Gems of Europe: Belgium

Brussels charms travelers with its friendly atmosphere, dazzling architecture and satisfying cuisine

By: By David Wishart; Sidebars by Deanna Ting

Gems of Europe

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Ideal Itineraries

Gourmet Trail: Brussels brims with famous patisseries, breweries and outlets serving up its famous frites. To get a taste of all the city has to offer when it comes to culinary delights, the Belgian Tourist Office suggests the following day itinerary that travels from the Place du Grand Sablon to the Gare Centrale. The do-it-yourself tour begins at the award-winning chocolate maker, Marcolini, and ends at infamous beer hall A La Mort Subite, best known for its namesake Mort Subite (sudden death) Gueuze beer. Chocoholics will delight in visits to the Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate and confectioners Wittamer, Godiva and Planete Chocolat. Beer aficionados will enjoy a visit to the Museum of Belgian Brewers and the Bier Tempel, a specialty shop for hard-to-find beers. Pralines and famous Belgian waffles are also culinary highlights.

The Ardennes Mountain Spring Beer Tour of Belgium: Deep within the majestic Ardennes Mountains of Belgium, clients can take part in a nine-day, eight-night beer tour from May 27 to June 4, with Belgian Beer Me. The tour takes clients to breweries located in Achouffe, Caracole, Fantome, Rochefort, Chimay, Orval, Du Bocq, Des Fagnes, Bouillion, Trois Forquets and La Ferme Au Chene. The package also includes a visit to the Abbey of Maredsous, a castle, a rail bike excursion and a visit to the WWII Museum in Bastogne. Prices start at $2,695 and a single supplement is available for $495. Clients receive a $100 discount if they sign up before Feb. 28; the booking deadline for this trip is April 28. 

Liege-Bastogne-Liege Weekends: Bicycle tours through Belgium are popular thanks to its scenic vistas and hills, and a four-night, five-day itinerary with Velo Classic Tours takes clients through some of the most challenging — and rewarding — climbs in the country, all planned to coincide with the annual Liege-Bastogne-Liege International Cycle Race. On this tour, clients ride in conjunction with training professional teams, traveling some 28 miles from Durbuy to Stavelot. The package also includes VIP access to the start of the race and multiple viewing locations on race day, four-star accommodations in Stavelot and Maastricht and three dinners. 

Calendar of Events

Oct. 19-Jan. 4, 2009: Brussels Biennial. This biennial for contemporary art commemorates the 50th anniversary of the closing of the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels — the first major World’s Fair since the end of WWII. The first edition kicks off this year with seven exhibitions by more than 70 artists. 

Dec. 1-31: European Christmas Market, Brussels. Brussels transforms into a winter wonderland every holiday season, complete with an ice-skating rink in the middle of downtown.

Dec. 1-31: Liege Christmas Market. Clients can get into the holiday spirit throughout the month of December when an entire Christmas village emerges in the heart of Liege, near Prince Bishop’s Palace. In the city center, Christmas lights and decorations, traditional treats and holiday carols create a festive atmosphere that clients won’t soon forget. There’s even an open-air ice rink at the Place de la Cathedrale.

Jan. 23- Feb. 1, 2009: 54th Antiques Fair, Brussels. This annual fair is a must-see for art lovers, combining fine antiquities with Oceanic art, African art, Asian art, silver works, furniture and art works from the Haute Epoque to the 1900s. 

Feb. 20-28, 2009: Anima Film Festival, Brussels. The newly renovated Flagey building, formerly known as the Belgian Radio & TV Broadcasting Center, will host this animated international film festival. 

March 7, 2009: Night of the Brussels Museums. For one night, 10 different Brussels museums will open their doors for the second Night of the Brussels Museums to watch special performances and concerts, participate in workshops and take part in unusual entertainment put on by local youth organizations and students. The event lasts from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. with a party to follow. 

New & Noteworthy

Graphic Impact
Next year has been dubbed The Year of the Comic Strip in Brussels and French-speaking Southern Belgium, and rightfully so — Brussels is internationally recognized as the capital of comic strips. Approximately 80 percent of the turnover from Belgium’s publishing sector comes from comic strip sales. Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the Belgian Comic Strip Centre. To celebrate, a series of events will take place throughout the year, including special museum exhibitions, an opening Balloon Day Parade and an attempt to create the world’s biggest comic strip sheet. 

