Located roughly halfway between Paris and Amsterdam, the city of Brussels is often overlooked in favor of those two European tourism heavyweights. But Brussels has much to offer in its own right, and is a terrific base from which to explore some of Belgium’s most beautiful cities. During my recent visit to the unofficial capital of Europe, I had the pleasure of staying at the historic and charming Hotel Amigo, a member of the Rocco Forte family of hotels and The Leading Hotels of the World.
Rocco Forte, a collection of 15 hotels and resorts with more than half of its properties located in Italy, is known for hotels that are landmarks, in historic buildings and in exceptional locations – and the Hotel Amigo is no exception. The Amigo’s location is the best in Brussels, just one block away from the heart of the city, the magnificent Grand Place, and a 5-minute walk from Brussels’ main train station. And its history is just as notable, as explained to me by the Amigo’s Guest Relations Director, Benoit Vandevelde, whose enthusiasm for the hotel and its backstory is contagious. Vandevelde is truly an expert on the topic, so much so that he wrote a book on it, which is available for purchase in the hotel’s lobby.
The original structure of the Hotel Amigo was built over 500 years ago. In 1522, the city took over the building and turned the site into a prison. It is believed that the name Amigo stems from a simple error of language interpretation. 16th century Spanish soldiers, unfamiliar with the dialect spoken in Brussels at the time, confused the word “vrunte,” meaning prison, with the word “vriend,” meaning friend. They then translated friend to “amigo.” The Amigo Prison would go on to house many illustrious prisoners, including Karl Marx and his wife in 1848.
In 1957, after much of the prison building was destroyed in 1930, a 6-floor hotel was built on the site in anticipation of the 1958 Brussels World Fair – a luxury hotel to host the world’s royalty and visiting nobility who would come flocking to the city for the international event. As Vandevelde likes to say, “the name Amigo is very strange for a prison, but it remains perfect for a hotel!”
Rocco Forte took over the hotel – along with its impressive art collection – in 2000, embarking on an extensive renovation project which restored the hotel to its former glory. It is now, again, a favorite of both Belgian and visiting VIP’s. Designed by the group’s Director of Design, Olga Polizzi, the Hotel Amigo pays homage to its old-age Belgian character – incorporating 15th century cobblestones into its lobby floor, displaying 18th century Flemish tapestries, and showcasing fine art and antiques throughout – but features rooms with a distinctly more modern, practical, luxurious feel.
I had the opportunity to experience two different rooms during my stay. The first was a Deluxe room – bright, spacious but cozy, understated but elegant, classic but with modern features – with a nice view overlooking Amigo Street. The colors of the room were muted, but flowers, a display of treats from local biscuit & waffle maker Maison Dandoy, and a cheerful print from revered Belgian artist Rene Magritte gave the room a bit of flair. The bathroom was large, with a separate large tub and shower area, a bidet, and a supply of Irene Forte amenities. Frankly, what won me over was the incredible water pressure in the shower – as strong as I’ve ever experienced! (Sorry, I’m a sucker for good water pressure.)
Brussels is regarded as perhaps the comic strip capital of the world; where legendary comic heroes from the Smurfs to Blake & Mortimer first emerged. During the second half of my visit, I had the pleasure of staying in a special “only at the Amigo” signature suite devoted to perhaps the most beloved of all the Brussels comic characters – the Tintin Suite. Created by Belgian cartoonist Herge in 1929, the Tintin series follows the international adventures of a daring, young investigative reporter.
The suite itself, at 80 square meters, is massive, featuring a large bedroom, living room, large foyer area, small office, two bathrooms, and a corner room view. But what makes it magical is the spirit of Tintin and the comic’s other colorful characters, exhibited through murals, artwork, artifacts, pillows and linens, towels, and books. Perhaps the most memorable piece in the suite is a drawing of Steven Spielberg, signed and inscribed by the producer himself during his stay at the Amigo for the release of the Adventures of Tintin film in 2011. For fans of Tintin, it doesn’t get any better.
While I did not have the privilege of staying there, I was also able to tour another of the Amigo’s special suites, the Diane von Furstenberg Suite, a limited time activation in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Brussels-born designer’s wrap dress (one of my favorites).
“Designing the DVF suite for the Hotel Amigo in Brussels feels like coming home again…. I feel privileged to be part of this, adding the DVF touch to a most welcoming and for me quite familiar place.” – Diane Von Furstenberg
The suite is filled with special items selected by von Furstenberg herself – from Andy Warhol scarves depicting the designer, to signed books and magazine covers, to handwritten quotes on the walls – the space felt like a mini DVF museum. What a treat to see!
For all day dining, including daily breakfast, the hotel offers Italian restaurant BoCConi. The attractive space is decorated with whimsical prints and plates from the very recognizable Piero Fornasetti. The restaurant also features outdoor terrace seating, set alongside the cobblestone streets leading to the Grand Place.
Visiting Belgium is certainly worth the effort. Whether you want to immerse yourself in the world of a comic strip character or a world-famous clothing designer, or just want a charming and convenient luxury hotel from which to explore, just remember – you always have an Amigo in Brussels.