A weekend in Brussels • The city center
One of my greatest joys is being a tourist in my own country. And this city guide is a fine example of that since I'm taking you to the city center of the Belgian capital! Brussels has many different facets and I'm happy to introduce to you some of the best it has to offer. Expect some of my favorite shopping venues, the most famous sights of the city and an exceptional place to stay in the middle of it all. Because being a tourist is actually the best way to approach any place, since it means doing so with a curious mind and innocent eyes!
Shopping on the Avenue de la Toison d'Or
On Saturday we shop! And the Avenue de la Toison d'Or houses some of my favorite stores. Start by pushing the doors at & Other Stories (nr 14). The brand calls itself a 'one-stop styling destination' and that is exactly what it is: girls can come here and dress themselves from head to toe, complete with cosmetics and jewelry (which is especially beautiful). They have design ateliers in three different cities (Paris, Stockholm and Los Angeles), with three different approaches to fashion, meaning they speak to a wide spectrum of fashionistas, or to the wide range of envies you might have, considering fashion is a way to express all of the facets of your complex personality.
Right next to & Other Stories you'll find Arket (nr 15). I find myself more and more drawn to this place for its timeless aesthetic. With their collections based on quality and functionality, they offer essential pieces that will become part of your 'everyday uniform', an extension of yourself, items that you'll want to cherish for a long time. And when you've worn them out, you can simply buy them again, since items are kept in the collection permanently.
A little further down the Avenue de la Toison d'Or stands Juttu (nr 26/28, first floor), the Belgian concept store with more than 60 brands on display. In one single space, you'll find a mix of international, established brands and local, up and coming ones. A venue that inspires by its variety and its frequently renewed pop-up spaces dedicated to young talent (also Belgian ones). Next to clothes, there's fabulous deco and food. Speaking of which, I'm sure by now you'll be hungry so I suggest going to Chyl, the favorite restaurant of the Brussels' bobo crowd, which opened a café inside of Juttu!
Their approach to food is one based on sustainability, meaning their ingredients are seasonal and biologic. What you get in your plate is healthy, delicious and beautiful (their oriental plate and plate of seasonal vegetables are their signature, together with their avocado toast). And since the founders know a thing or two about aesthetics (I should know since we were colleagues at a certain time), the place is picture perfect, with marble tables and plants hanging from the ceiling.
Shopping on the Avenue Louise
After your lunch break the shopping continues on the Avenue Louise. A spot I enter each time I'm in the neighborhood is Urban Outfitters (Place Stéphanie 6). The American concept store is all about youth culture. Their offer of clothing is very urban and contemporary, but what I like most is their selection of objects. I can't get enough of their humorous gadgets and their selection of inspirational books (such as 'Get Your Shit Together' or 'Pocket RuPaul Wisdom'). The cherry on the cake is the building which is a beautiful mansion with pastel walls and decorated high ceilings.
Right across from Urban Outfitters there's Senteurs d'Ailleurs (Place Stéphanie 1A), a place that attracts a very different crowd. This is where the refined and sophisticated go to find that one special fragrance to complement themselves. No Chanel or Dior here, but instead niche brands such as État Libre d'Orange or Parfumerie Générale. The boutique has a somewhat snobbish aura, but that shouldn't stop you from discovering this unique venue that's become a reference in its field.
The portion of the Avenue Louise beyond the Place Stéphanie is one of a different kind as this is where you'll find the premium brands. There are multiple French boutiques present such as Zadig et Voltaire (nr 60) and The Kooples (nr 72), but Belgium is represented as well with Essentiel for example (nr 66). There's also an interesting multibrand store called Kure (nr 78) with a selection of items from Alexander Wang and Theory, just to name a few. It is this area that earned the Avenue Louise its reputation of most prestigious street of Brussels.
