Brussels is an eclectic city where the French meet Dutch. Even the street signs are in both languages. It is the administrative capital of the European Union, home to a wealth of fabulous architecture, from Neo-Gothic to Art Nouveau, with trendy shops, an impressive cafe culture, and an amazing city center which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Add to that over 80 museums and some fantastic must-try foods, Brussels certainly has something for every traveler. Much like Paris, it’s one of those cities that comes alive at night and could even be said to be more beautiful after dark.
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Getting To & Around Brussels
Brussels’ main airport, Bruxelles-National, is located approximately 9 miles outside of the city center. There are a variety of ways to get into the city from the airport: train, bus, or taxi. Trains are easy and leave every 15 to 30 minutes, with stops at the city’s three main stations where you can catch the metro. If coming in on the train, there are three stations; Nord, Central, and Midi/Zuid. Again, you can catch the metro from each station to take you elsewhere in the city.
Getting around the city is easy with buses and a convenient and fast metro system. There are four metro lines that run every 3 to 10 minutes. Brussels also has an incredibly compact city center with many main sights within walking distance.
Tips for Brussels
1. Metro Use
Be sure to validate your metro ticket in the machine before you hop on. Also, note that doors do not open automatically, you must press the button or pull the lever.
2. Brussels Card
If you plan on visiting some of the museums, consider purchasing a Brussels Card. Passes are €24 for 24 hours, €34 for 48 hours, and €40 for 72 hours. The pass offers free access to many of the key museums, unlimited travel on public transport, discounts at restaurants and bars, as well as a city map, museum map, and short museum guide book. You can purchase the pass online or at the main tourist offices.
3. Save on Lunch
When dining out for lunch, many restaurants offer a fixed menu or dish of the day at cheaper prices. Or you can opt for a quick bite to eat by grabbing a Belgian waffle or some Belgian frites. Both can be purchased across the city and for just a few euros.
4. When to Go
While spring may have fewer crowds, summer is a great time to visit as many hotels offer cheaper deals. There are also several festivals going on. Just be prepared for heat, humidity, and rain. It rains frequently in Brussels, year-round, so be sure to pack a rain jacket and umbrella.
5. Use Brussels as a Base
Belgium is a small country with fast trains, and many of its main cities are within a few hours from Brussels. Consider using Brussels as your home base and taking day trips to the surrounding cities. For example, Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges are all accessible in an hour or less.
Things to do in Brussels
1. Grand Place
Grand Place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most impressive squares I’ve seen. Once the setting for markets, fairs, and even jousts, it’s now home to restaurants, museums, and the former town hall building, which now hosts the Hotel de Ville and tourist information. Nowhere in the city will you see a better example of its diverse architecture than here. Many of the intricate buildings were once guild houses, from butchers to bakers and boatmen to brewers, and if you look at their details you can tell which was what.
Note: Don’t forget to come back to see it all lit up at night, it’s beautiful!
2. Eat & Drink
We all know Belgium is famous for its beer. There were once over 3,000 brewers, but now there are only 100. Many bars have a lot of beer on tap, but the most famous is made by the Trappist monasteries. Take a day trip to Leuven if you want to visit the Stella brewery, just make sure it’s open before you go.
Aside from brews, Belgium also has some awesome must-try foods. Here you can indulge in the best of French cuisine, or you can save money by grabbing some Belgian frites and waffles, both of which are less than a few euros. Belgian frites are fries, deep-fried in quality oil, twice. They’re crispy, golden brown, and often served with a bit of mayonnaise for dipping. It’s also here that you’ll find the best waffles: Belgian waffles. Crispy, rectangular, and sprinkled with icing, sugar, or any number of toppings, which are easily found anywhere in the city center.
One must-try meal is the mouth-watering Flemish stew. It’s a beef stew cooked in Belgian beer, rich, sweet, and usually served with frites, which are delicious when dipped in the gravy of the stew.
And don’t forget dessert! Belgian chocolate is some of the finest in the world. They’ve had a long history with chocolate, from being among the first to bring the cocoa bean to Europe to pioneering how to make it. You’ll find many chocolatiers in Brussels, but in my opinion, the best is Mary. Mary is a family-run shop from 1919, now under new owners, located in Galeries Royales de Saint-Hubert. I suggest you indulge in a few different kinds, from pralines to truffles, you won’t be disappointed!
3. Street Art
Brussels has some of the coolest street art in Europe, with everything from video game-like space invaders to modern art and, of course, comic book art. Brussels is considered the ‘comic book capital of the world’, with the likes of the Smurfs and Tin Tin. In the early 1990s, a collaboration between the city and the Belgian Comic Strip Center helped bring to life many of the huge comic book murals around the city. There’s even a tour of Brussels’ street art, or you can take the self-guided Brussels’ Comic Book Route tour that brings you to over 50 of the murals.
