The Billson Guide to Brussels

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The charms of Brussels are not obvious. If Paris is a flirty little soubrette who shows lots of saucy décolletage and gets everyone to fall in love with her immediately, Brussels is more like a sulky femme fatale who hides in the shadows at the back of the room in a shabby black dress. She takes a bit of getting to know, but once you do know her, you’ll wonder why you weren’t seduced by her earlier.

I wrote the following tips for friends, but others might find it useful.

I wrote it quite rapidly, so will probably revise and/or refine it at some point, and maybe add some more pictures.

 

SOME THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT BRUSSELS

The ringroad doesn’t go all the way round. This is expressly designed to confuse you, as is the lack of road signs pointing to the “centre”.

Metro line no 2 forms a sort of circle around the city centre, like London’s Circle line in miniature. It can be baffling to arrive at Bruxelles-Midi metro station to find that the trains in either direction are both headed towards Simonis – another typically Belgian touch expressly designed to confuse you. So bear in mind that trains to Simonis-Elisabeth will take you anti-clockwise from Bruxelles-Midi (via Louise and Porte de Namur), and trains to Simonis-Leopold II will take you clockwise (via Gare de l’Ouest).

Belgium has three official languages: French, Dutch and German. The German is mostly spoken near the borders with Germany. French-speaking Wallonia used to be prosperous, but with the decline of heavy industry it’s Dutch-speaking Flanders which has all the money. Apologies to native Belgians, by the way, for my reductive and possibly naïve summing-up of their country; please feel free to correct me in the comments. In any case, most of the tension between Flanders and Wallonia seems to be more between politicians than regular people, as far as I can see.

Brussels is in Flanders, but unlike the rest of Flanders, it’s officially bilingual – signs are in French and Dutch. Most waiters and shop assistants speak at least a bit of English. Dutch-speakers tend to be better at languages than French-speakers, so are more likely to get the sort of municipal jobs where they’re required to speak both French and Dutch.

I have stuck mostly to French street names here, for simplicity’s sake. But you should probably be aware that Bruxelles-Midi station in Dutch is Zuidstation (South Station).

Brussels consists of 19 municipalities or communes, of which Bruxelles-ville is the central one, containing most of the best-known historical monuments and tourist attractions. The shape is round-ish, but has offshoots taking in the Atomium in the north, the European commission in the east, and the Bois de Cambre (a bloody great forest) to the south, as though the city centre was determined not to leave these important landmarks to other, lesser communes.

Other than Brussels (post code 1000), the communes you are most likely to encounter are the mostly francophone Saint-Gilles (1060) and Ixelles (1050) in the south. I am told Schaerbeek (1030) in the north has a lot of lovely Art Nouveau architecture, but I don’t know it very well, so afraid I can’t help you there. Most people have heard of Anderlecht (1070) because of the football club, but the only time I have ever been there was to visit Ikea.

I live in the commune of Saint-Gilles, to the south, in an area quaintly named “Ma Campagne”, which is on the cusp of Ixelles (Elsene in Dutch) and Uccle (Ukkel) and not far from Forest (Vorst), all of which are largely French-speaking. The further out you get to the north, the more the communes tend to be Dutch-speaking. But there are lots and lots of expats and immigrants everywhere.

Central Brussels is actually pretty filthy and covered with graffiti and old chewing-gum. Also dogshit – Brussels has taken over from Paris as Dogshit Capital of Western Europe. Brussels’ high immigrant population has driven the bourgeoisie out into the suburbs which (on the plus side) means property prices in the centre are still fairly reasonable. It’s the opposite of Paris in that the centre is grubby, but the further you go into the suburbs, the posher it gets – by all accounts, there’s some amazing architecture out there, but you’d probably need a car to go and see it.

As in France, it’s general practice to greet waiters, barstaff, shop assistants, ticket sellers, ticket tearers, officials etc with a friendly “bonjour” or ‘bonsoir” before launching into your demand or drinks order or other sort of transaction. They will be more likely to think of you as a civilised equal as opposed to a boorish tourist who doesn’t know any better. Also, in bars and restaurants it has the advantage of announcing your presence so you’re less likely to get ignored by serving staff.

Coovi metrostation: Anderlecht.
Coovi metrostation: Anderlecht.

