There's much more to Brussels than an assembly of stuffy Eurocrats. Renata Rubnikowicz finds a stylish and culture-packed half-term waiting to happen
It's a funky Friday girls' night out on the smart side of the city. The male fashion parade has got to the swimsuit round and the women-about-town are whooping and laughing. Soon the dancefloor will be cleared and the boyfriends allowed in. The surprise is that this is happening on Brussels'
Avenue Louise within the elegant 19th-century walls of the five-star, outwardly staid Conrad hotel. Appearances can be deceptive. Every winter the Conrad transforms its inner courtyard into a festive ice-rink. Tonight the boyfriends are waiting in the Conrad's Loui Bar, which buzzes with a cool crowd until the early hours. Some may have day jobs in the Berlaymont, but dull Eurocrats are nowhere to be seen, and everyone seems to be dressed by Belgian designers.
Place Saint-Gery, the oldest quarter of the city, is the place to start looking for the look. Fashion shops line the streets all around, including the rue des Chartreux, in whose Taverne Greenwich Magritte played chess, but particularly the rue Antoine Dansaert, where Stijl stocks Dries van Noten and Anne Demeulemeester as well as up and coming designers inside a quirkily renovated 18th-century townhouse. Over the road, Theo is worth a look for its remarkable brainwear - specs that hang over the face suspended from a single line of metal curving back over the cranium. Bill Gates and Elton John are collectors. Brussels' addiction to contemporary design is not confined to clothing. Chocolatier Pierre Marcolini lists 100 different sorts of the modern cocoa-conjurer's art on its seasonally changing menu, including some with pepper and spices.
Then just when I've decided that good taste rules Brussels, I come across the Manneken-Pis - a scatological munchkin of a fountain whose outfit is changed daily. He's been everything from a cowboy to a Tibetan monk. On my way to examine the back catalogue of more than 750 costumes in the town museum, I am diverted on to the comic-strip trail: some of the greyest walls in Brussels are enlivened with giant cartoon characters. The city is celebrating the centenary of the birth of Herge, Tintin's creator, on January 10, 2007, with a new fresco at Brussels South station.
Meanwhile, a huge figure of Gaston Lagaffe and his cat advertises the Comic Strip Centre. In a 100-year-old, swoopy-balconied Art Nouveau building designed by Horta, it contains enough original artwork to keep any fan busy for the whole of a rainy day.
As well as Asterix, Tintin and the Smurfs, there is a surprising amount of darker content that's really only for grown-ups, but all ages will enjoy Atomium, a little way out of the city in Heysel park. First opened in 1958, this astonishing nine-atom structure reopened this year reclad in shiny stainless steel. Visitors whizz up to the highest point in a 20-metres-per-second superspeedy lift for a view of all the countries in the EU - the mini-Europe theme park is next door. Other aspects of the city can be glimpsed through portholes as you slide in space-age fashion up and down the escalators that criss-cross the giant molecule. One sphere is reserved for children, indeed school groups can stay overnight in sleepover pods suspended from the ceiling. Others hold exhibits that show the view of the future from the 1950s - curvier and more pastel-coloured than it turned out to be.
More information: www.belgiumtheplaceto.be, www.stripmuseum.be, www.atomium.be, www.minieurope.com. Museums in Brussels are closed on Mondays. A 72-hour Brussels card, valid on city transport and giving free entry to 30 of Brussels' 100 museums, costs 30 euros (www.brusselscard.be).
Eurostar (www.eurostar.com) return fares to Brussels start from pound;59 in standard class and pound;139 in leisure select. Conrad Brussels, Avenue Louise 71, 1050 Brussels, (00 32 2 542 42 42, www.conradhotels.com) has rooms from 179 euros per person per night