4. The Atomium
Built for the 1958 World Fair, the Atomium resembles a giant iron crystal, with nine stainless steel balls connected by metal tubes. At over 300 feet tall, it is one of Brussels’ most popular attractions. Located in Ossegepark, the balls host exhibitions, one of which tells the story of the Atomium, and at the top is a restaurant that offers stunning views over the city.
5. St. Michael’s Cathedral
Construction began on St. Michael’s Cathedral in 1226 and continued for over 300 years. This gorgeous cathedral is in the city center and is a must-visit. As you walk in, your eyes will be drawn up to the elaborate ceiling and arches. With surprisingly sparse furnishings, what it does have is supreme, including a huge Baroque oak pulpit and stunning stain glass windows. Downstairs, you can check out the treasury and the old Roman church that once stood there.
6. Head to the Museum
Brussels has over 80 museums to explore. There are museums focusing on everything from comic strips to Art Nouveau and a ton of art galleries. The three top choices are the Royal Museums of the Fine Arts, the Museum of Musical Instrument, and the Museum of the City of Brussels. The Royal Museums of the Fine Arts showcases Flemish and Belgian artists and is arranged by centuries. The Museum of Musical Instruments is located in an old Art Nouveau department store and holds over 9,000 pieces. Try wearing the headphones to hear what each instrument sounded like. There’s also a restaurant on the top floor with one of the best views of Brussels.
Yes, one of the top things to do in Brussels is to visit Manneken-Pis, a statue of a little boy peeing. Created in 1618, the original statue is on display at The Museum of the City of Brussels, while the one tourists flock to is from 1965. Manneken-Pis goes to show you just how great a sense of humor the people of Brussels have. He even has a ton of costumes that he can be seen wearing on various occasions. Fun fact: he has a little sister who is lesser known. Jeannke-Pis is a modern fountain and statue of a little girl squatting to pee. She’s located near the Delirium Café.
Located just north of the city center, Laeken is full of treasures. It’s home to the Royal Palace of Laeken, which is the official residence of the royal family. There you can also find the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken. These classic greenhouses are filled with stunning trees and plants, but they only accept visitors for three weeks during the spring. Laeken also has a Chinese Pavilion, Japanese Tower, the stunning monument of the dynasty, and a cemetery that rivals Paris’ Pere Lachaise Cemetery, full of Belgium’s rich and famous.
9. Explore the Parks
Brussels has some amazing parks, all offering something different. Brussels Park, located in the city center, is 32 acres. It’s a peaceful reprieve from the buzz of the city with shaded pathways, fountains, and statues, and it is surrounded by some of Belgium’s historic buildings. Le Botanique was once the main building of the National Gardens. It now has a music venue inside, but still boasts pretty gardens out front, as well as pathways to wander and 30 awesome statues to admire. The Parc du Cinquantenaire, or Jubilee Park, is 74 acres and was created for the 50th anniversary of Belgium’s independence. It has a massive arch, sprawling lawns, shaded paths, and three museums. It’s easy to spend the entire day there.
10. Galeries Royales de Saint-Hubert
Constructed in 1847, the Galeries Royales de Saint-Hubert was the first shopping arcade in Europe. Located in the city center, it has over 50 fabulous shops, cafes, theatres, and even a spectacular bookstore. The architecture and vaulted ceilings alone are worth seeing. It’s also where you’ll find my favorite chocolate shop in Brussels: Mary.
Where to Stay in Brussels
Budget Hotel – Brxxl City Centre Hostel
Located in the city center, the Brxxl City Centre Hostel is a fine choice for budget accommodation. Minutes’ walk from Grand Place and other main sights, it is also close to the metro and train station. You’ll enjoy modern rooms with televisions, clean bathrooms with hairdryers, even free shampoo, and shower gel. The hostel also offers free Wi-Fi, a 24-hour reception, and free city maps. One thing to note is the age restriction in dorms is 40 years old.
Dorms start around $17 USD
Mid-Range Hotel – Hotel Windsor
The Hotel Windsor is in a great location, right between the central and southern train stations. Within a 10 minute walk to Grand Place, you can’t beat the location, and some of the rooms even offer great views over central Brussels. The hotel offers a continental breakfast, free Wi-Fi, a 24-hour reception, and all for a fabulous price.
Rooms start around $50 USD
High-End Hotel – Hotel BLOOM!
Not necessarily for the cash-strapped, but a brilliant hotel within walking distance of the sights. Rooms start around $145.