GETTING AROUND

The STIB/MVIB website provides timetables, maps and journey planners in three languages, including English.

Be sure to wear comfortable shoes; Brussels public transport is OK but metro stations are more spread out than in Paris, so you will almost certainly be required to walk at some point, and the pavements are either cobbled, or incredibly badly maintained, and full of amusing little booby-traps that work on the pivot principle so that when you step on them you either break your ankle or soak your trouserleg. Also, watch out for dogshit.

I’ve never taken a taxi (except from the Gare du Midi) so I’m afraid I have no idea how you find one, or whether you can flag them down in the street or need to find a taxi rank.

If you intend to take the metro or tram more than once, it’s worth thinking about a Jump card which you insert into a machine when you enter a tram or the metro – it’s quicker and cheaper. You can pay tram drivers as you get on, but it’s more expensive and everyone glares at you for holding them up. Jump cards (which you can buy at Gare du Midi or the bigger stations, or from machines at most stations or tramstops, though I’m not sure which credit cards they accept) are 8 euros for 5 journeys or 14 euros for 10 journeys and (I’m pretty certain albeit not 100%) you can use one card for more than one person – you just insert your card into the machine more than once and press the appropriate buttons. If you change from, say, a tram to the metro in mid-journey, the card takes this into account and doesn’t charge you twice.

The Metro shuts down at a ridiculously early hour – I’ve been caught out more than once. Don’t count on it being open after midnight. But I don’t like using it late at night anyway; it feels much sleazier than either Paris or London; no staff but gangs of youths often hang around smoking dope or jumping on and off the tracks. You know, for kicks.

In any case, trams are nicer and feel friendlier and more secure. The timetables displayed at the tramstops are surprisingly reliable; some of the tramstops even have electronic displays telling you when the next one is due. The trams I use most are numbers 92 and 93, which go past Botanique (and a bar called L’ultieme Hallucinatie), down Rue Royale (from which it’s a 10 minute walk into the town centre), past Sablon, the Palais de Justice (from which it’s a short hop to Marolles), Louise and either down my road, the Chaussée de Charleroi (no 92) or down Avenue Louise (no 93), which is 10 minutes’ walk away from me.

Just to confuse you, De Lijn buses (the ones with a yellow logo) are run by an entirely different company and won’t accept Jump cards. If you’re sticking to central Brussels you probably won’t need them, but if you want to catch one you’ll have to buy a special De Lijn card or pay the driver.

Belgium has a very efficient (on a good day) rail service, and the country is small enough for daytrips to all the other major cities. Ghent (Gent/Gand) is about half an hour away from Bruxelles-Midi, and well worth a visit. Bruges is one hour away, Ostend about 70 minutes, and from Ostend you can catch a tram which takes you all the way along the Belgian coast to Knokke. In the other direction, Antwerp is about fifty minutes away. All the provincial cities have good art galleries.

 

WEATHER

The Brussels climate is similar to that of London – maybe a bit wetter. Expect it to rain, and you can’t go wrong.

Winters can be anything from endless dreary grey drizzle to bracingly chill with blue skies to freezing snow and ice (which makes the already treacherous pavements even more difficult to negotiate). Summers are a toss up between warm and sunny, suffocatingly hot and sweaty, and endless dreary grey drizzle. But whatever the weather, Bruxellois love summers because it means they can spill out of the bars to drink and smoke on the terraces, which they insist on doing even when those terraces are hemmed in by traffic; I like this because it leaves lots of space inside for me.

Brussels has a full complement of parks, some of them vast, others small and secret. Here are some of my favourites: The Bois de la Cambre is a vast forest within the southernmost city borders; there are monster-sized crows and a big lake; you can ramble there for hours without seeing anyone, though the effect is spoilt somewhat by having to negotiate roads full of speeding traffic. Egmont Park (between Boulevard de Waterloo and Rue des Petits Carmes) has a statue of Peter Pan and quotations by Margerite Yourcenar. Petit Sablon Square is ringed by spooky statues. Parc Pierre Paulus is an unexpected oasis of hilly green tucked away between Rue de l’Hôtel des Monnaies and Rue de Parme. Parc Faider is a tiny gem of a park hidden (and I mean hidden) behind the Rue du Bailli end of Rue Faider. I also like Parc Tenbosch, between Henri Michaux Square and Chaussée de Vleurgat.

