Destinations | The Smooth Guide

A long weekend in… Brussels

Shedding its patrician (and slightly stuffy) façade, the ‘EU capital’ has emerged as a vibrant – and downright cool – destination. Rachel Howard chronicles its new cachet.

November 29 2010
Rachel Howard

“Brussels is not just bureaucrats,” sighs Nicholas Lewis, founding editor of Belgium’s style-setting magazine The Word. “The EU has given the city its dreary reputation. We launched the magazine to show how vibrant and colourful it is.”

Spontaneous, sociable and increasingly cool, Brussels has little of the buttoned-up repression one might expect from a city of technocrats. With its flourishing art and design scene, recherché antique shops and avant-garde fashion, this city of one million still offers the thrill of discovering a place that’s just under the radar.

It might seem odd to describe the “capital of Europe” as overlooked and misunderstood, but the EU office blocks are atypical of the city’s art-nouveau architecture and quaint cobbled squares. EU workers and their families make up only about 10 per cent of the population; but Brussels – a Francophone island marooned in Flemish-speaking Flanders – has always hummed with expats.

“Brussels has the advantage of being a very multinational city that feels like a small village,” says Pierre Marcolini, the grand couturier of chocolatiers. His flagship store on the Place du Grand Sablon stocks more than 100 varieties of the sweet, with exotic flavours such as bergamot, lemon and “pepper berries”, all handmade from carefully sourced cocoa beans. His macaroons are equally sublime – he once worked for Pierre Hermé in Paris, as well as Wittamer, a more traditional patisserie located just across the square, where you can sit and admire the Barbour-and-Aigle clad bourgeoises while enjoying the city’s best waffles. The upstairs tearoom, all fuchsia walls and silver gilt, is like being inside a sweet box.

Sablon, the antique district around the square, is a must-visit for the sheer gabled, cobble-stoned ambience; the corner shops sell marble busts with certificates of provenance and Louis XIV chairs. Here, Arnaud Rasquinet has turned a 19th-century town house into Le Coup de Cœur hotel. With just three rooms and one suite, furnished in a high-end flea-market style, this is as close as it gets to staying with a (very stylish) local. The ground-floor butcher’s shop is now a bar, and there are armchairs for flopping after shopping.

Wander from the historic centre to Dansaert – the fashion quarter – and the atmosphere shifts from moneyed grandeur to edgy androgyny. Antwerp may be Belgium’s fashion capital, but Brussels has plenty of local talent of its own. Sonja Noël brings together the brightest stars at her emporium, Stijl, and another stalwart, the gorgeous flagship of Annemie Verbeke, is housed a few doors up in a glorious early-19th-century manse, all wabi-sabi cool with worn marble floors and a vast staircase. Noël recently débuted another concept store, Haleluja, dedicated to sustainable fashion; parkas made from recycled parachutes are just the thing for drizzly Brussels.

Around the corner, Rue Léon Lepage is also lined with boutiques. Pick up slinky silk dresses at Just in Case, bespoke shirts at Café Costume and deconstructed garments at Maison Martin Margiela, whose white-on-white interior is like a sanatorium for fashion victims. Gourmands slurp oysters at seafood stalls in nearby Place Sainte-Catherine, where the capital’s first power plant, La Centrale Electrique, has been converted into a showcase for contemporary art and design.

Experimental artists and galleries gravitate towards warehouses along the Brussels-Charleroi Canal, an area on the cusp of gentrification. Local Frédéric Nicolay has a knack for giving run-down quartiers instant cachet. He finds scruffy “brown bars” – wood-panelled, nicotine-stained cafés – and converts them into salvage-chic hangouts for the cool crowd. Now, with two Nicolay-signed venues, Café Modèle and Walvis, on opposite corners, “the Canal” has clearly arrived. His next venture, Greenwood, is on the nearby Boulevard Barthélémy and he has also set his sights on the seedy Porte de Hal area, where he will launch Potemkin early next year, with an outdoor cinema beside the last of the city’s medieval gates.

Like many Bruxellois, Nicolay is a hybrid – a Frenchman who grew up in the Congo. “Brussels is like [European Council president and former Belgian Prime Minister] van Rompuy: low profile and discreet,” Nicolay shrugs. “I much prefer to have him as my representative than bling-bling Sarkozy.”

