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Comic-book quirks meet bureaucratic bastions

Belgium’s capital Brussels is a beguiling melange of beer, chocolates, surrealism and art nouveau splendour. The city is home to the European Parliament of course but it’s not all besuited bureaucrats in Magritte-like bowler hats. There’s a hip underbelly to the city bedecked with comic book murals and drag bars, plus a raft of museums and other cultural gems awaiting discovery.

Start at Grand-Place: the UNESCO-rated square is one of Europe’s grandest, lined with Baroque guild houses, a Gothic Town Hall and the neo-Gothic Maison du Roi, which houses the City Museum. Snap a selfie at the cheeky Manneken Pis statue and maybe check out some of his 1,000 outfits in the GardeRobe MannekenPis museum.

Savour a steaming bowl of moules frites washed down with a refreshing local lambic beer on a busy pavement terrace, or sip a gueuze in the atmospheric pub restaurant La Fleur en Papier Dore, where the likes of Rene Magritte and Jacques Brel once propped up the bar.

Follow the trail of Tintins, Smurfs and other Belgian comic heroes brought to life in some 60 murals dotted around the city and learn more about them in the Victor Horta-designed Comic Book Museum. Swing by the Musical Instruments Museum for a quirky journey into sound. The impressive art nouveau building it’s housed in is worth the trip alone and was once the Old England department store. Book your flights to Brussels today and start exploring.

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Make the most of your Brussels holiday

Stroll around the districts of Ixelles and Saint-Gilles to take in some of Brussels’ finest art deco and art nouveau architecture. Victor Horta’s Hotel Tassel, built in 1893, is considered the first art nouveau building in the world and his house, now the Horta Museum, is another splendid example of the style, all sensuous curves, stained glass, ironwork and mosaic.

What are the best things to do in Brussels?

  1. One of the true icons of Brussels, Atomium is a futuristic sculpture created by engineer Andre Waterkeyn for the 1958 World’s Fair. It represents an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times and consists of nine spheres connected by 20 tubes and three pillars. Five of these spheres are open to the public today. Some host exhibitions, while the highest one has a restaurant offering prime views over the city.
  2. At the foot of the Atomium you can discover one of the world’s biggest miniature attractions. Whip your way around the continent at Mini-Europe which faithfully reproduces around 80 European cities, 350 buildings and countless landmarks, including Big Ben, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela which took some 24,000 hours to build, the Leaning Tower of Pisa fashioned from marble and even an erupting Mount Vesuvius.
  3. Brussels is home to the largest transnational parliament in the world. The European Parliament building is a suitably impressive transparent structure designed by Architecture Studio. Visit the Hemicycle where MEPs debate and vote on the policies that shape the continent, watch a plenary session, learn more about the parliament’s workings in the Parlamentarium and see sections of the Berlin Wall.
  4. Brussels is a compact city that rewards exploration on foot and there are dozens of walking tours to choose from. Some of the best include a chocolate tour, a comic book tour, an art nouveau tour, the Mysteries and Legends Tour, a beer tasting experience, a jogging sightseeing tour and one where you pay what you feel it was worth.
  5. Brussels is especially magical at Christmas. There are scores of Christmas markets, the biggest and perhaps the best can be found in the city centre with some 240 wooden chalets weighed down with festive baubles and trinkets, while Brussels by Lights sees 160 shopping streets decked out with illuminations. Grand-Place is enlivened by a spectacular nightly sound and light show, there’s a Ferris wheel, several ice rinks, carousels and a winter festival for children, complete with bouncy castles, craft rooms, fairies and Christmas elves.
  6. For something a little different check out the Royal Theatre Toone. This puppet theatre was founded in 1830 and remains the only one of its kind in the city. Watch a charming puppet play delivered in the local dialect and in the spirit of zwanze, a type of sarcastic folklore humour that’s typically Brusselsian.

Where are the best places to visit in Brussels?

Brussels’ historic centre has all the medieval buildings, beer bars and pretty cobblestone lanes you might expect but there’s plenty more besides. Stroll along the Royal Saint Hubert gallery, one of Europe’s oldest covered shopping streets, and discover high-end chocolatiers, luxury shops and cafes. Visit the lively pedestrian zone of Boulevard Anspach, call in at the Brel Museum, take the kids for a sweet adventure at Choco-Story and be regaled by the city’s best drag acts at Chez Maman.

