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Brussels, the heart of Europe

The dazzling Grand Place, with the Broodhuis to the left.
The dazzling Grand Place, with the Broodhuis to the left. / Jennie Rhodes
  • From the EU to the Atomium, chocolate shops to a never-ending selection of beer, this city offers gastronomy, history and culture

  • The compact capital of Belgium is perfect for a weekend break

Brussels, the Belgian capital, is probably best known as being the home of the European Union. However, there is so much more to this compact and quirky city, not to mention chocolate, beer, moules-frites and, of course, Tintin.

One of the two most iconic images of the city centre has to be the awe-inspiring Grand Place, which every other August hosts a flower carpet, covering most of the cobbled ground of the giant square with real flowers for a week. The rest of the time it offers a meeting place for locals while open-mouthed tourists gaze around and try to take photos that do justice to the architecture and grandeur of buildings such as the City Hall and the Broodhuis (bread house), which is now home to the Museum of the City of Brussels.

Just a short stroll from Grand Place on the corner of Rue de l'Étuve, is Brussels' other great icon, the Manneken Pis. Designed by Jerôme Duquesnoy the Elder, this boy has peeing away since 1619. The statue is often dressed up - particularly on special occasions and has a lesser-known female counterpart - Jeanneke Pis - a much more modern work, made in 1985, which can be found on the other side of Grand Place.

These labyrinthine streets around the central square come alive as diners settle down at one of the many restaurants that are packed together and offer a variety of food from typical Belgian fare to pizza and pasta.

Chips, chocolate and beer

The most famous of these eateries is arguably Chez Léon in Rue des Bouchers. Established in 1893, Chez Léon boasts a vast menu of moules-frites (mussels marinated in a selection of sauces, with chips) and is a firm favourite among EU diplomats and bureaucrats as well as tourists.

For an authentic Belgian beer experience, Moeder Lambic, Delirium or À la Mort Subite offer pretty much something for all tastes, from Jupiler, a standard draught lager; Hoegaarden, a classic wheat beer; or for the sweet-toothed, a Kriek - white beer made with fermented lambic and sour Morello cherries.

More great chips can be found in Fritland - another Brussels institution near La Bourse. Expect long queues at pretty much any time of day.

Sablon, an elegant square divided into Grand Sablon and Petit Sablon, just south of the royal quarter, is the place to go for the most exquisite Belgian chocolates. Chocolatiers Godiva and Neuhaus are the ones to look out for, among others, while Leonidas shops are dotted around the city centre. On any working day well-suited officials and business people head to Sablon to eat in some of Brussels' finest restaurants.

Waffles are another Belgian classic and kiosks and small shops selling the sweet dessert with a range of toppings are not difficult to come across.

The European Quarter

To the east of the city lie the European Commission, European Parliament (EP) and Council of the European Union buildings. Named after some of the founding fathers of the EU, the imposing buildings of Altiero Spinelli and Paul-Henri Spaak rise up at the end of the Rue de Luxembourg and Place du Luxembourg, where from Monday to Friday politicians and bureaucrats can be seen having lunch or grabbing a takeaway sandwich from one of the many eateries that line the road and square. That is, of course if they're not dining in the large EP canteen. Lunchtime can range from anywhere between 1pm and 4pm, depending on their country of origin.

Just behind the EP, on Place du Luxembourg is the Station de Europe. The building doubles up as a train station for trains to Luxembourg and Strasbourg, homes to other EU institutions, as well as an information point for visitors to the EP.

The Parlamentarium opened up on the site in 2011. This interactive museum is free and gives a fascinating insight not only into the workings of the EP and EU, but also to the history of Europe in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Visitors to the EP may also take in the hemicycle for free. It is the institution's main debating chamber and visits are possible from Monday to Thursday morning and afternoon and Friday mornings. Photographic ID is required.

For a more detailed insight into European history, the newly-opened House of European History in Parc Léopold, in front of the EP, provides a fascinating journey through Europe and what unites it and its people.

The European Commission, or Berlaymont building, with its iconic four-point shape, is located by the Schuman metro station. While it is worth going to look at the outside, there are no public visits. The Council of the European Union building is located nearby and both are a 10-minute walk up Rue Belliard from the EP.

A must-do pit stop after the lesson in European history and politics is nearby Place Jourdain. The square is home to one of Brussels' most iconic pommes-frites (chips) kiosks, Maison Antoine, where the moreish twice-fried potato snacks are served up with a choice of around 20 different sauces, from classic ketchup and mayonnaise to spicier and more exotic sounding Andalouse and Samurai sauces.

L'Esperance, otherwise known as Chèz Bernard, allows customers to take their chips to the bar as long as a drink is ordered.

Atoms, miniatures and Heysel

At the north-western end of Brussels' ridiculously easy metro line at Heysel, is the Atomium - a giant stainless steel atom built for the Brussels Expo in 1958. Standing at 102 metres high, the Atomium towers over this area of Brussels and is an impressive sight. It is now home to a restaurant, permanent and temporary exhibitions and panoramic views over Brussels.

Near to the Atomium is Mini Europe; just what it says on the tin, it houses miniature versions of some of Europe's most iconic landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower, Grand Place and Big Ben - although post Brexit the latter's future is unclear; go while it's still there! Visitors can even experience Vesuvius erupting or the fall of the Berlin wall.

In the same area is also the Heysel football stadium. Sadly it is probably best known by anyone old enough to remember the Heysel disaster in 1985 when part of the stadium collapsed before the start of the European Cup Final between Juventus and Liverpool, killing 39 and injuring hundreds. The stadium was later rebuilt and renamed Stade Roi Baudouin - after a former king of Belgium - and fans of the game can see the Belgium national team play here or even take in a concert.

Tintin

Of course no trip to Brussels would be complete without paying homage to the city's most famous son - Tintin. La Fleur en Papier Doré restaurant is said to have been creator Hergé's favourite hangout, a place that attracted Belgium's great artists of the time.

There are statues around the city of the young adventurer and his dog, Snowy, and giant murals depict scenes from the comic books on the side of buildings - the most famous can be seen on Rue de l'Étuve, which shows Tintin, Snowy and Captain Haddock running down a fire escape.

There are even official Tintin stores; La Boutique Tintin on Rue de la Colline is one, and the Galerie Tintin Hergé on Sablon, which opened in 2016, claims to be the only place in Brussels to provide a space for Tintin fans to come together to talk about their hero.

Whether for a dose of childhood nostalgia, the architecture of the breathtaking Grand Place, or simply a calorie-loaded weekend of beer, chips and chocolate, Brussels makes for a great city break - and not just for Europhiles!