The capital of Belgium, Brussels, is a fascinating place with stunning architecture and fascinating history packed into every street and alleyway. The vibe of the city is hard to put your finger on. Sometimes it seems very business and bureaucracy focused, it is after all the administerial centre of the EU, but at other times it feels laid back and does not take itself too seriously: think Manneken Pis and The Comic Strip Centre.
It is this multi-layered atmosphere that makes Brussels such a great city to visit. It truly has something for everyone and offers European staples such as art and architecture alongside more unusual attractions. Don’t visit Brussels if you are on a diet as the fries, mussels and beer will soon have you indulging.
Spending just a couple of days in the city will allow you to see all of the major and most popular sights but if you are here for a week, you will be able to visit some more obscure, but equally fascinating attractions. Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Brussels:
1. Be Inspired by the Grand Place
The Grand Place in Brussels is hidden away in the centre of the city but when you enter on foot, you are guaranteed to be left awestruck. At the centre of the Grand Place is the beautiful 15th Century city hall but dotted around the square you will also be impressed by the six guild halls and their striking architecture. The square is worth visiting several times at different times of the day. On certain days there is a flower market in the square and visiting at night is recommended.
2. Step back in time at the Old England Building
The Old England Building in Brussels was formerly a department store and was built in the very last year of the 19th Century. The building attracts visitors because of its stunning facade but also due to the fascinating and vast musical museum it houses. The museum is home to more than 2000 musical instruments with historic value and gives guests a chance to listen to many of them. The cafe on the roof of the building provides memorable panoramic views of the city.
3. Visit Brussel’s Notre Dame Du Sablon
This spectacular Gothic cathedral began life in the 14th Century when it was used as a chapel by the Archer’s Guild. It was extensively expanded in the next century to the popularity and supposed healing powers of the Madonna statue located within. The statue was allegedly stolen by a husband and wife team of thieves in a rowing boat. The location of the statue is unknown but the story is commemorated by a lifesize model inside the building.
4. Learn about lace in the costume museum
Lace is one of Brussels’ oldest crafts and the art of needlepoint lace, which was first developed in Italy, was one of the main industries in Brussels. The museum details of lace outfits were made as well as displaying many historical outfits. The exhibitions are ever changing but are always well presented.
5. Admire Le Botanique
Le Botanique was historically the botanical gardens of the city and still attracts a large number of guests in the modern day. The greenhouse, which dates back to the 19th Century, now regularly plays host to a range of performing arts and makes the place feel like more of a cultural centre than just a garden. However if you are into greenery then the surrounding gardens are still intact and present in all their glory, and make for a welcoming change of pace from the city itself. Ps: Le Botanique is included in the Brussels Bard which you can get here.
6. See the Palais Royal
Although the royal family of Belgium now spend their lives at Laeken, the Royal Palace in Brussels remains as their official residence. The palace is open for tourists in the summer months and makes a worthy addition to any itinerary whilst visiting the city. The most notable room in the palace has a ceiling covered in the wings of beetles, forming an oddly beautiful mosaic. The artwork as well as the interior decor is also as splendid as you might expect from a royal palace.
7. Laugh at the Manneken Pis
This odd statue has risen to fame and is a popular tourist attraction in the city. The name simply translates to “little man pee” and it has been given this name for obvious reasons. The statue takes a little bit of skill in hunting down (unless you see it as part of a tour) but it is worth persevering. You will find it by taking the right lane away from the town hall. The statue is thought to date back to the early 17th Century when it was designed by Jerome Duquesnoy.
8. Get your fill of art at the Musee Royaux Des Beaux Arts
If you are craving some top notch art (and you should be when in a European Capital) then look no further than the Musee Royaux Beaux Arts. The museum incorporates collections of modern and ancient art across a range of styles. Famous works at the museum include the Fall of Icarus and various paintings by the Antwerpen painter Peter Rubens. There are also works by Anthony Van Dyke and Hans Memling on display. Allow close to a full day to be able to fully appreciate the museum.
9. Relax in the Parc Du Cinquantenaire
The Parc Du Cinquantenaire has been around since the reign of Leopold II. It is a great place to visit for a number of reasons, whether you plan on having a picnic on the grass whilst absorbing the stunning architecture, or whether you intend to appreciate the vast collection of 35,000 artifacts housed in the museums here, a trip to the Parc Du Cinquantenaire should be part of any trip to Brussels.
10. Enjoy a beer tour of Brussels
Belgians are very proud of their beer and it has played an important role throughout the history of the city. Tours are available that allow beer aficionados to experience the best pubs in the city as well as learning about the history of the beer and seeing how it is made in one of the city’s breweries. Whether or not you are a beer fan, this tour is worth considering due to the pride and historical value associated with beer in the city. Tip: check out this Brussels Beer Tasting Tour
11. Appreciate the lesser known history of Brussels
It is not widely known or as appreciated by tourists as other aspects of Brussels history but the city is actually known for its comic book history. The city has a museum which is dedicated to comics; The Belgian Comic Strip Centre but aside from that, you will also get a feel of how important comics are to the city when you gaze up at larger than life comic book murals on the side of building walls. Hunting these murals down is an exciting way to get around the city too.
12. See and be seen at Cafe Belga
Something of an institution in the city of Brussels, the Cafe Belga is hugely popular with locals, expats and tourists alike. Located at the heart of Place Flagey (which is itself somewhat of a cultural mixing pot), the Cafe has great views, a buzzing atmosphere and great, affordable Belgian cafe food. The cafe gets busy in the summer but this is part of its charm. Whilst you are in the area, Frit Flagey is well worth visiting and serves some of the best fries in the city.
13. Enjoy the nightlife
The nightlife of Brussels is varied and entertaining and has something to suit all tastes and budgets. One of the most worthwhile nights out is Madame Mustache, a club with waiters clad in sailors attire that plays a variety of different music. Entry is free on weeknights but not weekends (it is also busier at the weekend). Dancing is the best way to enjoy your night here but if that is not to your liking there is always a table football room on offer. There’s also a 4-Hour Locals Pub and Club Crawl which you can book here.
14. Learn about the city in the Broodhuis
The Flemish name of this building translates to “The Bread House” due to the many centuries that the city’s bread market was held here. Fittingly, the building is now home to a museum focusing on the history of the city of Brussels. The exhibitions range from the middle ages to the present day and are set over multiple floors. If you had chance to visit the Manneken Pis, then you may be interested to see his costumes which are on display here.
15. Marvel at the Atomium
The Atomium, located in Heysel Park in the West of the city, is a jaw dropping model of an atom which just happens to be a whopping 100 metres tall. The sculpture was made in 1958 to welcome a new and atomic age to Belgium and is an accurate depiction of an iron molecule except that it is about 165 billion times larger! glass roofed life takes guests to the top in a time of only 20 seconds, there they can enjoy a beer and snack before descending. Admission ticket can be booked here.