Rhiannon Batten provides a few tips for how to have a green eco escape in Brussels.
Standing awestruck in the Grand Place, strolling among graceful Art Nouveau buildings, imagining Tintin chasing round the Comic Strip Centre or politicians debating in the European Parliament. These are perhaps the stereotypical preconceptions of many visitors to the Belgian capital, yet while Brussels may not immediately associated with leafy open spaces, cycles routes or clean air, perhaps it should.
Since the mid-1990s the greater Brussels region has been developing cycle networks, investing in its parks and forests and encouraging the formation of “green continuities” such as the Promenade Verte, a 63km-long pathway for hikers and cyclists that circles the city. It is also in the process of drawing up a regional development plan that should see the creation of sustainable neighbourhoods across the city and an environmentally sensitive redevelopment of the Heysel Plateau, the first time the site has been updated since the 1958 World’s Fair, for which its famous Atomium monument was built. A demand from Brussels’s citizens for more eco-minded facilities has seen a blossoming of sophisticated organic restaurants, ethical shops and other low-carbon businesses over recent years, making its greener side more obvious – and available - to visitors, as well as locals.
Getting there: For how to travel to Brussels by train from the UK, see our guide to:
Getting around the city: From Brussels Midi station, it’s about a 25-minute walk to the city centre. You can also take a tram to the city centre from just outside the station on Rue Couverte, and there are two bike hire stands outside the station that are part of the city’s bike hire scheme known as ‘Villo’, where you can use a bike for free for the first 30 minutes. Thereafter it costs 50 cents for an extra 30 minutes, then €1 for the next 30 mins, then €2 Euros for every subsequent 30 minutes. There is also a handy app ‘AllBikesNow’ for iPhone and Android, see www.en.villo.be.
Where to stay
Housestories: Demonstrating that Brussels has a seriously stylish side, these five Art Deco serviced apartments, in the southwest of the city, are expertly dressed with modern and vintage furniture. Looks aside, there’s also an emphasis on environmental sensitivities; when the owners renovated the apartments in 2009 they did so by following some very stringent eco credentials. Green features include showers and toilets that run off a greywater system, solar panels, high-grade insulation, and a ground-source heat pump. Avenu Besmelaan 107 (+32 473 641 851; www.housestories.be).
Radisson Blu Royal Hotel
The 281 rooms at this towering, five-star hotel near the Grand Place are deeply luxurious, with kingsize beds, down duvets and powerful showers. If you sleep easier in surroundings that take environmental sensitivities seriously, you’ll be at peace here. Currently holding a three-star Ecodynamic Enterprise label from the Brussels government for its environmental efforts, the hotel also boasts a Green Key certificate for measures such as energy efficient lighting and a recycling programme that includes donating food, and used furniture and clothing, to charity groups. Rue du Fossé-aux-Loups 47 (+32 2 219 2828; www.radissonblu.com).
Aloft Brussels Schuman
The latest brand to join the Starwood Hotels group fold, Aloft hotels are aimed squarely at a younger, socially connected, urban audience. This 147-room branch in the centre of Brussels features rooms with oversized showerheads, free wifi and kingsize beds, a bar that’s home to both a resident DJ and a pool table, a 24-hour “grab and go” cafe and an in-house gym. It’s also Green Key certified, with electricity supplied from renewable sources and rooms cleaned with biodegradable products. Place Jean Rey (+32 2 800 0888; www.aloftbrussels.com).
Sleep Well Hostel
Here's somewhere for those that like to do style on a budget. Sleep Well is one of a new breed of hostels providing maximum comfort at minimum prices. Just north of the Grand Place, its 240 beds range from basic but clean dorms with shared facilities to “luxe” versions with en-suite bathrooms and private, B&B-style rooms. Guests also have access to a restaurant, bar, relaxation area and bike hire service. Holding a two-star Ecodynamic Enterprise label for initiatives such 100% green electricity and low-energy lighting the hostel also gives a proportion of its profits to charitable projects. Rue du Damier 23 (+32 2 218 5050; www.sleepwell.be).
Hotel Silken Berlaymont
With its location in the businesslike European Quarter and some rather bland modern architecture, this is never going to be the sexiest hotel in Brussels. What it lacks in style, however, the 214-room Silken Berlaymont makes up for in environmental conviction. It’s currently in possession of a two-star Ecodynamic Enterprise label thanks to features such as low-flow showerheads, low-energy lighting and guest packages that include city tours by bike. Don’t miss the hotel’s quarterly photography exhibitions, many of which showcase work by up and coming local artists. 11-19 Boulevard Charlemagne (+32 2 231 0909; www.hoteles-silken.com).
