Brussels matches London and Paris for big-ticket fashion labels — here you can have your Gucci and wear it to breakfast too. However, the real charm of shopping here comes from riffling through the antiques shops of the Marolles district, finding a rare book in the marketplace, and letting handmade chocolates melt in your mouth.
As you’d expect, the Grand Place and its surrounding streets are dominated with overpriced souvenir shops (miniature Manneken Pis, anyone?), but mixed among them are some quality lace and chocolate shops. The covered Galeries Royales St-Hubert situated nearby house the boutiques of a handful of revered designers like Oliver Strelli — who designs clothes for the royal family — as well as handbag designer Delvaux’s flagship store.
South of the Grand Place, Rue du Midi — aka collectors’ alley — is the go-to area for artists, philatelists and numismatists. The Sablon and Marolles districts specialise in antiques: the pricier ones are found in the immaculate boutiques of Sablon; Marolles’s grittier, junk-shop style outlets are concentrated along Rue Blaes and Rue Haute. The wide tree-lined Avenue Louise — and its offshoot Rue du Bailli — is famous for international brands like Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Christian Dior and Hermès.
North of the Grand Place, Rue Antoine Dansaert is the epicentre of Brussels’ avant-garde fashion labels and stores like Stijl (Rue Antoine Dansaert 74) display collections designed by the Antwerp Six. In contrast, Rue Neuve is the main shopping street for high-street clothing brands like H&M, Massimo Dutti, Benetton etc and it’s also the site of City 2 (Rue Neuve 123) shopping centre.
Brussels was built upon the marketplace and the tradition is still thriving with literally dozens of markets – selling everything from bouquets of flowers to bikes – taking place every day of the week. Below are the highlights; pop into the tourist office for a full list.
For antiques, you can’t beat the Marché des Antiquites et du Livres (Place du Grand-Sablon; www.sablonantiquesmarket.com; open: 9am—5pm Saturday, 9am—2pm Sunday) or the bric-a-brac Marché aux Puces (Place du Jeu de Balle; www.marcheauxpuces.org; open: 7am—2pm every day, best at weekends), where you can find everything from crockery to cupboards.
For food, the biggest is certainly Marché du Midi (Boulevard de l’Europe; open: 5am–1pm Sunday) with more than 450 stalls selling sizzling chicken, tropical fruit, bargain clothes — you name it! Runner-up is Anderlecht’s weekend market on Rue Ropsy Chaudron (open: 7am—1pm Friday—Sunday). Just as big as the Marché du Midi, but with less pickpockets, this weekend market is held in the old abattoir warehouse and sells all manner of meat, fruit and veg. Alternatively, Place St-Catherine hosts a seafood market (7am—5pm Thursday, Friday, Saturday) and also an organic-only market (open: 7.30am—3pm Wednesday).
Last but not least, are the Christmas markets (www.plaisirsdhiver.be). These start up around the last weekend of November and run until January 1. Start out on the Grand Place, whose cobbles are usually decorated with an enormous Christmas tree and other festive decorations and head toward La Bourse, where there are usually a handful of stalls. From there, make your way to the main market on Quai aux Briques. Here there’s usually an open-air ice rink, a Ferris wheel and the famous wooden huts ladling out tummy-warming tartiflette and plastic cups of spicy glüwein.
Art and antiques: Heirlooms and valuable items were confiscated by the Germans during both World Wars and those with a keen eye can pick up everything from Art Nouveau lamps to pointillist paintings. Bargains are rare, but on the whole prices are fair.
Beer: Buy a crate after a tour of Cantillon (Rue Gheude 56; www.cantillon.be), Brussels’ last remaining brewery based in Anderlecht. Alternatively, if you are in a rush call in at:
Delices & Caprices (Rue des Bouchers 68; tel: +32 2 512 14 51) just off the Grand Place and run by the personable and knowledgeable Pierre Zuber.
Beermania (Chaussée de Wavre 174—176; www.beermania.be) in the Ixelles district stocks roughly 400 varieties.
Biertempel (Rue du Marché aux Herbes 56B; tel: +32 2 502 19 06) Offers a good selection of gift sets.
Biscuits: Belgians like to dunk them in their coffee or spread them between a sandwich. By far the most popular nibble to have with your afternoon coffee is speculoos – a cinnamon-flavoured cookie that frequently appears in dessert recipes. Try it at the beloved Maison Dandoy (Rue au Beurre 31; open: 8am—6pm Monday—Saturday, 10.30am—6.30pm Sunday) whose store, just off the Grand Place, has been in situ since 1829.
Chocolate: The hallmark of quality Belgian chocolate is in the name: ignore shops advertising ‘real Belgian chocolate’ or those entitled ‘chocolopolis’ or other such nonsense and stick with individual names like Neuhaus, Marcolini etc. If you’re on a budget, try brands like Leonidas or Godiva; if you want to splash out, head for shops belonging to Pierre Marcolini – the world’s premier chocolatier.
Le Chocolatier Manon (Rue du Congrès 24; www.chocolatiermanon.com)
Leonidas (Rue au Beurre 34 & Galerie Raventstein & Grand Sablon 41; www.leonidas.com)
Mary’s (Rue Royale 73; www.mary.be)
Neuhaus (Galerie de la Reine 25—27 & Grand Place 27; www.neuhaus.be)
Pierre Marcolini (www.marcolini.be) Owns four stores in Brussels: the flagship store on Avenue Louise 75M and an outlet in Eurostar departure lounge at Brussels-Midi train station.
Wittamer (Place du Grand-Sablon 12—13; www.wittamer.com)
Comic books: Brussels is a mecca for fanboys and there are numerous shops selling new and second-hand comics. Best among them are:
Bande des Six Nez (Chaussée de Wavre 179; www.labandedessixnez.com)
Espace BD (Place Fernand Cocq 2; www.espacebd.com)
Forbidden Zone (Rue de Tamines 25; www.forbiddenzone.net)
Nine City (Boulevard Reyers 32; www.ninecity.be)
The Skull (Chaussée de Waterloo 336; www.skullbd.be)
Lace: Lace (dentelle in French, kant in Dutch) is enjoying a revival of late and despite cheap imports from the Far East dominating the market, the number of outlets specialising in local cotton bobbin lace is gradually rising. Naturally, these examples are more expensive and price is determined according to the size and complexity of the design. Family-run shops worth visiting in Brussels are: Maison Rubbrecht (Grand Place 23), Maison Antoine (Grand Place 26), La Manufacture Belge de la Dentelle (Galerie de la Reine 6-8) and Louise Verschueren (Rue Watteeu 16).
As a rule of thumb, most shops are open 10am—6pm/7pm Monday—Saturday and closed on Sunday. However, souvenir and chocolate shops in touristy areas tend to stay open on Sundays. Some areas stay open for late-night shopping on Thursdays: see my Brussels insider tips for details.