Brussels’ Bounty

A flea market is held Saturday mornings on the Place du Jeu de Balle in Brussels’ Marolles neighborhood.

A flea market is held Saturday mornings on the Place du Jeu de Balle in Brussels’ Marolles neighborhood.

One of the beauties of visiting Belgium is the ability to see much of this compact country, comparable in size to Connecticut, in short travel segments of one hour or less from one city center to the next. Making Belgium the focus of a trip, rather than a side stop on a wider itinerary, also allows more eating time for the country’s deservedly vaunted mussels, French fries, chocolates, waffles and champagne-style beers in all their dizzying varieties.

At the time of our autumn visit, the tourist crowds in Brussels’ Grand Place, one of Europe’s most beautiful city squares, were tremendous because the capital was hosting a cultural festival. A solution was to find a hotel away from the center and enjoy smaller, lesser-known museums that offer no less an enjoyable impression of Brussels than the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, the Town Hall, or the Museum of Brussels City in the Grand Place. It is worth noting that sidewalk waffles, beers, chocolates and mussels are also less expensive, more authentically created, and enjoyed in more relaxing surroundings at neighborhood cafes removed from the hustle of the Grand Place.

We chose a comfortable studio with a small galley kitchen at Hotel Citadines Toison d’Or, an apartment hotel southwest of the city center and steps away from the Place Louise metro station on the fashionable Avenue Louise, known for its rows of designer boutiques. Close to the Royal Palace and the Court of Justice, the neighborhood has many friendly sidewalk cafes populated with shoppers, local residents and after-work office colleagues.


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Markets and Museums

Two early-morning weekend outdoor markets are worth considering in Brussels. The first is the massive flea market on Saturday mornings in the Marolles neighborhood on the square known as the Place du Jeu de Balle. If your taste is for European antiques and artifacts at affordable prices, this is the place to be in Brussels on early Saturdays. Be sure to enjoy a Belgian beer at one of the outdoor tables with the locals and visitors enjoying a jazz band jam session during market hours from about 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Reach the market by taking one of several subway lines to the Porte de Hal metro stop and walking three blocks north on the Blaesstraat.

Inside the Art Nouveau-style Horta Museum.
Inside the Art Nouveau-style Horta Museum

The other market of note is largely devoted to fresh meats, breads, fish, cheeses, desserts, and produce. It occupies several squares surrounding the Gare du Midi train station on Sunday mornings. Take one of several subways to Gare du Midi and bring a large appetite with a bag for carrying local Belgian delicacies—many prepared and ready to eat—back to your hotel.

Two lesser-know Brussels museums located in former private residential estates give enlightening views of the city’s early 20th-century Art Deco style and social atmosphere. One is the David and Alice van Buuren House & Gardens Museum at 41 Leo Errera Ave., just down the street from the Avenue Churchill stop on the Number 3 subway and tram line. The house was built by Dutch banker and amateur artist David van Buuren (1886-1955) and his wife in the 1930s. Decorated with Dutch paintings from the 15th through 19th centuries, the house exhibits Art Deco furnishings in exotic woods and ivory.

The gardens are a highlight, as they contain many sections of sculptured ornamental plantings, including a rose garden, a hedge maze where getting lost is very possible, a Japanese rock and flower garden, floral hearts planted by Alice in 1969 as a tribute to her late husband, a vine-laden trellis extending more than 50 yards, a rolling green lawn with relaxing tables under shade trees, and temporary exhibitions by contemporary botanical artists.

Another former estate, the Horta Museum on the Rue Americaine in the Brussels neighborhood of St.-Gilles, was built in 1898 as the self-designed home of Belgian Art Nouveau architect Victor, Baron Horta (1861-1947). It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000 and contains opulent Art Nouveau décor including mosaic tiles and stained glass windows and lighting fixtures. The Baron also designed the Brussels Palace of Fine Arts and Brussels Central Station, among many other city buildings. During our Sunday visit, the Horta was rather crowded, so plan to arrive at the 2 p.m. opening time for the best viewing.

Relaxation Breaks

An oasis within the bustle of Brussels city life is the Parc d’Egmont, a short walk from the Place Louise metro station. Set alongside a former palace of the same name and the 15th-century Gothic Church of Notre-Dame au Sablon, the park has sculptured gardens and fountains, abundant shade trees and the glass-walled Orangerie Café with an expansive terrace for breakfast, lunch and afternoon refreshments.

Another nice late afternoon stop is the Winery in the Place Brugmann behind the Church of Notre Dame de l’Annonciation in the same square. This is the St.-Gilles neighborhood, a short walk from the Horta Museum and about a 20-minute walk from the Place Louise metro.

The Winery has an excellent choice of French, Italian and other wines by the glass or bottle at reasonable prices, along with plates of cheeses, sausages, hams, soups or desserts. The food and drink here are of better quality and value than we found at many neighborhood eateries in Brussels. Best of all, the hosts and patrons of the Winery create a friendly atmosphere for conversations about wine plus local suggestions for Brussels sightseeing.

Arriving in Brussels

Brussels Airport makes the Belgian capital city the popular first or last stop on a visit to the country. Brussels Airlines, the national airline of Belgium and a partner with United and Lufthansa in Star Alliance, offers daily nonstop service from New York/JFK, and makes several flights weekly from Chicago and Washington D.C. Delta Air Lines also offers a daily non-stop to Brussels from JFK and seasonally from Atlanta’s Hartsfield International.

City walking and transit maps are available from the Brussels tourism information desk in the arrivals terminal. A metro station below the terminal offers frequent subway connections to Brussels’ Central Station (Gare Central) in 20 minutes, where further connections are available by subway, bus or taxi to anywhere in the city.