Capital of Belgium, headquarters of NATO, nerve centre of the European Union… Brussels is a beating political heart. But visitors expecting to find a big, bland, multilingual bureaucracy will be pleasantly surprised. Brussels has over a thousand years of history, a dynamic population, two languages (French and Flemish) and myriad architectural and cultural gems. And as you’d expect from a city of journalists and politicians, good restaurants and nightlife options abound.
Start your sightseeing in Brussels' Grand Place, the city's majestic central square, then tick off other major attractions: the Royal Palace (www.monarchie.be), St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral (www.cathedralestmichel.be) and iconic Atomium monument (www.atomium.be), built for the 1958 World’s Fair and offering terrific views across the city. But how can you be sure that those views are real and meaningful? Ponder this and other philosophical questions at the Magritte Museum (www.musee-magritte-museum.be), which exhibits more than 200 works by this influential surrealist artist.
Belgians admire paintings, but they also love comic books – Hergé (The Adventures of Tintin) and Peyo (The Smurfs) are beloved cultural figures. Find their works at Brusel (www.brusel.com). For clothes and accessories made from recycled materials, shop at Ethika (www.ethika.be). You can browse designer fashions on Avenue Louise, and find fresh fruit and flowers, clothes, bric-a-brac and tasty snacks at the Sunday market on Place Jourdan. For dessert, follow the smell of melting chocolate to Grand Sablon, where you'll find a host of Belgian chocolatiers including Neuhaus (www.neuhaus.be), inventor of the Belgian praline.
Though nothing surpasses the finger-licking combination of plump mussels and twice-cooked fries, there’s more to Belgian food than moules frites – and more to Brussels' restaurant scene than touristy Rue des Bouchers. Located in Ixelles, Slurps (www.slurps.be) is a trendy vegetarian restaurant with a menu that spans several continents and cuisines. For traditional dishes plus great views, go to MIM (www.restomim.com), in the art nouveau dome of the Museum of Musical Instruments. You’ll find comparable decor at Comme Chez Soi (www.commechezsoi.be), along with a fabulous six-course tasting menu.
Belgium brews some of the world’s best beers, and despite its alarming name, century-old A la Mort Subite (www.alamortsubite.com) is a good place to sample them. You’ll find many other restaurants, bars and clubs in the rapidly gentrifying Saint Gilles neighbourhood which borders Midi station south of the city centre. Looking for something a little different? Row out to a little island in a lake in Bois de la Cambre – Brussels' nicest public park – and take afternoon tea at Chalet Robinson (www.chaletrobinson.be). Dance the night away at upscale Les Jeux d'Hiver (www.jeuxdhiver.be) and Spirito (www.spiritobrussels.com), a spectacular nightclub, bar and restaurant in a converted church.
At the end of August, Brussels' Summer Festival (www.infofestival.be) comes alive with concerts and open-air drama. The Ommegang in July, is an all-singing, all-jousting re-enactment of Charles V’s arrival in Brussels in 1549. Nuit Blanche (www.nuitblanchebrussels.be), a night-long festival of art, films, concerts, dance, workshops and cultural exchange, takes place in October. It ends with a big free breakfast, as all good events should.