Where to eat
Organic fast food
There isn’t always time for a sit-down meal when you’re trying to cram in as many of the city’s sights as possible. If you want to fuel up healthily, however, Brussels has plenty of sustainable fast-food options. Current top picks include HopDog, which does a brisk trade in hot dogs made with veggie, organic or free-range ingredients, Cool Bun, which specialises in homemade, organic burgers, and EXKi, a Belgium-based but Europe-wide chain of healthy fast-food restaurants with menus packed with organic ingredients and branches across Brussels, including one store conveniently located in Brussels Midi train station. HopDog, Rue des Fripiers 21 (no phone; www.hopdog.be); Cool Bun, Rue Berckmans 34 (+32 2 537 8002; www.cool-bun.be); EXKi in various locations, including Rue Marché aux Herbes 93 (+32 2 502 8248; www.exki.be).
As the name suggests, this swanky new restaurant is set just outside Brussels’ Midi station. Owned by Belgian Railways and with culinary journalist Dirk De Prins as general manager, its recipe for regionally inspired cooking, carefully provenanced ingredients (including grass-fed beef from “nose to tail” cooking evangelist and butcher Jack O’Shea, who has a local outlet), over 30 organic or natural wines and beers procured from small local breweries should keep it on the right gastronomic track. Place Victor Horta 26 (+32 2 526 8800; www.midi-station.be).
Open only on weekday lunchtimes, it’s well worth making a detour to this cheerful, homely bistro near Place Flagey. Run by local Slow Food enthusiasts, its small but immaculately assembled daily menu sticks to fresh, seasonal, organic ingredients, cooked from scratch. Dishes range from sophisticated chicken salads to blood sausage served with apple chutney and bulgur salad and polenta served with olives, ewes’ milk cheese and fresh vegetables. Chaussée de Vleurgat 1 (+32 2 640 4057; www.tropbon.be).
Sister restaurant to its namesake in New York, Brussels’ Rouge Tomate takes the organic, slow food ethos as far as possible from the socks and sandals brigade, retaining the ethical philosophy but giving it a contemporary, fine dining spin. A member of the Green Restaurant Association, it also subscribes to a nutritional charter called Sanitas Per Escam, or “Health Through Food”; hence the nutritionist employed to work alongside its chefs. Dishes such as glazed venison shank with salsify, radicchio, gingerbread crumbs, root vegetable chips and sauce poivrade can be washed down with a wide choice of organic wines.
190 Avenue Louise (00 32 2 647 7044; www.rougetomate.be).
Les Filles - Plaisirs Culinaires
Run by three creative friends, Les Filles is a chic cookery studio in Saint Gilles. With décor that might have been designed by the editors of Elle Decoration, not only does it run courses (for adults and children) and deliver lunches to local offices but it also serves fresh, seasonal, organic meals around a friendly communal table from noon to 2.30pm on weekdays. Menus change daily but expect delicately prepared dishes such as green salad with asparagus, violet radishes, green beans and soft-boiled egg, Moroccan chicken pastilla with fresh mango sauce and “very very” chocolate puddings. There’s also a list of natural wines to choose from. Rue Vanderschrick 85 (+32 2 534 0483; www.lesfillesplaisirsculinaires.be).
Where to visit
The Magritte Museum
A three-storey tribute to the Belgian artist René Magritte, this museum displays over 200 of his works in the neoclassical Hotel Altenloh building. The displays of Magritte’s paintings, drawings, sculptures and posters are as surreal as you would expect from the man who painted The Treachery of Images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe) – though that particular work is not here but at Los Angeles County Museum of Art – but the building is also a showcase for environmentally sensitive design with photovoltaic panels on the roof, 100% green electricity, low energy lighting and windows equipped with solar protection films. Place Royale 1 (+32 2 508 3211; www.musee-magritte-museum.be).
Brussels has lots of characterful bustling markets that sell organic honey, cheese, bread, fruit juices and jams direct from local producers. The markets at Place Sainte-Catherine on Wednesdays and, indoors, at the Ateliers des Tanneurs (58-62 Rue des Tanneurs; ateliersdestanneurs.be) on Wednesdays and Sundays are classic hunting grounds. You’ll also find some organic products on sale among the stalls around Place du Châtelain in Ixelles on Wednesday afternoons. On summer evenings, it’s worth going later, when the selling turns into socialising.
Brussels’ 8,500 hectares of parkland, gardens and forest make it one of Europe’s greenest capitals. You don’t have to wander far to find a stretch of trees and grass, from the diminutive Parc de Bruxelles in the city centre to the vast Bois de la Cambre in the south or the manicured Parc du Cinquantenaire in the southeast. One of the most unusual is the Park Maximilien, just north of the Grand Place, which is home to an urban farm complete with vegetable patch, orchard and animals. It’s also equipped with rainwater tanks, greywater systems, a composting site and solar-powered heating. Quai du batelage 2 (+32 2 201 5609; www.lafermeduparcmaximilien.be). Free entrance, open weekdays only.
