When it comes to big-city business destinations, there are three main types: the hothouse flowers — think of Shanghai and Dubai; the perennial stars — think New York, think London; and, less glamorously, the steady, stealth performers, important cities that sometimes fly under the radar.
That could fairly describe Brussels. The capital and largest city in Belgium, Brussels is also the capital of the 27-nation European Union and home of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Reflecting its international character, about a quarter of the city’s 1.1 million residents are foreign-born. This cosmopolitan, largely French-speaking metropole is within three hours of most European capitals by air, road and rail. As is so often the case, location, location, location is key to its success.
Yet for all its centrality in geography and politics, Brussels has a lingering reputation as a boring place to visit — as in, after your meetings are over, what do you do there? The city, founded in 979 and a stop on trade routes for generations, is today associated with sclerotic Eurocrats and bourgeois stolidity.
The Belgian capital’s reputation is undeserved. Brussels is graced with lovely Art Nouveau architecture and design, adorned with ornate Belle Époque monuments and palaces, and rich with engaging cultural attractions such as the Musée Magritte, opened in 2009 as an homage to the Brussels Surrealist painter René Magritte. It is also one of Europe’s capitals of gastronomy. The city is liberally sprinkled with lively bistros and fine-dining restaurants and mellowed by centuries-old “brown cafés” where handcrafted specialty beers are poured.
Location, political power and commercial clout make Brussels a destination for executives who do business in the E.U., or want to. Some 900 U.S. companies operate in this small country, according to the American Chamber of Commerce in Belgium. Multinationals such as Deloitte, FedEx, 3M, McKinsey & Company, Cisco Systems and Ernst & Young have footprints in or near Brussels. As in Washington, D.C., lobbyists are thick on the ground, striving to influence trade and business policies. The private sector is dominated by service industries, banking and finance. Prosperous Brussels, with 9 percent of Belgium’s 10.5 million residents, generates 19 percent of the gross national product.
Brussels is right in the middle of Belgium’s linguistic rivalries and fractious domestic politics. The Brussels metropolitan area is one of three federal regions in Belgium, a hereditary constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary political system. The other two regions are French-speaking Wallonia in the south and Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north. Brussels had a Dutch-speaking majority until after World War II, when changing demographics transformed it into a French-speaking island in a Flemish sea.
For all its domestic squabbles, Belgium — and especially Brussels — is an attractive place to do business, thanks to a highly skilled, multilingual workforce and modern infrastructure. Belgium ranks in the top 10 nations in the world as a recipient of direct foreign investment and is one of Europe’s leading venues for international conventions and meetings. The city is not cheap, but the cost of living falls many euros short of costs in, say, Paris or Rome.
Whether they arrive in Brussels as expats or travelers, foreigners find a relatively compact place, easy to navigate, hard to get lost in. (Helpfully, most locals speak at least some English.) With 1.1 million people in the city and 1.8 million in the metro area, Brussels is small enough to get your brain around, big enough to be interesting. Brussels Airport is just 20 minutes by train from the central city; metered taxis are plentiful if pricey; local trams are abundant and efficient; and the Metro, a subway opened in 1976, is well run, multilingual and easy to use.
Brussels is divided into the newer Upper Town and the Lower Town, the historic medieval core of the city. Like many Western European cities, Brussels was scarred by World War II and barely controlled post-war construction. It has its share of modern ugliness, but echoes of classic elegance endure. This is especially true in the Lower Town, near the Gothic 15th-century Cathedral of Saints Michel and Gudule and the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert (Rue du Marche aux Herbes at Rue de l’Ecuyer). The European Quarter, with its glassy E.U. offices, is in the Upper Town, as is the handsome heritage Royal Palace and several important museums.
The Galeries Saint-Hubert, opened in 1847, is a glass-and-iron-roofed shrine to classy consumption. It is said to be Europe’s oldest covered shopping arcade. Streets nearby swarm with raffish, occasionally seedy life, but inside the galleries, all is soothing. Voices are muffled, footfalls sound softly on marble floors. Shop windows beckon with leather jackets and handbags, kid-soft gloves and suits of classic cut for men and women. There are civilized cafés with high-ceilinged, palace-like interiors and tables and chairs placed just outside along Galeries Saint-Hubert’s three intersecting arcades.
One of the most popular arcade shops is operated by Neuhaus, arguably the best major chocolate-maker in this chocolate-mad country (Galerie de la Reine 25–27, tel 32 2 512 63 59). Neuhaus claims to have invented pralines in this shop in 1912. Many connoisseurs consider Belgian chocolate the best in the world, thanks to the ultra-fine grind of the cocoa beans, top-shelf ingredients and tiny amounts of added alcohol. Some chocolatiers install fountains of molten chocolate in their display windows — cascading Niagaras of velvety, aromatic chocolate. Chocolate vies with delicate Belgian lace as a popular take-home item for visitors.