Heysel is the city’s green heart and a playground for all manner of cultural, sporting and other events year-round. You’ll find Mini-Europe and Atomium here of course, but there’s also the Design Museum, Osseghem Park, the Planetarium and the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken. Hire a bike and explore the Promenade Verte, a 63-km signposted circuit around the city.

Sablon is a fun, upmarket area filled with charming chocolate shops and art galleries, as well as a bunch of stylish bars and restaurants. Check out the Gothic Notre-Dame du Sablon Church and the nearby weekend antiques market on Place du Grand Sablon. Cultural attractions here include the Jewish Museum and the Magritte Museum. Dine at the elegant fish restaurant L’Ecailler du Palais Royal or the more informal and family-friendly Les Petits Oignons.

Avenue Louise is one of the more prestigious areas in Brussels, chock full of fancy restaurants, upscale shopping, embassies and handsome art nouveau buildings. On Avenue Louise and the nearby Toison d’Or you’ll find some of the most luxurious shopping in the city with designer brands such as Dior and Chanel. Choice landmarks include Louise Tower, one of the city’s tallest skyscrapers, and Le Phenix 44, a 16-ton bronze sculpture by Olivier Strebelle, honouring the anniversary of the liberation of Brussels.

Belgium is a compact country, so why not hire a car and extend your trip to take in some other, equally fine cities?

Bruges is often called the ‘Venice of the north’ because its network of pretty canals and a profusion of medieval and Rennaissance architecture make it an especially romantic place to visit. Lacework, alongside those other Belgian stalwarts beer and chocolate, have put this quaint little city on the map but its lively art scene is perhaps its biggest asset.

Antwerp is Belgium’s second biggest city and has plenty of history and attractions to recommend it. It’s globally renowned for its cutting-edge fashion scene and equally famous for its diamond industry, as the world’s premiere diamond marketplace sees around 70% of the planet’s gems being traded there. It’s also home to Europe’s second largest port.

Ghent, one of Belgium’s oldest cities, is teeming with beautiful medieval and classical architecture. It has a strong cultural offering with key attractions including the Ghent Design Museum and the 12th Century Gravensteen Castle. Check out the Patershol neighbourhood, whose ancient alleyways are packed with enticing eateries serving everything from traditional Flemish cuisine to Thai flavours.

Which holiday type in Brussels is right for me?

Visiting Brussels on a budget? This city of diplomats maxing out their expense accounts is not known for its money saving credentials but there are still plenty of free attractions.

Grand-Place, one of Europe’s most beautiful squares, now hosts a daily market, concerts and special events such as the Flower Carpet. Nearby is the iconic fountain statue Manneken Pis and his equally irreverent counterparts Jeanneke Pis, which depicts a urinating girl, and peeing dog Het Zinneke.

Many of Brussels’ best museums are also free. The House of European History tells the story of a fast-evolving continent from 1789 to 1914 in each of the European Union’s 24 languages. Visit the Parlamentarium for an interactive immersion into how European democracy works. The European Parliament’s visitor centre includes a 360-degree digital film, an interactive floor map and the chance to ‘meet’ its 705 MEPs. Additionally, many museums offer free entry on the first Sunday of the month.

Also free is a stroll around the 300-acre park Bois de la Cambre. The park offers plenty of diversions, including horse stables, a roller-skating rink, an English lawn, playgrounds, a theatre and rowing boats. Another free attraction is the St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral. This 11th Century Romanesque cathedral has splendid stained-glass windows dating from the 16th Century and a vast organ with 4,300 pipes.

Fancy taking in some free art? Follow the trail of 14 murals dotted around the city celebrating the work of Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

For a cheap stay in Brussels check out the Ibis Styles Brussels Stephanie, within walking distance of the Horta Museum, the Museum of Fantastic Arts and several parks. Amenities include a gym, business services and a 24-hour reception.

Another affordable hotel is the Moxy Brussels City Center. Bright and contemporary, it has a lively lobby complete with a state-of-the-art video wall and food and drink available 24 hours a day.

A further budget option is the NH Brussels Stephanie, a hotel set on a peaceful side street in the heart of the Avenue Louise shopping area. Unwind with a Belgian beer in the comfy lobby bar and enjoy the 24/7 self-service Open Bar serving snacks, sandwiches and drinks.

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