Brussels has its dull grey days (and its “dull” and “grey” are somehow so much duller and greyer than other cities’), but at other times it has some of the loveliest light in western Europe. My favourite light is in the late afternoon, when it hits the sides of buildings. The sunsets can be pretty spectacular too.

But don’t forget to pack an umbrella.

Daken en zonsondergang: Ducpétiauxlaan, Sint-Gillis.

NO-GO AREAS

The Gare du Midi and the area around it are quite sleazy at the best of times; at night it feels even dodgier. Having said this, I have never actually been attacked or importuned, even when waiting on my own at the scary bus-stops around midnight. I wouldn’t push my luck though.

The Gare du Nord is even sleazier; I try to avoid it late at night. Immediately to the east is a red light area where sex workers hang out in windows. But again, I’ve inadvertently walked through it late at night without being harassed.

The Gare Central in the middle of town, on the other hand, feels perfectly safe, if sometimes a bit spooky – especially the adjoining Ravenstein and Horta shopping centres which always seem deserted apart from the odd scurrying commuter.

The commune of Molenbeek, west of the canal, is home to a lot of immigrants and has a reputation for being like Beirut. Some posh white Bruxellois seem to think you’ll get stabbed as soon as you cross the bridge over the canal – this is certainly an exaggeration and I have met people of all races who live there with no problem, so I reckon it’s probably no worse than Stoke Newington.

There are lots of filles de joie hanging around Yser and its environs; you can often see them from the trendy Flamingo brasserie. But this is also a quartier in the throes of gentrification, so you’re as likely to encounter hipsters and the bourgeoisie as prostitutes. Also, while it can be tiresome sharing your busstop with sex workers, I have never actually been harassed or importuned.

Otherwise, I have always felt quite secure on my own late at night in central Brussels, where the chief perils are probably drunk foreigners and bad drivers.

 

SHOPPING

Brussels is not a great shopping city. If you want to buy clothes, you’re better off visiting Paris, London or Antwerp. You can find high street chains (H&M, Mango, Celio etc) in Rue Neuve (metro Rogier or De Brouckère) or the northernmost part of Chaussée d’Ixelles (metro Porte de Namur).

There are upmarket chains (Longchamps, Gucci, Agnès B, Cos etc) around Avenue Louise and Avenue de la Toison d’or (metro Louise). Rue Dansaert (metro Bourse) is supposed to be madly fashionable, but I’ve never found its shops that impressive.

On the other hand, Bellerose (branches at Rue des Chartreux 11, Place Stéphanie 5 etc) has some exquisite stuff, but (surprise!) is massively overpriced. There is a great bag shop called Arbre Mandarine (corner of Rue Saint-Christophe and Rue des Chartreux) where I spend far too much money.

Brussels doesn’t even have a decent department store: Galeria Inno (branches at Rue Neuve and Avenue Louise) has to be the most useless and uninteresting department store in western Europe. I pine for BHV and John Lewis. The original Horta-designed Galeria Inno in Rue Neuve burned down in 1967 with huge loss of life.

The main supermarket chains are Delhaize and Carrefour; in the centre of town you’re more likely to find small branches than big ones, which are mostly in the suburbs, though there’s quite a big Delhaize on Boulevard Anspach.

Di (pronounced DEE) is a useful chain of shops that sell cheap beauty products. If you know your prescription, you can buy disposable contact lenses off the shelf there. Also, Eveline Baume de Trayon is just like Elizabeth Arden’s Eight Hour Cream, but much, much cheaper. It’s the best place to buy toothpaste, toiletries and cheap cosmetics. Their shopfront is shocking pink and cheap-looking; there are branches all over the place, including Rue Neuve, Rue Marché aux Herbes, Rue Grétry, Rue du Bailli and Chaussée d’Ixelles.

Hema is a Dutch chain of shops selling brightly coloured tat, among which you can find off-the-shelf contact lenses, toothpicks, cheap toiletries, cheap clothes etc. In other words, it’s cheap, but can occasionally useful for basics. Branches at Rue Neuve and Avenue de la Toison d’or.

