Is Belgium really surreal? It can be. In my 12 years living in Brussels, I’ve encountered all manner of weirdness: a marching band composed entirely of geese, papier-mâché giants escorting a tree through the city centre, a giant blue brain floating above the city and the city’s emblem, the Manneken Pis statue, peeing beer.
My adoptive home doesn’t take itself too seriously. This is the home of painter René Magritte, Belgium’s best-known messer-up of ordinary life, as well as writer Marcel Lecomte and poets Paul Nougé and Marcel Mariën – all part of Belgium’s surrealist movement in the early 20th century.
Last year, one of Brussels’ loveliest municipal museums, a neo-gothic beauty on the Grand Place, put on a funny, thoughtful exhibition devoted to all the insults the poet Baudelaire threw at the country during his unhappy stay here in the 1860s. Posters filled the city with his choicest cruelties: ‘All Belgians without exception have empty heads’ or ‘The Belgian is monkey, but also mollusc.’ It takes a certain kind of subversive spirit to do that, but it also takes confidence; and Belgium has plenty of reasons to be confident.
It’s a place of exuberant creativity for a start, punching above its weight on the world stage. The Antwerp Six made fashion history in the 1980s; since then the likes of Raf Simons and Olivier Theyskens have kept the Belgian flag flying ultra-stylishly high. The Brussels art scene is as buoyant now as it has been since the 15th century Flemish Primitives, with a wealth of independent galleries and ambitious museums.
There’s wonderful food, too: even Baudelaire had a soft spot for gingerbread from historic Brussels biscuit shop Dandoy. During the day, the city smells of warm dough, vanilla and caramel from street corner waffle vans; at night, it’s the irresistible bouquet of piping hot frites twice-cooked in beef dripping. There are handmade pralines, elegant as jewellery; perfect brasseries for a blowout Belgian meal; and beers brewed with love.
Credit: Christophe Vander Eecken
Above all, Belgium is surprising. Still, after all these years, it finds ways to confound and delight me: an art nouveau fresco of birds above an office building, a secret garden, the bizarre music they play in the Metro (the cancan) or a stuffed giraffe peering out of a junk shop window. Why not let it surprise you, too?
Eat and drink
A classic brasserie dinner needn’t mean succumbing to the frenetic mussel peddlers of the tourist trap Rue des Bouchers. Instead, duck into L’Ogenblik, a loved-by-locals bistro with sand scattered on the parquet floor – a relic of the age of chewing (and spitting) tobacco. There’s seasonal game on the menu, perfect steaks and a seductive atmosphere.
For a snack on the run that isn’t frites, brave the crush at fast and furious Noordzee for plates of braised razor clams or prawn croquettes. Order, grab a perch on the atmospheric Sainte Catherine Square and wait until one of the chaps behind the counter bellows an approximation of your name.
Brussels does cool as well as classic. Located in indie record label PIAS’ headquarters and manned by Noma alumnus Yannick Van Aeken, Humphrey has impeccable rock’n’roll credentials. Vibrant small plates pack a flavour punch and the vast chocolate sphere you smash to reveal handmade truffles is a must-order.
You’ll want a waffle, but earn it with a walk through the mature chestnut trees of the Bois de la Cambre. Take the tiny ferry across the lake to Chalet Robinson on the island and refuel with waffles and crepes, served with warm salted caramel or dark chocolate sauce.
Beer is everywhere in Brussels, but a brewery tour and tasting at frozen-in-time Cantillon is extra-special: it hasn’t changed how it brews its classic mouth-puckeringly sour gueuze since 1900.
The waiters at art nouveau bar Le Cirio (Rue de la Bourse) look like they have been serving since opening night in 1909, but sipping a ‘half and half’ (50:50 sweet wine and fizz, poured tableside with a flourish) surrounded by locals – from well-heeled to frankly disreputable – is one of the best Brussels experiences imaginable.
Credit: Christophe Vander Eecken
Art and culture
You might not think you like Belgium’s surrealist master, but the beautifully curated Magritte Museum will convince you otherwise. Take advantage of a combi-ticket to check out the room full of Breugels on the first floor of the fine arts museum in the same complex.
On the up-and-coming canalfront, MIMA has taken over a disused brewery and converted it into a thrilling tribute to ‘2.0 culture’: street art, video installations and more. Another great reuse of space is La Patinoire Royale, a 19th century rollerskating rink turned vast, high-ceilinged shrine to contemporary art.
For a different kind of artistic experience, order a local beer and soak up the surroundings at La Fleur en Papier Doré, the surrealists’ favourite, packed with paintings, photographs and memorabilia dating back to the 1920s.
IIf Rue Dansaert and its surrounding streets are Brussels’ fashion nerve centre, Stijl is its heart. Owner Sonja Noël has been Belgian fashion’s fairy godmother since the 1980s and her neighbouring women’s and men’s boutiques are the perfect spot for your Ann Demeulemeester or Dries Van Noten style fix.
Around the corner at ultra-creative Hunting and Collecting there’s a playful spirit at work: every season the whole interior has a themed overhaul (think ‘paradise’ or ‘après ski’).
For another take on Belgian style, dive into Gabriele Vintage, where delicate flapper gowns, silk bowler hats and designer pieces from the likes of Lanvin and Lacroix create a stylish picture of bygone Brussels.
Credit: Christophe Vander Eecken
In a belle époque mansion with a huge, rambling garden, Louise 345 has a private club feel: the four suites have handpainted wallpaper, antique furniture and enough space to swing a whole zoo; while downstairs, gifted chef Isabelle Arpin serves the best of Belgian cooking.
As beautiful as Bruges and as stylish as Antwerp, Ghent has been given a new lease of luxury thanks to a wave of cool new openings. Start your journey by climbing the sweeping spiral staircase to boutique hotel 1898 The Post, housed in the neo-gothic former post office on one of the city’s most beautiful squares.
Chef Kobe Desramaults is at the forefront of the city’s culinary revolution with his mould-breaking 16-seater restaurant Chambre Séparée, where diners experience a symphonically creative, no-choice tasting menu. Smaller budgets should check out his cool all-day bakery and cafe, De Superette. Vrijmoed has won awards for its vegetarian menus, but omnivores will find plenty to love on its thoughtful, local menus: it even makes its own gin and jenever (the local gin relation).
Ghent’s paved streets are home to a wealth of independent shops: try Mus in een Plas for gifts and homewares or Ile en Ville for understated fashion, accessories and design in a former beguinage (nunnery). And for a different kind of decadence, pop into St Bavo’s Cathedral to admire the Van Eyck brothers’ The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, newly restored to ravishing, jewel-bright beauty.
Brussels’ cooler little sister is the home of Belgian fashion. Museum MoMu holds 25,000 pieces, from ancient to bang up-to-date (Dries Van Noten and milliner Stephen Jones have recently made big donations). The current exhibition celebrates local hero Olivier Theyskens.
Then there are the concept stores. Enes is a lifestyle paradise in a typical Antwerp townhouse, with beauty products in the bathroom, homewares in the kitchen and covetable womenswear everywhere else. Graanmarkt 13 offers one-stop-shopping for luxury-loving grown-ups.
And to really immerse yourself in fashionable Antwerp, splash out and rent the exquisitely understated apartment upstairs.
For a break from high fashion, head to The Chocolate Line. Real-life Willy Wonka Dominique Persoone works with Noma’s René Redzepi and Heston Blumenthal: you can pick up his chocolate ‘pills’ or pralines flavoured with bacon, Havana tobacco and even fried onion in this elegant 19th century boutique.