Place of Wonder: 48 Hours in Brussels
Our time in a city lost in translation.
Stuffy? Men in suits? Political snake-pit?
Brussels may not instantly conjure up images of creatives or curious winter city break destinations, but our take on Brussels in 48 hours was about to contradict this.
Booked for our Yolk / Yolklore Christmas trip, we had one Monday and one Tuesday to be dazzled by this city.
First impressions were iffy.
Brussels city guides are few and far between. I like to stumble upon creative neighbourhoods, stockpile cosy coffee shops and local designers via multiple suggestions. But most of the bloggers and articles I consulted for guidance failed to include the fact that Brussels likes to have a little nap on a Monday.
Heading to L’atelier en Ville on Rue Haute (one of three) - we were hangry (hungry and grumpy) to find that this ‘concept store and coffee’ was closed.
Luckily for us we were in the ever gentrifying old working class district of Marolles. Rue Haute and its adjacent Rue Blaes are two creative streets lined with art galleries and independent retail stores. Eco soap and cosmetics haven Les Savons de Lyna, plant shop from the Gods, Brut and Belgian designers concept store, Belge one Fois amongst others kept us busy whilst we looked for a place to fill our bellies. See also Bel’ Arte for Belgian handmade wares.
Shopping makes for hungry work and so luckily for us - despite our chosen lunch place being closed, we found L’aubette.
Literally translated Aubette means ‘bus shelter’ but it might as well translate to ‘fucking good salads’ because this is what L’Aubette does best. Not a salad girl myself, I was hoping for some sort of Belgian carbohydrate but this little diner did not disappoint. Salads on top of whopping food jacket potatoes is how my lunch came. Next to some deliciously warm bread and very enjoyable organic white wine. We went for a mixture of goats cheese / fig and Caesar-inspired dishes all served in round, terracotta dishes. Big, tasty and something my cholesterol would approve of. The added library of books and magazines and tempting cakes took this place from good to great. Our first home run in Brussels, in the bag.
Fed and watered at L’Aubette we found our ‘hotel and beer house’, Zoom in Ixelles. Retro Kodak film and strawberry water met us alongside flip-up cinema chairs and a Photo Booth. The hotel is central, pretty affordable and ticks all the trendy dark and arty boxes. Despite not perhaps writing straight home to mama about Zoom’s epic amazingness, I also have no complaints. For a central, boutique hotel this is a not bad shout. For other hotels that came across my radar whilst in Brussels see Jardin Secret, Jam or Hotel Des Galeries.
Nap taken we ventured out to land our much-famed Frites and Belgian beers. Narrowly avoiding being pulled into nearby smell-icious Louise Factory and God Save the Cream we walked via concept stores that were not. We tried Café Chyl, Reservoir Store - both delightful stores, sadly lacking the ‘concept’ element. Atelier Bleu another trendy pitstop for ladswear. We most loved the sign in their window - “Be careful when you follow the masses. Sometimes the ‘M’ is silent.” Belgian brilliance. We arrived in Place Flagey. Famous for frites. Sadly for us (Monday and all) Frit Flagey was closed. So we did what all self-respecting human would. We sought out beer. Nowhere fancy, we wanted authentic and we got it. Le Murmure (no website). Loads of beers, terribly terrifying toilets. Starving and tipsy, the famous frites continued to evade us. Instead we carbed up at nearby Les Super Filles du Tram. You can’t really go wrong with food in Belgium and this burger place was another foodie dream spot. We followed burgers up with wine, because the number of inviting eateries and drinkeries in this city means its rude not to. A bottle of prosecco at Gazzetta - surely a local favourite. An Italian concept - admittedly, but a cosy, unpretentious yet effortlessly classy perfect end to an evening. I felt pained we couldn’t have eaten there too.
Onwards we went with footsteps around this city. The day began (actual) concept stores (0), Belgian Frits (0), Beers (60), waffles (0). Disclaimer: With regret the waffle total for this tally will remain at 0. This is something both I and Rachel (graphic design) deeply regret and would rather not talk about.
We fuelled up at L’atelier en Ville - take two. This time on Place Stephanie. It had bagels and an illustrated coffee menu. It also had clothes. Was it a concept store? Yes I think it was. There was even a ‘by letter’ love affair between coffee drinker and barista happening right under our nose. A lingering love note left under an empty coffee cup. Did it set us up for the day with love and joy in our hearts? Yes I think it did.
Onwards we charged to the Grand Place. Against my better judgement, we went to ‘tourist town’. Some words from the other side, the walk from Ixelles was pleasant. Cafe Capitale is a great coffee stop. The arcades selling Belgian chocolate also not too shabby. Pierre Marcolini and Neuhaus were so manicured I held my breath, but their prices did not hurt my purse and their staff were smiley. And please for the love of God, do not leave tourist town without consuming Neuhaus’ hot drinking chocolate.
If you’ve had your fill of tourists by this point, which I had, DO NOT FEAR, because trendy Wendy safe zone, Dansaert is nearby. I decided that this would be where I’d live if taking up residency in Brussels. For the London comparison, I give it Marylebone. Trendy yet upmarket. Central but in its own bubble. Yes I would say this place is stylish. The shops that took my eye are listed below, but my favourite by FAR is Urban Therapy. Others that will tickle your creative pickle around the Rue de Flandre area. For womenswear A Suivre, for beauty whores, Labelchic, expensive furniture, Showroom 144 and for cycle wankers, Cyclo. And for non-racist, non-sexist, non-homophobic, non-assholes needing their hair did, Fab Ken is for you. The window clearly states, however that if you are any of the aforementioned you’re not welcome.
So yes after browsing and buying, we did what everyone does in Brussels, we drank overpriced champagne in a plastic igloo by the fire, followed by very well priced mini beers in a Leffe beer tent. The Christmas markets around Place Saint-Catherine were filled with more creatives than the average and thankfully weren't so crowded you were bumping armpits with any of your fellow beer guzzlers. Frites galore here and yes waffles. But the Baltic temperatures meant that we sought an indoor solution. Hope came in the form of spaghetti. Bavet must be the creme de la creme of spaghetti. It’s all they serve, and yes the continue to do simple well here in Brussels. Like the salad before it that blew my tiny mind, Bavet’s simple sgetti, tomato sauce and a cheeky affair with onion crush were all I needed to replenish my weary tourist tummy.
In the true story of this ‘48 Hours in Brussels’ tale we now walk back towards the bus stop after spaghetti-belly because our airport was about 8000 miles from the city (thanks Ryanair). But in my preferred fictional version, we head towards jazz, cocktails, art gallery and live music spot, L’Archiduc. Music, good conversation end the trip (not a stuffy airport) and our 48 hours reaches its climax with a well-earned Belgian waffle (not a limp airport baguette).
Brussels you surprised me, delighted me and fed me. Your wanderable city let me stumble upon things intended and things unintended. The people of Brussels are a rebellious, non-conformist type. Their energy for life and for good places to go is evident on every corner. A little brother to Lisbon, far more exciting than a Cologne. Nothing like the bureaucrat trap they say about you. I encourage people to visit you.
Your city left me wanting more. I will have a waffle.
Concept stores (2), Belgian Frits (5), Beers (90), waffles (0)