Cobwebbed by tiny squares and narrow streets, home to a plethora of local bars and many of the capital’s finest Art Nouveau houses, the neighbouring areas of St-Gilles and Ixelles, just south of the petit ring, make a great escape from the razzmatazz of the city centre. St-Gilles, the smaller of the two communes, does have patches of inner-city decay, but it gets more beautiful the further east it spreads, its run-down streets soon left behind for attractive avenues interspersed with dignified squares. Ixelles, for its part, is one of the capital’s most interesting and exciting outer areas, with a diverse street-life and café scene. Historically something of a cultural crossroads, Ixelles has long drawn artists, writers and intellectuals – Karl Marx, Auguste Rodin and Alexandre Dumas all lived here – and today it retains an arty, sometimes Bohemian feel. Ixelles is cut into two by avenue Louise, a prosperous corridor that is actually part of the city – a territorial anomaly inherited from Léopold II, who laid it out and named it after his eldest daughter in the 1840s. Some of Brussels’ premier hotels, shops and boutiques flank the northern reaches of the avenue and further along is the enjoyable Musée Constantin Meunier, sited in the sculptor’s old house.
More than anything else, however, it’s the superb range of Art Nouveau buildings clustering the streets of St-Gilles and Ixelles that really grab the attention. Many of the finest examples are concentrated on and around the boundary between the two communes – in between chaussée de Charleroi and avenue Louise – and it’s here you’ll find Horta’s own house and studio, now the glorious Musée Victor Horta, one of the few Art Nouveau buildings in the country fully open to the public. Access to most of the city’s Art Nouveau buildings is restricted, so you can either settle for the view from outside, or enrol on one of ARAU’s specialist Art Nouveau tours.