Museum Openings
Next spring marks the openings of the new Magritte Museum and Herge Museum, as well as the reopening of the Grand Curtius Museum. The Magritte Museum, which will exhibit more than 150 works by the famous surrealist painter, will be housed in a neo-classical building that makes up part of Brussels’ Place Royale. Just outside Brussels, in Louvain-la-Neuve, clients can visit the Herge Museum beginning in May 2009.; 

Local Favorites

Chateau des Thermes, Chaudfontaine, Spa
Belgium’s Spa region is home to famous hot springs that have been used for centuries as places to relax, unwind and rejuvenate. The Chateau des Thermes, housed within an 18th-century castle, offers clients its very own hot-spring outdoor pool — the only spa center in Belgium to have its own natural, thermal bath at a temperature of 93.2 degrees. The spa center also features three saunas, an indoor spring-water swimming pool, a Turkish bath, relaxation rooms, a complimentary robe and a Zen garden. The spa offers a number of treatments, from a spring water Affusions massage to a Bamboo massage treatment. One-day admission to the spa is approximately $43. 

La Batte, Liege
"Batte" in the Walloon dialect of Liege, means embankment or wharf, and here, by the wharves of the river Meuse, more than 500 vendors set up shop every Sunday morning to sell wares from around the world. There are so many sellers, in fact, their stalls crowd along 2½ miles of the embankment. At La Batte, your clients will find everything from antiques and secondhand books to fresh food, leather goods, exotic birds and the occasional farmyard animal. Little taverns tucked along the quay also make for great stops along the way.

Manneken Pis
It seems rather absurd but, believe it or not, the statue of a little boy urinating into a fountain on the corner of Rue de L’Etuve and Stroofstraat in Brussels has a lot of history. Since 1619, the statue has amused visitors and locals alike and, over time, it’s even become a tradition for visiting heads of state to donate a miniature version of their national costume to the nude figurine. The boy’s massive international wardrobe can be seen at the Brussels museum, and it contains more than 760 outfits, including an authentic Elvis jumpsuit. 

Namur Citadel
The capital of Wallonia is home to one of the most extensive fortified towns in all of Europe, once referred to as the "termite’s nest of Europe" by none other than Napoleon. The castle is easy to reach by tourist train or by foot and, once there, clients can explore one of the biggest underground networks of tunnels ever built. 

Hotel Packages

Hilton Brussels
Through the end of this year, the Hilton Brussels is offering a Bed & Breakfast package that allows clients to unwind for a long weekend in the city. To book this package, clients must reserve a Thursday-night stay. As part of the offer, guests will receive a personalized Hilton Breakfast for two all weekend long. 

Hotel Amigo, Brussels
The newly refurbished Hotel Amigo, Brussels, is centrally located near Grand Place and the heart of Brussels’ comic strip epicenter. With the hotel’s new Comic Strip Adventure Package, guests will enjoy a visit to the Belgian Centre for Comic Strip Art where they can follow a Comic Strip trail that involves 32 walls covered in larger-than-life comic strip characters. The package also includes one-night’s accommodations in a Classic room, a full buffet breakfast, a special collection Tintin chocolate box, fitness center access, a daily newspaper and a guidebook titled "La bande dessinee dans la ville," which literally translates to "comics in the city." Room rates start at approximately $385 per night, based on single or double occupancy. 

Thon Hotels, Brussels
Clients with families will appreciate Thon Hotels’ convenient family rooms that accommodate up to five people per room at three of its Brussels properties: Thon Hotels Brussels City Centre, Thon Hotels Brussels Airport and Hotel Bristol Stephanie.

Basic facilities include a complimentary baby cot for children up to 2 years old, a complimentary extra bed for children up to age 12, a free breakfast buffet for kids up to age 12, late check-out and parking discounts. The rooms and benefits vary at each hotel.

At the Thon Hotels Brussels City Centre, rates start at $190 per room, and breakfast is included for two adults and two children ages 12 and under. An in-room kitchenette is also available upon request.

At the Thon Hotel Brussels Airport, clients who book a family room can receive two rooms for the price of one. Rates start at $134 per night and breakfast for two children is included.

For $261 per room, per night, families can stay at the Hotel Bristol Stephanie, located on Avenue Louise, in the heart of Belgium’s fashion district (known as one of the most prestigious areas in Brussels). Also included in this package is an American buffet breakfast for parents and an extra gift for children, a welcome glass of champagne, an information kit, a one-day metro ticket for the family and free parking.

The package is valid every weekend of the year through 2008 and every day from Dec. 19 to Dec. 31. 

Destination Resources

Belgian Tourist Office 

Belvue Museum 

Conrad Brussels 

Horta Museum 


La Canne en Ville 

La Maison du Cygne 

La Truffe Noire 

Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium 


We were in a patisserie in Brussels, looking for a quiche for lunch, when my companion spotted one and said to the woman behind the counter, "Comment dites-on spinach?" The reply, with a smile, was "You can speak English here, no problem. But if you want to know, spinach is epinard."

"You know," my companion said as we left the shop, "that wouldn’t happen in Paris."