Brussels’ best hotels also frown on flashiness. Tucked away behind the opera house, with an elegant cloistered restaurant in the inner courtyard, is the 150-room, three-year-old Dominican hotel. Its muted ambience – clean-lined, modern furniture, thick, neutral-toned linens, tall windows and oak floors – reflects the 15th-century building’s history as an abbey. Even the Hotel Amigo, discreetly positioned behind the Grand Place, is a study in understated luxury. You might spot Bono or Beyoncé taking afternoon tea (with waffles, of course) in the bar, but nobody will make a fuss. One suite is kitted out in scarlet leather by Delvaux, the world’s oldest luxury leather company, founded in 1829 – a year before Belgium.

Though designer Veronique Branquinho was appointed artistic director of Delvaux in 2009, some of the bestselling styles are still reissues from the archives. The originals are now on display in the museum above the firm’s workshop in L’Arsenal, which opened last month. Only 15,000 items a year are handcrafted at Delvaux’s three workshops; it’s well worth the trip out to the suburbs to watch artisans piece together classic designs.

Back in town, on Rue du Berger, is Vini Divini, a tiny osteria with barely room for two-dozen diners to squeeze between wall-to-wall wines. Bag a seat at the narrow counter and watch Vincenzo Marino – dubbed “Il diavolo divino” by regulars – whip up pistachio-crusted scallops and wild-boar ravioli from his minuscule galley kitchen; the Neapolitan banter is as entertaining as the culinary showmanship. Around the corner is another counter worth queuing for: Yamato, a Japanese that only serves ramen and gyoza. It’s cheerily down at heel, and you can’t book, but that’s not deterring local foodies or visitors.

No trip would be complete without indulging in Belgium’s culinary classics – beer and chips – at Place Flagey. Following renovation, the square has been transformed from car park to cultural hotspot thanks to Flagey, a brilliantly eclectic arts centre. Pretty young things swig Chimay beer while listening to Radiohead and The XX – and, on Sundays, live jazz – at sprawling Café Belga; or they hit Delecta, a soulful little bar in a converted deli, then stumble across to Frit’Flagey, the city’s most venerated fritkot (chip shack), for twice-cooked chips smothered in sauce.

If you can’t face the queue there, then make for nearby Canterbury, a classic brasserie with a sycamore-shaded terrace beside the Ixelles Ponds. Perfectly cooked chips come with half a chicken or a giant steak. Like the Christophe Gevers décor, the desserts are deliciously retro.

Place Brugmann is another lovely spot for browsing and grazing. Create your own scent at custom perfumery L’Antichambre, invest in slouchy knitwear and sleek shift dresses by Sandrina Fasoli, or pick up gorgeous jewellery – equal parts Marni and Lanvin, but at about half the price of either – at Les Précieuses. Then indulge in black pearl oysters and champagne at Toucan-sur-Mer. Meanwhile, neighbourhood bistro En Face de Parachute combines intimate informality with seriously starry food (smoked eel with cauliflower and truffle cream and caramelised sweetbreads in blood-orange sauce). Skip dessert and pop into Le Saint-Aulaye patisserie for sublime apricot and pistachio tart.

Indeed, all that bobo-chic Châtelain lacked in recent years was a stylish little hotel. Now, perfectly placed between Place du Châtelain and Place Brugmann, is Tenbosch House. Two art-nouveau manses have been combined to create seven suites, each the size of a small apartment, with heavenly beds and huge rain showers. The mood could be called Scandinavian Zen; Catharina Eklof, the Swedish wife of co-owner Cedric Meuris, sourced each piece individually, from the Hans Wegner desks to the custom-made Kasthall carpets. Guests convene around the communal breakfast table and its satellites, with the rotating collection of contemporary art by the likes of Cornelia Parker and Tony Cragg an inevitable talking point.

When the EU chose Brussels as its HQ in 1958, the city was selected for its unassuming neutrality, midway between the major European players, with little else to recommend it. Those days are long gone. Brussels has developed not just a distinctive character, but artistic, design and culinary scenes with the bona fides to more than stand up to cooler little sister Antwerp. It rather makes more self-important cities seem a little dull.