There are two branches of Fnac in Brussels, at the City 2 shopping centre in Rue Neuve (metro Rogier), and in the Toison d’or shopping centre (metro Porte de Namur). They’re not as all-encompassing as the big Paris Fnacs, but are still useful for checking out the latest DVDs, CDs and books. Both have extensive selections of books in English, and their BD/graphic novel/manga sections are pretty good.

Brussels, however, is the Comic Strip Capital of Europe, so there is no shortage of shops specialising in BD, comics, graphic novels, manga and related knick-knacks. Brüsel (Boulevard Anspach), Multi-BD (Boulebard Anspach), La Bande des Six Nez (Chaussée de Wavre), Fil à Terre (Chaussée de Wavre), Little Nemo (Rue du Trône), Forbidden Zone (Rue de Tamines) and The Skull (Chaussée de Waterloo) are just a few of them. There is also a shop attached to the Belgian Comic Strip Centre in Rue des Sables, of which more later.

 

OPENING HOURS

Nearly all shops close ridiculously early – around 6pm or 6.30pm, though many supermarkets stay open till 8pm – and are closed on Sundays, and sometimes Mondays too. Some restaurants – particularly ones in the suburbs – stop serving food at 9.30pm. Eating early is a Low Countries habit – it’s the same in the Netherlands – and it drives me nuts. Many bars are closed on Sundays. DO NOT EXPECT SHOPS TO BE OPEN ON SUNDAYS. But there are lots of small grocery shops (usually marked Alimentation Générale) which stay open until the wee hours, where you can find beer and crisps and cigarettes and other basics; needless to say, they’re all run by hard-working immigrants.

 

BOOKSHOPS AND MUSEUM SHOPS

There’s a branch of Waterstones selling English books at Boulevard Adolphe Max 71-75. If you read French, Galeries Bortier (entrance Rue de la Madeleine) and Tropismes (Galerie des Princes) offer good browsing, and Nijinski in Rue des Pages has a nice mix of second-hand French and English books.

There’s a lovely art bookshop in the Galeries Saint-Hubert, and an even lovelier art bookshop called Peinture Fraîche (Rue du Tabellion 10) in Châtelain which – as well as English and French books on art, design and architecture – sells a great selection of imported Japanese books at unexpectedly reasonable prices. (This place is one of my weaknesses.)

Biggest bookshop is probably Filigranes (Avenue des Arts 39-42) which I haven’t visited since it was refurbished last year, but it offers hours of fascinating (mostly French) browsing and is open EVERY DAY OF THE YEAR, INCLUDING SUNDAYS AND HOLIDAYS. Hurrah!

Plus I can’t recommend highly enough the shops attached to the museums on Place Royale – ALL YOUR GIFT PROBLEMS SOLVED HERE! The Magritte Museum and the Musée d’Art Modern on the corner of Place Royale and Rue de la Régence (which you can get into without having to pay for the museums, though I recommend visiting those anyway) have a smashing line-up of art books and knick-knacks – notebooks, spectacle cases, paperweights etc with Breugel, Magritte or Belgian Symbolist motifs. Hours of browsing fun!

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CHOCOLATE

Not surprisingly, Brussels is full of shops selling good quality chocolate, which you can also find in supermarkets. The best known marques are Neuhaus, Zaabär, Dolfin and Pierre Marcolini – Dolfin and Marcolini are probably my favourites, and Marcolini also does yummy macarons – which you should definitely try if the only macaroons you know are the British variety; the French/Belgian ones are a different thing ENTIRELY; avoid macarons from Corné, which aren’t very good. Chocolate shops are all over the place, but the most fun place to find them is in the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, a very beautiful shopping arcade in the historic town centre, or Sablon.

 

EATING

Brussels is supposedly a major gourmet centre on a par with Paris or Lyon, but I’m afraid I can’t help you there because I’m dairy intolerant, so when I eat out it tends to be Japanese, Korean or Thai (all of which tend to be chi-chi and overpriced in Brussels, though you can get a good cheap bento box from Anata in 74 Boulevard Anspach if you can put up with the surly pan-Asian serving staff). But I’m sure you can find plenty of recommendations in guidebooks and on Tripadvisor.com.

If you’re on a tight budget, don’t underestimate kebab cafés and Turkish (?) or Middle Eastern takeaways, which are several cuts above their British equivalent. I’m not a kebab-lover, but sometimes have a Mixed Grill with salad and chips, which at around 10-12 euros is fantastic value for money.

