Brussels Town Hall view from a Grand Place cafe
One of the beauties of visiting Belgium is the ability to see much of this compact country, comparable approximately to Connecticut in size, in short travel segments of one hour or less from one city center to the next. The time reward in Dutch-speaking Flanders, the northern tier of Belgium, is more enjoyment of the region’s stunning historical landmarks, monastic hideaways, bicycle, tram and pedestrian transit lifestyles, and friendly sidewalk and canal-side café culture. 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.
The Van Buuren Museum Gardens in Brussels
Crowds in Brussels
During an early fall weekend in Brussels the tourist crowds in the Grand Place, considered one Europe’s most beautiful city squares, were tremendous. We learned that many visitors were domestic Belgian guests from the French-speaking Wallonia region visiting the capital for 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, Brussels’ royal version of Times Square.
Our choice was the Hotel Citadines Toison d’Or, an apartment hotel southwest of the city center steps away from the Place Louise metro station on the fashionable Avenue Louise, known for its rows of designer boutique shops. 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. The Citadines hotels (www.citadines.com), a chain of European properties, are consistently clean, quiet and popular with business travelers. Our comfortable studio with a small galley kitchen was 88 Euros (US$ 120) per night, with an optional full breakfast available for 14 Euros (US$ 19) per person.
Brussels' Saturday morning flea market
Weekend Morning Markets
Two early morning weekend outdoor markets are worth considering in Brussels. The first is the intriguing, massive flea market on Saturday mornings in the Marolles neighborhood on the square known as the “Place de Jeu de Balle.” If your taste is for European antiques and artifacts at affordable prices – similar to the Notting Hill street market in London – this is the place to be in Brussels on early Saturdays. Be sure to enjoy a Belgian beer at one of the outdoor tables on the corner of the square 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 to the market square.
The second and largest market in Brussels, largely devoted to fresh meats, breads, fish, cheeses, desserts, and produce of all varieties, is in the several squares surrounding the Gare du Midi train station on Sunday mornings. Take one of several subways to the Gare du Midi metro stop, one of the city hubs, and bring a large appetite with a bag for carrying local Belgian delicacies – many prepared and ready to eat – back to your hotel.
Van Buuren and Horta Museums
Two unfamiliar Brussels museums located in former private residential estates give enlightening views of the city’s early 20th-century Art Deco style and social atmosphere. The first, not to be missed, is the David and Alice van Buuren House & Gardens Museum ( www.museumvanbuuren.be ), found at 41 Leo Eccara Ave., just down the street from 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 starting in the 1930s after the couple had first begun planting the property’s extensive formal gardens. The gardens, which re-opened this past June after a major renovation, are a highlight of a visit, as they contain many sections of sculptured ornamental plantings, including a rose garden, a green hedge maze where getting lost is very possible, a Japanese rock and flower garden, a garden of floral hearts planted by Alice van Buuren 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.
The van Buuren home, decorated with Dutch paintings from the 15th through 19th centuries, exhibits art deco furnishings, including several of Asian design, in exotic woods and ivory for which no expense was spared. One could easily spend half a day exploring this fascinating home which became a city museum after the death of Alice van Buuren in 1973. One further curiosity is that the van Buren Museum made European headlines last summer as the target of professional art thieves who broke in during the night and stole paintings valued at more than US $1.3 million, an event that triggered a security upgrade but, thus far, no arrests.
The second former estate transformed into a Brussels attraction is the Horta Museum ( www.hortamuseum.be ) built in 1898 as the self-designed home of famed Belgian Art Nouveau architect Victor Baron Horta (1861-1947). Located on the Rue Americain in the Brussels neighborhood of St.-Gilies, the museum was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000. It contains opulent Art Nouveau décor including mosaic tiles and stained glass windows and lighting fixtures considered a prelude to the Art Deco period that followed Horta’s primary work as the master of turn-of-the-century European Art Nouveau.
Horta, a revered architectural figure in Belgium, designed the Brussels Palace of Fine Arts and Brussels Central Station, among many other city buildings and was a Director of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. During World War I he lectured at several U.S. Ivy League colleges and was briefly an architectural professor at George Washington University. During our Sunday visit to the Horta, the popular architect’s home was crowded with visitors so it is recommended to arrive at the 2 p.m. opening time for the best viewing.
Notre Dame au Sablon Church seen from Parc D'Egmont
Brussels Relaxation Breaks
An oasis of green within the bustle of Brussels city life is the Parc d’Egmont located a short walk from the Place Louise metro station. Situated 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, best of all, the glass-walled Orangerie Café with an expansive terrace for breakfast, lunch and afternoon refreshments. After a day of sightseeing and museum viewing, this park is worth seeking out as the perfect rest stop before returning to the hotel, or making a dinner or evening entertainment plan.
Another great late afternoon stop is the Winery (www.winery.be), the best wine shop and bar we found in Brussels. It is located in the Place Brugmann, just behind the Church of Notre Dame d’Annonciation in the same square. This is the St. Gilies 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 international wines by the glass or bottle at reasonable prices, along with tasty appetizer 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 are the hosts and patrons of the Winery who create a friendly atmosphere for casual conversations about fine wine with local suggestions for Brussels sightseeing.
When late Sunday afternoon arrived in Brussels we had a final experience that punctuated our enjoyment of the Belgian capital before heading north by rail the following morning. Returning on a local’s suggestion to the Grand Place as sunset approached we found most of the Wallonia region’s French Belgians leaving their city festival weekend to return to the countryside. We picked one of the available café tables adjoining the square and snapped pictures over Leffe and Trappist beers as sunlight faded and the floodlights went up on Brussels’ spectacular 15th-century Town Hall and the adjoining guild halls encircling the magnificent square. Despite the touristic atmosphere of the square, easily Belgium’s most popular visitor attraction, the impression of viewing the splendor of the Grand Place from within will never be forgotten by any traveler.
Inside the Horta Museum, Brussels
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 the Star Alliance, has since mid-2012 provided daily nonstop service from New York’s JFK international Airport, as well as several flights weekly from Chicago and Washington D.C. Delta Air Lines also offers a convenient daily non-stop to Brussels from New York’s 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 Brussels Airport terminal provides passengers with 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.