Derek Blyth is the former editor of The Bulletin and author of the bestselling The 500 Hidden Secrets of Brussels. He picks out ten of his favourite hidden secrets in every issue for The Brussels Times Magazine. These are the picks in the latest December issue.
This corner coffee bar opened a few months ago on the Chaussée de Charleroi. The owners Julien and Olivia call it an urban retreat. The interior is decorated in a relaxed Nordic style with bare brick, pale wood tables and tree trunk stools. As well as great coffee, they serve up organic quiches, sandwiches and cheesecake.
Seven street artists were recruited recently to bring some creative energy to the Rue de Namur, where shops have been closing down at an alarming rate. The artists left behind some striking art on high blank walls and the metal shutters of defunct shops. You can spot a bird by Antwerp artist Steve Locatelli on the wall of the Chambord Hotel, mysterious abstract art by Parole and Eye B squeezed down the narrow Rue du Baudet and strange portraits by the street artist Spear on the side wall of No. 14.
Rue de Namur, Central Brussels
Five young Brussels designers have turned an old Marolles town house into a hub of contemporary design. They sell original jewellery, ceramics, textiles and accessories, as well as quirky objects that catch their eye. It’s the perfect place to head if you are hunting desperately for a gift to take from Brussels that isn’t a box of chocolates.
Rue Blaes 154, Marolles
The artist Emilio Lopez Menchero constructed this giant steel megaphone in 2006 as a monument to migrants. It was inspired by the Spanish rebel Dolores Ibarruri who appeared in a film scripted by Ernest Hemmingway making passionate speeches from a megaphone on the back of a truck.
Avenue de Stalingrad, Gare du Midi quarter
The alternative travel organisation Use-It has been making cool city maps for young tourists for the past ten years. They started with a guide to Ghent, and now cover more than 40 destinations across Europe, from Barcelona to Utrecht. Earlier this year, the organisation opened an alternative tourist office in the Galerie Ravenstein, next to Central Station, where you can drop in to pick up a free city map or ask the staff about the best place in town to eat stoemp.
Galerie Ravenstein 25, Central Brussels www.touristinfoforyoungpeople.be
Not many people send postcards any more, but that doesn’t stop graphic artist Mariska Clerebout from selling them. She stocks quirky and original cards in a bright Nordic-style shop in the Marolles. You can also pick up original graphic art, vintage Brussels photographs and odd souvenirs.
Some of Belgium’s most talented street artists have left their mark in the narrow Rue des Chandeliers. In the past, they might have been arrested, but the enlightened Brussels city council now wants to encourage urban art. As a result, several artists were commissioned recently to decorate a blank wall, including Parole, Obêtre, Spencer and Doctor H.
Rue des Chandeliers, Marolles
Here is a tiny Japan-inspired spot down by Place Flagey with barely room for twenty people to squeeze inside. The interior is strictly minimalist with red wooden stools, framed Japanese art and neatly-placed sauce bottles. The kitchen produces a limited menu that includes tasty gyoza dumplings as well as big rice bowls filled with generous portions of fried pork and vegetables.
Rue Lesbroussart 8, Flagey www.takumi.be
This is a nostalgic coffee bar and grocery store down by Place St. Catherine with a touch of Amélie Poulain. It’s furnished in Sixties pop style with white Eames chairs, bright lamps and a turquoise espresso machine. They serve soup in old-fashioned bowls, along with original sandwiches and Brussels craft beers. You can also buy home-made jam and chutney with quirky names on the labels like Yellow Submarine and Dark Side of the Spoon.
Quai au Bois à Brûler 11, St Catherine www.pipaillon.com
This quirky shop sells gifts that appeal to the eclectic tastes of cool Brussels shoppers. In a pastel-coloured interior evoking Expo 58, you find pink cushions, old kitchen scales and little tins of Portuguese sardines.
Rue des Chartreux 46, Dansaert District www.toit-bruxelles.be