Is Brussels sprouting a new reputation as the cool capital of Europe? Michael Lamb took the tour ...

They say travelling broadens the mind but it also broadens the hips. Take Brussels, where they love to eat waffles, fries and drink endless amounts of beer.

My friend Abigail, who grew up there, messages me with important waffle advice: "If you have one from a street vendor don't put cream and stuff on it. Best just eaten on its own."

That may shave off a few calories, I think to myself.

Fresh from a gastronomic tour of Burgundy, I'm not sure if my arteries can handle the festival of carbs on offer, so I do something I'd normally baulk at: I sign up for a cardio-friendly cycle tour of the city.

Advertisement

I meet our guide, Isabelle, in Brussels' beating heart (and Unesco World Heritage site), La Grand-Place. The square is jam-packed with people gathering around a huge stage, but in her fluoro jacket and standing next to a bike, Isabelle is easy to spot.

The others on the tour are three upbeat Irish girls over for the weekend; a slightly bewildered chap from New Jersey on his first trip to outside the US ("I love that dance your rugby team does!"); an Indian couple who live in Barcelona, an older British couple and some Germans.

Isabelle starts by telling us all about the La Grand-Place, where the ornate, mostly 17th-century buildings and their beautiful facades form a sort of potted history of Brussels.

At the same time a band starts up so Isabelle has to shout. And that's when I realise I've found the answer to the question I had about Brussels before the tour has even started: does it really deserve its reputation for being a bit dull? Answer: not a bit. This place is going off.

What was once Europe's doormat, trodden over in the rush to get to Paris or Barcelona or Berlin, has re-invented itself.

The bike tour. Photo / Federation European Cyclists
The bike tour. Photo / Federation European Cyclists

It didn't sink in initially — I'd been so focused on actually finding the La Grand-Place in time before the tour I hadn't fully absorbed that this was no ordinary town centre: it's car-free.

Apparently the Mayor of Brussels, Yvan Mayeur, got fed up with all the cars clogging up the central city so he just decided to get rid of them. Lots of people said it was a terrible idea because it would just move the congestion further out — with the main opponent being, ironically, the Green Party.

Yvan told them to shove a waffle in it, went ahead with his plan, and accordingly, in June this year, Brussels' city centre became the second-largest pedestrianised area in Europe, after Venice. They even gave it an official name, The Comfort Zone, although I'm sure the locals have wisely disregarded that.

Judging by the huge number of people happily wandering the streets to all hours, it's already a roaring success. In fact, it seems as if every 20- to 35-year-old in Europe has come out to play.

It also means a bike tour makes a lot of sense. After Isabelle's intro we pick up our bikes, do a few test runs to make sure everyone can remember how to ride and off we go (apparently one American woman showed up with no idea how to ride a bicycle. When asked why she'd booked a bike tour, she said she had an exercycle back at home and thought it would be the same.)

We make the mandatory visit to the Manneken Pis, the famous little sculpture of a child relieving himself into a fountain, the de facto symbol for Brussels, and then get into more interesting zones: the Marolles neighbourhood with its antique shops and big flea market and a short hill climb to the uber-grand Palais de Justice (Hitler's favourite building, according to some). After taking in the big views over the city, we cycle on to the European Parliament and the beautiful Cinquantenaire park.

Then Isabelle announces it's time to stop for refreshments. Yep, fries and beer. This time in the Place Jourdan, where the historic Maison Antoine kiosk has been cranking the deep fryer since 1948. Temptingly, they offer 30 different sauces and toppings for your "frites". So much for burning off the kilojoules.

We finish off with a visit to the brooding European Commission enclave, zip through Brussels park, Brussels Palace and the Mont des Arts before heading back to base.

It's been a lot of fun. Thanks to Mr Mayeur there's a buzz in the air in Brussels: endless quarters packed with great restaurants, cafes and bars; there's street art, there's history, there's wonderful architecture.

But most of all, everybody is simply having a great time. You get the feeling that for the new, cool, car-free centre of Brussels, the party is only just getting started.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Emirates flies daily between Auckland and Brussels with direct connections at Dubai.

Further information: See brusselsbiketours.com.