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Exploring Brussels' pedestrian zone: 11 new places you should visit
The first pedestrian zone for central Brussels, including the Grand-Place and a few of the small streets around it, was proposed in 1972 - after a campaign led by The Bulletin - but it did not become a reality until 1991.
At the time, the Grand-Place was a car park, as were most market squares throughout Europe. Over the centuries, people had come to market on foot, on horseback and by cart and carriage. So coming by car was natural.
The proposal took almost 20 years to be implemented because of stiff resistance by shop owners, drivers and various political parties. Petitions were signed, dire predictions were made that the upmarket clients would no longer shop there if they couldn’t drive to the door. It would be the economic end for the area.
Nowadays the idea that the Grand-Place should have cars on it strikes everyone as very odd and very hard to believe. Meanwhile the Rue Neuve had become pedestrian in 1975. But even in 1991, the original inclusion of the Rue Marché-aux-Herbes was scotched as a commerce killer.
In 2013, phase two of the pedestrian zone was implemented without too much trouble. In this phase, Rue Marché-aux-Herbes as well as Rue des Fripiers and the Place de la Monnaie were added to the original pedestrian area, creating a shopping and touristic whole.
Then in spring 2015, the city launched phase three and pedestrian zone went from 70 acres to 195 acres, a zone that now includes the main central boulevards. Controversy erupted, and thanks to appeals that had no chance of succeeding, almost two years of delays made the conversion much more painful than it needed to be.
Despite this, people of all walks of life, ages, origins, immediately took to the carless boulevards even with none of the new amenities in place. Now as the construction approaches completion, we can already enjoy the cleaner air and quieter streets. Here are some of The Bulletin's favourite new businesses that have opened in the pedestrian zone.
Mousa Ben Messoud, the owner/operator of this attractive place at the southern end of the pedestrian zone, offers a complete artisanal experience. His house blend includes Congolese, Ethiopian, Costa Rican and Brazilian coffees mixed in quantities according to his personal expertise - the anti-Starbucks as it were. And there is always a single origin coffee available. The source for his pastries is a secret but the fact that they are simply outstanding is readily apparent from the first bite. At this location since the pedestrian zone was created, he has seen a ramping up of his business and expects a real boost when all the construction is completed.
Across the Boulevard Anspach going north we come to Velofixer. In the 11 central Brussels municipalities they will fix your bike at your home, in your garage or on the street. Or you can come to their new store where you can also buy a wide variety of types of bicycles.
Further up the boulevard, a Moroccan tea room, pastry shop, sandwich shop, breakfast and full lunch and dinner buffet in a grandiose setting.
The venerable Palace Cinema was completely renovated to create five screening rooms and a restaurant from the original 2,000-seat theatre. Completely restored and preserved is the reception room by Art Nouveau architect Paul Hamesse. Palace screens a variety of films, indy, commercial and children’s movies.
On the other side of the boulevard, past the currently under-construction Place de la Bourse we find The Avocado Show. Sure, they have trendy avocado toast but also egg dishes, pancakes, salads, sauces, bowls, even cocktails and ice-cream all made with sustainably grown and responsibly shipped avocados.
The iconic bookstore (mostly Dutch language but also books and publications in French and English) has moved into plush new digs including an in-store coffee corner on the Boulevard Anspach.
7. The Mint
Stretching from the Boulevard Anspach to the Place de la Monnaie, The Mint is a cornucopia of trendy fun stores (Uniqlo, Kiabi, Flying Tiger, Hairdis), trendy eateries (Ubiway, Aksum, Mint and Basil, Galèt), a full-size Decathlon and an upscale Mestdagh supermarket. A few metres' walk from The Mint is the Place de Brouckère, completely renovated and ready to host major events in the heart of the city, including the Grand Départ of the Tour de France this weekend. Additionally the National Lottery is relocating and the draws will be broadcast live from De Brouckère.
On Rue des Hirondelles, Charlotte and Marie-Eve have created a music restaurant which serves a personal cuisine made with seasonal ingredients that changes week to week and with dishes for meat-eaters, vegetarians and vegans. At the same time they feature their favorite indie music as musical background but also there are live concerts and a listening corner where you can listen to vinyl and cassettes (available to take home).
9. KFK Hope
The Kafka Café has been around for years and has been a favourite for its giant photo of the Czech writer, off-the-wall attitude, interesting live events and selection of board games. But unfortunate luck or business practices found the place continually going bankrupt and changing hands. But now it seems to be on the right track. With a freshly painted facade, a re-done interior and a new take on its name, it is offering a large selection of Belgian beers, interesting food, and an ambitious schedule of live events all under the motto: "The place where creativity meets creativity."
Across from KFK, Aux Merveilleux de Fred is a classic tearoom like we used to have all over Brussels, but with a difference. Fred has taken the merveilleux, a classic confection of meringue, whipped cream and chocolate flakes, and created six very different versions. He has also taken the Belgian brioche, the much loved cramique and bakes it in three versions. Presided over by a huge chandelier that would fit right into Versailles, the tearoom is a place to satisfy a sweet tooth in opulence.
Finally as we head down the Rue Artevelde we come to Mamen - "a cheese canteen". This is just over the line from the zone as the Rue Artevelde is the street on which car traffic is diverted from the zone, but counter-intuitively it seems that this traffic has reinvigorated the street which hadn’t seen any new businesses in years. Mamen serves artisanal cheese in all its forms from a goat cheese mousse to a sauce for chips to a whole camembert roasted with honey and thyme, as well as inventive cheesy main courses. All in a cosy interior or on the outdoor terrace. To accompany the cheeses there is a selection of wines, beers and cocktails.
This is just the beginning. As the construction is completed more places will open including the Beer Museum in the Bourse building and an outpost of the supermarket of all things Italian: Eataly.