If you are expecting tourist twee perfection, think again. Liège is not called the Passionate City (la cité ardente) for nothing. In spite of its 12th century St-Barthélémy and medieval Saint Martin churches, and quaint Bueren Mountain with its 400 steps, Liège is not a living museum. This sexy city is all about atmosphere.
Best for: Shopping, sightseeing, getting out of breath on the hills and drinking Pèkèt gin with the students. Flavour: Grilled white boudin (sausage), warm salad liégeoise, curly endives with bacon, crayfish, meatballs with French fries in Liège syrup (sticky sweet apple and pear jam),soft white stron d'poye cheese drenched in syrup, Boukètes (buckwheat) crepes, cûtes peûres (cooked pears) and rice pudding.
Status: Capital of Liège Province, Eastern Belgium’s biggest city. Founded: 980 Location: Straddling the River Meuse at the foot of the Ardennes, 55 miles southeast of Brussels. Connections: Liège has a T.G.V. railway-station and its own airport.
Locals: 400,000/160,000 Liègeois (including lots of students who keep the nightlife vibrant).
Find your feet
Begin at Place Saint-Lambert, at the foot of the former Palace of the Prince-Bishops. Now the law courts, it was built under the orders of Prince-Bishop Everard van der Marck in 1526. It’s a mad mix of Italian Renaissance (on the outside) and Gothic (on the inside). Step inside to see Brussels tapestries in the rich interior. Back on the square, you’ll see the Place du Marché (with the Town Hall - locally known as ‘la Violette’ ) and symbol of liberty, the Perron Fountain, where four strong lions support a graceful column topped by three Graces. You’re in the heart of the Hors-Château district, dotted with grand old mansions and labyrinthine alleys that lead nowhere (les Impasses). Now’s your chance to become an instant expert in Mosan Renaissance – the Curtius Museum, built 1600-1610 is a prime example of the style and it’s filled with examples of Liège decorative art.
On the other side, head for the theatre that houses the Royal Opera of Wallonia and the alluring shopping district. Cross the river to Outremeuse, the island that Georges Simenon called home.
Spend and save
Sunday is market day at Europe’s oldest street market. Walk past bouquets of flowers, fresh Wallonia vegetables from chicory to cress, ethnic jewellery and a medley of clothes on the mile-long quai de la Batte. The rest of the week, stroll the pedestrian-only streets spreading out from Saint-Lambert in the Old City. Don't miss Irina Kha (12 rue du Pot d'Or +32 4 221 21 35) - a real treasure trove of designer lables, from Prada to Miu-Miu, P'tit Lapin, in the Passage Lemonier (N°s 10-12) sells posh clothes for kids (Burberry, Mer du Nord, Pauline B...) and floaty cloathers by Belgian designer Chine for grown up ladies.
The vibe is hottest in the studenty Carré district (bordered by the rue de l'Université, boulevard de la Sauvenière and rue Pont-d'Avroy) on the west bank of the Meuse. Another nightlife hub is across the Meuse (east bank) in Outremeuse’s bars and clubs lining the tree-lined boulevards.
Wine and dine
Thanks to Liège’s melting pot culture, you can dine Italian, Spanish, Turkish, North African or Greek. But you can’t leave Liège without trying the famous meatballs soaked in Liège syrup served up in a convivial tavern. A good place to try them along with warm salad liégeoise is Tchantches (35 En Grande Beche, +32 (0)4 343 3931) in Outremeuse,where regulars’ beer glasses hang expectantly above the bar, or at Café Lequet(17 quai sur Meuse, +32 (0) 4 222 2134) at the foot of the Passerelle. For more formal dining, try candlelit Aux Vieux Liège(41 Quai de la Goffe, +32 (0) 4 223 7748) set in a 16th-century townhouse filled with antiques. And for the latest trendy hotspot, experience Nun’s continental-fusion cuisine and contemporary spaces (18 Impasse des Ursulines, tel: +32 (0)4 222 10 69).
Crime writer Georges Simenon only left for Paris at 25 after finding enough inspiration in Liège to fuel a lifetime of literature and hundreds of books (he claimed it took him just 10 days to write a Maigret novel). His neck of the woods is across the river Meuse on the Island of Outremeuse.
Tchantchesis a more intangible figure – also born in Outremeuse. This folklore puppet appeared from a crack in the ground in the year 760, according to local legend. Brought up on the local gin (pékèt), Tchantches is the rebellious, bloody-minded but good-natured star of Liège’s puppet theatre, and a typically hot-headed Liègeois. Find out more at the Tchantches Museum (56 Rue Surlet 56) or just get chatting to the locals. Although long dead, you should still know about Notger, adviser to the Holy Roman Emperor and Liège’s first prince-bishop in the late10th century. This is the man who turned Liège into a cultural centre, ‘Rome Beyond the Alps’. The French revolutionary army put an end to the prince-bishopric in 1794.
Climb the 406 steps of the Montagne de Bueren for dramatic Liège views. The ‘mountain’ was built in 1880 so soldiers of the garrison could reach the hilltop without having to pass through little alleys where danger might lurk. It’s just a short climb from the top of the mountain to the terraced park with the best views.
Liège is set in deep countryside, where you can hike past waterfalls, kayak along rivers or mountain bike in the hills. Spa-Francorchamps F1 racing-circuit is a 20 mile drive.