BRUSSELS: “There is literally nothing to do here,” the British musician Noel Gallagher once said of Brussels, that hotbed of policy directives. He was hardly the first. Around Europe, the Belgian capital and headquarters of many European Union institutions is not especially known for its rock ‘n’ roll spirit. But Gallagher — and many of us — should give Brussels a closer look. Clearly he didn’t have a chance to admire the graffiti, avant-garde installations or conceptual creations in the city’s new art spaces. Or shop for vintage items in the many retro and antique boutiques. Or taste the innovative dishes in the city’s neo-Belgian and Belgian-fusion restaurants. Or knock back fine-tuned cocktails at one of the upstart liquor bars. The Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015 — which were plotted in Brussels — and the suicide attacks on the Brussels airport and subway station last year have been a tragedy for the city. But Brussels is rebounding.
FRIDAY, 4PM. KITSCHY, YET COOL
New York has Lady Liberty, Paris has the Eiffel Tower and Brussels boasts a soaring silvery structure modeled on an iron atom magnified 165 billion times, known as Atomium. Built in the 1950s, the roughly 300-foot-tall lattice of spheres and tubes is kitschy, yet cool, especially the views from the retro-futurist cafe at its summit. More fascinating 20th-century relics await next door in the Art and Design Atomium Museum (ADAM), which opened in 2015. Walk through the entrance — designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel — into the Plasticarium, a sprawling permanent collection of some 2,000 candy-coloUred plastic furnishings, appliances, interiors and artworks. From bubble chairs to a recreated 1960s discotheque, the works are a fascinating time capsule and design showcase. A combined Atomium-ADAM ticket is €17, about US$20.
8PM. STAR TREATMENT
Designed by the celebrated Belgian architect Victor Horta, the Palais des Beaux-Arts (aka Bozar) is best-known for international art exhibitions, films and concerts. Now it’s a gastronomic destination, too, thanks to Bozar Brasserie, which earned its first Michelin star last year. Within the art deco interior, the chef Karen Torosyan creates ever-changing multicourse menus (starting from €49) and an à la carte selection of seasonal neo-Belgian dishes. The bread-crusted pâtés might include a collage of duck, goose and black pig, accompanied by a spiral of colorful vegetables like carrots and beets, while traditional rabbit stew becomes slow-cooked, involtini-like meat rolls with a citric sauce made from Kriek cherry beer. Three courses cost around €90 a person.
10PM. CURIOUS CURES
Is sobriety a sickness? If so, La Pharmacie Anglaise, or “The English Pharmacy,” prescribes boozy remedies in an environment suggesting the 19th-century salon of a debauched British lord. Paneled with wood, the cocktail bar is decorated with Oriental rugs, armchairs, antiquated lab equipment and — most notably — bones, jaws and jars of preserved rodents, reptiles and other creatures. Tastier science occurs behind the bar, where bartenders concoct house cocktails like Sunny G&T (Hendrick’s gin, hibiscus-cucumber cordial, tonic; €14) and Honeymoon (whiskey, pear-honey cordial, Amaro Montenegro and black walnut bitters; €14).
SATURDAY, 10AM. NATURAL HABITS
Victor Horta and his contemporaries pioneered art nouveau — which infused colors and forms from nature into furniture, art and architecture — and their work is visible on town house facades around the neighboring St.-Gilles and Châtelain neighborhoods. Admire Horta’s own vine-and-tendril decorations at 25, rue Américaine (which houses the Horta Museum) before heading to 92, rue Africaine, notable for its big circular window. The building at 13, rue de Florence is a sober, stony specimen, while 83, rue Faider sports a wondrous top-floor mural of women in a sea of flowers and stars. Two edifices beckon from Rue Defacqz. Number 48 is adorned with gold-tinged mythological images, while number 72 incorporates green plantlike ironwork.
NOON. THE DAILY DISH
If you don’t have a cool Belgian auntie to cook for you, you always have Magalie Boutemy. Tucked away on trendy Rue du Page, her restaurant, L'épicerie, feels more like a home, thanks to its plank floor, farmhouse tables and simple Old World kitchen. Regulars stop in to enjoy the friendly vibe and healthy daily special — there is just one, and no menu — which might be pork in miso sauce with shiso leaves or rice, honey- and tamari-glazed cod with crunchy vegetables. Follow with the daily dessert, which was recently a spongy cherry cake. Lunch for two is around €30.
