Time travel in Brussels bars

12 February 2023
the magnificent bar of café Métropole

With 184 nationalities in a handkerchief-sized capital, you can see the world without leaving Brussels. Spanish tapas bars, Irish pubs, Moroccan tea houses and Japanese Izakayas are within walking distance of each other, and that makes a night out here incredibly diverse.

But did you know that you can also book a round-trip ticket to times long gone? Well, you're in luck: even from a historical perspective, our range of bars and cafés offer a treasure trove of jewels.

Welcome aboard the visit.brussels DeLorean for an unforgettable adventure in the fourth dimension. Cheers!

First stop: "it looks like the Middle Ages here"

Tucked away just a stone's throw from the Grand-Place are some of Brussels' oldest drinking establishments. You reach them through the shady alleys (exciting!) on the Rue du Marché aux Herbes, a route that dates back to the 11th century. Authentic bars such as A l'imaige de Nostre-Dame, Au Bon Vieux Temps, A la Bécasse and the Royal Theatre Toone are brilliant examples of Brussels folklore. With the rustic wooden furniture, stained-glass windows and a menu of abbey beers, it seems as if you were stranded in a medieval inn. Watch your knapsack and money belt, pilgrim!

Stained-glass windows at café Au Bon Vieux Temps

How about enjoying a rock concert in a medieval setting? Head down to the vaulted cellar with coats of arms of La Porte Noire, named after the city wall. In the 16th century, this was the kitchen of an Alexian monastery. Today, it’s a haven for fans of Celtic symbolism, loud music and strong drinks. The Rock Classic Bar in the Saint Jacques District, a dark beer joint with live concerts, is also accessed via a sparsely lit, vaulted stone corridor.

Are dungeons, torture devices and macabre settings your thing? Appointment at Le Cercueil. This eccentric horror bar was inspired by the film The Exorcist. Here, Halloween is celebrated every day: you sit at a coffin and listen to heavy metal while slurping beer from a skull-shaped chalice. The link to the Middle Ages? Something about Dante's inferno ...

Stop 2: "on to the belle époque"

Anyone who’s into concept bars and the nineteenth century has to visit music bar La Machine in the Saint Géry neighbourhood. The interior of the bar is inspired by the fantasy genre steampunk (cyberpunk stories set during the industrial revolution) and it's the only place for blowing off steam with a drink in the world of Jules Verne!

the steampunk interior of café La Machine

After this little stopover, we park our time capsule in the period around the penultimate turn of the century. Welcome to the belle époque, a golden age of prosperity, innovation and an explosion of art styles. You can experience it full-on in Brussels institutions around the Bourse such as Le Cirio, Le Grand Café, Le Falstaff and Greenwich Modern. And a bit further on in La Mort Subite and De Ultieme Hallucinatie. Instead of a shot of absinthe, order a “half-en-half” (a signature cocktail ahead of the curve from Le Cirio, with sparkling and white wine). For a moment, imagine you're a character in a painting by Toulouse Lautrec and turn your nostalgical gaze at the grandeur of these magnificent interiors.

Stop 3: "drum roll.... here come the roaring twenties"

In addition to boisterous swing parties in cabarets, the roaring twenties were also known for forbidden entertainment in speakeasies: clandestine bars set up during the time of American Prohibition. You will experience that same discreet and frivolous atmosphere at Marcelle, Débit de Boissons in the Sainte-Catherine neighbourhood. As you sip your whiskey sour, you might feel Al Capone or Jay Gatsby breathing down your neck.

A little further down Rue Antoine Dansaert, Arthur Orlans welcomes you to an old 1892 fashion house. The interior with Chesterfields and Scottish floor coverings transports you to an elegant gentlemen's club with James Bond allure.

La Pharmacie anglaise at Mont des Arts is a mix of a vintage science lab, a cabinet of curiosities and a pharmacy from the 1920s. Oh yeah, and they serve cocktails! You have to ring the bell to enter, which makes the atmosphere even more confidential. The latter also applies to Bar Rouge, an intimate nightclub with cabaret touches in the Brussels Park area.

Those who want it even more exclusive should head to Le Jalousy in the Marolles. You can enter this secret, two-storey party bar provided you can figure out the week's password. The creations of the house mixologist certainly deserve kudos.

Finally, we crash the party at Cabaret Mademoiselle. This inclusive place guarantees a wild night of burlesque and puts a contemporary twist on Berlin nights from the interwar period.

burlesk tafereel bij Cabaret Mademoiselle

Stop 4: "a date with the 1930s "

We stop in two authentic Brussels heritage focal points: Hotel Esperance in the centre and Hotel Le Berger in Ixelles. Just under a century ago, these rendezvous hotels were full of adulterous clients. That's still an option today. But you can also have a drink while taking in the beautiful Art Deco architecture for a while.

But, our mission here’s not accomplished without a visit to the mythical Archiduc. This Art Deco bar on Rue Antoine Dansaert dates back to 1937. In the early years, this place was a sanctuary for risqué banter; since the 1950s it has been a trendy hot spot for jazz lovers and night owls of all kinds.

And we conclude our tour at Alice Cocktail Bar & Restaurant, a cocktail bar with a view and lounge area completely inspired by the aesthetic of the 1940s. Good heavens, how time flies!

Stop 5: "a jaunt around post-war pop culture"

Suffering from jet lag from all that time travel? Nothing a maxi milkshake or fast-food dish from Le Balmoral on Place Brugmann in Uccle can't fix. The lollypop-pastel interior is so fifties that James Dean, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe could come roaring up in their Cadillac at any moment.

fifties decor at Le Balmoral

A trip to the 1960s turns into reality at retro bistro Zotte Mouche. This welcoming shack on Place de la Monnaie is all about nostalgia with hits from the 1960s onward and makes no bones about it: here you can relive the casual atmosphere of the working-class canteens of yesteryear.

Anyone who fancies spinning a record in a jukebox can do just that in the Saint Géry neighbourhood at the Booze 'n' Blues.

Within a well-mapped radius of Manneken Pis you will find Goupil Le Fol, a sort of Ali Baba's cave that gained fame for its Dionysian fruit wines and romantic promises by candlelight, all served up to a serenade of French chanson.

Our adventure ends at Dali's bar, a surreal disco bar on a side street of the Grand-Place. Here you listen to house music from bright red lip-shaped seats, perhaps a nod to Andy Warhol's pop art.

sixties decor at Zotte Mouche