Ready to explore the medieval and cosmopolitan heart of Europe and looking for the best things to do in Brussels? We’ve got just what you need!
For some reason I’ve not explored the city of frites, chocolate and waffles recently. HUGE #epicfail on my part. So I asked avid Belgophile Bernie from A Packed Life to share her favorite experiences in Brussels with us. So settle in for tales of comic strips, gastronomic pleasures, and a whole lot of fascinating places that make up the city of Brussels. And book that trip right now!
But first, some necessary information before we get into all the things to see and do in Brussels.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
Brussels Pre-Travel Guide
When To Go
It’s always a good time to visit Brussels, but each season brings its own charms. Spring sees the city start to waken its blooms, while summer is the perfect season to explore late into the evening. Autumn and winter are particularly cozy in Brussels, with the chance to experience Christmas markets, rosy-cheeked walks and some toasty street-food while you are on the move. You’ll find it less crowded in September and October, while the buzz of December is well worth enjoying to see the beauty of Brussels afire with Christmas lights.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
How To Get Around
There are two airports serving the city: Brussels International (BRU) and Charleroi (CRL). Both have connections into the city centre. Trains run direct from Brussels International at Zaventem via Brussels Midi into Central Station. Rail connections link Brussels to many other European cities, including London via Eurostar.
Brussels has a great metro, tram and bus system which will take you anywhere across the city and beyond at a reasonable cost. You can buy tickets from automated kiosks in stations. There’s a helpful guide to tickets and services here. Walking will take you around this compact city with ease. There is also a Hop On Hop Off Bus tour, which will show you many of the main sites and help you get oriented.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
Important Things To Pack
While Antwerp is the fashion capital of Belgium, Brussels can be stylish too. However, you won’t find yourself out of place whatever your attire in this busy cosmopolitan city. Layers are always a good thing, particularly as Brussels can have a few rainy days, even through the summer months. In winter, don’t forget to pack some warm accessories, like a scarf and gloves. Those historic cobbled streets are best approached with some comfortable footwear, and flat boots with grip are a go-to in the winter months. There can be snow in winter, so be prepared for seeing the city in its magical white coat and check the weather forecast before you travel so you can pack appropriately.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
Where To Stay
There are lots of different neighborhoods in Brussels, all with their own unique flavor. The efficient metro system opens up many different options, giving you the chance to experience life in a local community as well as in central Brussels. To the south of the centre, you’ll find Ixelles, the cultural centre of the city for many centuries; there are two universities here, making the area vibrant, full of inexpensive eats and great things to do. You might also love multicultural Saint Gilles, full of Art Nouveau charms, and described as the place in Brussels where all the world comes to meet. If you’re staying in central Brussels, check out the B-Aparthotel, which is just five minutes’ walk from Grand Place, and gives plenty of space to relax and recharge in the heart of the city.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
Belgium is a trilingual country, with French and Flemish the most common languages and a little German spoken in Wallonia on the border. Brussels itself is in French-speaking Wallonia, so everyday conversation is in French. You will see most signs written in both French and Flemish, including place names and names for railway stations and the like. Bruxelles Midi and Brussel Zuid are one and the same station, for example. With Brussels being the location of the European Parliament, English is also very widely-spoken throughout the city.
For a good selection of useful traveling translations in French, including an audio version, please check out the selection at Fodors, covering everything from bathroom stops to internet connections.[divider style=”bold” title=”” text_align=””]
And now what you’ve been looking for, a complete guide of things to do in Brussels!
Things To Do In Brussels
1. Explore Grand Place
Grand Place, at the very heart of Brussels, is simply magnificent. You’ll approach it through one of many narrow cobbled streets, and then suddenly the enormous square opens up before you. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you can see visitors stop, open mouthed, and take in the beauty of the magnificent buildings. Each has its own story, from the Guild houses of the wealthy trades of Brussels, to the Masion du Roi, promoted from the Duke’s House to the King’s House when the Duke became King. The city museum is here, telling the story of Brussels from medieval times.