Narrow lanes lined with restaurants spill out from the Galeries Saint-Hubert. Touts work the lanes, trying to lure diners, while sidewalk restaurant workers shuck oysters and pile fresh seafood and produce on outdoor carts heaped with crushed ice. This humming web of activity is liveliest at night. These are good places to feast on classic fare such as moules frites (steamed mussels and French fries, a Brussels signature dish) or a warm waffle dusted with powdered sugar and garnished with fresh fruit.
The traditional heart of Brussels beats at Grand’Place, a gorgeous public space bordered by lovingly restored medieval guild halls. Standing at the center of Grand’Place, you can imagine you are in the very center of old Europe. It is a three-dimensional postcard adorned with stonework and gold leaf. Close by is the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), a dignified Gothic building topped with a landmark 300-foot-high spire. City Hall’s interior courtyard is considered the symbolic center of Brussels — indeed, of all Belgium.
In addition to savory cuisine, Brussels offers nourishment for the mind. Right downtown, an enormous wall mural several stories high shows the beloved cartoon character Tintin scaling the outside of a building. Belgium has an abiding devotion to comic novels and cartoons, showcased at the Belgian Comic Strip Center (Rue des Sables 20, tel 32 2 219 19 80, www.comicscenter.net) in a converted 1906 department store. A collection of mind-bending paintings highlights the Musée Magritte, honoring René Magritte, who lived in the building for years (Rue Esseghem 135, tel 32 2 428 26 26). The former home of the brilliant Art Nouveau designer and architect Victor Horta is a must-see (Rue Américaine 25, tel 32 2 543 04 90).
After the deal has closed, you can bid adieu to this unaccountably underrated city by quaffing a Belgian beer in an atmospheric “brown cafe.” These are old establishments, some going back hundreds of years, where generations of smokers have turned the interior walls tobacco-brown. Bend an elbow and sip a Trappist ale or a lambic beer — unpasteurized, unfiltered brew, made by allowing yeast from the air to ferment spontaneously before barrel-aging for up to three years.
Info to Go
The best way to transfer between Brussels Airport (BRU) and the city center is by train, about 20 minutes. The Eurostar connects with London and Paris at Brussels Midi Station. Visit www.visitflanders.us.
Just outside of town stands one of the most magnificently weird buildings in the world: the Atomium (Metro line 6, Hayzel Station, tel 32 2 475 47 77). I had long wanted to see this structure for its Jetsons vibe and evocation of the future; and when I learned that visitors can go inside and explore, I was there.
Before Brussels became the center of the E.U., it was probably best known in North America as the site of the hugely successful 1958 World’s Fair. The symbol of the fair’s dedication to Big Science, the Atomium is a 335-foot-high, three-dimensional outdoor model of an atom. It rises on the northern edge of town, 25 minutes by train from the central city. Restored and reopened in 2006 with a new stainless-steel skin, the Atomium provides a bizarrely enjoyable trip back to the future.
Visitors can ride an elevator and escalator inside the structure to a café and an observation deck, as well as move between the nine hollow balls of the atom — one of which hosts overnight visits for schoolchildren, who sleep in metallic pods suspended from the ceiling. Impossibly steep escalators zip past video screens showing the 1950s construction of the Atomium and photographs of celebrities who visited the fair, among them the young Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren.
Hilton’s luxurious 5-star brand features lots of marble and lots of space, in the Lower Town. Ave. Louise 71, tel 32 2 542 42 42, $$$$
This restored heritage hotel, part of Sir Rocco Forte’s international collection of luxury properties, showcases old-world swank and discreet service. Rue de l’Amigo 1–3, tel 32 2 547 47 47, $$$$
Thon Hotel Bristol Stephanie
The well-appointed 4-star hotel on trendy Avenue Louise is within walking distance of major attractions. Ave. Louise 91–93, tel 32 2 543 33 11, $$$
The historic “brown café” is a good place for a lunch of sausages and hot mustard with Belgian lambic beer served in jugs. Rue du Tabora 11, tel 32 2 511 00 06, $$
Installed in a former bank, this opulent restaurant and martini bar bustles under a vaulted, stained-glass ceiling. All wines and beers are Belgian. Rue Fossé aux Loups 32, tel 32 2 217 21 87, $$$$
This traditional restaurant has interior frescos, a bustling air, good service and toothsome meat and fish dishes. Rue des Dominicains 8–10, tel 32 2 511 26 07, $$$
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