Derek Blyth is the 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 February issue.
THE MODERN ALCHEMIST
Three young barmen run this cocktail bar in a hip corner of Saint-Gilles. It’s a relaxed spot where the focus is on rum cocktails made from their stock of 70 carefully-chosen brands. They will also pour you a gin cocktail if that is your thing.
Established in a back street off Avenue Louise in 1999, Thérèse et Dominuque make some of the best Italian-style sandwiches in town. They recently upgraded the interior and introduced online reservations to beat the long queue. Try their Bonne Maman sandwich made with meatloaf, courgettes, grilled red peppers, rocket (arugula in the US) and their own homemade cocktail sauce. Or put together your own sandwich with just about any ingredient you want.
This old corner café was once a meeting place for local trade unions. It has kept its authentic Belgian bar interior including wood-panelled walls, ancient furniture and even the little metal sign pointing to the urinoir. Football fans come here to watch the local team Union Saint-Gillois on a flat screen TV perched precariously on a wooden beer crate. The terrace on the cobbled square quickly fills up at the first hint of spring.
Parvis de Saint-Gilles 55, Saint-Gilles
Former diplomat Philippe Vertriest made a dramatic career switch in 2014 when he launched a Belgian fashion label inspired by African body painting art. He has put together a team in Ethiopia to create warm, abstract designs based on ancient traditions of the Kara tribe. You can follow the Akaso story in a slideshow projected on the wall of the flagship store, located in the Galeries Saint-Hubert.
Galerie du Roi 1, Central Brussels +32 (0)2 513 20 07, www.akaso.eu
PARC DE LA MAISON DES ARTS
Most people in Brussels have never set foot inside this secret urban park. It lies hidden behind a neoclassical mansion in Schaerbeek. Built in 1826 by a wealthy cloth merchant, the ancient crumbling mansion is now occasionally used for art exhibitions, while the garden at the back is dotted with old trees, benches and statues. But the most striking detail is the Brussels estaminet (bistro) in the former saddler’s building which has a wood-panelled interior rescued from a demolished restaurant. Open for lunch from Monday to Friday.
Chaussée de Haecht 147, Schaerbeek
BELGE UNE FOIS
Local creatives Natacha and Arthur run a charming store in the Marolles where they sell quirky Belgian objects along with vintage furniture. You can pick up Brussels craft beers, odd postcards and clothes for kids. Or even a vintage school map of Belgium to hang on your apartment wall.
You can’t miss Tokidoki. It’s the restaurant with the bizarre messages written on the window. This surprising and still secret spot is run by Loïc, an Italian video artist who learned to cook in Japan. He offers authentic Japanese home cooking in an intimate setting using fresh vegetables from local farms. Send an email or text message to book.
The city’s largest cemetery is a romantic spot to go on a winter afternoon. Located in Evere commune, a 30-minute bus ride from the centre, it is landscaped with broad tree-lined avenues. Here you find the graves of burgomasters and generals, many of them familiar from Brussels street names.
There are also several memorials to soldiers who died in various conflicts, including an impressive British monument commemorating officers killed in the Battle of Waterloo.
Avenue du Cimetière de Bruxelles, Evere
Sisters Liu and Lin have created a relaxed urban canteen where you can try vegan versions of Taiwan-style streetfood. They offer a long list of options, including Taiwan dumpling soup and “crispy chicky bowl”. It’s an inspired experiment in plant-based cooking that might impress even the most stubborn of meat eaters.
This stylish corner coffee shop opened recently in a back street off Place Louise. It’s the latest in a new wave of Brussels cafes with bright, relaxed interiors. The style is eclectic, with multi-coloured chairs, bookcases and potted plants. But maybe the big attraction here is the glass-walled kids’ room filled with toys and books. Perfect for stressed urban parents.