A somewhat-oddly shaped little district, Ixelles juts out as the southeast corner of Brussels. Just far enough from the main attractions to give visitors a local, residential feel, but close enough to the city’s center to make travel easy, it mixes the best of both worlds for an unforgettable experience.
Ixelles combines upscale shopping and restaurants with the altogether normative Brussels experience. Walk up and down and around this neighborhood’s streets and you’ll see a little bit of everything — beautiful shops on Avenue Louise, posh hotels, parks, residential apartments and the corner grocer. Depending on which hotel you choose, you’ll experience one side (the tourist-driven side) of the neighborhood more than the other (the local-driven side). Which you choose, of course, depends on your travel style and preferences.
That being said, whichever you prefer, you’re in for an atmosphere that’s both chic and hip in many ways. The cafes and bars are stylish. The shops hardly sell what you’d find back home, whether you’re looking for clothing or chocolate. The events range from jazz concerts to wildly popular festivals.
The history of the neighborhood stretches back to medieval times, when the Abbey of La Cambre (which you can still visit today) was founded in 1196. The area’s existence revolved around this abbey for centuries, until the 1500s, when other manors and castles were built in what was to become known as Ixelles, prompting its growth into a village.
It was in the early 1900s that Ixelles began to gain its status as an affluent area of the city, particularly around Avenue Louise, where much of the neighborhood’s activity is still centered today. As Ixelles’ reputation grew, it attracted many wealthy inhabitants, which led to its beautiful architecture. In fact, one of pop culture’s epitomes of class and elegance, Audrey Hepburn, was born in Ixelles in 1929 (you can pay a visit to the house she was born in, on Kayenveld Street, No. 48).
Visitors hoping to plan their trip to Brussels around the city’s liveliest festivities would do well to look at what’s going on in Ixelles. The Marché de Noël Christmas market is not to be missed, with its two marquees and holiday flair; the Brussels Jazz Festival showcases 10 days of talented performers; and multiple film and art festivals occur throughout the year.
If you’re looking for the perfect combination of value, style and comfort, the Four Points Brussels (Rue Paul Spaak 15) is a frequently booked option that delivers. The location is right off Avenue Louise and close to shopping, dining, cafes and bars. Plus, the on-site bar, Bar Velo — with its colorful, bicycle-themed decor and beer-centric atmosphere — is a perfect place to start your night, without even having to leave the hotel.
On the other hand, if you’d prefer to steer clear of major, international brands, but still want service and amenities you can count on, Thon Hotels may be up your alley. The Norwegian hotel chain has just expanded into Brussels with five hotels. Thon Hotel Bristol Stephanie (Avenue Louise 91-93) is a four-star for both business and leisure travelers. The rooms and common spaces — including a bar, restaurant and breakfast buffet — are bright and cheery, and it’s right on Avenue Louise.
Restaurants, Bars & Cafes
It may seem odd to kick off the list with a place called Manhattn’s (misspelling intentional!) (Avenue Louise 164), but this New York-inspired burger joint knows what it’s doing. Even if they are tuning into their own version of Americana, the fair is a far cry from burger joints in the States — in a good way. The original location is on Avenue Louise, and the menu is filled with Belgian frites (oh-so-good and served up with mayonnaise, of course) and beers. As far as the burgers themselves, well, you can’t quite say no to the “Gatsby,” which is Irish angus beef piled high with Dutch cheese, sautéed wild mushrooms and truffle mayo.
Sticking along Ixelles’ famed avenue, you may pop in to Natural Caffe Louise (Louizalaan 196A) for a quick cappuccino and a spot at the long silver bar, which overlooks the sidewalk. As you people watch, both indoors and out, enjoy a large selection of drinks and small snacks in the fresh and inviting cafe atmosphere. From its beautifully made coffees to the pastries to the cold sandwiches to the croissants, Natural Caffe Louise is just the spot for a quick pick-me-up, no matter the time of day.
Waffles are a tempting treat to try while in any part of Brussels, or Belgium, really. The shops line them up in neat rows, stacked high with sugary concoctions, from icings to chocolates to ice cream. The array beckons passersby from behind brightly lit, beautiful glass displays, making it hard to say no. Maison Dandoy (Place Stéphanie 4) has multiple locations in Brussels, and waffles is just the start of their offerings. The bakery and confectionery also sells traditional cookies, cakes, candies and more.
If you’re going for cool and classically Belgian, try Les Brassins (36 Rue Keyenveld). The authentic brasserie serves up traditional Belgian pub fair, alongside a healthy helping of jazz music. Entrees range from leg of rabbit in a cherry beer sauce to the stoemp of the day (mashed potatoes mixed with veggies). Come thirsty, as the Belgian beer list is extensive.
Perhaps your cravings lean more toward wine than beer. If that’s the case, Le Tournat (168 Chaussee de Wavre) might scratch your itch. The menu is gourmet, and the wine list is lengthy, but the atmosphere is cozy, comfortable, warm, inviting and altogether Instagram-worthy, with the restaurant’s white brick walls and rough-around-the-edges decor.
Historic Significance in Ixelles
With its long history and gorgeous architecture, Ixelles has quite a lot to offer the history buff. Whether you’re interested in seeing where the Bronte sisters dined (Chaussée d’Ixelles, 144 — though some say 146) or walking the hallowed halls of the abbey that started it all, there’s more than enough historic spots to fill a day (or two!). Here are just a few of the note-worthy locales to add to your itinerary.
The famous abbey, the Abbey of La Cambre (Abbaye de la Cambre, 1050), is beautifully tranquil and offers a spot of greenery in the otherwise urban Ixelles. You won’t find too many tourists there, as it’s not widely advertised as a tourism spot, making it all the more special. The highlights beyond the well-maintained grounds include the monastic architecture found among the church, refectory and chapter house, as well as the French, 18th-century architecture of the abbey palace and presbytery.
Surrounded by cafes and shops, Saint Boniface church (Rue de la Paix 21) stands tall as a breathtaking example of Gothic Revival architecture. The church itself is worth a stop, but if you want to follow the path of Saint Boniface, you can trace his activity at La Cambre Abbey, to the nearby Kappellekerk, where his relics are currently housed. Boniface was notable for the assassination attempt made on his life by King Frederick II (though he survived). Even if you’re not keen on Catholic history, the area surrounding the church itself is quite enjoyable, with plenty of lively activity and outdoor dining.
The Art Nouveau style became wildly popular in the Ixelles neighborhood surrounding Avenue Louise around the turn of the last century, practically covering all of the new residential areas in the city. L’Arau (Bd Adolphe Max 55) offers several architecture tours of Ixelles, which all focus on this Art Nouveau style. The Cradle of Art Nouveau tour takes you around the southern portion of Ixelles, while the Art Nouveau and Public Spaces tour takes you along Avenue Louise.