Discover old Brussels, Brontë style

Charlotte Brontë was famously rude about Belgium, after living in Brussels for a couple of years from 1842. But don’t let that put you off the Brussels Brontë society’s fascinating walking tours, which offer a window into a vanished world. In a couple of hours you can unlock a few secrets, from a hidden bust of Peter the Great, which marks the spot where the drunken tsar fell off a fountain, to the long-demolished boarding school where Charlotte lived, worked and dreamed up novels. Check online for dates. Tours (around €10pp) may be possible for groups of 10 or more.

Dine out on classics in the old town

Image shows a waiter laying a table at Restaurant Vincent on Rue des Dominicains, Brussels, Belgium.

Along the cobbled lanes of the Brussels old town, there are brasseries offering steak-frites and moules. One of the best is Restaurant Vincent, which has been serving Belgian classics for over a century. Decked out in Dutch ceramic tiles, it manages to be traditional without being stuffy. The haunch of top-quality beef hanging in the window announces the speciality, so this is not a top choice for vegetarians. But if Belgian classics done with style are what’s required, you can’t go wrong. Try the lemon-zingy North Sea herring, or Waterzooi, a creamy and comforting fish stew.
Rue des Dominicains, 8-10, +32 02 511 26 07,, mains from €13. Open daily (except Tuesday) noon-3pm and 6.30pm-11pm

Savour sumptuous art nouveau

Facade of Musee Horta, Horta Museum, Art Nouveau, Brussels.

The elegant curving door handle to the house at number 25 is the first clue you have arrived at one of the treasures of Brussels art nouveau. Belgian architect and art nouveau master Victor Horta designed this house as his studio and home in 1899. Every detail bears his imprint, from the curling tendrils of a chairback to butterfly-shaped iron balconies. The crowning glory is the delicate spiral staircase, leading to a glass roof that allows light to flood the house. If you can, visit on a weekday to avoid crowds, as there are often queues on Saturdays.
Admission: adults €10, 6-18 years €3, 25 rue Américaine, Open Tues-Sun 2pm-5.30pm

Where Angela Merkel nips for chips

In the heart of the crowd, German chancellor Angela Merkel eats frites from Maison Antoine, during a pause of the EU leaders summit in Brussels, 19 February, 2016.

Some of the best frites are served at Maison Antoine. For nearly 70 years, this well-loved fritkot has been dishing them up the proper Belgian way: twice fried, to be crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle. Angela Merkel is a fan; the German chancellor nipped out of a late-running EU summit to buy chips for herself and diplomats. Take your piping-hot chips to one of the nearby bars that allow them (check signs) and enjoy with another fine local speciality, a glass of beer.
Place Jourdan 1, Open Sun-Thurs 11.30am-1am, Fri-Sat 11.30am-2am

Go wandering in the forest

The Sonian Forest, Foret de Soignes, or Zonienwoud, 11,000 hectare woodland to the southeast of Brussels. Image shot 2013.

One 15-minute tram journey can take you from the formal palaces of the city centre to vast, fairytale-like woodland on the south-eastern edge of Brussels. The Forêt de Soignes (Zoniënwoud in Dutch) is a nature-protected zone crossing the borders of Belgium’s French and Dutch-speaking regions. There are plenty of signposted paths for cyclists and horseriders, but being on foot will best allow you to explore meandering trails under 200-year-old beech trees. It is especially glorious in autumn when the leaves are falling, or when searching for bluebells in late April or early May.

Be inspired over a beer

Interior of Le Cercle des Voyageurs, cafe-bar in Brussels, Belgium

Just a stone’s throw from the Manneken Pis, Le Cercle des Voyageurs is a cosy cafe-bar dedicated to travel. But this cafe of the world is also very Belgian: eclectic, friendly and multilingual. The library, full of maps and travel guides, hosts regular events (talks, poetry readings and film screenings) in French and English, as well as small art exhibitions. There is a free concert every Tuesday, often jazz, soul or swing. Brunch is pricey, but main meals are more reasonable and there is a decent list of vegetarian options. At any time of day, it is a welcoming spot for a coffee or one of Brussels’ sour lambic beers.
Rue des Grands Carmes 18, Open daily 11am-midnight

Surrealism in the suburbs

A room at the René Magritte Museum.

The absurd, subversive world of Belgian surrealism was once based at an unassuming house in the north Brussels suburbs. René Magritte, the surrealist who populated his world with faceless men in bowler hats, lived on the ground floor of this modest terraced house in Jette for 15 years. Inside, discover motifs that turned up in his paintings – sash windows or the fireplace. The house museum is a labour of love, created by an admirer of Magritte long before the city decided to honour one of Belgium’s best-known painters with an impressive gallery in its art quarter.
Admission €7.50, Rue Esseghem 135, Jette, Open Wed-Sun 10am-6pm

Take the tram, and discover

Scenic and picturesque route number 44 tram from Montgomery to the village of Tervuren east of the centre of Brussels

The tram is not only one of the quickest ways to get around Brussels, but also the most fun. Go north on tram 92 to discover the elegant, slightly scruffy neighbourhood of Schaarbeek. Tram 94 goes from the museum district to the Bois de la Cambre park, stopping near a semi-rustic abbey on the way. My favourite route is tram 44, which goes to the small town of Tervuren, just outside Brussels. By the final stretch you will be hurtling through beechwoods and might spot the odd rabbit scampering past. Don’t forget to stamp your travel pass. Tervuren needs a special ticket.

Eat heavenly croissants at Au Vatel

This is what all bakeries should be like. Stand at the counter, torn between fruit-laden tarts, dainty Dutch-style biscuits, Belgian chocolates and the best croissants and pastries anywhere. Plus a very good variety of loaves and baguettes. Some of the cakes may be miniature works of art, but service in this family-run chain is relaxed. It is a convivial place to grab a coffee or a generous slice of homemade quiche. Well located for anyone visiting the steel and concrete jungle of the EU quarter, and who is looking for something more homely than the local sandwich chains.
Place Jourdan 27, no website

Find a floral city under glass

The Royal Greenhouses of Laeken by night. Belgium, Brussels.

If you are planning to visit Brussels in the spring, think about going when the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken are open to the public, usually three weeks in late April and early May. For a few euros, you can feast your eyes on vast and spectacular displays of begonias, azaleas and geraniums, as well as a precious collection of rare tropical plants and trees. The glasshouses, more than one hundred years old, are not very energy efficient, it has to be admitted. But these fragile structures are light, airy and beautiful.
Admission €2.50, under 18s free, Avenue du Parc Royal, Check website for full range of opening times

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