By Andrew Collins
Out of Town
As the headquarters of NATO and the European Union, Brussels ranks among the most international and sophisticated cities in the world. Though founded in the seventh century, Brussels is a remarkably modern metropolis, the capital of a progressive, relatively young country (Belgium celebrates its 180th birthday in 2010) that passed gay-marriage legislation in 2003. It’s also a dynamic hub of modern architecture, cutting-edge fashion and fine shopping, and it has a sterling reputation among foodies.
Brussels hosts a well-attended Lesbian and Gay Pride celebration each May as well as a first-rate gay and lesbian film festival each January. The city is also home to the International Lesbian and Gay Association. In addition to Flemish and French, English is widely spoken and understood here. And although the euro is currently faring poorly against the U.S. dollar (as of late fall 2009, 1 euro traded at about US$1.50), Brussels is less expensive than many major European capitals.
The city is divided into two, Upper Town and Lower Town. The latter begins just east of rue Royale, where a fairly steep slope rises just beyond the city’s 1,000-year-old historic core. Most of the wealthy neighborhoods, fancy shopping and grand hotels are in Upper Town, as are several museums. The neighborhood also has stunning art nouveau architecture – the work of Victor Horta (1861-1947) and his pupils, who designed hundreds of townhouses whose sensuous facades are decorated with the style’s characteristic sinewy ironwork. You can learn more about Horta and the city’s art nouveau legacy by visiting the Horta Museum (set inside his former home) or by logging on to http://www.brussels-art-nouveau.be.
Lower Town is characterized in part by working-class neighborhoods, some of which have undergone major revitalizations in recent years, and in part by one of the best-preserved medieval quarters of any major city in Europe. The main plaza, Grand Place, contains dozens of ancient buildings and narrow lanes, and it buzzes with energy. It’s also near Brussels’ small but vibrant gay district, centered around rue du Marche au Charbon and rue des Pierres, near the Bourse.
Facing Grand Place you’ll find see the magnificent Hotel de Ville (City Hall) and many ornate guild halls, all built in the elaborate baroque style of the late 1600s. Also nearby the Museum of Costume and Lace contains a fine collection of beautifully crafted lace, a product for which Belgium is justly celebrated. Just off the square, rue Charles Buls leads to rue des Brasseurs, where poet Paul Verlaine shot and wounded his lover, fellow poet Arthur Rimbaud, in 1873. Walk along rue de l’Etuve to the corner of rue du Chene to see Manneken Pis, a statue of a pudgy little boy peeing into a fountain – this beloved tourist attraction and photo op has been a source of curiosity for centuries.
Here it’s a short stroll southeast to the lower slopes of Upper Town to reach the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, which combines two museums – one dedicated to Flemish-Dutch painting traditions, dating from the 15th to 19th centuries, and the other to more modern works, such as paintings by Belgian surrealists James Ensor and Rene Magritte. The museums overlook the supremely elegant Place Royale, a fittingly lavish 18th-century square that acts as gateway to Upper Town’s posh residential and shopping districts.
For the best antiquing and cafe-hopping, wander around the streets emanating from the Grand Sablon, another ritzy square. Continue toward the monolithic Palais de Justice, and turn left to reach avenue Louise, where you’ll discover yet more high-end shopping.
Brussels is very much a city of gardens and parks, and many neighborhoods are also punctuated by verdant squares abloom with flowers. Favorite places to stroll, jog, or simply relax on a bench to soak up the sunshine include Brussels Park, near the Royal Palace, and the sprawling Parc du Cinquantenaire, which is home to some prominent museums.
You can maximize your sightseeing value by purchasing a Brussels Card, which costs 19 euros for one day (32 euros for three) and entitles the bearer to free use of public transportation and admission to some 30 museums, plus discounts to numerous attractions and shops. You can purchase this online at www.brusselscard.be.
Whatever you’ve heard about fine chocolates in Switzerland and Germany, Belgium arguably produces the most sublime chocolates in the world. Brussels in particular is teeming with purveyors of this addictive treat. Two shops worth checking out are Wittamer and Pierre Marcolini, both of which produce high-end, artful truffles and have tony shops along Upper Town’s Grand Sablon. But the relatively less expensive and ubiquitous Belgian chain, Leonidas, is excellent, too. You should also consider a visit to Planete Chocolate, which is steps from the gay district and produces delicious artisanal chocolates.
Brussels not only excels in fine French fare but also in regional Flemish fare. Classic dishes found at many local eateries include waterzooi (a rich chicken stew), rabbit with beer and prunes, and mussels with frites (French fries). Festive and friendly Au Stekerlaplatte restaurant turns out astoundingly delicious and authentic Belgian food. It’s just up a narrow lane in quasi-gentrified Marolles District from rue Haute, which has a handful of worthy antiques shops and home-furnishings stores.
