Earlier this year, the central boulevards were turned over to pedestrians. So you can now stroll all the way from the Bourse to De Brouckère without encountering any cars. It's a strange and slightly unsettling experience for those of us who have become unaccustomed to Belgium's unholy alliance with the automobile.
Some people are very angry. But it's hard to imagine that the city will change its mind any time soon. It has come too far for that.
My secret places :: downtown Brussels walk
My forgotten museums :: Plaster cast workshop
01 :: Begin at Place de Brouckère. Stroll down the car-free central boulevards as far as Bourse.
02 :: Turn right down Rue Orts. Soon you reach the end of the car-free zone. Keep on down Rue Dansaert until you come to the canal.
03 :: Turn right along the canal. Here you can walk along a wooden boardwalk built recently along the canalside (but still unfinished).
04 :: You reach the busy Place Sainctelette where street artists recently decorated the lower walls along the canal.
05 :: Cross the canal and turn right. Walk past industrial buldings until you see a small urban park on your right. Admire the street art sprayed on walls by Belgian artists including the Farm Prod collective.
06 :: Stand on the waterfront to admire the huge comic mural by Pratt.
07 :: Follow the canal until you come to a bridge. Cross the canal here. You come to the Up-Site skyscraper overlooking the canal. The city has ambitious plans to create a new urban neighbourhood here, but it still has to sort out public transport if that is to work.
08 :: Turn down the canal to reach Brussels Beach where you can end the walk sitting in a stripey deckchair with a summer cocktail (until the end of summer).
Monsieur Jean comic book mural by Dupuy and Berberian in Rue des Bogards
My secret art space :: Patinoire Royale
My secret art space :: Patinoire Royale
My secret places :: Hidden Brussels
Gallery curator Valérie Bach has transformed a 19th century skating rink – the Patinoire Royale – into a striking contemporary art gallery. The impressive industrial building – once used as a garage selling luxury cars like Bugattis and Packards – reopened earlier this year as a home for art exhibitions. It’s worth taking a look inside if you are in the neighbourhood.
Rue Veydt 15
Hardly anyone in Brussels knows about the plaster cast workshop in the Cinquantenaire Park. Not even Belgians who have lived here all their lives. Yet this secret museum and workshop gives visitors a unique glimpse behind the scenes of an almost forgotten craft.
But first of all you have to find the entrance, which is hidden behind a car park at the back of Autoworld. Visitors enter through a vast hall filled with plaster cast statues of Greek mythological heroes. The building seems at first to be deserted. The floor is covered with dead leaves blown in from the park.
One of the most important film museums in the world is hidden down an alley behind Bozar
The film museum is one of those secret Brussels places that no one tells you about. Founded back in 1938, it has gradually built up an exceptional archive collection of 75,000 movies, making it the third largest collection in the world.
The collection has steadily grown since the 1970s because a copy of every film screened in Belgium has to be deposited in the archive after it has finished its run. Among the hidden treasures are artists’ films by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, as well as the only surviving copies of no less than 100 American silent movies.
My secret filmhouse :: Cinematek
My secret places :: Brussels city archives
My secret weekend :: Sundays in the city
Hidden gem :: Brussels city archives
The perfect Sunday walk in Brussels begins at Place Flagey, and follows the Ixelles ponds as far as the Abbaye de la Cambre. Here you can wander among the formal gardens and fountains, before heading back to Place Flagey for a coffee in Café Belga.
My secret arcade :: Galerie Bortier
Here is a forgotten arcade from the nineteenth century that few people ever visit. It is a dusty, melancholy place with little shops occupied by booksellers and art galleries. It needs something more to bring it back to life, like a cool fashion shop or a stylish cafe. Or maybe it should just be left untouched, as a quiet place for browsing in racks of old French paperbacks.
My secret thermes :: Boetfort
It can only be a few hundred metres from the main runway at Brussels Airport, but Boetfort is one of the most peaceful places around Brussels.