2PM. THE PAPER TRAIL
Let’s say you wanted to strap on ice skates, pop on a Scorpions CD, and tinkle along at an upright piano while sipping from a Pee Klak beer glass. Such dreams can be realised at Les Petits Riens, a nearby multistory emporium of used goods, ranging from African drums to vintage suitcases. The neighbourhood also attracts the literary set, thanks to Peinture Fraiche, a gallerylike bookstore selling impeccably chosen art, design and architecture tomes, and Le Typographe, a paper-lover’s Eden of handmade notebooks, diaries, stationery and other goods printed on site.
4PM. URBAN STUDIES
Cool things are brewing at the new Millennium Iconoclast Museum of Art (MIMA), a former beer factory whose renovated industrial expanses now bubble with contemporary art. The museum’s permanent collection leans toward street art, graffiti, graphic design and pop works full of colour, irreverence and mischief. Just witness the Dutch artist Parra’s large sculptural red tomato with legs, which lies helplessly on the floor. Multiple temporary exhibitions also fill the agenda. Admission, €9.50.
7PM. A CULINARY JOURNEY
Ready to fly? Names of international destinations — Kyoto, Berlin, Mexico — are stenciled on the colorful walls of San, a cosy spot opened by the Belgian-Korean chef Sang-Hoon Degeimbre in 2015. They also adorn the menu (€55), where each of the five nightly courses is named after and inspired by some spot on Earth. A recent itinerary started in Murringen, Belgium (velvety beef tartare mixed with savory razor clams in a floral Bergamot broth), moved to Deshaies, in Guadaloupe (beignets filled with cod in a spicy red pepper pesto), returned to Liernu, Belgium (seasonal vegetables in a sweet onion broth), before heading off to the South Korean island of Jeju (succulent pork cubes with toasted buckwheat and cabbage) and Dublin (whiskey-infused panna cotta with chocolate sorbet and burned chips of Gruyère cheese). Neck pillow not provided.
9PM. BEER AND BOTANICALS
“Leave the abbey, join the playground” is the motto at Brussels Beer Project, a craft brewery angling to bring Belgium’s storied brewing tradition into the 21st century. Relax on a grain sack and order from an ever-changing roster that might include Delta IPA (crisp, hoppy and floral; €1.60). Nearby at Life Is Beautiful, cacti hang from the ceiling and potted plants dot the candlelit room. Opened last year, the flora-filled cocktail bar transports you to Mexico with a Brussels-Oaxaca (mezcal, rum, St.-Germain, Fernet-Branca, walnut bitters; €14) or to the underworld with a Bloody Hell (scotch, Chartreuse, beetroot syrup, lime, hellfire bitters; €13).
SUNDAY, 11AM. BRUEGHEL’S BRUSSELS
When it comes to art, this is Magritte’s town. Two museums are devoted to the master of the strange, and images of his man in the bowler hat fill the city. But Jan Brueghel the Elder was also a Brussels native, and the Renaissance painter’s stock is rising these days at the Old Masters Museum thanks to a new cinematic room and new interactive tutorials devoted to his masterpieces. Those include The Fall of the Rebel Angels, an apocalyptic fever dream with archangel Michael fighting a seven-headed dragon. Rubens, Rembrandt and Bosch are among the collection’s other heavy hitters. Admission, €8.
1PM. BUY BELGIAN
Belgian pride suffuses Rue Haute, where hip boutiques are championing local design and products, some of it handmade on site. Atelier en Ville, a vast hangarlike space, is a combination cafe, plant shop and woodworking studio that builds and sells everything from neoindustrial shelving to arty lightboxes. Belge Une Fois concentrates on clothing, jewellery, art and more from scores of Belgian designers and brands, including cushions from NoMoreTwist and lamps fashioned from old medium-format cameras by Corthelli. And if you still have not fully uncovered the city, The 500 Hidden Secrets of Brussels is among the many books, posters and postcards at Vanclever.
Steps from the fashionable shops of Avenue Louise, the photo-themed Zoom Hotel (rue de la Concorde 59-61) has 37 rooms and a gallery-like lobby with a beer bar and a boutique selling everything from Belgian chocolate to camera accessories. Doubles from €80.75.
In the trendy Saint Gilles neighborhood, the kaleidoscopic Pantone Hotel (1 Place Loix; pantonehotel.com) radiates bright solid colors from every surface. The 61 rooms have a 1970s bachelor-pad feel, courtesy of shag carpets, spherical chrome lamps and molded plastic bedside tables. Doubles from €60 in low season.
By Seth Sherwood © 2017 The New York Times