Pizzeria Istanbul (Rue Malibran 17) does brilliant Turkish pizzas (nothing like Italian ones) which are unexpectedly light, digestible and delicious.

Exki is a useful chain of bio cafés which does a wide range of sandwiches, salads, soups, cakes, tea and coffee etc. Their stuff isn’t particularly cheap, but it is thoroughly labelled, so those of us with food allergies can easily check ingredients. Also provides wi-fi, and is generally a good place to hang around for ages over a coffee, though obviously it gets more crowded at lunchtime. The nicest and biggest Exki is opposite Bourse; there are other branches at Rue du Marché aux Herbes, De Brouckère, Rue Neuve, Porte de Namur, Place Stéphanie and in the Gare du Midi (useful for stocking up before getting on Eurostar). Most of them close at around 8pm, but Bourse and Rue du Marché aux Herbes are open till 10pm.

Good to know: if you’re around the Chaussée d’Ixelles late at night and are hungry and everywhere else seems to be closed, La Régence (Place Fernand Cocq 12) serves food well into the night.

 

QUARTIERS

The historical centre is around Grand-Place, full of labyrinthine pedestrianised streets, touristy (and not-so-touristy, though it’s often hard to tell them apart) restaurants and bars.

If you have time for just one sightseeing walk, I recommend starting at Bourse (maybe with a drink at Le Cirio in Rue de la Bourse), then left into Rue de Tabora, then right into Rue du Marché aux Herbes, maybe doing small detours to check out Grand-Place and the exquisite Galeries Saint-Hubert, then taking the Rue de la Madeleine and crossing Rue de la Chapelle into Mont des Arts – a sort of park which leads uphill to Place Royale (and the museums) from where you get a pretty cool view of the centre of town.

Then, if you’re feeling VERY vigorous and the weather isn’t too vile, go under the archway in the corner of the square, all the way up Rue de Namur, cross the traffic-heavy Avenue de la Toison d’or and take Chaussée d’Ixelles all the way down (it’s quite a long way) to Place Flagey, where you can reward yourself with a beer at Café Belga – the Art Deco building on the far side.

There’s a good friterie (a sort of hut serving chips, sausages etc) in Place Flagey – expect to wait up to 20-30 minutes, depending on the size of the queue; the frites (chips) are worth waiting for, and should be eaten with mayonnaise (if you ask for vinegar you’ll probably just puzzle them). If the weather is good and you’re not yet exhausted, there’s a nice walk around Flagey ponds (next to Cafe Belga) where you can look at the ducks and architecture. (From Place Flagey, you can get the 81 or 83 tram to Bruxelles-Midi station, or the 38 or 71 buses back to the city centre. Or you can back walk up Chaussée d’Ixelles to Porte de Namur metro station.)

SABLON: This would be a very pretty square if it wasn’t used as a carpark, so it’s best visited on Saturday and Sunday mornings, when there’s an antiques market instead of parked cars. There’s a posh, expensive but rather nice bar/resto called Au Vieux Saint Martin – I don’t think you can drink inside without eating, but it’s good for pavement drinking. On the other side is the lesser-known and cosier but similiarly expensive bar called La Malcour. In any case, the whole areas is full of bars and restaurants and antique shops, so it’s good for a wander.

My favourite place here is Place du Petit Sablon, across Rue de la Régence – a small park surrounded by spooky statues which remind me of the end of The Innocents, especially at night when they’re lit up in rather a sinister way.

MAROLLES: The quartier west of (and downhill from) Sablon, or just north of Porte de Hal (and around Le Renard Bleu), is known as Marolles. There’s a famous fleamarket just around the corner in Place Jeu de Balle; I think it’s open every day, but is maybe more interesting at weekends. In the same neighbourhood, Rue Haute and Rue Blaes are full of bric-a-brac and secondhand furniture shops; even when these are closed, the windows are quite entertaining.

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If you’re approaching Marolles from anywhere around Avenue Louise, the quickest and most fun way to get there is via the lift next to the Palais de Justice (enormous building with a bloody great gold dome permanently surrounded by scaffolding – you can’t miss it). Don’t stand looking out of the back of the lift if you easily get vertigo.