Museum of Gueuze
Chocolate, waffles and moules frites aside, one of the edible highlights of a trip to Brussels is beer. But go for quality rather than quantity, starting with a visit to the Cantillon brewery. A family-owned business, founded in 1900, Cantillon is the company behind Lambic, Gueuze, Faro and Kriek. All its beers have been made with organic cereals since 1999, using the same age-old processes its founders did. Join a tour here before setting off to explore some of the city’s famous Art Nouveau drinking dens. 56 rue Gheude (+32 2 521 4928; www.cantillon.be). Regular daily tours, except Sunday; €6 per person, including a glass of beer.
Hit the shops
You won’t find hairshirts on sale at Halelujah. The sustainable threads here are as high-end in the style stakes as they are ethical, with brands such as Henrietta Ludgate, Goodone, Christopher Raeburn and Freitag producing clothing and accessories that are either made from natural materials or have been upcycled from pre-loved clothes and fabrics. For one-stop ethical shopping, head instead to SuperGreenMe, an eco-focused department store stocking everything from organic beauty brands to clothing, shoes and homewares. Haleluja, 6 Place du Nouveau Marché aux Grains (+32 2 513 4250; www.haleluja.be); SuperGreenMe, 10, Rue Van Arteveldestraat (+32 2 513 3220; www.supergreenme.be).
What to do
Meet the locals
For a surefire shortcut into local culture, contact Brussels Greeters and you can enjoy an insider insight into the city steered by a trusted local volunteer. Whether your personal passion is comics, cycling or chocolate, if you contact the team through their website two weeks before your stay they will fix you up with a suitable Greeter to meet you and take you on a free, personalised, two- to four-hour tour of the city. For more information see www.brussel.greeters.be.
Chalet Robinson should be better known outside Brussels than it is. A pastoral idyll within the city limits, it’s a restaurant and bar set in wooden chalet on Robinson Island in the Bois de la Cambre. The closest you’ll get to a country escape without leaving town, all sorts of activities are on offer in the surroundings woods and parkland, from Ultimate Frisbee courses to themed walks, rollerblading tours and bike rides. For true romance, however, hire a rowing boat from the shoreline by the chalet and set off onto the water à deux. Sentier de l’Embarcadère 1, Bois de la Cambre (+32 2 372 9292; www.chaletrobinson.be).
On your bike
Local cycling operators Cactus&co and Pro Velo both offer innovative guided cycling tours of Brussels. To get off the beaten cycle path, Cactus&co’s four-hour Undiscovered Brussels ride covers the city’s more offbeat neighbourhoods and architectural attractions while ProVelo runs a whole range of guided and self-guided tours, including several on a green theme that take in some of Brussels’ best parks, gardens and nature reserves. Undiscovered Brussels tours cost from €20pp, including bike hire (www.cactus-co.be). ProVelo tours cost from €17pp per half-day, including bike rental and guiding; self-guided tours can be downloaded, free, from the company’s website www.provelo.org.
Find out more about Brussels’ cocoa-dusted heritage by joining a four-hour chocolate themed walking - and tasting - tour of the city. As well as classic outlets such as Wittamer, Neuhaus and Godiva, the route covers small specialist shops such as Pure, in the Grand Sablon, which specialises in organic varieties. It also includes a hands-on workshop with a Master Chocolatier where you’ll learn how to craft your own confections. Too much indulgence? Strap on your trainers instead and join an hour-long, guided “sightjogging” trip around the city. (+32 4793 19003; www.globalenterprises.be; sightjogging tours 00 32 4716 66424; www.brusselssightjogging.com)
Take the plunge
It may not be quite the same as jumping off a boat in Polynesia but the Nemo 33 dive training facility is designed to enable locals and visitors to work on their sub-aqua skills without flying to tropical climes. The closest Brussels gets to Bora Bora, the deepest manmade pool in the world was built using such sustainable building techniques as energy recovery systems and solar panels. The end result is a site that consumes 50% less energy than a traditional swimming pool. +32 2 332 3334; www.nemo33.com. Beginners courses are available.
Written by Rhiannon Batten
[Photo credits: Main photo: Porte de Hal, Hallepoort. Copyright: OPT-JP Remy. Small photos, left to right: Housestories Apartments; Les Filles – Plaisirs Culinaires; Brasserie Cantillon, Copyright: Brasserie Cantillon; boating at Chalet Robinson. Train photo and cycling photo: Copyright Eurostar]