For a place that styles itself as the Capital of Europe, Brussels can be surprisingly low key and cosy. It may be home to the European Parliament, European Commission and several international agencies, but Brussels gives off a vibe of being thoroughly unimpressed by showy strutting.
At heart, it just wants to sit in a warm corner, and eat a hearty stew. But it also has a quiet enthusiasm for several niches – comic books, surrealist art, art nouveau architecture and top quality chocolates – that make it wonderfully rewarding to hang out in. Next week, its annual “Winter Wonders” festival starts, with sound and light shows, skating rinks and Christmas markets. It runs until January 6 (brussels.be/winter-wonders).
07.30: Bargain hunting
The Place du Jeu de Balle in the feisty, working class but up-and-coming Marolles district is home to a daily flea market. There are typically hundreds of stalls all over the square, selling shabby clothes or old household trinkets.
It's difficult to conceive of anyone wanting to buy 90 per cent of what's for sale, but among the items are some paintings, pieces of glassware and carved wooden African masks that might just be worth something. The joy comes in spotting the treasure in the trash.
08.30: Comic relief
On the way to the Place du Jeu de Balle, there’s a strong chance that you may have spotted some comic strip-esque murals. There are dozens of these around the city, hinting at Belgium’s unusually strong love for the comic book. The tourist information office has pocket-sized maps and guides to the murals that are perfect for a self-guided walking tour. They’ve also been uploaded to the Tales and Tours app, should you prefer to use phone rather than paper.
10.00: The worthy bit
The newly opened House of European History (historia-europa.ep.eu) is ostensibly a multi-level walk through Europe's past. Although it seems to think that anything before 1789 doesn't count, and it only really switches from frustratingly broad sweeps into interesting detail after the Second World War. This shouldn't come as too much of a surprise – it's a European Union project. The sections on efforts to bind Europe together and the sweeping changes in living standards are genuine food for thought. Praise is due, too, to the innovative tablet system – every item on display has been mapped to clickable, personal, multi-language screens with explanations.
12.30: Laid-back lunch
After the dense fact barrage, something a little more chilled out is required for lunch. Hop on the Metro to St Catherine, and amble over to Fin De Siecle (Rue des Chartreux 9). It has the feel of an old mansion taken over by hippies, with big high ceilings but rough, unpapered walls.
The menu is on a blackboard, with a mix of hearty Belgian standards and more exotic options like tandoori chicken and lamb. Mains cost around €16 (Dh70).
13.30: Cocoa craze
To come to Belgium without gorging on chocolate would be a near criminal offence and, at Choco Story (choco-story-brussels.be), at least you can claim the sampling is educational. This small museum covers the history of chocolate, from Mesoamerican sacred drink to modern day treat. The process from cocoa bean to bar is explained, with a strong emphasis on countries such as Cote D'Ivoire and Ghana where the cocoa is grown.
There’s also an in-house chocolate-making demonstration, and plenty of opportunities to snaffle handfuls of samples on the way round.
15.00: Photo stops and souvenir shops
Just round the corner is Belgium’s crown jewel centrepiece, Grand Place. The huge square is lined with imposing, gold-speckled buildings that once belonged to Brussels’ guilds. It’s a highly photogenic spectacle, and a strong contender for the title of Europe’s Greatest Square.
Also gorgeous, in a marginally less showy way, are the Galeries Royal St Hubert (grsh.be). These adjoined glass-roofed arcades, lined with decorative marble pillars and arches, are the most evocative places in the city to shop. It’s all specialists too – Ganterie Italienne does colourful leather gloves, Monsel is hats-only and Belge de Dentelles concentrates on lace.
But the Galeries are mainly about the chocolate makers, several of which line up to fight for custom, selling individual truffles and oh-so-beautifully-wrapped selection boxes. Try Corné Port-Royal, Mary or praline specialist Neuhaus for the really good stuff.
16.00: One more museum
Several of Brussels’s best museums congregate around Place Royale. The Musee Belvue (belvue.be) is inside a handsome old palace, and does a good job of making Belgium’s history sound surprisingly interesting. It also dips into how this frankly absurd composite country has been welded together.
Opposite, the Magritte Museum (musee-magritte-museum.be) pays reverent homage to Belgium's most famous artist, but does so with a chronological approach. This means it becomes more biographical, and makes the great surrealist's changes in style over time more apparent.
18.00: Nouveau riches
Another of the self-guided walking maps concentrates on architecture. The art nouveau efforts are more impressive and unusual, so focus on them. Stars include the façade of the Musical Instruments Museum and the jauntily colourful Ancien Palais du Vin.
20.30: Dazzling dining
A former bank, Belga Queen (belgaqueen.be) is a show-stopper with a stained-glass, barrel-arched roof with an inexplicable statue of a horse in the middle and soaring pillars. Mains cost about €30 (Dh131) and lean towards taste rather than waistline-watching. Excellent options include the duck breast in honey and lime jus, and the rack of lamb with mustard crust.
Rest your head
It's hard to top the Hotel Amigo (hotelamigo.com), a gorgeous redbrick joint a few steps from Grand Place. The vibe is understated luxury, with Magritte prints on the walls and bookshelves filled with the works of great philosophers. Expect to pay from €200 (Dh870).
For more information, go to visit.brussels/en