If it isn’t already apparent, I will happily plan a holiday purely based on where I want to eat and drink. For that reason one of my most favourite short breaks away from London is a quick weekend in Brussels. The city is the perfect place to enjoy the full complement of Belgian beers and is super accessible from London.
A usual itinerary means arriving just before lunch on Saturday, from when the drinking starts, and doesn’t finish until we hop on the Eurostar back home on Sunday afternoon. And the best bit? Travelling by Eurostar means an unlimited allowance for bringing bottles of the good stuff back home…
My most favourite place to visit in Brussels is the Cantillon Brewery, which is world famous for producing very small batches of spontaneously fermented sour beer called gueuze. However many other breweries that are less well visited are also very accessible with some advance planning.
Day 1 – Cantillon & Brussels City Centre
From Gare-Midi take the very short walk pretty much directly north from the station to the Cantillon Brewery on Rue Gheude. For those not in the know, Cantillon is the home of gueuze, a naturally fermented beer with an incredibly unique flavour, entirely dependent on the natural yeasts and bacteria present in the air in and around Brussels.
This place is pretty much magical. The Cantillon brewery is family run; it’s not unusual to see the owner, Jean-Pierre van Roy, serving at the bar or selling t-shirts to visitors. The whole place feels aptly accidental; dusty, unpretentious and running entirely on what’s available on the day.
Buy a ticket for a (self-guided, of course) tour and let your senses get used to the fusty smell that permeates everything here. Navigate carefully past the precariously stacked racks of bottles up to the attic to see the copper cooling vessel, where you learn about how the beer is brewed simply by opening the windows.
Appetite fully whetted, we headed back down to the tasting room for a sample of lambic straight out of the barrel and gueuze, a version made fizzy thanks to secondary fermentation in bottles for a year. You can also taste your way through whatever’s available from the Cantillon catalogue on the day, which includes a number of fruit flavoured blends. We were super lucky on our most recent visit to be able to try the 2015 Zwanze Day special edition “Wild Brussels Stout”, which to this day remains near the top of my list of best beers ever.
A couple of hours later we poured ourselves out onto the street outside and headed into the centre of Brussels. A more than appropriate stop on the way, we took a table outside at Moeder Lambic at Place Fontainas, which has an excellent menu of super local and regional beers, with an unsurprising focus on lambics. Here we drank brews from Tilquin, Brasserie de la Seine and 3 Fonteinen and snacked on delicious toasted malt grains.
Brussels does as bit of an understandable trade in beer tourism, and beyond Cantillon the two key sights in the centre are the Delirium and A La Morte Subite Bars. Both are incredibly touristy but at opposite ends of the scale: Delirium is dark and smelly and reminds me of a dirty student rock bar, whilst A La Morte Subite is still clinging on to some golden age of fancy beer drinking, where smartly dressed waiters get insulted if you try to order a beer directly from the bar. Of the two, A La Morte Subite is the place to relax and enjoy the stunning art deco surroundings, whilst Delirium is where you go if you want to get absolutely rat arsed.
Proving that Belgian beer isn’t just limited to trappist and lambic brews, the Brussels Beer Project tap room is also worth a visit, out on the north-eastern edge of the city. The offerings are all pretty heavy and hoppy with the odd saison or weisse and it’s a super cool and hip place to hang out.
Day 2 – A Pilgrimage To The Birthplace of Lambic
To really experience Belgian beer culture you need to leave the city and visit one of the artisan breweries dotted around the suburbs. Half an hour south of Brussels by train is the town of Lembeek, aka the home of Lambic (the beer name comes from the town) and the Boon Brewery, which you can visit strictly by appointment only.
As part of your visit you’ll be given a tour by a local beer expert who will show you the complete brewing process. Highlight of the tour is the extensive barrel rooms which hold one million litres of lambic, and you’ll hear the fermentation process as beer bubbling through bom-holes in the tops of gigantic oak barrels. There’s no tasting room at the brewery, so after your visit your guide will walk you into the town to Cafe de Kring where you can taste a selection of the beers produced by the brewery.
Don’t rush back on the next train – Cafe de Kring is a fantastic bar which an excellent selection of Belgian beers, including the excellent Rodenbach Grand Cru on draft, which is consistently rated one of the best beers in the world. This is a normal local bar, super low key and laid back, usually with a football match showing on the TV, that just happens to have one of the best beer selections available that I’ve ever seen. But then I guess this is Lembeek.
Vegan Restaurants & Cafes
Straight off the train at Brussels-Midi we chowed down on some super tasty vegan burger based scran at Greenway, located perfectly right inside the station. The kiosk is located on the ground floor of the station on the north-west side, near the doors that exit onto Place Victor Horta and there are plenty of tables and chairs nearby, or sit out in the square if the weather’s good. The small menu focuses on burgers and wraps as well as a selection of sides including salads and wedges, all of which is incredibly fresh despite this being very much a fast food joint. Most of the options can be made vegan.
Perhaps surprisingly for a European capital city, Brussels doesn’t do too well in the vegan dining st(e)akes and Greenway is one of very few good quality vegan restaurants. There are, however, plenty of good quality African, Asian and Middle Eastern restaurants across the city, all of which have decent meat-free options. Fanny Thai near the Bourse is a pretty good option with a comprehensive vegan and vegetarian menu and good fresh tasting grub at reasonable prices. For Breakfast Le Pain Quotidien is a good if familiar bet for granola and toast. There are a few branches across the city but the best by far is in Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, where you can sit inside the beautiful Galeries and pretend to be a posh person as you watch shoppers strolling around the fancy chocolate shops.
Hotel des Galeries is a gorgeous little boutique hotel right in the centre of Brussels. Each room is beautifully kitted out in a mid-century minimalist style, and the bathrooms are absolutely huge, plus if you’re lucky you’ll get a room with a window opening out into the Galeries. Rates start at £100 per night.