Bonjour Brussels

The Blaton Terrace Suite at Rocco Forte's Hotel Amigo in Brussels.

Have you heard the news? Brussels, the capital of a united Europe, is also the European capital of good times. A bit off the radar in comparison to Paris or Amsterdam, I’ll grant you, but therein lies the charm. There are some fabulous experiences to be had here, if you know where to look. Savor a kriek, or cherry-flavored beer, in the aptly named Grand Place as you admire the tall gilt-edged medieval guild houses. It’s storybook architecture, but Brussels is earthy and surreal too, a mixed up metropolis where surprises greet the curious stroller at every turn. As you walk around central Brussels you’ll also delight in the many whimsical wall frescoes, often depicting Tintin or other famous Belgian comic strip characters in fanciful colors.

This is a town with gusto and a sense of humor. In Belgium the aristocracy was never quite removed from the wealthy merchants and traders, which translates today into a people who are not arrogant in the French manner, but rather who are so used to high quality they needn’t even demand it. Indeed, you’ll never see the word “gourmet” in a store in Brussels-it’s just taken for granted.

Brussels is a patchwork of neighborhoods that are often very different from one another. Trendy Brussels is centered in and around Rue Dansaert, due south of the ornate stock exchange building. For fabulous flea markets and fun antiquing there’s the Marolles district, especially on Rue Blaes and Rue Haute. The shopping takes a decidedly more posh turn in the Les Sablons quarter, with luxe chocolatier Pierre Marcolini on the Place du Grand Sablon leading the pack. And north of that are leafy residential neighborhoods with some very beautiful Art Nouveau architecture.

But before anything else, consider where you will stay. The Royal Windsor Hotel is distinguished by its collection of Fashion Rooms. These are guestrooms that have been individually decorated by Belgian fashion designers, and each one is different (my favorite is by Nicolas Woit, room 340). And it doesn’t stop there: you can have room service deliver a Fashion Dessert to your door. If that doesn’t keep the fashionista in you from pouting, nothing will. (Phone:;

For a quirky but comfy boutique hotel experience, try the Pacific Café Hotel (; Pacific, because this is where GIs were housed in World War II before they shipped out to the Pacific Theater, and Café because there’s a sleek little restaurant on the ground floor that features a contemporary Belgian take on tapas.

But if it’s the ultimate in location and luxury you want, look no further than the Hotel Amigo, just steps from the iconic Grand Place. Part of the Rocco Forte group, the Italian-owned five star hotel is very stylishly decorated and the entire staff is refreshingly solicitous. The sixth-floor rooms are very charming and the Bocconi restaurant has some of the best Italian food in Brussels.(;; or call Leading Hotels of the World at 800.223.6800.)

Don’t miss the restaurant Barsey, in the Royal Windsor’s sister hotel across town. A sumptuous yet relaxed vibe permeates this space, nestled in elegant Avenue Louise and designed by Jacques Garcia (of Hotel Costes in Paris fame) and located in the très chic Warwick Barsey Hotel. But even better than the velvety fabrics and sleek wait staff is the gorgeous food, from an appetizer of truffled scrambled eggs to a main dish of Merlot-infused Simmenthal steak seasoned with fleur de sel salt. The hot fudge sundae with steaming Belgian chocolate will induce groaning. Friday nights feature performances by a cabaret singer. (;

For a quick beer, pop into the Taverne Greenwich. Magritte was a regular at this atmospheric old Brussels café at 7 Rue des Chartreux. But for a truly intoxicating experience, slip over to the Belgian Center for Comic Strip Art. Comic strip culture has deep roots in Belgium, and characters like Tintin and Lucky Luke are still popular today. The building that houses this museum was designed in 1906 by Belgium’s guru of the Art Nouveau, Victor Horta. Has a great gift shop, too. (

If you want to take a specialized tour of Brussels-say, of Art Nouveau architecture in the outlying districts-and don’t know quite where to begin, call Etienne, a great guide, at 04.7982.1787. He can meet you at your hotel.

The Atelier Coppens gives a good flavor of Belgium’s creative spirit. In Christophe Coppens’ amazing atelier, hats are on parade. They go from understated to outrageous: consider the mesh fedora with a 3D-imprint of a face on top, or another with an outstretched palm. Then there are the phalange-patterned leather gloves and various nifty accessories you won’t find anywhere else. The studio is located at 23 Place du Nouveau Marché aux Grains. (

Finally, if despite Brussels’s many charms you want to travel, take the Thalys train to Paris, an easy journey that clocks in at just over an hour. Get tickets and rail passes before you leave the U.S. by calling Rail Europe at 877.257.2887 or visit