The Gothic Hotel De Ville dates to 1402. You can climb the Brabantine Tower to enjoy views over the city, and marvel at the ornate decoration, including St Michael slaying a she-devil. Here you can see the splendor of historic Brussels at its very best. Be prepared to be charmed. Grand Place even has its own webcam (how cool is that?!), so you can check out what’s happening there before you visit.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
2. Find the Manneken, Janneke and Zinneke Pis
Everyone knows the Manneken Pis, high on many people’s lists of things to do in Brussels. There are varied reports as to his origins, although as he dates to 1618, it’s understandable that time has blurred the tales. It is said that he is modeled on a young noble who urinated on troops trying to occupy Brussels in 1142, illustrating the attitude of Belgians towards people who try to oppress them. An alternative tale is that when the city was under attack in the fourteenth century, a boy creatively extinguished a burning fuse to save the city from explosives.
Whatever his origin, young and tiny Manneken Pis is a charmer with an extensive wardrobe, kept at the Garde-Robe where you can see some of his 1000 outfits. Around 15 new outfits are added each year. The schedule for his wardrobe changes is posted on the railings by the statue. You’ll find Janneke Pis, his female counterpart, located in a rather beautiful flower bed on Impasse de la Fidelite off Rue des Bouchers. There’s also Zinneke Pis, their canine companion, in Rue de Vieux Marche.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
3. Visit the Comic Strip Centre and take the Comic Strip Trail
Tintin is one of Belgium’s comic creative triumphs, and you can see more of him and his peers at the Comic Strip Centre – Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinee (CBBD). Belgium has more comic strip artists per kilometer than any other country in the world, and that creativity is on full display at the Centre. Here you’ll also find the home of the Smurfs, Spirou, Bob and Bobette, Lucky Luke, Blake and Mortimer and Marsupilami.
Once you’ve enjoyed the CBBD, take it to the streets and follow the Comic Strip Trail. Faced with empty and unattractive building facades, Brussels took a big brave step and had them filled with comic strip art. The route was established in 1991 to make the most of the city’s architectural and urban heritage. You’ll find more than 50 murals across the city, and the list of sites is here. Keep your eyes peeled at Central Station if you arrive by that route; you may spot a Smurf or two. You can also get your fill of comic strip statues at the Moof Museum.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
4. Explore Belgian Beer through Brussels’ Bars
Belgian beer is both art and craft, and high on the list of many people’s things to do in Belgium. Diverse and distinctive offerings from breweries across Belgium are available in Brussels. Recommended bars include A La Mort Subite, complete with polished woodwork, waiters in crisp white shirts and black aprons and a real sense of tradition. You’ll find a similar ambiance at A La Becasse. To see a fascinating insight into Brussels’ past, check out Au Bon Vieux Temps. Located down a tiny alley not far from Grand Place (Sint-Nikolaasgang, 4 Impasse Saint-Nicolas – look up to find the street sign overhead) – this bar has stained glass windows depicting the old trades and guilds of the city.
As for the beer itself, you’d never work through all the possibilities during a stay in the city. You’ll find a list of more than 2000 beers at the famed Delirium Café alone. Brewing dates to the times of the Crusades, when drinking beer was way better for your health than drinking water. Traditional brewing methods emerged from the Abbeys and these beers along with Trappists are still produced today. Consider trying a refreshing fruit beer on a hot day, especially kriek, a cherry beer. Gueze is a complicated and acquired taste, while lambics also have their own character created by natural yeasts. Bars are equally fine places to enjoy a coffee – often with a Belgian chocolate on the side, or a speculoos biscuit – and a soft drink.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
5. Stroll through Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert
Just around the corner from Grand Place, you’ll find one of Brussels’ most elegant arcades. Built in 1846 to a design inspired by the Uffizi in Florence, it has several areas named after the King, Queen and Prince. Its motto is Omnibus Omnia – everything for everybody – and today’s offerings do their best to fulfill that promise. You won’t be short of things to do in Brussels here, and there’s plenty to see and eat too. You can even stop off at the Galeries’ ornate Royal Theatre.
