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Thought Brussels was all about craft beer, chocolate and the EU? Think again. With a flourishing contemporary art scene and streets characterised by art-nouveau buildings, kitsch bars and boutiques, the Belgian capital is a go-to for culture seekers.
There’s far more to Brussels than political decision-making, craft beer and the Manneken Pis, the capital’s tiny urinating mascot. For starters, there are its sublime surreal art collections, art-nouveau buildings and comic-strip murals of Tintin et al. Then, of course, there’s the magnificent Grand-Place, which is lined with ornate guild houses in Flemish baroque style, and the city’s array of parks and gardens.
Dig a little deeper however, and you’ll discover the city’s thriving contemporary art and design scene, an abundance of vintage boutiques and cutting-edge bars, music venues and globally renowned art fairs – namely BRAFA Art Fair, Art Brussels and Brussels Design Market. That Brussels is the world capital of chocolate is merely an added bonus.
Art lovers: forget Paris. Brussels is calling…
Brussels has long cultivated a reputation as a hub for comic books, tribal art and modern Belgian painting. It comes as no surprise then, that these disciplines are the focus of some of the city’s most famous museums, including the Belgian Comic Strip Center, the Africa Museum, BOZAR and the Magritte Museum, which is one of the six museums making up The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.
Established in 2009, the Magritte Museum is now home to more than 200 paintings by the celebrated Belgian surrealist René Magritte. Take in as many bowler hats, doves and pipes as you can manage before refuelling with a much-needed coffee on site.
After your visit, energy levels permitting, wander over to the Old Masters Museum next door. It presents a remarkable collection of works from the former Southern Netherlands and counts splendid paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Peter Paul Rubens and Jacob Jordaens among its treasures.
Insider Intel: You can buy a combo ticket to the Old Masters Museum and the Magritte Museum for €15. With the exception of the Magritte Museum, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium are closed on Mondays.
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THE INTIMATE STUDIO
You don’t have to wander far from the city centre to find meandering streets lined with glorious buildings in the art-nouveau style, an experimental form of design and architecture that flourished across Europe between about 1890 and 1910. The movement particularly thrived in Belgium, which was then home to some of the biggest names of art nouveau, including Paul Hankar, Henry van de Velde and Victor Horta.
The Horta Museum, located in Horta’s former house and studio in Saint-Gilles, is dedicated to the artist’s life and work. With many original features and interiors on display – stained-glass windows, cast-iron railings, ornate mosaics and sculpted wooden furniture – this splendid house-turned-museum offers design enthusiasts an unparalleled insight into Horta’s world and progressive creative vision.
Insider Intel: Built in 1892-93, Horta’s studio is widely considered among the first completed art-nouveau buildings in Brussels.
- +32 2 543 04 90
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THE ART FAIR NOT TO MISS
BRAFA Art Fair
With its abundance of museum-quality works spanning both millennia and media, BRAFA is one of the finest cross-disciplinary art fairs in Europe. Traditionally a hub for specialisms at the core of Belgium’s collecting culture – antiquities, tribal art and comic strips, for example – the fair has, in recent years, significantly broadened its reach.
This year, held between 26 January – 2 February, it will host 133 exhibitors, about 60 per cent of whom hail from abroad. Expect a strong emphasis on modern and contemporary art. Scope out Helene Bailly Gallery for impressionist gems, La Patinoire Royale for design and Osborne Samuel for modern British painting and sculpture.
What’s particularly striking about this fair is its friendly, welcoming atmosphere. Then there’s its special non-selling exhibition, curated each year by a guest of honour. “I believe that every visitor should leave the fair feeling enriched,” says the fair’s chairman Harold t’Kint de Roodenbeke, “whether or not they’ve bought anything.”
In celebration of the fair’s 65th edition, five segments of the Berlin Wall will be auctioned for charity. The segments, which are 3.8m tall and 1.2m wide, feature graffiti on both sides by anonymous street artists. “We wanted to do something completely different and unexpected,” continues the chairman of his decision to stage the fair’s first auction.