Stroll on the Boulevard de Waterloo
The level of prestige reaches its peak as you walk on the Boulevard de Waterloo (the street parallel to the Toison d'Or). This is the closest we get in Belgium to Paris' famous Avenue Montaigne. Chanel, Dior, Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Versace, ... all of the major high fashion houses are here! As you walk under the elegant street lights, get inspired by the beautiful windows boasting silhouettes from the fashion weeks and channel your inner Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.
Stay at The Hotel | Boulevard de Waterloo 38, 1000 Brussels
Perfectly located in the middle of all this high fashion is The Hotel, which stands for 'relaxed luxury and sophisticated service'. If you want to splurge on an exceptional stay, this is the way to go! With its 24 floors, The Hotel stands proud in the middle of the city hustle, yet the vibe emanating from the rooms is nothing but serenity and calm. Looking out the window is even better than admiring a work of art, since you're looking at a living, framed portion of Brussels' city life.
The Hotel boasts the famous Urban Spa on the 23rd floor which is open to all guests and where you'll find a sauna, a steam room and a gym, all with spectacular views over Brussels. Don't miss it! For an exceptional cocktail you can go to the Bar on the ground floor. And in case you're staying in one of the Deluxe Panorama rooms or Suites, enjoy the Panorama Lounge on the 24th floor which offers an all-day open bar and a library with all the fashion and lifestyle books you may dream of.
Dinner at Ancho | Rue Jourdan 14, 1060 Saint-Gilles
There aren't that many places where you can enjoy great Mexican food in Brussels, so I'm delighted to introduce Ancho to you. For all your guacamole and cheese cravings, this is where you have to be! In a relaxed atmosphere, they serve authentic but contemporary Mexican cuisine (thanks to a street food touch), using nothing but fresh ingredients. On their menu you can choose from different tacos and burritos (at very affordable prices) and if you're feeling inspired you can even compose your own dish. The service is friendly and familiar and the cocktails will have you stay a little while longer.
Stroll along Brussels' main sights
After you had breakfast at the hotel, you are ready for a stroll along Brussels' most famous sights! Start by exploring the Parc de Bruxelles (formerly called the Parc Royal). Brussels' first public park is very pleasant to wander through as it features symmetric allies, a couple of fountains, beautiful statues and a picturesque bandstand. When the sun is out, locals and tourists head here to enjoy some serenity lying on the green lawns or sitting on a bench.
Right across from the Parc de Bruxelles stands the majestic Palais Royal de Bruxelles. Belgium's Royal Palace in Louis XVI style, a true symbol of the Constitutional Monarchy, is the King's main administrative residence and workplace. It's also here that he welcomes heads of state visiting our Kingdom. It's been a tradition since 1965 that the palace opens its doors to the public (for free) from the day after the Belgian National Day (July 21st) until beginning of September. A unique chance for people to discover the palace's exquisite rooms and corridors, decorated in the most sumptuous way with lots of marble, golden details and intricate chandeliers. The palace also boasts a few decorated ceilings that are particularly beautiful, among which the one in the 'Salle des Glaces', decorated by the Belgian artist Jan Fabre with almost 1,5 million green beetle elytra.
Turning around the corner of the Royal Palace, you'll find yourself on the Place Royale. This square in neoclassical style was commissioned at the end the 18th century by Charles of Lorraine (the governor-general of the Austrian Netherlands from 1744 to 1780, whom is depicted by the statue in the middle of the square) and built on the ruins of the former Ducal Palace of Coudenberg. Not only is this square an aesthetic masterpiece, it also brings together a few remarkable buildings: the Saint Jacques-sur-Coudenberg church which was inspired by Roman temples, the Magritte Museum dedicated to our national master of Surrealism and the MIM (Musical Instruments Museum) housed in the Old England buildings, arguably Brussels' most beautiful Art Nouveau building.
