Brussels’s historic core, the “Îlot Sacré” or “Holy Island,” is the most touristy part of the city and for good reason. At the heart of it, the Grand-Place, with its picture-perfect medieval look, is a sight for sore eyes. Get there early to avoid the masses and take in the beautiful guild houses and statue-lined City Hall. Next, make a beeline for the corner between the Rue du Chêne and the Rue de l’Etuve. This spot is home to Brussels’s most notorious statue: Manneken Pis, a rebellious, cherub-like boy casually peeing into a fountain. Head back towards the Grand-Place for a bit, and then go right and pass the Brussels Parliament. Continue towards pedestrian square Place Saint-Jean and walk the Rue Saint-Jean until an elegant garden park unfolds before your eyes.
Feast your eyes on René Pechère’s Mont des Art garden, designed to be a natural bridge between the city’s lower and upper parts. Relax on one of the wooden circular benches for a bit or climb the steps towards Brussels’s dense nest of prestigious museums. Once at the top of the stairs, look back towards the geometric garden to see its tree lines perfectly frame the City Hall’s spire.
Turning around should make it clear that the Mont des Arts leaves art lovers spoilt for choice. While Surrealist mastership is on view at the Magritte Museum, iconic Flemish painters can be admired at the Museums of Fine Arts, and the MIM museum, with its impressive Art Nouveau façade, tells the story of Adolphe Sax’s invention of the saxophone. You can also explore the ruins of Charles V’s Coudenberg Palace underneath the Place Royale or learn more about the city’s history at the recently renovated BELvue Museum.
From the Place Royale, it’s only a hop, skip and jump to the upscale Sablon neighborhood down the Rue de la Régence. The district, known for chocolates and antiques, also boasts a ton of restaurants on the narrow Rue de Rollebeek, including the somewhat hidden bistro Peï and Meï, where Gauthier De Baere serves up Belgian dishes with a twist in a Scandinavian-inspired space. After lunch, take a moment to relax and admire the bronze statues surrounding the idyllic Place du Petit Sablon. All 48 depict an ancient profession that people used to practice in the region.
Walk in a circle around the Gothic Église Notre-Dame du Sablon until you reach the Place du Grand Sablon, an excellent place to stock up on quality Belgian chocolates—be it at the trendy Pierre Marcolini or the more affordable Leonidas. The cocoa treats serve as a reward for retracing your steps towards the Mont des Arts. From there, dip back into the Îlot Sacré, but this time make sure to pass through the sumptuous Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert and the historic Bourse square at the leisurely pace that suits the old town like a glove.
Southwest from the Bourse, the Rue Antoine Dansaert forms the main artery of the hip Dansaert district. The relaxed street, stretching all the way to Brussels’s canal, has shaken the last of its rough edges and has made the switch into one of the city’s liveliest areas. Laid-back all-day hangouts such as Walvis, trendy design stores such as Kartell and Belgian-geared initiatives such as the Brussels Beer Project have brought charm and ease to the area.
The Rue des Chartreux, for its part, has become a reputable fashion haven (both vintage and otherwise), and the Place Saint-Géry is a hub of cool where Brussels’s fashionable enjoy being seen as much as they enjoy their cocktails. After wandering around for a bit and perhaps indulging in a bit of shopping, settle down for an aperitif and people-spotting at one of the latter’s spacious terraces. Also worthwhile is a peek inside the 19th-century Halles de Saint-Géry, the covered markets that sit atop the marshes where Brussels originally sprang into being.
Stick around Dansaert for much better seafood than that served at the stretch of tourist trap restaurants in the Îlot Sacré. The jovial brasserie Henri, on the Rue de Flandre, serves traditional and delectable shrimp croquettes, and Bij den Boer makes a mean pot of mussels. For another Brussels institution, you’ll need to make your way to the other far end of the neighborhood, the Place Sainte-Catherine. On the bustling square by the water, Vismet—“fish market” in Flemish dialect—reigns supreme. The famed seafood restaurant run by Chef Tom Decroos was one of the first projects by the master of relaxed ambiance Frédéric Nicolay, who’d go on to have a hand in a lot more of the area’s hippest joints. A great cheap eat is Noordzee or Mer du Nord, where you’ll wait a couple of minutes for your order to be prepared at the fish bar’s steel counter, and in return, you’ll receive a plate of North Sea treasures cooked to perfection. There’s no seating, though that doesn’t prevent Brussels’s foodies from lining up all the same.
That Dansaert would eventually become Brussels’s go-to neighborhood seems to have been written in the stars, or rather by them, when Miles Davis, Nat King Cole and Bill Evans popped by number 6 for live jams sessions. L’Archiduc is coming up to its 80th birthday in 2017, and the beloved bar has jazz running through its veins. Transformed by pianist Stan Brenders into arguably the grooviest establishment in the city in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the Art Deco building was originally a discrete rendezvous place run by Madame Alice—hence the elegant “A” in the cast-iron door. Half of the fun is in ringing the doorbell and swinging through the bubble door to be met by a pillared space with a half-moon balcony and locals chattering over martinis. Jazz performances are still part of its charm, and if you’re out of luck, you can always continue onwards to the New York City-ish The Music Village, a private jazz club a few meters off the Grand-Place.