Belgium's capital blooms in summer, with a floral welcome on the mat
Belgium's capital comes to life in summer: café life spills out on to sunny terraces, the city's many parks are full and the Royal Palace opens until September. The biennial flower carpet (flowercarpet.be), at Grand Place, opens at 10pm on 14 August and runs from 9am-11pm from 15-17 August.
Get your bearings
Central Brussels is divided into the Lower Town, where most sites cluster around the Grand Place and, to the east, the Upper Town on the Mont des Arts, where state buildings such as the Royal Palace and the Palais de Justice are ringed by a series of main thoroughfares (the designer shop-filled Waterloo Boulevard is the main stretch).
Fanning out from that inner ring are trendy residential districts such as Ixelles and Chatelain, and the EU's European Quarter. The main tourist office is at the Hôtel de Ville on the Grand Place (visitbrussels.be; visitflanders.co.uk). It's open 9am-6pm. French and Flemish are the official languages. Street names here are given in French.
Take a view
Brussels doesn't have the most inspiring skyline; but if you're viewing it from the Atomium at Square de l'Atomium (atomium.be), it hardly matters. The emblem of the 1958 World Fair, its nine conjoined spheres shimmer over Brussels in Heysel, northwest of the Lower Town, with a panorama deck at 102 metres in the highest sphere. Entry costs €11.
Take a hike
Start at the Opera House on Place de la Monnaie (from Heysel take the No 7 and 3 trams, or the No 6 and 1 metros, to De Brouckère). Follow Rue de L'Ecuyer eastwards to the Galeries Saint-Hubert: three conjoined Neo-Classical shopping arcades, stuffed with fashion brands and chocolate shops.
Continue straight ahead into the Grand Place, described by Jean Cocteau as the "finest theatre in the world" and the setting for the biennial Flower Carpet. Then head down Rue de l'Etuve to the corner of Rue de Chêne, where you'll find Brussels' most famous landmark, the Manneken-Pis: a statue of a naked boy urinating into a fountain, symbolising the city's contempt for authority.
Lunch on the run
Pistolets or traditional Belgian bread rolls are on the menu at Pistolet Original at Rue Joseph Stevens 24 (pistolet-original.be). Crab, brown shrimp and herrings are among the fillings; prices from €3.70. Nearby, Wittamer at 12-13 Place du Grand Sablon (wittamer.com), is a café-patisserie with a royal warrant; its terrace on the pretty Place du Grand Sablon is a Brussels institution for people-watching. Salads from €18.
A few blocks southwest in the Marolles district is the Place du Jeu de Balle fleamarket, which sells everything from vintage clothing to antique antlers (www.marcheauxpuces.be). Weekend opening hours are 6am-3pm, though some stalls pack up around 1pm. The surrounding area is full of antique shops: among the best are Hadrien at Rue Haute 202, which sells clothes and furniture; and Melting Pot Kilo at Rue Haute 178 (closed Mondays), which proffers clothing by the kilogram. While most shops close on Sunday, those in the Marolles stay open, but often close midweek.
Dining with the locals
In Ixelles, Le Clan des Belges at Rue de la Paix 20 (leclandesbelges.com), serves traditional dishes such as carbonnades flammandes on buzzy Place St Boniface. Mains cost around €17. Meanwhile, in the old town, Fin de Siècle at Rue des Chartreux 9 has no-nonsense Belgian food and flaking Art Nouveau surroundings. Mains start at €15.
Go to church
The Gothic cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula at Place Sainte Gudule (cathedralestmichel.be), straddles both old and new Brussels, halfway up the Mont des Arts. For €1 you can see the underground remains of the 11th-century Romanesque church.
Take a ride
Brussels has an easy-to-use city bike scheme, Villo! (www.villo.be). A one-day subscription costs €1.60. Public transport is also easy to use, with a single fare costing €2, or a 48 hour pass €13. Take either a bike or the 94 tram south along Avenue Louise to Place Marie-José, where there's a tram stop and a Villo! station.
Walk in the park
A block west of Place Marie-José, across Avenue Franklin Roosevelt, is the Bois de la Cambre, a vast area that's part dense forest, part manicured park, around a pretty lake and a small island. On the island, eat at Chalet Robinson (www.chaletrobinson.be).
Out to brunch
Garage-à-Manger at 185 Rue Washington (garage-a-manger.be) offers an upmarket all-you-can-eat spread for €25 (10am-3pm). Or try laidback Chez Franz at 30 Avenue du Haut Pont (chez-franz.be).
Horta Museum, at 25 Rue Américaine (hortamuseum.be), has an extraordinary display of florid Art Nouveau. Highlights include the breathtaking cream-and-gold dining room, and the gilded staircase. Open 2pm-5.30pm daily except Monday; €8.
Icing on the cake
Slightly more tasteful than its European counterparts, though still with lashings of bling, Belgium's Royal Palace, in the Place du Palais (monarchie.be) began its summer opening recently. Entrance is free; open 10.30am-4.30pm, daily except Monday, until 7 September.