Literary City Guide | Brussels, Belgium
Tour Guide: Jeannette Cook
A native of Detroit, Michigan, Jeannette moved to Brussels in 1997 intending to stay three years. Seventeen years later, she’s still here. She blogs about Brussels, books and baking at ceci n’est pas une cuisine. (All photos by Jeannette Cook.)
Relationship to Brussels: The guest who never left.
Writer you'd like to invite to dinner: Joanna Trollope
Chef you'd like to prepare the meal: Yotam Ottolenghi
Writing soundtrack: If I’m writing at home I prefer to have quiet, but I like writing in cafés in part because of the noise in the background.
Pen or Pencil: Pen
Coffee or Tea: Coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon.
Paperback or Hardback: Paperback
Cook & Book. A wonderland for hungry bookworms, this bookstore-cum-restaurant complex must be seen to be believed. In the travel section, for example, you can eat in a converted Airstream trailer. English books get their own, very British, treatment. (And the food is good, too.)
Passa Porta Bookshop. The emphasis is on literary fiction at the bookstore of the International House of Literature. Dutch, English, French and German fiction is all well-represented.
Pêle-Mêle. The Ixelles branch of this second-hand emporium has the best selection of used English books in town. Searching through the haphazardly alphabetized stock is part of the fun.
Tropismes. Set in the Galerie des Princes, this jewel of a bookstore has a small but very well-chosen English section. The tiny, enclosed garden is a delight.
Muntpunt. The Flemish Community’s five-storey public library welcomes everyone, no matter what language they speak. Overlooking the busy Place de la Monnaie, its core collection contains books in more than 50 languages including nearly 20,000 English titles.
READINGS & CONFERENCES
Passa Porta. The International House of Literature promotes contemporary world literature through an annual literary festival, reading series, and writers-in-residence program.
Sterling Books. This independent English bookshop, originally based on the concept that each book would cost the equivalent in euros of its price in pounds sterling, hosts readings, writing workshops and other activities throughout the year.
Bozar Book Club. This reading group with a multilingual twist meets monthly, alternating between Flemish, French and English books in the Palais des Beaux-Arts, a building designed by Belgian architect Victor Horta.
The Brussels Writers Circle. Get support and feedback on your work-in-progress this English-language writing group. If you’re writing in English you’re welcome to join any of the three weekly meetings, even if you’re just passing through.
Librarium. Deep inside the National Library at the Mont des Arts is a museum devoted to the history of books and writing. The highlight is the study of Brussels avant-garde writer Michel de Ghelderode, which he filled with weird and wonderful objects. While you’re there enjoy the rooftop garden, one of the city’s least-known green spaces.
Typographe. Lovers printing and paper should make the detour to Place du Châtelain for this gem of a stationery store and workshop, where thank you notes, invitations, notebooks and more are printed on a Heidelberg press using traditional lead and wood type blocks.
Comic Book Trail. You can use the map, or let serendipity guide you to the murals painted in homage to Belgium’s comic book heroes. Clever uses of side facades integrate the images into the urban landscape, often with a trompe l’oeil effect.
“In the steps of Maurice Carême.” This walking tour lets you wander in world of one of Belgium’s best-known poets, taking you through the house and Anderlecht neighborhood where he lived and wrote for 60 years.
Naturale Caffè. Make your way up Avenue Louise to the corner of Rue Lesbroussart, or opt for the Mont des Arts location (see my favorites). Either way, some of the best coffee in town awaits you.
Jat’ Café. In Brusseleir dialect, a “zjat Kaffei” is a cup of coffee. This light, airy, retro-feeling café, a stone’s throw from the Museum of Fine Arts, is a good alternative to the pricey places in the Sablon.
Via Via. You’ll forgive this irresistibly hidden place – you enter through a passage near the Place Ste-Catherine – for being part of a chain. Charming, friendly, with board games for use and travel guides to browse through on a shelf along the back wall.
La Belladonne. Atmospheric and authentic, this moody café could easily become a favorite. In the art nouveau neighborhood a short walk from the Horta House.
OR Espresso Bar. The team at this specialty coffee shop selects, roasts and blends all of the coffee they sell, giving special attention to the best preparation for each type of bean. Savor the results while watching the world go by from the ground floor window.
A PROPER MEAL
En Face du Parachute. A cosy, bistro-y restaurant serving seasonal, French-influenced food. The décor features booths made from old train benches and a menu written on a chalkboard – it’s always fun to decipher French handwriting.
L’Idiot du Village. Serving eclectic French/Belgian cuisine, there is nothing foolish about this playful restaurant. Located in the Marolles district – if you’re in the “ville haute” take the elevator down from Place Poelaert.
Strofilia. Stylish, fresh, exceptionally tasty Greek food served in a 17th century wine cellar. Ask them to put together a mezze for you.
Sale Pepe Rosmarino. According to those who know, this is the most authentic Italian restaurant in the city. Make sure you reserve, because it’s not only popular, it’s also tiny. Located in the small streets of St-Gilles south of Place Louise, you might walk past it if you didn’t know better. Fortunately, you do.
Au Vieux Bruxelles. It’d be criminal if I didn’t include at least one go-to place for moules-frites. This is it, and don’t let anyone try and tell you otherwise. All of the classic Belgian dishes are represented, from boulettes sauce tomate to stoemp to waterzooi. Red and white checkered tablecloths and wood-paneling complete the experience.
A.M. Sweet. This tea room in the heart of the city offers a vast selection of teas and desserts so hard to choose between that the best thing to do is go with a friend and share an assortment. If you’re lucky you’ll get the upstairs alcove to yourselves.
Glacier Zizi. For utterly delicious homemade ice cream and sorbet take the no. 3 or 4 tram to this celebrated yet unpretentious Uccle institution. Afterwards stroll down Avenue Molière and into St-Gilles, and see if you can find the Maison les Hiboux (the owl house).
Le Perroquet. With its art nouveau interior, this resto-bar is a treat for the eye as well as the stomach. Choose from salads and pitas stuffed with a variety of ingredients, or just go straight for the moelleux au chocolat.
Arcadi. Specializing in tarts both savoury and sweet, the waiters will always find you a seat at this lively café.
Jeannette's 5 Favorites
Favorite view: From the top of the Ferris wheel at the Christmas market in Place Sainte-Catherine.
Favorite place to write: I try to stick to my desk at home, but if I need to get out I like the table by the window upstairs at the Exki on Place Stéphanie.
Favorite museum: The Royal Museum for Central Africa. With long, mosaic-tiled hallways, 1950s-era dioramas, and countless jars of amphibians preserved in alcohol, it’s the perfect place to lose yourself on a rainy afternoon.
Favorite coffee shop: Natural Caffè on the Mont des Arts – impeccable coffee, plenty of light, perfect for people-watching and multilingual eavesdropping.
Favorite thing about Brussels: Brussels gets on average about 200 rainy days per year, but at the merest hint of fair weather, tables and chairs appear outside on pavements all over town. I love that.