After skirting the airport perimeter, you turn into a car park and see in front of you an old Flemish castle with round turrets and an impressive gatehouse. Behind those ancient walls is a modern thermal centre with saunas, swimming pools, jacuzzis and relaxation areas.
The first thing you need to decide is whether you are going to use the naked area or the clothed area (swim suits for women, skimpy trunks for men, but not swimming shorts. It's of course up to you. But naked is the correct way to do it if you want to follow the Finns.
You don't even have to be naked all the time in the naked area. Most people walk around in a towel and strip off for the saunas or the pool. You can still be quite modest, and the advantage of the naked area is that it includes the garden and some of the most interesting saunas. But it is really up to you.
The complex incorporates several of the castle's former outbuildings. The steam room is located in an old wine cellar, and one sauna is located in the former stable block. Another is buried below ground in an old ice cellar, while the almost unbearably hot Russian sauna is in an underground mine.
The rules are fairly relaxed. You need to show an identity card on arrival and respect the clothing regulations. The staff are friendly and speak several languages.
My secret book :: Charlotte Brontë's Villette
Where, exactly, did Charlotte Brontë stay during her time in Brussels. The Pensionnat Heger was torn down many years ago, but Dutch historian Eric Ruijssenaars has researched in the Brussels city archives to find out everything he can about the lost Isabelle quarter where Charlotte lived for two years.
Ruijssenaars has already published two essential books on the Brontës in Brussels. He now plans to a 'virtual guided tour' of the quarter using his extensive archive of maps and photographs.
My 4 secret
02 National Library »
Here is one of the most secret gardens in the city. Hidden away on the roof of the National Library is a rooftop garden (above),
where an organic gardener cultivates herbs and lavender, and keeps some urban bees. The herbs are used by the kitchen staff.
Open Mon to Fri from 09.00 to 15.30. Closed at weekends
No. 247 in The 500 Hidden Secrets of Brussels
03 Cercle des Voyageurs »
The Cercle des Voyageurs somehow feels like a private club. Maybe that's deliberate. It lies just a few dozen steps from the Manneken Pis, so could easily be mobbed with tourists. It remains a calm spot for a coffee, with a few wooden tables out on the street surrounded by greenery.
No. 136 in The 500 Hidden Secrets of Brussels
Rue des Grands Carmes 18
04 L'Orangerie du Parc d'Egmont »
Here is a secret spot hidden behind the fashion shops on Boulevard du Waterloo. You go down an ancient cobbled lane and enter a small urban park with a whitewashed building. Once an orangerie, this is now a café-restaurant with tables shaded by old trees. The perfect place to meet a friend on a Saturday afternoon.
No. 144 in The 500 Hidden Secrets of Brussels
01 Beursschouw-burg »
opens its rooftop terrace (above) for a few weeks every summer. Here it hosts free concerts, film screenings and cool parties. One of the best-kept secrets of Brussels, it lasts just a few short weeks, and only if the weather allows. Take the lift to the fifth floor.
Rue A. Orts 20
My 5 secret
01 Forêt de Soignes »
Take the metro to Herrmann-Debroux and head out of town. You soon arrive at the Abbaye du Rouge-Cloître on the edge of the forest. Several trails lead from here into the woods. Don't forget to take a map.
02 De Panne »
The Belgian coast is quiet in winter. From De Panne, you can set off on a brisk walk along the shore, stopping off for a coffee along the way. The coast tram will take you to the nearest railway station.
03 Bruges canals »
Bruges is a misty, romantic place in winter. You can wander along ancient waterways without passing a soup, then dive into a cafe for a Belgian beer.
04 Gendron »
Set the satellite navigation for Gendron village and park in front of the station. You can take a walk along the banks of the River Lesse, then end up in the friendly Auberge de la Lesse, next to Gendron station, for a beer or lunch.
05 Redu »
Redu is a friendly village in the Ardennes filled with secondhand bookshops. Many of the dealers don't open in winter, but the restaurants are still open. So you can count on a decent lunch at the end of a walk along the River Lesse. Pick up a hiking map in the tourist office opposite the church.