Despite being barely minutes from the tourist hordes on the Grand-Place, ‘Sainte-Cat’ has kept its cool. This network of narrow streets around Brussels’ former port and fish market are home to a buzzy community of creatives and old-school, often Dutch-speaking Brusseleirs.
Pay homage to the area’s heritage with shrimp croquettes at the stand-up bar of wet fish shop Nordzee, packed with wisecracking locals. Then head up triumphantly independent Rue de Flandre for vintage at Phase II, rare vinyl at Seymour Kassel and LGBTQ lit at Tulitu.
For souvenirs make a beeline for Bel’Arte with accessories, jewellery and stationery from 100 per cent Belgian designers. Refuel with an Alfonso mango gelato in a deckchair at chic, Scandi-inspired ice-cream parlour Gaston.
Then pick up a pot of pun-tastic preserve made from organic local fruit at Pipaillon (Rhubarbra Streisand or Miss Figgy?).
In the evenings, hip Roksam and universally loved Monk offer laid-back local bar culture with a Flemish touch. If you don’t succumb to Monk’s legendary Trappiste-absorbing ‘spaghetti bolo’ book a table at foodie fave Viva M’Boma. The former tripe butcher’s is the spot for offally good Brussels staples.
The weekend queues and the heady scent of buttery dough tell you everything you need to know: this is simply the best bakery in town. Try a Croix Suisse – part brioche, part vanilla custard doughnut. You can eat in with a good latte at one of the handful of tables or take out for window-shopping fuel. Newish offshoot Charli Salé opposite does great tacos for a speedy lunch.
The front part of this wonderfully quirky emporium is a jungle of gorgeously leafy terrariums and bonsais, Japanese moss balls and air plants. Beyond are gifts galore: covetable stationery, organic soaps from Tangent GC, minimalist homewares from Studio Macura. The hidden bonus at the back? A café serving smoothie bowls, juices and pancakes that also hosts regular creative workshops.
Exuberantly decorated bar-cabaret Madame Moustache looks like the lovechild of a Wild West saloon and a Victorian music hall. The programming is similarly eclectic. Rap and hip-hop alternate with lindy-hop classes, cheesy themed club nights and live music, from folk to punk, electro and more. The vibe is always inclusive and welcoming, and the old-fashioned photo booth is a perennial draw.
Built as an electricity station in 1901, this vast industrial space went through multiple metamorphoses before becoming a vibrant centre for contemporary art. Centrale has strong roots in the surrounding community, championing local artists and offering a packed programme of workshops and events.
After several pop-up incarnations, Héléna Van Aelst’s ethical fashion boutique has found a bright, airy permanent home. The handpicked selection includes slow fashion from the likes of Armedangels, Mud Jeans and People Tree. Local designers are well represented, too, with recycled creations from Wear A Story, bright textiles from Alice Van Innis and Coulemelle screen-printed mushroom tops.
- Sainte-Catherine had a working port up until the early 20th century: the street names (Brick Quay, Barge Quay) still hark back to that era.
- Visit at Christmas for the seasonal market’s amazing steampunk carousels: a must for kids who dream of riding a giant stag beetle, T-Rex or even a Sputnik.
- Check out La Bellone at 46 Rue de Flandre: behind an ordinary streetside door is an elaborately frescoed Baroque façade where a former convent has become a contemporary arts centre.
- Zinneke Pis, the dog that completes Brussels’ triumvirate of peeing statues, cocks his leg on the corner of lovely Rue des Chartreux.
“Sainte-Cat is a real urban village with independent shops, restaurants, art spaces, and terrace life. There’s a real sense of belonging to a neighbourhood. All helped along by our very own vintage cocktail van!” – Gary, longtime Sainte-Catherine resident.
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Image credits: © Alamy; © Alamy; © Charli; © Urban Therapy; © Madame Moustache; © Giant Productions; © Wonderloop; © Radiokafka via Shutterstock; © Alamy; © Radiokafka via Shutterstock