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Take a stroll around Brussels' EU quarter

How did a small city of one million people get to be a global political hub? You can try to figure this out for yourself on a gentle stroll through the European quarter where thousands of people work for EU institutions, lobby groups and law firms. It seems at first a forbidding neighbourhood dominated by busy roads and office buildings, yet there are interesting spots to discover along the way.

Begin your informal tour on the square that has become known as Piazza Schuman. The square is dominated by the glass and steel Berlaymont Building, designed in 1963 as the seat of the European Commission. Look for the information panels on the walls around the building that explain the steps that turned Brussels into the capital of Europe. There is also a restored section of the Berlin wall on display in the esplanade. A portrait of US president JF Kennedy is painted on the 3,000kg, 3.6m high section. It was inaugurated in November 2015 to mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the wall and reunification of Germany.

On the opposite side of the square is the pink marble European Council building named after the renaissance philosopher Justus Lipsius. This is where the 28 European leaders hold regular summits, although the action will soon move down Rue de la Loi to the distinctive Europa building with its oval meeting hall and façade made from recycled window frames.

The main EU axis runs down the busy Rue de la Loi, but it’s quieter to walk down the Rue Froissart that runs down the hill beside the Justus Lipsius building. A right turn at the Exki café leads to the Place Jean Rey where 24 hidden fountains spurt in the summer.

The square is slowly emerging as a café hotspot, with Frederic Nicolay’s Le Grand Central bringing a cool industrial look to the neighbourhood. The two-floor bar is open from early morning until late at night with a menu of good coffee, organic lunches and Belgian beers.

Now head across the road to the romantic Parc Léopold where a city zoo opened in 1850. It didn’t last long, but you can still see the original entrance pavilions decorated with lion’s heads. The site was turned into a science park in the early 20th century with impressive buildings dedicated to different scientific disciplines. The former George Eastman Dental Institute, just inside the park, is soon to reopen as a House of European History.

Now check to see if the organic waffle bike Le Petit Nuage is parked in the neighbourhood. The friendly owner Yoan has a favourite pitch next to the pond in the Parc Léopold where he tempts local office workers and kids with the smell of fried waffle sticks. He also sells organic ice cream on the hottest days.

Keep on walking to the top of the hill, where a hidden footpath curves around the steel and glass walls of the European Parliament. This is where the EU’s 751 MEPs hold most of their sessions (when they are not meeting in Strasbourg). You can sit in the parliament’s public gallery to follow debates, or find out more about how the EU works in the Parlamentarium information centre.

You can end the walk in one of the cafés outside the parliament building. One of the best is Karsmakers, a bright modern coffee bar with a lively European ambience. If the sun is out, you can sit under the trees in the hidden back garden to reflecting on the astonishing transformation of Brussels from a quiet Belgian capital to a global power hub.

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