Going down towards the Mont des Arts, you lay your eyes on an iconic view of the city, with the spire of the Brussels City Hall proudly standing in its midst. The lovely garden with lined trees and fountains is surrounded by a number of impressive buildings: the Congress Palace, the Royal Library and the National Archives of Belgium. This is a popular spot to hang out during sunny days and a major tourist magnet.
Next stop is the Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula. Although it may remind you of Paris' Notre Dame with its two towers, the St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral is actually representative of the Brabant Gothic Style. It took over 300 years to build the cathedral and it features many remarkable items, such as artistic stained glass and statues depicting the 12 apostles. Important royal events were celebrated here, among which the wedding of our current King Philip and Queen Mathilde.
A little bit further you may enter the Galeries Royales de Saint-Hubert. This covered shopping arcade in Italian Neo-Renaissance style was inaugurated in 1847 and featured luxury boutiques, elegant cafés and cultural spaces. It was the place to be seen for the fashionable crowd and to this day the arcade with glass ceiling has kept its feeling of grandeur. You can still find luxury boutiques inside, such as Delvaux, the Belgian Hermès if you will; chocolate shops, for example Neuhaus, the inventor of the praline in 1912; and restaurants, for instance the Taverne du Passage where painters and writers used to meet in the past (Baudelaire, Victor Hugo and Verlaine to name a few). Another remarkable place housed inside the Galeries Royales de Saint-Hubert is Tropismes, a former restaurant that was turned into a bookstore. The place strikes by its golden ceilings and high mirrors, creating the illusion of an infinite space.
Cross the 200 meters long arcade and step out on the other side to reach the famous Grand Place. I guess most Belgians aren't impressed anymore when stepping onto this square, but let's not forget this is considered one of the most beautiful squares in the world! The rectangular paved square is surrounded by 34 guild houses in Baroque style that are exceptionally beautiful and shining thanks to their golden details. Next to these guild houses, the Grand Place is home to two Gothic gems: the City Hall with its elegant spire and facade featuring 150 statues, and the King's House which is home to the Musée de la Ville. The Grand Place is an exceptional testimony of Brussels' wealthy past as merchant city in the late 17th century and has been listed on the UNESCO World Heritage since 1998.
From here you aren't far away from another famous Brussels' landmark: the Manneken Pis. The little peeing boy appeared in the 17th century and served as a fountain to distribute drinking water. It is said that it was an homage to the tanners, since in the Middle Ages they would let children pee on the leather to make it more supple. Over the centuries, Manneken Pis gained popularity and came to symbolize the city's spirit of resistance, while others see it as a symbol of the Belgian's humorous character. You won't see the Manneken Pis in his original, naked form very often, since he enjoys a regular change of outfit (a part of his wardrobe composed of 1,000 costumes can be seen at the Musée de la Ville mentioned earlier).
Going deeper into the lower part of the city, you'll find yourself in the Brussels gay neighborhood, which is concentrated around the Rue du Marché au Charbon. Whether you're gay or not, this is a part of town you'll most certainly enjoy for its laid-back atmosphere and multiple cafés. There are a few nice shops around here too, such as Amen (nr 64 & 74), Privejoke (nr 75-78) and H.Y.P Store (nr 84). And while you're there, keep your eyes open for the comic murals. You may not know this, but next to fries, chocolate and beer, Brussels is also the capital of comics and it has been celebrating that status since 1991 with colorful murals spread across the city depicting some of the most famous Belgian characters.
At the end of the Rue du Marché au Charbon you'll find Le Fontainas (nr 91), a popular gay-friendly café. Their terrace is a great spot to hang out, do some people watching and even grab a bite. Their menu composed of plates with pita bread and other Mediterranean flavored dishes is a great idea for a tasty, no-fuss kind of lunch. And if you're in luck, you might see me there!
If you come by train, get off at the Bruxelles-Central station. The Hotel is located at 1,3 km of the station, so you might want to take a bus to get there. If you come by car, The Hotel may provide you parking space (on Saturdays there is really nowhere you can park for free in the city center).