Forget France. For some of the best antiques in Europe, Heather Smith MacIsaac crosses the Belgian border.

Vincent Colet
| Credit: Ball & Albanese

Poor Brussels. The attention it gets as capital of the European Union and home base of NATO suggests a city of functionaries and bureaucrats: stolid, good for business (and breweries), but hardly the center of style. That moniker belongs to Paris, of course—except among the cognoscenti, who know that Brussels, the 1,000-year-old city of a million-plus, can be more radical in fashion, more adventuresome in cuisine, and much more fun to plunder for antiques.

To go antiquing in Brussels is to bask in civility and ease—especially if you’ve ever suffered the apathy of the 2,500 dealers at Paris’s legendary Marché St.-Ouen. Stay hard by the Gothic, gilded Grand Place—a square called one of the most beautiful in the world by no less than Victor Hugo; at the Hotel Amigo (1–3 Rue de l’Amigo, 32-2/547-4747;; doubles from $335), you’re barely a half-mile walk from the best dealers in and around the Place du Grand Sablon, also a cobbled and gabled but far more sweeping square.

For decades the premier address for fine antiques, the Place du Grand Sablon is still the site of a small weekly antiques market (all day Saturday, half a day on Sunday) that sets up in jaunty red and green–striped canvas stalls. Here are mostly small wares of good quality but modest distinction—brass candlesticks, clocks and boxes, porcelain and silver for the table. A much larger market, especially on weekends, takes place in the Place du Jeu de Balle, but to find something worth carrying home requires wading through mountains of mostly not-old-enough-to-even-be-vintage housewares piled on blankets. Allot most of your time to the shops radiating out from the Place du Grand Sablon.

Costermans (5 Place du Grand Sablon; 32-2/512-2133), established in 1839, is one of the few longtime antiquaires still holding on to its spot on the Place du Grand Sablon. Its salons are filled with 18th-century furniture and objets—and sometimes with audiences for Baroque concerts—but the courtyard is what sets Costermans apart. There, like a graveyard of thin black headstones, dozens of cast-iron firebacks lean three deep on the cobblestones and line up in single file on ledges above. Hundreds of other fireplace accessories fill an enfilade of rooms bordering the courtyard, as do handsome lanterns for indoors or out. If, even with all these choices, you don’t find what you’re looking for, Costermans will make it for you.

The elegant antiques shops like Costermans that used to ring the square have increasingly been supplanted by businesses better able to afford the rising rents: Emporio Armani; the French earthenware house Gien; chocolatiers Pierre Marcolini (1 Rue des Minimes; 32-2/514-1206—do yourself the favor), Wittamer (12 Place du Grand Sablon; 32-2/512-3742—take its pâté à tartiner back home), and Godiva (why would you?); and a handful of cafés and restaurants. There’s a formidable weekend lunch crowd at Le Pain Quotidien (11 Rue des Sablons; 32-2/513-5154), but the communal tables and long hours (7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.) of this Belgian prototype are a boon to travelers. Stop a few doors down for another genre of local innovation at Flamant (36 Place du Grand Sablon; 32-2/514-4707). If there is a Belgian “look” in today’s interior design, it is captured in this flagship of the three Flamant brothers’ stores. In comfortable room settings they mix farmhouse and manor house, place Gustavian-style with modern pieces, propose the library, set the palette (Belgium is all about shades of gray, like the weather), and sell the paint—as well as flowers and fresh light food, in the store’s café.

Belgians come naturally by their penchant for mixing it up. Their land has always been a political and cultural crossroads and remains a country bifurcated, with the Dutch-oriented Flemings in the north and the Francophone Walloons in the south. A nation divided doesn’t make for a very strong central government (the push for a “velvet divorce” akin to Czechoslovakia’s rages on), but it does make for an eclectic marketplace. At the Desmet antiques gallery (16 Rue Watteau; 32-2/378-2563), nearly everything is of a majestic scale and almost nothing is Belgian. Sarcophagus-like stone tubs come from France, boldly framed mirrors from the Netherlands and Italy, a pair of Georgian gateleg tables from Britain. Next door at Galerie Pierre Mahaux (14 Rue Watteau; 32-2/512-2406), an ormolu-mounted fruitwood desk and a bench of thick rubber molded to resemble giant blocks of chocolate front a huge painting of African dancers. Artifacts from the Congo turn up often in Belgian interiors, reminders of a former colony 46 times the size of its conqueror that lived under its often crushing thumb until 1960. Dealers in African art and relics—and the Congo Gallery (2 Impasse St.-Jacques; 32-2/511-4767) and its Congo Basin Art History Research Center—can be found on a charming lane off the Place du Grand Sablon.

