On the lookout for great food, culture and plenty of art? Then Brussels is the city for you: cheaper than Paris and more off-beat than you'd think, travel to this charming capital to uncover what lies beyond the beer and chocolate.
The imposing statue of St Michael looms over the old square as market traders assemble their stalls and the sun rises over the carefully manicured gardens. Despite the early start, the city’s famous cafés will already be in full swing. Le Grand Café (78 Boulevard Anspach), a few streets away, is well known for its amazing coffee and decadent muffins, and overlooks the quaint cobbled streets.
Work off the muffin by taking a walk towards the picturesque Parc de Bruxelles. On your way you’ll pass the Belgian Parliament building and, once you’ve reached the park, marvel at the Royal Palace. From here, take the pathway featuring delicate 19th-century statues to the main pond.
Head for the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, just off Grand-Place. This arcade full of art shops and independent boutiques makes for a great diversion. Slip into Mokafé (Galerie du Roi 9), which serves traditional Belgian waffles in a variety of toppings, including chocolate or strawberries. Don’t have a sweet tooth? As well as waffles you can choose from croquettes, sandwiches or croissants with coffee; the perfect breakfast.
Rue de l’Étuve provides a lovely route down to Brussels’ most famous landmark: the Mannekin-Pis statue, which is situated atop a water fountain, and depicts a boy urinating into the fountain basin.
If you’re a fan of Gaudí and Rembrandt, then you will be in for a treat at the Van Buuren Museum (41 Avenue Léo Errera), an art deco gallery with an impressive collection spanning five centuries. Set in a converted house towards the outskirts of central Brussels, this special place pays homage to artists from the 15th to 19th centuries. Afterwards, take a stroll in the spectacular sprawling gardens.
Brussels is full of open-air markets, the best amongst them being Place du Châtelain, a flower market popular with locals who flock there in their droves to experience the lively atmosphere.
Set in Ixelles, a small square filled with trees, artisan bakeries and trendy boutiques, the market sells all types of flowers as well as arts, crafts and trinkets. From time to time there is also wine tasting, where you can sample a selection of Belgian wines.
Meander towards Place Sainte-Catherine, where bright orange buildings loom over cobbled streets surrounded by swanky eateries and flower markets. Make a beeline for Mer du Nord (Rue Sainte-Catherine 45), the excellent fishmongers who serve a selection of fish, freshly shucked oysters and tasty fish soup, all in the heart of the square.
Art lovers can fawn over an amazing rotation of exhibitions at the Villa Empain Foundation (Avenue Franklin Roosevelt 67). Afterwards, stroll through the beautiful Bois de la Cambre, a secluded spot perfect for escaping the bustling city and admire the pretty views of the lake.
Head back into town and visit the market of Saint-Gilles, where traders sell seafood and quirky vintage clothes. Brasserie Verschueren (11-13 Parvis de Saint-Gilles) is a funky neighbourhood bar which serves tasty homemade soups with a huge selection of beer – a popular haunt for locals looking for a tipple.
Make a beeline for the panoramic Atomium restaurant (Square de l’Atomium B-1020 Brussels), a structure standing 102m (335ft) tall, with nine 18m-wide (59ft) stainless steel balls. One of the most prominent features of Belgium, it offers sweeping views of the city. Enjoy these vistas from the restaurant on the second floor while enjoying a varied menu with an extensive wine list. After dinner, dance the night away to live jazz music, cocktail in hand, at the lively L’Archiduc bar (Antoine Dansaert 6).
For dinner, visit Aux Armes de Bruxelles (13 Rue des Brouchers), a traditional Belgian restaurant a stone’s throw from Grand-Place, where diners can enjoy veal, venison or a bucket of fresh mussels served in a relaxed setting. The city comes alive at night: follow the locals to the hidden drinking holes such as A la Becasse (Rue de Tabora 11) known to Belgians as “The Lark”. Located down a narrow alleyway, it specialises in kriek (cherry beer). Or, for something more enervating, visit The Greenwich (Rue des Chartreux 7), where on Fridays you’re guaranteed to trot the tango long into the night.