It’s fascinating to explore this beautiful bastion of commerce. Even if you don’t want to shop, it’s a great insight into Belgian life. You’ll see plenty of chocolate in all its many forms, but you’ll also discover the Belgian love of specialization, whether it’s fine leather briefcases, hats or a shop devoted entirely to gloves. You can stop off for anything from an expensive meal to a modest coffee.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
6. Marvel at the Atomium
Built for the Brussels Expo in 1958, the Atomium was only intended to open for 6 months. It’s so popular that it has remained to this day. It was designed to represent the nine atoms of the cell of an iron crystal. The use of the atom was a key feature of scientific advance at the time of the Atomium’s construction, with science being the theme of the Expo.
Each of its nine 18 metre spheres is connected by tubes 3 meters in height, enclosing stairs, escalators and a lift. Today you can explore the inside of five of its nine spheres, giving a wonderful panoramic view of the city. There is a restaurant in the topmost sphere.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
7. See Europe in Miniature
Heysel Park surrounding the Atomium is also great to visit. Within the park, you’ll find Mini-Europe. Here are miniature versions of landmarks in Europe, representing 80 cities with 350 model buildings, including a little Grand Place.
You can spot everything from gondolas on the Grand Canal to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, captured in marble, the Arc de Triomphe and Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon. Watch out for the TGV train heading to Paris and listen out for Big Ben.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
8. Taste Belgian Waffles and Chocolate
You can’t visit Belgium without trying some of its key gastronomic treats – waffles and chocolate. The beautiful aroma of waffles permeates the city of Brussels. Your gaufres come in two distinct types – Brussels and Liege. The latter are stouter and doughier; in fact, moving towards doughnut territory in texture. And of course, you can have a vast variety of toppings from fruits to chocolate, caramel and ice cream. Your waffle tasting opportunities will range from splendid emporia with black aproned waiters to street carts and even waffle trucks.
Similarly, you’ll find opportunities to expand your knowledge of Belgian chocolate everywhere, chocolate being on pretty much everyone’s list of things to do in Brussels. From the chocolate boutiques to a supermarket selection that would make most other countries envious, you’ll find chocolate for every pocket. If the urge is upon you, you can also book yourself up for a chocolate workshop, where you can make and taste to your heart’s content.
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9. See the European Parliament, Belgian Parliament and Royal Palace
If your wish list of things to do in Brussels includes developing a greater understanding of its international role, you may want to visit some of its political institutions. The European Union is sited mainly in Brussels, and you can explore the European Quarter. Here you’ll find the European Commission, which is the executive of the European Union, the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament.