ST-CATHERINE/DANSAERT: If you go west from Grand-Place and cross the hideous Boulevard Anspach (to the city’s credit, there ARE plans afoot to make this traffic-clogged eyesore more pedestrian-friendly) the quartier on the other side is marginally less touristy, lots more fashionable and way more interesting than the historical centre (it’s also full of hipsters). Lots of bars, restaurants and posh little shops, but in any case it’s worth wandering around Place St-Catherine, Rue des Chartreux and Place Saint-Géry (which is packed with bars and restaurants). This quartier is where I’d like to move to, eventually, if I can find somewhere in my price range.

EUROPEAN QUARTER: This is to the east of the centre, around Parc Léopold and Parc du Cinquantaire; all the Europe-related offices are in this area, also bars and restaurants full of polyglots. I don’t know it very well; it seems a bit boring and windswept, but I might be doing it an injustice.

THE GAY QUARTIER: Around Rue du Marché au Charbon. Like Le Marais in Paris, this isn’t just for gays, but it’s lively and feels safe, and there are masses of good bars and restaurants.

CHÂTELAIN: This is a French-speaking quartier to the south, near to where I live; it can be reached from the city centre via the 92 and 93 trams, though it’s only about 20-30 minutes on foot. Like Sablon, the Place Châtelain is a pretty square spoilt by being commandeered during the week as a carpark, though there’s a lively market there on Wednesday afternoon and Sunday morning. Lots of bars, restos and chi-chi boutiques, full of French expats.

It’s also the best place to spot Art Nouveau architecture – there are famous examples of it in Rue Défacqz, Rue Paul Emile Janson and Rue Américaine, where you can find the Horta Museum – former home of leading Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta. (Also the Hotel Solvay on Avenue Louise, and Hotel Hannon on Avenue Brugmann.) The museum is the only building where you’re allowed inside, alas; the others are privately owned. Check online for more details of Art Nouveau architecture; I think there are walking tours and everything.

 

THINGS TO SEE IN BRUSSELS

Grand-Place. Very fancy.

Galeries Saint-Hubert. Exquisite arcade. Don’t miss it. One of my favourite places.

Mont des Arts. A formal-looking park leading up to the Magritte and Beaux Arts museums – the most direct route from the town centre to the main museums.

Manneken Pis. A kitsch statuette of a small boy pissing which has somehow become a symbol of the city. It’s unexpectedly small and hilariously underwhelming (and gets dressed by locals in different clothes according to the time of year and what’s happening eg as Santa at Christmas, or in Red Devils team strip during the World Cup) but the nearby Taverne Mannekin Pis and (especially) Poechenellekelder are both excellent bars.

The Belgian Comic-Strip Center. Unless you’re an avid BD fan you’ll probably only recognise Tintin and the Smurfs, maybe Lucky Luke, but the building itself is a beautiful Art Nouveau gem, a former warehouse designed by Victor Horta, and there’s a useful bookshop. There is also, apparently, a “highly realistic 3D Smurf village”, but I haven’t yet seen that; there was, however, a temporary Posy Simmonds exhibition when I visited.

The Comic-Strip Route. There are BD murals painted on the sides of buildings all around Brussels, and you will probably stumble across some of them. There are detailed itineraries online, plus guided tours and so forth.

The Magritte Museum. What it says on the tin.

The Royal Museums. Split into Old Masters, Modern and Fin-de-Siècle, Haven’t checked the main art collections out for ages so not quite sure how they’re divided up, but expect plenty of Flemish, Bruegel, Bosch, Rubens et al.

Bozar. Horta-designed building which houses modern exhibitions, often worth a look.

Brussels Toy Museum. If you’re even remotely interesting in old toys, this is a fascinating place – a town house stuffed with old dolls, rocking-horses, teddy-bears, shadow-puppets, marionettes, toy theatres and  and so on, with a labyrinthine higgledy-piggledy layout. It’s all quite spooky – especially if there aren’t too many visitors around – which of course only makes it all the more appealing.

The Atomium. Brilliant leftover from the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair (which I think is subject of one of Jonathan Coe’s recent novels, which I haven’t yet read). Unfortunately, to see it up close you have to trek all the way to Heysel, not the nicest of places. Apparently there’s a bar inside which (according to Katya and Seger) is run with all the warmth and efficiency of a Stalinist Commissariat.

