William Cook

In defence of Brussels, Europe’s most underrated city break

Why does it have such a poor reputation?

  • From Spectator Life

Strolling around the Belgian Comic Strip Center, admiring the elegant artwork of Hergé (creator of Tintin), I wonder for the umpteenth time why so many of my British friends are so disparaging about Brussels.

It’s one of my favourite cities, but most Britons I know wouldn’t dream of planning a break here. They don’t know what they’re missing. I’ve been here countless times, yet on each visit I discover something new. It’s full of quirky shops and exquisite restaurants, and there are some excellent museums too. If your idea of fun (like mine) is nosing around art galleries and antique shops, with plenty of pitstops en route, you’ll have a terrific time. I’ve never eaten better than in Brussels – and the beer (and the coffee) is superb.

So why does this place have such a bad reputation back in Blighty? Mainly because it’s become a byword for Britain’s endless squabbles with the EU. However, for much of its history Brussels has been resolutely Anglophile. The UK had a big hand in the creation of Belgium, and during the 19th century Brussels forged close commercial links with London. There are ornate relics of this special relationship in those lovely Art Nouveau landmarks, the Old England department store and the Gresham Life Assurance building. And now, thanks to Eurostar, these kindred cities are only two hours apart.

The former Old England department store, built in 1899 [iStock]

I’ve been travelling from London to Brussels by train for more than 20 years, and it’s a journey I never tire of: no need to trek out to the airport; no need to cram all your luggage into one tiny carry-on case. On board, there’s plenty of room to stretch your legs. Yet this new proximity has been a mixed blessing. For British business travellers, Brussels has become a day-trip destination: the first train out, a slew of boring business meetings and the last train home again.

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