Beer, frites, comics. Blah, blah, blah. No disrespect to lovers of ambers and ales, salty, fried foods, or Tintin, but there’s so much more to Brussels, capital of Belgium—capital of all of Europe—than these perennially touted attractions. Here are three lesser-celebrated reasons to hop on a train and make the 80-minute trip from Paris.
Chocolate boutique in Brussels (flavijus)
At first glance, the architecture in Brussels is incongruous—ugly, even. But in that odd stew of styles are treasures from many eras.
Take, for example, the Grand’Place in the city center. The towering 15th century Town Hall, which is adorned with hundreds of statues, and adjacent rows of meticulously detailed guild houses, have earned the square a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Even though the medieval constructions are blighted by florescent-lit souvenir shops and droves of tourists, it’s a must-see landmark.
The second hand record store “Arlequin” in Brussels (H4NUM4N)
On the far side of town is a landmark of a different sort: the Atomium, a relic from the 1958 World Fair. Standing at 103-meters tall, it consists of nine giant steel spheres, connected by tubes. Altogether, it looks like a big, weird cell. But each sphere houses an exhibit hall, and you can visit them via escalators enclosed in the tubes. The reward for the schlep to the northern part of the city to see this oddity is the 360-degree panoramic view from the top.
A building in Brussels that used to be a department store & “Galerie de la Reine” (Sophuda & AstridWestvang)
But for my money, the most beautiful architectural immersion is the residential neighborhood of Saint-Gilles—a bonanza of Art Nouveau. Stroll the sloping hills and admire exquisite details like wrought iron balconies, castle-like turrets and oriel windows. If you love the genre, then don’t miss the neighborhood’s crown jewel: the Musée Horta, the previous home of one of the most influential Art Nouveau architects, Victor Horta.
“Le Fabuleux Marcel” in Brussels (visitflanders)
Back in the 1980s, the Antwerp Six, the influential designers who established Belgian fashion, set up shop on Rue Antoine Dansaert in the abutting neighborhoods of Sainte Catherine and Saint-Géry. Today, it’s where all the super stylish Belgians shop. The avant-garde Stijl, a boutique that’s as carefully curated as an art gallery, features the likes of Ann Demeulemeester, Raf Simons Dries Van Noten and is the main draw of the drag. Other ultracool shops include Annemie Verbeke and Glorybox and, in recent years, international stores— Comptoir de Cottoniers, Marc Jacobs—have infiltrated the neighborhood.
“Kelly Shop” in Brussels (visitflanders)
For more casual and eclectic shopping, head across town to Ixelles. You can tell this neighborhood is popular with expats by the abundance of cafes offering soymilk and cupcakeries, but the boutiques are both trendy and down-to-earth. My favorite of all the great little indie spots is Moss & Bros, small but packed with eclectic home goods and clothing.
Chocolates in Brussels (Juska Wendland)
And then, of course, there’s the chocolate. Like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, you see chocolatiers seemingly everywhere you go in Brussels. Turn a corner, and there’s a chocolatier. Turn another corner and there’s another chocolatier, and another. It’s my kind of city.
The choco-epicenter is the Grand Sablon, an oblong park packed with the big-hitters (Godiva, Neuhaus, Leonidas) and the classics (Wittamer); the haute (Pierre Marcolini) and the artisan (Passion). And the most recent (and brilliant) addition is Alex & Alex, a chocolate and champagne bar. Oui, my kind of city indeed.
Chocolates from “Mary” in Brussels (Amy Thomas)
Although the Grand Sablon could keep you high and happy for hours, it’s essential to veer off the well-trod path. That’s how you’ll experience Frederic Blondeel, who is known for ganaches with bold and spicy ingredients like black cardamom and Szechuan pepper, and Laurent Gerbaud, whose rich and creamy pralines could very well be the best things I ate in Brussels.
And no visit would be complete without a visit to Mary, the 93-year-old chocolatier that’s been supplying bonbons to the royal family for decades. Choose from caramels and marzipan fillings; chocolate mousse, ganache and creams; truffles and pralines; plus tablettes and mendiants. The packaging is almost as exquisite as the bonbons, and the staff are impossibly polite. In fact, Mary alone is a good excuse to go to Brussels tout de suite.