Insider Intel: BRAFA organises a daily series of free art talks and tours. Check online for more details.
- +32 2 513 48 31
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Sorry We’re Closed
Brussels is home to some big-name Belgian galleries that draw A-list clients. Among them are interior design specialists Axel Vervoordt and contemporary art galleries Meessen de Clercq and Xavier Hufkens, the latter representing such famous names as Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley and Louise Bourgeois.
In recent years, however, the city has welcomed a wealth of younger galleries championing emerging and mid-career artists from Belgium and abroad. Sorry We’re Closed, founded by Sebastien Janssen in 2008, is one such entity.
Located in the heart of Brussels, this intimate gallery hosts a diverse temporary exhibition programme as well as a wealth of exciting special projects. Recent shows have featured works by rising stars, including Josh Sperling, Otis Jones and Julien Meert. In keeping with its name, opening hours are limited – check online before pitching up unannounced.
Insider Intel: Sebastien Janssen is the brother of well-known Belgian dealer Rodolphe Janssen, whose Brussels-based gallery also specialises in contemporary art. If Sorry We’re Closed is closed, you may have more luck at Galerie R. Janssen, which is just a 15-minute walk away.
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No trip to Brussels would be complete without a couple of servings of moules-frites – or, just frites if you’re on the move – and sugar-sprinkled waffles. As Brussels is also home to some of the best chocolatiers in the world, we highly recommend taste-testing copious amounts of chocolate (and speculoos biscuits, too).
There’s no shortage of stalls, stands and shops across the city offering these traditional Belgian delicacies, but some serve better quality goods than others. Head to Frit Flagey for what are widely deemed the “best” fries in the city, before wending your way to Maison Dandoy, the Belgian mecca of fresh, homemade speculoos biscuits, made from real butter and brown sugar, and cast using traditional hand-crafted moulds.
If you’re feeling peckish come teatime, tuck into a praline chocolate or two at the Pierre Marcolini flagship off Grand Sablon square or make a pit-stop at the 100-year-old Wittamer a few doors down – the café serves most delectable ganache you’ll ever taste!
Insider Intel: The Dandoy tearoom serves waffles, too. Choose between the Brussels waffle, which is light and fluffy, crispy and creamy, and the Liege waffle, filled with crunchy sugary bits. There’s been a waffle-off in the city for decades now. Which will you back?
- +32 2 669 52 12
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At the heart of Brussels’ historic Marolles district are Rue Haute and Rue Blaes, both lined with antiques dealers, galleries and interior-design shops, selling everything from furniture, paintings and lighting to decorative bric-a-brac and kitsch crockery.
Make a beeline for the ABAC second-hand bookshop and Via Antica, a gigantic three-floor space with around 40 vintage stalls and dealers. Design and thrift lovers should also carve out time to scour the Jeu de Balle outdoor flea market, held each morning from 7am to 2pm.
Insider Intel: Come with energy aplenty; you’ll need to rummage and barter hard.
Hotel des Galeries
Nestled beneath the vaults of the splendid Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, one of the grandest 19th-century shopping arcades in the city, this chic boutique hotel offers serious bang for your buck.
Delightfully, its historic, fading facade offers no clue as to its vibrant interiors, which artfully blend contemporary design and vintage character and charm. All of the hotel’s 23 rooms are individually styled – think: high ceilings, retro furniture and original antique features.
The streetside restaurant Comptoir des Galeries serves hearty seasonal dishes, as well as traditional Belgian classics (yes, we’re talking stewed beef cheek and shrimp croquettes), while Le Petit Comptoir (the hotel bar and café) is a good spot for a waffle break.
Insider Intel: Feeling flush? Book one of the three stunning duplex suites. We’re sure you won’t regret it.
- +32 2 213 74 70
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Once you’re ready to swap beer for cocktails, make a move on Lord Byron. Tucked away and little known by tourists, this intimate, artsy drinking den serves classic cocktails as well as a wide range of whiskies. Covers are limited, so this is a good spot for a date rather than a night out en masse.
Insider Intel: Keep the secret to yourself.
- +32 474 35 06 83
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