Brussels tends to be synonymous with bureaucracy and shop talk. But unless you feel the perverse need to march around the monolithic buildings and career politicians of the EU Quarter, that’s unlikely to be the Brussels that you encounter. There are obvious attempts to impress – notably the cluster of palaces and museums at the top of the Mont Des Arts – but elsewhere there’s a genial cosiness.
There are attractions aplenty, yet the real joy comes from strolling around fairly aimlessly, flitting between chatty cafes and high-end chocolate shops, throwing any diet plans out of the window. This is a truly marvellous city in which to get fat.
Brussels feels like a less-hyped Paris – a place of happy marriage rather than whirlwind romance. You don’t come to be swept off your feet; you come for a warm, contented cuddle.
A comfortable bed
For location, it's difficult to top the handsome, redbrick Hotel Amigo (www.hotelamigo.com, 0032 2 547 4747). Just off the Grand Place, it opts for simple sophistication inside, with little touches such as prints of work by the Belgian surrealist René Magritte on the walls and bookshelves bearing Plato and Camus adding light brushes of personality. Doubles cost from €207 (Dh999).
Pillows (www.sandton.eu/en/pillowsbrusselspillows, 0032 2 204 0040) has a lively setting on Place Rouppe and a sense of fun about it. The lobby has free sweeties in jars and the bedrooms are on a mission to make bold floral prints cool again. Doubles start at €103 (Dh497).
It's worth bearing in mind that hotels in Brussels are usually substantially cheaper at weekends – which leads to bargains at the likes of the garden-themed Hotel Bloom! (www.hotelbloom.com, 0032 2 220 6611). Rates start at €64 (Dh309) per night.
Find your feet
Grand Place is a strong shout for being the most magnificent city square in Europe. The 15th-century City Hall, with its 96-metre tower and overdose of gothic gargoyles, is the star, but the beautifully preserved guildhalls around it make the whole even greater than the sum of its parts. From there, head up the grandiose Mont Des Arts to the Magritte Museum (www.musee-magritte-museum.be, 0032 2 508 3211), which takes a reverent approach to the artist. Works are displayed in chronological order, allowing you to understand his different phases and how familiar motifs such as bowler hats and bird heads kept returning over time. The tourist information office is opposite – nip in there to pick up the tiny fold-out guides to the city's art nouveau and art deco architecture. They map the most gorgeous architectural gems, such as the Belgian Comic Strip Center (www.comicscenter.net, 0032 2 219 1980).
Meet the locals
There's a lot of rubbish for sale at the daily flea market (www.marcheauxpuces.be) in Place du Jeu de Balle, but that's partly what makes it so enjoyable. Crowds gather hoping to find something a little bit special, but the market's function is as much social as sales.
Book a table
Alexandre (www.restaurant-alexandre.be, 0032 2 502 4055) combines Michelin-star quality with TV-chef buzz. It feels young and lively in a city that has a little bit too much stiff-collared-suit dining at the higher end. Rich dishes along the lines of Wagyu beef, spinach, creamed egg yolk and truffle (€48 [Dh232]) help to ensure that advance bookings are needed.
The restaurant-packed Rue de Bouchers is tremendously atmospheric, but standards can be iffy. Aux Arms de Bruxelles (www.auxarmesdebruxelles.com,0032 2 511 5598) is a classy exception that offers up beef carbonnades – a marvellously tasty Flemish beef stew – for €20 (Dh97).
Les Galeries Royales St Hubert (www.galeries-saint-hubert.com) is a 19th-century arcade that has been kitted out in enough marble to make it look like a Renaissance palace. For luxury chocolatiers, this is pretty much as good as it gets. There are also plenty of high-quality specialist shops. Ganterie Italienne has been selling gloves since 1890, Manufacture Belge de Dentelle is all about lace, while J Forrest has fabulous boys' toys such as globes, telescopes and antique-style compasses.
For fashion and homewares, the triangle formed by Rue des Chartreux, Rue Saint-Christophe and Rue Antoine Dansaert offers rich pickings.
What to avoid
Anyone who has seen the Manneken Pis and doesn’t have it at the top of their list of the world’s worst tourist attractions is a pathological liar. Yet still hordes flock to this tiny statue of a boy relieving himself into a fountain, then spend money in the wall-to-wall tat shops in the surrounding block.
It requires a short detour by train, but the Musée Hergé (www.museeherge.com, 0032 1 048 8421) in the satellite town Louvain-la-Neuve is unquestionably worth it. Playfully designed, it tells the story of the cartoonish Hergé and his globally famous creation, Tintin. You get a strong idea of how seriously comic books are taken as an art form in Belgium and learn how meeting a Chinese student made Hergé change from lazy racist stereotypes to rigorous research about the countries that Tintin was visiting. It's full of fascinating revelations throughout – not least that Hergé's simple drawing style was largely determined by the limitations of the printing presses.
Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies direct from Dubai to Brussels from Dh3,515 return; Etihad (www.etihad.com; 02 599 0000) flies direct to Brussels from Abu Dhabi from Dh3,465 return, both including taxes. The flight takes six and a half hours.
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