You’d expect Brussels to have some of the best specialist beer bars in Europe, but if you prefer an exotic cocktail there’s an equally great choice. So get ready to taste some of the local amber nectar — brewed in the Trappist monasteries of Belgium — and craft beers. You probably know about world-famous Leffe, but if you’re new to the game, try the lambic and krieks (typical sweet Flemish beers). But be warned; some of these beers come in at 8.5% or 9%, so drink sensibly. Most of the bars here are open well into the early hours of the morning, but check opening times first if you are making a special journey.
Near the Grand-Place, but tucked away down a narrow passage, ‘The Lark’ is the place for a different experience. Waiters, dressed like monks, pour jugs of beer while you sit at long tables. It’s a convivial bar, always crowded but extremely friendly. Talk to your neighbors about the relative merits of what you are drinking, but make sure you try the jeune lambic blanche white beer.
This splendid, ornate bar called ‘Sudden Death’ is always busy. Opened in 1928, it got its peculiar name after a game of dice that the regulars played in a previous bar. It’s still in the same family with the fourth generation Vossens serving beers from Trappist offerings to the splendid Geuze and Lambic beers. But you really should go for the Lambic White Mort Subite at least once. After a few beers, you’ll really appreciate the dramatic and theatrical songs of one of the regulars of the past, the Belgian singer and actor, Jacques Brel, and you might even start singing.
Another bar you find just off the beaten track on Impasse des Cadeaux, this atmospheric, old-fashioned estaminet is a great contrast to the huge bars of central Brussels. Dark oak beams on the ceilings; brass lamps and old leaded windows shed a soft light on the handful of tables and chairs, and old photographs decorate the walls. The expected list of great beers from the most popular breweries are chalked up on blackboards. This is the place where locals come for a cosy drink with friends in a pub that takes you back to old Brussels, which is fine until you have to use the outside toilet.
With 42 beers on tap, plus a large range of bottled beers, this is another beer lovers’ dream. The original branch, opened in the 1980s, is away from the Grand-Place tucked away behind the St Gilles town hall in this increasingly cool area. With its black and white tiled floor, wooden and brick walls and the most impressive range of beer handles for the draft variety, this is a pleasant stop where you’ll find more locals than tourists which is a refreshing change in the city.
The second branch, closer to the Grand-Place in Place Fontainas, is a lot more comfortable than many other central Brussels bars. With its booth seating and tables and chairs well-spaced along the bare brick walls that are decorated with moody black and white photographs, it has a relaxed, welcoming vibe. Strings of hops and bottles of beers that you’ve probably never heard of decorate the bar where the skillful staff grab a glass hanging over their heads and pour your beer fast. On a warm summer’s day or evening, you can sit outside on the pavement and watch the world go by. The beer mats are covetable.
The Belgians have an odd sense of humour which you’ll get here at ‘The Coffin’ which opened in 1974 after The Exorcist terrified us all. In the dark bar, where red lights bathe visitors in the appropriate color, beers are served in skull-shaped mugs on tables made from coffins under a ceiling of hanging skeletons. It’s fun, if a little bizarre, and certainly different.
10-12 Rue des Harengs
The Raven is for night owls, if the pun is allowed. This noisy, busy bar slightly out of the centre, has some great beers for serious imbibers — including those gorgeous fruit beers which seem so sippable and are so deadly at 5% alcohol and up. If you are really serious, forget the 25cl or 33cl glasses and go for the ‘Chevalier’ which comes in a huge glass.
Cramped or cosy depending on your viewpoint (and whether you’ve grabbed a decent-sized table), this charming bar takes you back to a gentler past. Order a local beer or splash out on a whisky. Sofas line the walls; soft lights give everyone a chance to look good; old French songs that were the stuff of seduction play softly in the background. There are Wuflitzers, posters, flags, and books on occasional tables scattered everywhere. It’s a little slice of nostalgia in a busy modern world.
At the further end of chic and rich Avenue Louise, Green Lab is a little off the beaten track, but well worth the detour. They call their décor a mix of industrial and steampunk, which is a pretty accurate description for the design, with its metal seating and chairs and large tubes snaking around the place. Go here for the beer, but more for the famous cocktails, the huge selections of gins (around 250 of them), and the absinthe. Once banned as it tended to send the drinker mad, today absinthe is fashionable. Green Lab is fun, large (on three levels), inevitably noisy given the metallic décor…and green.
Once the great meeting place for the Surrealists, including René Magritte who held an exhibition here before he became famous, the popular estaminet is the place for a traditional drink in a traditional setting. Dark wooden furniture, enigmatic writings on the walls (‘Everyone has the right to 24 hours of liberty a day’), the odd antler hanging from the ceiling, an open fire, horse brasses galore, and a whole load of kitsch has turned this former convent into a haven for the eccentrics, or the thirsty: it has a great list of beers.
You couldn’t ask for a more respectable location than the ‘English Pharmacy’. It’s in Coudenberg — the arts area of Brussels — just near the Fine Arts Museum. What was once the place to go for medicine is now the place to go for top cocktails served in a large space by experienced mixologists who will also make up something special for you if you ask. Aside from the odd artifacts like bird skeletons and odd jars of things in formaldehyde (it’s better not to look too closely at these), La Pharmacie Anglaise has comfortable chairs, chandeliers, wood décor and two levels to take care of the crowds that inevitably flock here. You can book a table in advance.
Lord Byron may not look like much from the outside, but this small and intimate bar is a real local favorite — and well worth tracking down. It's the place where Barry Jenkins wrote a lot of the screenplay for the 2017 award-winning film, Moonlight. Friendly staff fit into the trendy vibe of this peaceful street off the busy Place Saint-Géry. Lord Byron is known for great cocktails, dispensed by owner Bajram (don’t worry, just call him Byron), a great atmosphere and old furniture.
Location: 8 Rue des Chartreux
Make your way to Sainte-Catherine — one of the trendy areas of Brussels — and then take a seat at Monk Bar, which is often heaving on weekend nights. It looks the part with its wooden décor, the list of beers chalked up on the blackboard and mirrors that hang on the walls. It also offers live music, and rocks until 3 or 4am on a weekend.
You can’t get much more touristy in Brussels than the Mannekin Pis area — that bizarre statue of a peeing boy that is always surrounded by visitors with cameras. So you’d expect that the Poechenellekelder would be pretty much of a tourist trap. But don’t be put off! Go down the stairs into the ‘Puppet Cellar’ for a good selection of beers to sip while surrounded by a collection of puppets that would be quite happy in any theatre.