most elegant aspects of Brussels, as well as its most kitsch sight, start at the tourist office in the Grand' Place (3). Immediately next door are two particularly fine guildhalls: the Haberdashers' Hall is topped by a statue of St Nicholas, their patron saint, while the Boatmen's Hall has a golden frigate on its gable. Opposite the tourist office is the Maison du Roi, now the Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles (10am-5pm daily except Mondays; €3/ £2.30), were you can discover the city's fascinating history.
You will also encounterBrussels' little mascot, the statue known as Manneken Pis (7), because although he stands nearby, his entire wardrobe is on display at the museum, from an Elvis outfit to a Moroccan costume. He is periodically dressed up by his fans.
To see the statue itself – usually naked – walk south-west of the square, down rue de l'Etuve to the junction with rue du Chêne. Having glimpsed the little figure through an inevitable throng of tourists, turn left up rue du Chêne, then right along the narrow rue de Villers, where vestiges of Brussels' old fortifications still stand.
Turn right and then left at Place de Dinant (8), and cross boulevard de l'Empereur. Turn right down rue Haute to reach Place de la Chapelle (9) and its Romanesque-Gothic church (daily 9am-7pm; free entry). Then walk up rue Joseph Stevens to Place du Grand Sablon (10). Fringed with art galleries, antique shops and chocolatiers, it is widely regarded as Brussels' loveliest square. Presiding over it is the 15th-century church of Notre Dame du Sablon. This gem is currently under restoration, but its apse with its glorious stained-glass windows remains open (9am-7pm, free). Behind it is Place du Petit Sablon, a charming formal garden.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
L'Amalgame (11) , at rue des Alexiens 97, is a cheerfully simple tavern serving bowls of moules for €11 (£8.50). If you have slightly more time, head over to Quai aux Briques in the Ste-Catherine area. At No 14, Restaurant Le Quai (12) (00 32 2 512 37 36) is a seafood outlet offering an excellent "Menu Mer" lunch of two courses – scampi followed by moules marinières and frites – for €14.50 (£11).
The Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts (13) , at rue de la Régence 3 (00 32 2 508 32 11; www.musicalinstrumentsmuseum.be ), in a striking, neoclassical building, comprises two galleries, one featuring art ancien, the other art moderne. Both have outstanding collections. The former displays works up to the 18th century, with highlights including paintings by Memling, Bosch, Bruegel and Rubens; the latter has works by Delvaux and Magritte, among many others. Open 10am-5pm daily except Monday; €5/£3.80 joint ticket; free after 1pm on first Wednesday of every month.
TAKE A VIEW
The Musical Instruments Museum (14), at rue Montagne de la Cour 2 (00 32 2 545 01 30; www.musicalinstrumentsmuseum.be ), is in a wonderful Art Nouveau building that was formerly the Old England department store. The extensive collection is charmingly displayed, and as you approach many of the exhibits, the sound of the instrument starts as if by magic. The enchantment continues at the rooftop café, which has views over old Brussels. It opens 9.30am-5pm daily except Mondays; weekends from 10am; €5 (£3.80).
The principal chic shopping areas are around rue Antoine Dansaert north-west of the Grand' Place (3), and Avenue Louise to the south, where you'll find the large department store Innovation (15), known locally as Inno. Nearby is the up-and-coming Châtelain district, around Place du Châtelain (16). Here, in particular, rue du Bailli is lined with small boutiques – such as DOD at No 64, that sells designer bargains.
Near the Grand' Place, the elegant, late-19th century Galeries St-Hubert (17) are worth a visit, especially if it's raining, for their smart stores, cafés and one of the city's oldest chocolatiers: Neuhaus, established in 1857.
The haunt of Magritte and his fellow artists, La Fleur en Papier Doré (19), at rue des Alexiens 55 (00 32 2 511 16 59), creaks with atmosphere and memorabilia. The beer menu includes Hoegaarden on tap – €2.10 (£1.60) per 33cl glass – and Gueuze Boon at €4.50 (£3.50) for a 37.5cl bottle. It opens 11am-midnight daily except Mondays (Sundays to 7pm).
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
Those in the know head for the Tan Club (20), at rue de l'Aqueduc 95 (00 32 537 87 87; www.tanclub.org ; open Tuesday-Saturday) in the Châtelain area. This appealing restaurant emphasises its use of fresh ingredients, and has a deli and cookery school attached. Starters include goat's cheese with celery-and-apple salad (€16/£12), and mains, chicken breast marinated in lemon oil with red cabbage-and-leek bake (€23/£18).
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
The Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula (22) is a majestic Gothic building with 16th- and 17th- century additions. Inside, the stained- glass windows are breathtaking. (Open Monday-Friday 7am-7pm; weekends 8.30am-6pm; free. Sunday Mass with a Gregorian choir is at 10am in both French and Flemish; and at 11.30am in French).
OUT TO BRUNCH
Purveyors of chocolates, cakes and savoury tarts since 1952, Wittamer (10), on Place du Grand Sablon, is a much-loved Brussels institution. Its bright first-floor café (00 32 2512 3742; www.wittamer.com ; closed Mondays) serves brunch fare from 11am, such as soufflé au fromage €10.50 (£8), while weekend specials include steak-frites, €13 (£10).
A WALK IN THE PARK
A magnificent palace of a greenhouse, Le Botanique (23) used to be the national botanical gardens. Today, the striking 19th-century iron-and-glass building functions as the cultural centre of the city's French-speaking community, while the formal grounds remain beautifully tended and open to the public (daylight hours; free).
ICING ON THE CAKE
For an intrinsically Belgian experience, head for the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée (24), at 20 rue des Sables (00 32 2 219 19 80; www.comicscentre.net ; open 10am-6pm daily except Monday). In this Art Nouveau building designed by Victor Horta, both Belgian Art Nouveau and the Belgian comic-strip genre, including Tintin and the Smurfs, are celebrated. Admission is €7.50 (£6).