Horta Museum. Victor Horta was probably the leading Art Nouveau architect. His old house in Rue Américaine is now a perfectly preserved Art Nouveau museum.

 

CINEMAS

English language films are screened in Version Originale, with French and Dutch subtitles, unless they’re kids’ films, in which case they’re usually dubbed into French or Dutch. UGC De Brouckère and UGC Toison d’Or are the two central multiplexes. You have to pay 35 centimes to use the toilets, which are guarded (but also cleaned) by a toilet lady.

There are several little arthouse cinemas – Vendôme, Styx, Actor’s Studio, Aventure, Cinema Nova, Galeries – see Agenda for details.

CINEMATEK in the Bozar building screens classic films (including a lot of old Hollywood) and themed seasons. Tickets cost 4 euros!

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THE BARS

I think Brussels has the best bars, and certainly the best selection of beer, in Western Europe. I have drunk in all of the following bars on my own, and have never been made to feel awkward or unwelcome, though I tend not to go in when they’re too crowded or noisy ie Friday and Saturday nights.

You can find pictures of and addresses for all the following bars on this blog. Many of them have their own websites. The location in parentheses after the bar’s name is just to give you a rough idea of the location.

In no particular order:

 

TRADITIONAL BARS WITH AMAZING INTERIORS

De Ultieme Hallucinatie (Rue Royale, north of Botanique): insane, weirdly underpopulated, good Dry Martinis.

Greenwich Taverne (St-Catherine/Dansaert): Magritte used to play chess here.

Le Cirio (Bourse/historical centre): touristy but great, useful as a central meeting-place. Ask for a “Half and Half” – white wine and soda which the waiter pours out so it has an AMAZING meniscus.

L’Archiduc (Dansaert): dark; Art Deco; good Dry Martinis. Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett held their post-gig party here.

Au Bon Vieux Temps (historic centre): small, cosy, central but surprisingly not too full at l’heure d’apero. Has a chandelier AND a stained-glass window.

Le Châtelain (Châtelain): gets way too crowded on market days, otherwise worth a visit.

À la Mort Subite (near the north end of the Galeries St-Hubert): usually full of tourists, but still worth the detour.

Le Trappiste (Porte de Namur): traditional, splendid.

Poechenellekelder (Manneken Pis): full of puppets, pictures and fascinating clutter. Tends to get crammed with tourists, but worth visiting when it’s quieter.

Le Perroquet (Sablon) Art Nouveau, tends to be crowded with families and pushchairs

Café Métropole (De Brouckère): splendid OTT interior (except for the beige chairs – bad choice) but didn’t think much of the waiter, who was unusually inept AND overfamiliar. I’d like to think he has since been given the boot.

Le Stephany (near Place Stépanie): seems to close inconveniently early in the evening, but agreeably cluttered interior.

Le Journal (Place Stéphanie/Châtelan): smashing cluttered interior; I used to go here a lot, though I’ve gone off it recently.

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TRENDY BARS (this isn’t intended as an insult)

Café Kafka (St-Catherine/Dansaert); dark, with local ambience

Flamingo (Yser); bright popular brasserie

Walvis (the canal end of Dansaert)

Potemkine (Porte de Hal); can get noisy

Le Roi des Belges (St Géry/Dansaert)

Le Bistro des Restos (Châtelain)

La Belladone (near Châtelain)

Monk (St-Catherine/Dansaert)

Café Maison du Peuple (Parvis St-Gilles)

Bar du Matin (Forest)

Supra Bailly (Châtelain)

Café Belga (Flagey)

L’Ultime Atome (Rue St-Boniface)

Le Pantin (Flagey)

 

BARS WITH EXTENSIVE BEER MENUS

Moeder Lambic (one at Place Fontainas near Anneessens metro; another behind Saint-Gilles town hall, nearest metro Horta)

Le Châtelain (Châtelain)

Poechenellekelder (next to Manneken Pis)

Delirum Monasterium (historic centre)

L’Ultime Atome (Porte de Namur)

 

LOCAL BARS FOR LOCAL PEOPLE

L’Inattendu (behind the Palais de Justice): this was the bar where the landlord saw me squinting at my book in the semi-darkness and came over and clipped a reading light to my table.

La Cigale (bottom of Chaussée de Charleroi)

Le Journal (Chaussée de Charleroi)

La Malcour (Sablon) cosy, but in posh Sablon, so a Leffe Brune costs a whopping 5 euros!

