“Don’t listen to what they say ~ Go see.” ~ Proverb.
So, what to see in Brussels? I’m an all-or-nothing kinda traveller so when I decided to visit Belgium, I was determined to take my time seeing the best of 4 cities: Bruges, Damme, Ghent and Brussels attractions over a two-week period.
When mentioning to people I met (including Belgians) that I was staying in Brussels for an entire week, they all looked at me strangely and responded with “Why would you want to? You’ll get so bored.”
But they were so wrong. So very wrong! And I’m here to tell you why. Even other travel bloggers have mentioned their Brussels experience wasn’t great… This really surprised me so now I’m here to set the record straight.
Why visit Brussels?
You’re likely wondering, “Is Brussels worth visiting?” As you may know by now I’m a little obsessed with researching a destination in-depth before I visit (maybe you are too – glad you’ve found me!), so despite what you may have heard about Brussels so far I can assure you there are loads of enjoyable things to see and do.
I definitely recommend spending more than just one day in Brussels – in my whole week there I can promise you I was never bored.
If you’re interested in totally uncovering Belgium’s capital and everything she has to offer rather than a whirlwind visit in just a few hours, you’ve come to the right place. Go grab yourself a cuppa and keep reading!
Here are some highlights of what to see in Brussels. Did I mention most of these things to do in Brussels are FREE?:
This guide for what to see in Brussels will cover:
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Where to stay in Brussels
I enjoyed my stay at Warwick Brussels Grand Place, for its reasonable price and convenient location. It’s in close proximity to Bruxelles-Midi train station, restaurants, pubs and the Grand Place itself. I love being in the centre of the action (well, in a street tucked away behind the action so I get a good sleep without the noise).
As I harp on about in every itinerary and travel guide, staying in a centrally-located hotel is so important. In Brussels, if you choose to stay in a neighbourhood different to your expectations it can have the biggest impact in shaping the type of experience you have, as I explained in the “Unpopular Truths” section below.
My friend that visited Brussels a few weeks before me said she hated the experience. I asked where she stayed and it was in the Red Light District, which is in no way as trendy as its Amsterdam counterpart, unfortunately. I was confident in my accommodation choice and I am so glad I stayed where I did because I had a wonderful time!
15 impressive Brussels attractions to add to your itinerary
I’ve noticed an emerging trend among visitors to Belgium’s capital where they seem skim over it in a day or so (like an Instatourist would), missing many significant attractions that could have been included on their itinerary had they allowed extra time. There is so much to see in this city if you’re prepared beforehand – as mentioned earlier, I managed to have a fun-filled week in Brussels alone!
Knowing exactly what to expect before your visit can mean the difference between having a mediocre or mind-blowing experience in this intriguing city.
Here is my list of 15 top attractions that I believe should be added to your Brussels itinerary (in no particular order). To me, these are definitely worth your time so you can experience the city to its full potential. And remember, they’re ALL FREE! Well, maybe the last one is an exception depending on how big a beer fan you are so keep reading to find out!
Part of the European Parliament, this visitor’s section is well worth a visit if you’re into European politics. No booking is required.
On arrival I received a hand-held multimedia guide (similar to a buzzer you receive when waiting for your dinner at a bistro) that helped walk me through the permanent exhibition. It’s needed to activate the audio and video options at the different installations throughout.
Explore the interactive floor map that demonstrates how the EU (European Union) impacts daily life, listen to accounts of EU citizens and their thoughts on the EU, as well as meeting local MEP’s (Member of European Parliament) on screen and learn what they do. The exhibition is available in 24 languages including English.
Unfortunately for me the area to observe European Parliament was closed during my visit – I would have loved to witness the MEP’s in action. Regardless of your thoughts on the EU, this is one of the most memorable Brussels attractions and an important stop during any visit.
Whether you agree or disagree with the exhibition’s representation of today’s EU, it is still interesting to expand your knowledge about its creation after WWII and what it aims to achieve for the continent.
TIP: Go with an open mind and see if you think Margaret Thatcher’s speech on immigration was more relevant in 1979 than today!
2. Parc Léopold
Opened in 1880 and now tucked away in a quiet spot behind European Parliament in the European Quarter, Parc Léopold (Dutch: Leopoldspark) is a tranquil favourite among locals to picnic beside the duck pond.
You may even get the chance to see some EU pollies (politicians) escaping from their daily grind by chilling out in the park while you’re there.
3. Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert
Known for its striking lengthy dome roof and not too different from the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, this beautiful arcade is the perfect place to grab some Belgian chocolates, check out the boutiques or simply people watch. It’s also over 100 metres in length and was opened by King Leopold and his sons in 1847.
4. Parc de Bruxelles
This 32-acre park is the biggest in Brussels and is home to several ponds, sculptures and fountains. If you visit Brussels during summer, it’s likely you’ll find festivals and events hosted here. The Palais Royal de Bruxelles (mentioned below), Belgian Parliament and the US Embassy surround the park.
5. Manneken Pis
What is impressive about this little guy is that he is really quite unremarkable yet still manages to draw crowds at all hours of the day (much like Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid). Although, I must give credit where it is due: he does have a wardrobe bigger than most people and on some occasions he’s even been known to pee kriek (cherry beer – a Belgian favourite!)