In Parc de Bruxelles, you’ll find the Royal Palace (although the King and Queen reside at the Royal Palace of Laeken). The Royal Palace is open to the public in summer. You can also see the Palace of the Nation, where the Belgian Parliament sits.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
10. See The Old City Gate At Porte de Hal
This, the last remaining city gate of the original seven, is a tall and fascinating edifice. Originally surrounded by a moat and drawbridge, the gate faces the Flemish city of Hal, from which it takes its name. It was built between 1360-1385 for protection and customs inspections, later becoming a city prison. Now it contains exhibits about the history of the building, the city of Brussels and how the city was defended. There is an exhibition of armour. You can walk the circuit of the tower from up around the battlements, where you can see Brussels and beyond. There’s also plenty to discover about the various trade guilds of the city.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
11. Visit Horta’s Museum
Horta is to Brussels what Gaudi is to Barcelona. The architect Victor Horta is very significant in the Art Nouveau stylings of Brussels, where you can see all the influences of nature in beautiful stained glass and curved ornate metalwork. Horta wasn’t afraid to change with the times, as you will see if you arrived in Brussels through Central Station, one of Horta’s key buildings. He also designed the building used as the Comic Strip Centre. Horta’s home – Maison & Atelier Horta on Rue Americaine – is now his museum, and you can wander through its stylized beauty. It’s open on afternoons from Tuesday to Sunday, and has a typical Art Nouveau design with natural curves of iron and wood, stained glass and skylights. Four of Horta’s buildings are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
12. See Art Nouveau in Saint-Gilles
Aside from the influence of Horta in Saint-Gilles, you can also see plenty of other Art Nouveau buildings from architects Stuyvvens and Hankar. Contretype, the photography exhibition space, is another significant example. Saint-Gilles is a fascinating place to explore, described as “where the world meets in Brussels”. There are lots of things to do here including spotting the ornate buildings, like La Porteuse d’Eau. Named after the water carrier for the horses who pulled the omnibus, La Porteuse is described as the best known fake Art Nouveau building. It’s now a café bar where you can stop off for a drink and admire the carved woodwork, metalwork, murals and the extravagant swirl of the central spiral stairs. The toilets are a work of mirrored magnificence too.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
13. Relax in Mont des Arts
Like most capital cities, Brussels is bursting with green public spaces to explore and enjoy. In fact, it’s one of the greenest capitals in Europe, with over 8000 hectares of verdant space. Mont des Arts, a few minutes from Grand Place, gives a great view over the city from its lofty heights. On a sunny day you can spot the Basilica and the Atomium.
On the way to Mont des Arts you’ll find the splendid clock which is the Carillon du Mont des Arts. At the very top, you’ll see the bell ringer, known at the Jaquemart, who stands nearly three metres tall. He chimes the clock every quarter of an hour. Below him in the niches are figures that make up the history of Brussels. They’re not all famous figures, as you have a Galois, a tam-tam player representing the Congo, a worker, and a soldier from the First World War. Then you have Philip the Good, Duke of Brabant, the painter Rubens, Charles Quint, the Count of Egmont (who was decapitated in Grand Place) and Charlier a la Jambe de Bois, a key figure in the 1830 Belgian Revolution. It’s a fascinating place, and very melodic when the 24 bells are in action, alternately playing two different folk tunes.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
14. Appreciate the beauty of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart
This glorious Art Deco building is the fifth largest church in the world and is located in Koekelberg. It looks out over Parc Elisabeth, and is modeled on the Sacre-Coeur in Paris, although it’s very different in color. Made of sandstone, brick and concrete, it is 89 metres high and 167 meters long. King Leopold laid the first stone in 1905, and the building was completed in 1971 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Belgian independence. From the cupola, which is accessed by a lift, you can see beautiful views of Brussels and beyond. On a clear day, you can spot Mechelen cathedral and the caissons of the inclined plane on the canal at Ronquieres. There are two museums to explore too.[divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
15. Treat Your Ears at the Musical Instruments Museum (MIM)
Over 6000 musical instruments can be seen and many heard at the MIM Brussels, which covers all types of music from early compositions to popular music. The museum was founded with the meshing of two collections, one of the Belgian musicologist Francois Joseph Fetis and the other being a selection of Indian instruments given to King Leopold. Here you’ll find a featured instrument each month, with galleries over four floors showing keys and keyboards, chronological exhibits from Western music, traditional musical instruments including bagpipes and slit drums and finally mechanical instruments. On this lowest floor, you’ll the componium, a magnificent orchestration which works through a series of mechanical cylinders to create a stream of sound that is unique every time. Visitors are given headphones to appreciate the sounds of the museum as they wander through.
Editor’s Note: I visited the MIM on my last visit to Scottsdale, Arizona and can personally vouch for this type of museum if you’re a music lover. It was absolutely outstanding![divider style=”thin” title=”” text_align=””]
If you have more time to spend in Belgium, consider a short trip to Ghent! It makes the perfect companion to your explorations in Brussels.