Michel Lambrecht (18 Rue Watteau; 32-2/502-2729) exemplifies the Belgian talent for, in his words, “giving objects a new destiny.” American decorators haunt this place but downplay their reliance on his cleverness when furnishing their own shops or buying for clients. One who confesses with pleasure is New York’s Steven Gambrel, whose hauls from Brussels often include ceramic Korean vases, and lamps concocted by Lambrecht from pieces of an iron balustrade or an old wooden stool. “France has nicer objects, more luxury and luster, from its rich past,” says Lambrecht. “We Belgians never assume we are the best, but we try to be, so we must be much more inventive.”

It’s an ambition you see over and over again in Brussels’s antiques shops, and it can be traced back to Antwerp-based interior designer Axel Vervoordt, who was the first to so freely mix ancient and contemporary art and artifacts, and to fabricate what he could not find. Paul Jacobs, proprietor of Jacques Brol (202 Rue Haute; 32-476/250-253), admits, “Everyone is copying [Vervoordt], but we try and stay polite.” They also stay far more affordable than their model, who is “terribly eclectic, terribly expensive,” as Jacobs sees it. For all his exclusivity, Vervoordt “taught us that simple things can be so rich, rich things can be so poor.” At Brol, a round canvas tabletop stained from wine-tasting becomes, when hung on the wall, an abstract disc of lunar landscape, perfectly embodying the philosophy that “the thing which is done accidentally is a work of art.”

Rue Haute, like parallel Rue Blaes, traverses the Marolles district; both are dotted with antiquaires that grow more affordable the farther you travel away from the Place du Grand Sablon. Haute Antiques (207 Rue Haute; 32-2/548-9480) houses 40 dealers whose wares span the full range of styles and periods, from a fanciful iron birdcage and a mod trapezoidal fireplace, to a flat-bottomed skiff suspended from the ceiling in the basement. At Dune 234 (234 Rue Haute; 32-476/408-267), the multitalented Muriel Bardinet (dealer, interior designer, painter, photographer) puts the chic back into shabby. Behind the striking curved-glass façade of a former tailor shop, armoires both refined and worn rise above terra-cotta vessels of all shapes and sizes, Thai spirit houses, Bardinet’s own still lifes, tubular chrome stools at a well-worn oak table, and sundry artifacts from time spent in Africa. If the owner isn’t in, you may find her and her daughter Lou sharing a pizza at Easy Tempo (146 Rue Haute; 32-2/513-5440), a former bakery worth stopping in for both its old tiled mural of bakers at work and its antipasti, pizzas, and pasta.

Vincent Colet (15 Rue de la Régence; 32-2/512-0488) is a shop that appreciates the industrial, as in the Triplex Pendlar lamp, by Swedish inventor-designer Johan Petter Johansson. But every piece here has refinement and notable provenance. Colet has long specialized in designs by architects of the 20th century, and alongside a chair by Wormley and a stool by Perriand can be found remarkable pieces by mostly Belgian designers with refreshingly unfamiliar names: Willy Van der Meeren, Lucien Engels, André and Jean Polak, Marcel-Louis Baugniet, Jules Wabbes.

If you’re at Vincent Colet, on a boulevard that’s increasingly attracting interesting dealers, you’ve nearly circled back to the Place du Grand Sablon. It’s all downhill from here, but only in the nicest, gravitational sort of way. Treat yourself to a package of speculoos (traditional Belgian spice cookies) at Biscuiterie Dandoy (50 Rue de Rollebeek; 32-2/503-1949) to snack on as you descend back toward the Grand Place.