Another great purveyor of traditional Belgian fare, Le Pre Sale serves up superb traditional Belgian seafood in the St. Catherine area. If it’s truly a special occasion, book a table at the acclaimed Comme chez Soi, a temple of haute cuisine that’s garnered three stars from Michelin and serves truly inspired food. Among hip Upper Town haunts, Lola serves pretty, modern food to pretty, modern people – it’s popular with the see-and-be-seen crowd.
Brussels is where the fast-growing gourmet coffeehouse and cafe Le Pain Quotidien began, and there are outposts of this inviting spot set throughout the city. You’ll find particularly appealing the branches along avenue Louise, close to high-end shopping and along funky rue Antoine Dansaert.
Bar-going in Brussels tends to be sedate, but there’s no shortage of inviting and cozy options. The city’s more up-and-coming nightlife areas, the St. Catherine and St. Gery districts, have dozens of cool, artsy, intellectual bars that pull in a mostly straight crowd, but also plenty of gays and lesbians, too. Some worth poking your head inside include Monk and de Walvis.
In Upper Town, beer lovers should check out Le Bier Circus, which carries a huge selection of this beverage for which the country is known – in fact, Belgium produces some 400 beers. For more on this national preoccupation, visit www.beer2005.be.
Only a few blocks from St. Catherine and St. Gery, you will find the city’s mini gay hub. Good bets include Le Belgica, a cozy tavern that draws a mix of women and men, and TelsQuels Cafe, which functions both as a bar and the city’s gay and lesbian community center. Fans of drag shows shouldn’t miss the campy fun at Chez Maman. Le Boys Boudoir is a fun little piano cabaret and restaurant that appeals to guys of all ages, and Le Duquesnoy caters to a rugged leather-and-Levi’s bunch. Laid-back L’Homo Erectus packs them in each night with funky music and a friendly staff.
There’s also a very popular gay bathhouse in this area, Macho Sauna, and another with a considerable following not far away called Sauna Spades 4. Brussels may seem more conservative, at least in style, than London or Berlin, but saunas are quite well-attended in this city, and very welcoming toward visitors.
There aren’t many full-time gay discos in town, but Box nightclub is always a good bet for dancing into the wee hours. Also, you can count on a few monthly shindigs such as the famed La Demence, held on certain Fridays throughout the year and drawing partiers from all over the region.
Several intriguing, hip hotels have opened in Brussels in recent years. Be Manos, just a 15-minute walk south of Grand Place, is very close to Gare du Midi/Brussel-Zuid train station. Stylish, sleek rooms on this gay-friendly property are decorated with framed black-and-white photos, and bathrooms have high-end fixtures and products. The on-site restaurants, Be Lella and Kolya, serve very good food to a trendy crowd. The affordable Hotel Bloom is another favorite of artsy types, students and others with a yen for intriguing design. Private parking, proximity to the metro and Gare du Nord and a friendly, helpful staff are additional assets.
Across from the St. Catherine metro stop, the aptly named Hotel Welcome ranks among the loveliest small hotels in Brussels. Each of its 15 rooms is themed after a different nation, from the Congo to Morocco to Vietnam. Rooms contain beautiful artwork and decorations, and congenial hosts Michel, Sophie, and staff could not be friendlier and more helpful. A bountiful breakfast is included, and rates are highly reasonable.
Among larger international hotels, you can’t go wrong with the Brussels Marriott, which opened in 2002 and has an enviable location near the funky Saint Catherine and Saint Gery neighborhoods. Of high-end hotels, Metropole is a restored belle epoque beauty that dates to 1895 and is filled with ornate furnishings. It’s also home to a chic, gay-popular cafe of the same name.
Spend a little time in Brussels, and you may soon realize that it’s not just a convenient pass-through city on your way to Europe’s gay meccas. Whether to shop, dine, museum-hop or even hobnob in convivial bars, this clean, friendly and reasonably priced city has much to offer.
The Little Black Book (Belgium’s country code is 32)
Au Stekerlaplatte http://www.stekerlapatte.be.
Be Manos http://www.bemanos.be.
Brussels Marriott http://www.marriott.com/brudt.
Le Belgica http://www.lebelgica.be.
Le Bier Circus http://www.bier-circus.be.
Chez Maman http://www.chezmaman.be.
Comme chez Soihttp://www.commechezsoi.be.
Le Boys Boudoir http://www.leboysboudoir.be.
La Demence http://www.lademence.com.
Le Duquesnoy http://www.duquesnoy.com.
L’Homo Erectus http://www.lhomoerectus.com.
Hotel Bloom http://www.hotelbloom.com.
Hotel Welcome http://www.brusselshotel.travel.
Macho Sauna http://www.saunamacho.com.
Le Pain Quotidien http://www.lepainquotidien.co.
Planete Chocolate http://www.planetechocolat.be.
Sauna Spades 4 http://www.saunaspades4.be.
TelsQuels Cafe http://www.telsquels.be.
Tourism Flanders http://www.visitflanders.com.
Tourism Belgium http://www.visitbelgium.com.