Not just business in Brussels

by Jeff.Mills

As well as being the headquarters of the European Commission, Brussels has plenty more to offer as the destination for an exciting business trip

Central Brussels is divided into two main areas, the Upper and Lower Towns. The Lower Town is made up of the medieval city centre, built around the imposing former market square of Grand Place, from where it is easy to get around on foot to popular quarters such as Ilôt Sacré, Ste Catherine, St Géry and Marolles.
The Upper Town, to the southeast, has a very different feeling. The traditional heartland of the city’s French-speakers, it is an area of wide boulevards, major museums, chic shopping areas around Sablon and Avenue Louise and grand buildings.
Brussels has an excellent choice of transport, both within the city itself and further afield. There is an efficient Metro system as well as a tram and bus network, which covers most parts. Four main train stations act as gateways if you need to travel to the suburbs or to other parts of the country or, indeed, other parts of Europe.
The Conrad
There may be plenty of newer competition, but this hotel on the fashionable Avenue Louise, with all its designer shops, can still claim to be one of the best in the city, with the kind of customer service and attention to detail you would expect from one of the greats. Small wonder this is the choice of minor royalty and visiting politicians, as well as senior executives who need to be seen in the right places.
Sofitel Brussels Europe
A welcome addition to the rather sterile EU quarter of Brussels, this upmarket hotel seems to get most things right. With stylish modern furniture, marble floors, and plenty of natural light, it presses all the right buttons. Rooms are equipped with large flat-screen televisions.
The Dominican
One of the city’s best hip but elegant new hotels. The building is on the site of a Dominican abbey, hence the name, and was once home to the French painter, Jacques-Louis David. High ceilings and dramatic archways set the tone, and the guest rooms are anything but monastic, featuring, as they do, all the modern amenities you would expect. There’s also a very atmospheric bar that draws in the after-work crowd.
Grand Sablon Manor
A good choice if you are spending your own money. The hotel may not be quite “Brussels’s best-kept secret”, as its management like to call it, but, that said, it’s discreet enough to be slightly off the normal tourist track. A few things you need to know, though. Not all guest rooms have Internet access, a television or even a telephone, there’s no lift, and no reception or restaurant (breakfast is delivered to your door from a local patisserie). On the plus side, rooms have kitchens, so you can self-cater if you choose, and some have attractive balconies.
L'Ancienne Poissonnerie
Close to the European Parliament and a host of banking, law and consultancy offices, this Italian fish restaurant attracts enthusiastic lunch crowds. There’s a superb Art-Nouveau façade and original ceiling features. Expect friendly and informal service. (65, rue du Trone)
La Grande Porte
Just southwest of the Marolles, the area around this restaurant is made up of galleries and bric-a-brac shops, and has a slightly faded charm. A classic bistro with lots of dark wood and quirky décor; they even play French cabaret music from the speakers. The food, served in generous portions, includes Belgian classics. ( 9, rue Notre Seigneur)
Le Stevin
Elegant and understated, Le Stevin is a traditional French restaurant you could eat in happily all the time. There is a reasonably priced set menu and the patron will be hovering helpfully. This is a seriously good restaurant. (29 rue Saint-Quentin
Others worth checking out include L’Archiduc, an atmospheric old bar where anyone familiar with UK pubs will feel at home (6 rue Antoine Dansaert), and Cobra, with a large selection of the beers for which Brussels is rightly well known (1 rue des Chartreux).
Francophone business culture tends to be slightly more formal, while directness and informality are more the norm among Dutch-speakers. If you are doing business at the EU it’s worth remembering that its executives are often relaxed, so wearing a suit is not usually necessary.
Grand Place: a magnificent square and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Look out for the dramatic gothic and baroque facades of the guild houses and the Town Hall’s towering spire, making this one of the most dramatic squares to be found in any European city. 
Cathédrale St-Michel et Ste-Gudule: this Gothic cathedral, dedicated to the two patron saints of Brussels, is the finest building in the city centre.
Place du Jeu de Balle: in the heart of the Marolles, the Jeu de Balle was built as a working-class neighbourhood in the 17th century. Parts of it are gentrified now, especially houses on the main streets - rue Blaise and the rue Haut - some of which are now smart antiques shops.
European Union Parliament: the shiny collection of geometric shapes that make up the EU Parliament building, on rue Wiertz in the middle of the city’s modern European quarter, should certainly be on your itinerary.
Brussels is one hour ahead of UK time.
Office hours are generally Monday to Friday, 8.30am to 5.30pm.
The city is officially bilingual (French and Dutch), but English is spoken almost everywhere.
Always carry a passport or similar ID. Belgian bureaucracy demands it even on relatively trivial occasions.


Jeff Mills has been reporting on the business and leisure travel and lifestyle sectors for more than 30 years, during which time he has visited most countries of the world at least once. A previous editor of the leading travel industry newspaper, Travel Weekly, and travel editor of Sunday Business, London-based Mills now has a business travel column in the Spectator Business and writes on travel regularly for a number of national newspapers, glossy consumer magazines and travel websites.