John O'Ceallaigh, The Daily Telegraph, August 23, 2013
The political capital of Europe, Brussels could be said to have a somewhat staid reputation but the easily navigated city offers a lot to those visitors prepared to seek it out. A resident of Brussels, Belgian Victor Horta was one of the key architects behind the development of Art Nouveau and his imprint is visible throughout the city; for those in search of indulgence, this is the place to go for your fill of exceptional chocolates and skillfully brewed beer. Here concierges from two of the city's best hotels give their guides to the best of Brussels.
I’m new here. Tell me something people don’t know about Brussels.
Marc: The historic centre of Brussels was built on swamps. This explains the origin of its name: Brucsella, wit broek meaning swamp and sali meaning habitation. Iris flowers – now the symbol of the city- used to grow in abundance in the swamps.
Jean Francois: There is a river – La Senne – still flowing under the streets of Brussels. The river was completely covered up and major boulevards were built over it in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
What is the most exciting thing you can do in Brussels?
Marc: Brussels is the hometown of comic book heroes such as Tintin and Blake and Mortimer. The comic book trail is the perfect way of exploring the city while gazing upwards at characters immortalised in giant murals on 50 city gables.
Jean Francois: You could visit the 350km of sewers that form an underground network beneath the city.
Which attraction should I definitely make time to see?
Marc: The Magritte Museum is the home of the largest collection of works by the Belgian surrealist artist Renee Magritte. The museum is a unique and somewhat mind-bending tribute to an unusual character with tremendous talent.
Jean Francois: The prestigious Grand Place, which is the most beautiful city square in the world.
Which of the “must-visit” attractions should I avoid?
Marc: The restaurants in the Rue de Boucher/Beenhouwerstraat. This city is renowned for its fine gastronomy so it would be a great pity to end up eating very mediocre food here. With the exception of a few great restaurants, it's best to just walk through it on your way to somewhere nicer.
Is the European Parliament worth a visit?
Marc: We recommend that our guests visit the Parlementarium, ideal for Eurosceptics as it explores what members contribute and how everyday life is influenced by Europe’s decisions in an interactive and engaging way.
Jean Francois: The European Parliament and the European Commission are very important Europe buildings. The nearby Parlementarium will help to explain what they do.
Is there a particular exhibition I should see while I’m here?
Marc: Belgians are collectors and Brussels is a Mecca for anyone interested in antiques and design. Every year in January, BRAFA, the Brussels Antiques and Fine Arts Fair, at Tour & Taxis, a restored customs and mail-sorting hanger, brings together renowned collectors selling their eclectic treasures and rare finds.
Jean Francois: Go to the Belgium Comic Strip Center . In the land of Smurfs and Tintin, visitors can discover a range of permanent exhibitions, illustrated with original artwork and unique objects. The building that houses the centre is the former Waucquez Warehouse, a gem of Art Nouveau by grand master Victor Horta.
Where can I take the best picture of Brussels?
Marc: The Place Poelaert, Brussels’ version of Paris’ Montmartre. Located in front of the Palais of Justice, you get a wonderful panoramic view of the city from here. There is even a lift to take you down into the Marolles.
I’d like to try something new here – what should I do?
Marc: The Tram Experience – a chance to experience a three-course meal served up by some of the city’s finest Michelin-starred chefs, chocolatiers and pastry chefs while seated in a converted 1960s tram that goes through Brussels.
I’d like to buy an unusual souvenir – what do you recommend?
Marc: Greek bread from Maison Dandoy – located opposite the hotel - which has been creating this Brussels delicacy since 1829. This sweet, soft flatbread with cinnamon and crystallised sugar d has nothing to do with Greece as it’s simply a mistranslation from the 16th-century Brussels dialect.
Jean Francois: Belgian’s lace is very famous
What’s the best restaurant in the city right now?
Marc: There are many but we’d recommend Le Chalet de la Forêt for fine dining in a beautiful setting in the middle of the forest, while Selecto serves up inventive Belgian dishes and offers you the chance to sit and eat with the chefs in the kitchen.
Jean Francois: It all depends on your expectations. Brussels is home to a very large range of restaurants and culinary specialities. One of the famous gastronomic restaurants in Brussels is Comme chez soi .
And where’s best for drinks? I don’t want somewhere touristy.
Marc: La Mort Subite, a true Brussels institution which has been serving Gueuze beers since 1928.
Jean Francois: Try Café Greenwich on rue des Chartreuses.
What beer should I order in Brussels?
Marc: If you are lucky enough to find it, try Westvletteren, brewed by monks in very limited quantities only at their abbey in the west of Flanders. Otherwise try a Gueuze beer, also called Brussels’ champagne and brewed only in and around the city.
Jean Francois: Choose an abbey beer from Delirium Café, which stocks over 250 different beers.
And where can I get the best Belgian chocolates?
Marc: Belgians are chocoholics and there are chocolate shops to cater to every taste. We would recommend visiting Laurent Gerbaud, a young chocolatier who in his workshop conjures up magical chocolate combinations using ingredients such as Japanese citrus, black pepper and sweet chilli.
Jean Francois: There are a lot of options as Belgium is the capital of chocolate. At the hotel we recommend the chocolate shop Wittamer and we also mention the names of Marcolini, Neuhaus, Galler .
I’m going to propose to my partner while I’m here – where should I do it?
Marc: On the terrace of our Royal Blaton Suite here at Hotel Amigo while having your own private dinner prepared by our Executive Chef Marco Visinoni. The terrace overlooks the beautifully illuminated tower of the Town Hall. A guaranteed yes!
Jean Francois: You could propose within our prestigious hotel bar Le 31 . Romantic music from the piano should help set the tone.