L’Ecuyer (historic centre) horseriding-themed.

Le Chat-Pître (Châtelain) The landlord comes from Carcassonne (which is the password for their wi-fi)

Le Prétexte (Chaussée de Charleroi)

Le Renard Bleu (Marolles) classic beers, plus bio beers and bio food. Also, a nice dog called Lou.

 

GOOD GENERAL BARS

Le Plattesteen (Plattesteen)

Café Bebo (Place Rouppe)

Le Bar (Châtelain)

The Duke (Châtelain)

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THE BILLSON GUIDE TO BELGIAN BEER

Strong Belgian beers are dangerously easy to drink, and before you know it…

  1. One Belgian beer makes me tipsy.
  2. Two Belgian beers make me drunk.
  3. Three Belgian beers make me very drunk, and are apt to give me a headache the next morning.
  4. Four Belgian beers make me legless. Hangover guaranteed.

 

MY FAVOURITE BEERS (photos of these beers can be found on the blog)

Westmalle Tripel (9.5%) gold. Possibly my favourite among favourites.

Westmalle Dubbel (7%) dark. Nice.

Rochefort 8 (9.2%) yellowish. Nice.

Rochefort 6 (7.5%) dark. Nice. (There’s a Rochefort 10 too – 11.3%!)

Tripel Karmeliet (8.4%) gold. Nice.

Chimay Bleu (9%) amber-ish. A classic. Nice.

La Chouffe (8%) blond. Nice. With a gnome on the label.

Quintine Blonde (8%) blond. Nice. With a witch on the label.

Cuvée des Trolls (7%) blond. Nice. With a troll on the label.

When I first moved here I liked Duvel (8.5%) but I’ve gone off it a bit now.

Lots of people I know like Orval (6.2%) but I’m not mad about it.

Each Belgian beer comes in its own specially designed glass, with the logo of the beer on it – unless the bar is sloppy, or has run out of the glass in question. I find this designated glass thing quite exciting, and am always a bit disappointed when beer is served in the wrong glass.

If you want a novelty glass which makes it difficult to drink without slopping beer all down your front, try Pauwel Kwak or La Corne du Bois des Pendus (which has a hanged man on the label).

There are about a gazillion other beers, including a few zillion I haven’t tried.

The best bars for lesser-known beers are Moeder Lambic, Poechenellekelder, Délirium Monasterium, L’Ultime Atome and Le Châtelain. I’m told Beer Circus and Delirium Café have good beer menus too, but I haven’t been to either of them.

 

LIGHTER BEERS (MOSTLY AVAILABLE ON TAP)

If you’re planning to drink more than two beers in one evening, I recommend sticking to lighter Pils-type ones, such as:

Jupiler (5.2%) – which for ages I thought was JupiTer.

Maes (5.2%)

Hoegaarden (4.9%) white beer

Palm (5.4%)

Silly (5%)

Beersel Lager (5.2%) (as opposed to Beersel Blond, which is 7%)

Bel Pils (5%)

Fruit beers (Kriek etc) are disgusting and should probably be avoided unless you have a very sweet tooth.

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6 thoughts on “The Billson Guide to Brussels

    1. Thanks Simon. Any tips relating to your part of town, which I’m not that familiar with, would be welcome. Which is the metro station with all the Tintin murals? Is that yours?

      1. Yep, Stockel metro has the Hergé murals.
        It also has the cinema Le Stockel, which is one of the few little neighbourhood cinemas left.
        Also a few good restaurants: Les Deux Maisons, Gou, Thai Café.

  1. Having recently visited the Big FNAC in the 9e arrondissement of Paris, where the BDs are shelved in a sane order (i.e., not by publisher FFS), I now know that this is possible. The Stripmuseum in Brussels was a disappointment bordering on heartbreak in that respect.

    What is the policy elsewhere in Brussels? (This is really a make-or-break thing for bookshops for me; any guidance would be cherished.)

    1. Afraid I can’t help you there, but I think all of the BD shops I mentioned have websites, so you could try asking them directly. As far as I can remember, my local Fnac (Toison d’or) shelves according to title/series. Sorry I can’t be more specific – next time I visit one of them, I’ll certainly take note and post it here.

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