Since the turn of the 20th century, Boulevard de Waterloo has been Brussels’ most fabulous stretch for luxury shopping. Once lined with upper-class tearooms and ice cream parlours, its Rococo and Neo-Renaissance buildings are now the boutiques of Armani, Versace and so on.
So that’s why you’d probably be surprised to see, in the middle of the street, a modern art piece called The Man from Atlantis. It’s the towering sculpture of a kooky sea creature wearing goggles and a backpack.
That’s just Brussels for you – never taking itself too seriously. The city’s most recognised landmark is another sculpture, the Manneken Pis. It’s a bronze fountain depicting a fluffy-haired youngster, proudly urinating in the nude.
There’s definitely a bubbly humour and energy in Brussels that often seems to go underappreciated when compared to more polished exteriors throughout Western Europe.
But, it has a serious side too. Brussels is the de facto centre of the European Union, covered in political institutions tasked with governing the bloc.
It’s that eclectic contrast between what’s playful and what’s sobering that makes Belgium’s capital such a treat to explore – that, and all the chocolate, beer and waffles, of course.
To understand how it all began, there’s nowhere better to go than Grand Place. For hundreds of years, this behemoth square has been the beating heart of downtown, with all its 16th-century guildhalls detailed in gold.
Grand Place is where Belgian chocolatier Joseph Draps opened his first shop in 1926, selling decadent truffles and pralines. Today we know his work around the world as the luxury chocolate brand Godiva.
Godiva’s boutique is still in the same spot, right next to La Chaloupe d’Or (in English, The Golden Boot), a brasserie serving traditional Belgian dishes like mussels and fries, and beer-braised rabbit. Godiva is still impossible to miss, especially for all the fresh strawberries that get ceremoniously dipped into chocolate in the shop window.
But there’s much more to Brussels than its historic downtown, and the fame of Godiva. It’s a city that basks in ethnic diversity, with 70 percent of the population coming from outside of Belgium.
Many are professionals in EU bureaucracy, but recent statistics say that 36 percent of residents are non-European immigrants, hailing largely from former Belgian colonies like Morocco, Turkey and parts of North Africa.
So on these cobblestoned corners, you’re likely to hear a bounty of languages being spoken and even blended together – although street signs are always written out in the official languages of French and Flemish.
It’s that multiculturalism – along with historic tension between the country’s French- and Flemish- speaking regions – that has left the city with a vibrant and dynamic arts scene.
According to local experts, over 50 new contemporary galleries and showrooms have opened in Brussels in just the last decade alone.
You’ll also find the highest number of art collectors per capita in the world here (especially recently, as many French nationals have left the country to escape “wealth tax” on assets around 49 million Baht).
Local government is definitely helping the scene to cultivate creativity. Just look at Le Botanique, a cultural complex located in an up-and-coming neighbourhood called Saint Josse.
For over a century, the building was the main orangery of the National Botanic Garden of Belgium. In 1984, it was converted into a venue for concerts, photography exhibitions and film screenings. It’s a much-coveted event space for its rotunda and lofty glass walls.
“I have such a love for Le Botanique,” says Brussels-born graffiti artist and graphic designer Oli-B. “I’ve had super good times at this place. It’s a big place, and there’s still a big garden in front. In terms of architecture, I find it very beautiful and inspiring.”
Around the corner is the appropriately named Hotel Bloom, a boutique art hotel that opened back in 2012. Some 30 years ago, it was one of those standard posh hotels, with a presidential suite that once entertained Michael Jackson and Ronald Reagan. Now it’s a masterpiece, turning its walls into massive canvases for artists from all over the world.
Each of Hotel Bloom’s 305 rooms has been painted with one-of-a-kind frescoes (even the fitness centre and lobby, which was spray-painted by Oli-B). On the website, guests can search the rooms and their designs by the artist’s name, style or even nationality before booking.
Like art in Brussels, the restaurant scene is also heavily influenced by diversity, and Belgium’s need as such to draw out a cultural identity that’s totally unique. Rouge Tomate is the perfect example, a progressive fine-dining eatery inside of an elegant 19th-century townhouse. The focus is on sustainable, nutritious ingredients from a medley of cultures – a typical course could be Moroccan tagine next to filet mignon from Provence, paired with an organic, biodynamic red wine.
Brussels’ patchwork diversity has flown under the radar with tourists for many years. And Deyers, the Canadian expat who started doing walking tours two years ago, hopes to see the oddball city on more European bucket lists in the future.
“In the beginning, Belgium was just the route into Europe for me,” she says. “But after 18 years, I’m still here. And I’m still falling in love with it.”