Royal Palace // (c) Visit Belgium
Royal Palace 

Some would say that Brussels is a smaller and easier place to visit than Paris. It doesn’t have an Eiffel Tower, but there are plenty of good, affordable restaurants — many that offer French cooking with a Belgian flair — 19th-century classical revival architecture typical of old Europe and easy accessibility. The city boasts a large airport with nonstop flights to and from North America as well as fast rail links to London and Paris. As someone who lives here, I’ve begun to appreciate just how much charm there is to be found in Brussels.

Part of that charm has much to do with the city’s quaint neighborhoods. The Place du Grand Sablon, an elegant quarter of small galleries, antique shops and restaurants wrapped around cobbled streets, is the best of old Europe — a place where lovers linger and tourists often sit outside with a steaming hot cup of coffee. Those with a taste for sweets will find themselves at the doorway of Wittamer, a famous confectioner known for its chocolate and fluffy meringues. Every weekend, a good antiques market is held here, too.

Quite close to the Sablon is the splendid Royal Palace, home to the king of the Belgians. While the royal family actually resides in the Palace of Laeken, King Albert II has his offices and hosts state receptions and court ceremonies here. The palace is only open during the summer, but when it is, it’s essential to visit the impressive throne room, a more than 150-foot-long room inlaid with an elaborate mosaic floor and lit up by 11 glittering chandeliers.

Nearby, visitors will also find several museums and major galleries — the Belvue Museum, Breugel House, the Musee d’Art Ancien and the Musee d’Art Moderne to name a few — with similarly handsome, classical exteriors and impressive treasures inside, such as works by Breugel, Magritte and more. Thanks to a special program this fall and winter, many will remain open in the evening. The Palais de Justice is suitably imposing, while the Place du Petit Sablon is a charming flower garden revived from an old horse market. It’s also worth taking a short taxi ride or getting off at the Metro to see the home of art-deco pioneer Victor Horta.

Aside from great artistic masterpieces, Belgium is also home to some dazzling modern architecture. Modern designs flourish around the buildings of the European Union (EU) headquarters, just one of the reasons why Brussels is such a cosmopolitan place.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the classic architecture that embodies the city center’s Grand Place. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, originally built in the 13th century as a merchants’ market, continues to wow visitors today. It is one of the most striking places in all of Europe, a medieval gem whose baroque guild houses drip with gilt. I always suggest that visiting friends pause at La Maison du Cygne, the former butchers’ guild house, now a restaurant, where under the sign of the swan, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels worked on The Communist Manifesto.

For locals, a typical day after work involves going to the city’s many cafes and bars and partaking in one of the county’s best-loved beverages — beer. It’s no wonder; there are more than 500 types of beer in Belgium. Offices near the EU headquarters often empty into Place du Luxembourg, especially to Fabian O’Farrell’s, an Irish pub where politicians and journalists joust to get a word in. A narrow street off the square is packed with restaurants where tourists can dine outside and feast on a Belgian specialty of moules frites (mussels and French fries).

Brussels is a foodie’s delight. Some special, upmarket options are La Truffe Noire in chic Uccle, where truffles make appearances in a variety of unusual dishes, or La Canne en Ville and the very traditional Brasserie Georges. One thing Brussels does better than Paris is serving authentic Asian food. The best concierges can direct your clients to Shamrock for Indian cuisine and Le Ileme Element for Thai delicacies. Seafood lovers should head for rows of restaurants at the Saint Catherine dockside area. On weekends here, there is a market where enthusiastic vendors hand out samples of cheese, cooked sausage, pasta and, sometimes, a shot of schnapps. Clients should also try to catch the Wednesday market at Place du Chatelain, where the finest food and vegetables make for a mouth-watering browse.

If your clients want to be in the middle of it all when it comes to their accommodations, two of the best hotels are the Hilton Brussels and the Conrad Brussels. The Hilton is right in the middle of Toison d’Or, where designer shops line the street and dogs are carried rather than walked. The Conrad anchors the chic end of Avenue Louise and, just a short stroll from both hotels, clients can hop on a tram to the Sablon.

As night falls, the action moves downtown to places like Le Cirio, a favorite of late Belgian crooner Jacques Brel, where the decor hasn’t changed much since it opened in the late 19th century. Tango is the tune at Mappa Mundo in the cool Saint Gery area, while Rue Bailli’s Roxi serves high-octane mojitos. L’Archiduc, back in Rue Antoine Dansaert, is a funky art-deco jazz bar that opened in 1937 and still retains an air of intrigue.

Finally, if a little exercise is called for, I’d suggest clients take a few swings at Brussels’ many nearby golf courses — the Royal Golf Club de Belgique, founded by King Leopold II in 1906; Royal Waterloo Golf Club; Chateau de la Tournette Golf Club; Golf Club d’Hulencourt; and Pierpoint Golf Club. Clients should bring handicap cards. I was amazed to find so much good golf around Brussels; it might just be one of the city’s many hidden gems.