He does have a sister nearby named Jeanneke Pis if you can be bothered make your way over to witness how equally unremarkable she is, too.
6. Mont des Arts
A lovely and elevated point in Brussels that overlooks manicured gardens, the huge spire of the Town Hall and if you’re lucky you’ll be even able to see Koekelberg Basilica and Atomium in the distance on a clear day.
7. Palais Royal de Bruxelles
Although the current King and Queen of Belgium reside on the outskirts of Brussels, the King carries out his duties as Head of State here at the Royal Palace of Brussels and large official receptions are held in the State Rooms.
The palace standing today replaced the former Coudenberg Palace that dated back to the Middle Ages. Why is it impressive? The massive façade is actually 50% longer than Buckingham Palace’s so you can’t really miss it!
8. Old England Building
One of my main inspirations for visiting Belgium was its amazingly preserved Art Nouveau architecture dotted throughout the city, and it did not disappoint.
Built in 1899, The Old England Building once was a department store and is now home to the Musical Instrument Museum of Brussels.
9. Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula
Completed in 1519, this Catholic cathedral built in Gothic style is not too dissimilar in appearance from the Notre Dame in Paris. Although, it actually took over 300 years to build!
St Michael has been the Patron Saint of Brussels since the Middle Ages and over the centuries the cathedral has been a host to Belgium’s events of royalty, including weddings, coronations and state funerals. Imagine if those walls could talk!
10. Place Sainte-Catherine & Neighbourhood
A pleasant, upper-class neighbourhood in Brussels popular with locals for various types of seafood eateries. Nice cars, business people and locals frequent the area for lunch.
A quaint church and many boutiques are there waiting for you explore and if you’re a fresh seafood fan, be sure to indulge at Mer du Nord – be prepared for a queue, though! It’s nice to experience different neighbourhoods in a city because one can be so very different to the next.
11. & 12. Parc du Cinquantenaire & Triumphal Arch
The “Park of the Fiftieth Anniversary” (Dutch: Jubelpark) is a lovely place to relax with a number of manicured gardens. The real symbol of Brussels can be found at the southern end of the park with an enormous Belgian flag draped beneath the iconic Arcade du Cinquantenaire.
This triple archway was completed in 1905 and celebrates 50 years of Belgian independence. The Royal Museum of the Army and Military History is adjacent to the archway if you have some extra time.
13. European Commission
Located within the Le Berlaymont building, this European Union institution manages the everyday business of the EU from decision-making to legislation proposals to safeguarding EU treaties.
One commissioner represents each of the EU’s 28 member states, but members are bound by oath to represent the general interest of the EU as a group rather than their home state (which is probably why the UK voted to leave!)
14. Delirium Beer Café (& pubs in general)
You’ll literally be spoilt for choice as Guinness World Record holder Delirium Beer Café boasts over 200 beers to tempt your tastebuds.
From dozens of local specialties, fruit beers as well as the regular international favourites, this funky basement bar is decorated with beer trays that look like huge replica bottle caps on the ceiling. It’s also full of locals which makes it one of the best things to do in Brussels at night. It’s fantastically fun vibe makes Delirium a must-see!
Another pub my travel buddy and I frequented during our stay was Au Brasseur, tucked away in a cobbled street behind the Grand Place. Pictured above is what they like to call “The Metre” and it has 15 different types of Belgian beers to sample. It’s longer than a metre, though! I also tried coconut beer here that was served in a coconut-shaped bowl with a straw.
As I mention in Ghent city guide, you’ve just got to try ALL the beers when in Belgium (even if you’re not a beer fan). To be honest, I was never a beer drinker until I tried the fruity beers in Belgium.
They don’t actually taste like beer, which is the best part and probably why I enjoyed them so much! Keep an eye out for beers by Brouwerij Lindemans – they were the tastiest.
Cost: Maybe your head the next day! Keep in mind the alcohol content in Belgian beer is much stronger than what you may be used to (some are as strong as 12%)… hehe.
15. Brussels Comic Strip Walk
Brussels is known internationally for its comic culture, perhaps most notably Tin Tin and his dog, Snowy. Scattered throughout the city are gorgeous murals displaying characters from comics and it’s like going on a treasure hunt to find them!
My travel buddy and I dedicated a day to this (which may not be to everyone’s taste) but as a massive art lover this was something I really wanted to do in Brussels.
Here are some highlights from my DIY self-guided walk. I researched the locations of the ones I wanted to see most and went on the hunt.
And… The Grand Place
Yeah I know, the title of this article clearly states Brussels attractions besides the Grand Place (Dutch: Grote Markt) but honestly, no visit to Belgium’s capital would be complete without stopping by.
This UNESCO World Heritage site has been labelled as one of the most beautiful town squares in Europe and I agree wholeheartedly – The buildings are some of the most detailed pieces of architecture I’ve ever seen.
TIP: Be sure to visit the Grand Place at night when the buildings are illuminated beautifully to make amazing night shots. Now, that’s something you won’t get the opportunity to see if you only visit Brussels in one day.
What to see in Brussels: Festivals
Brussels is home to many festivals throughout the year that draw visitors from near and far. Some of the most famous that showcase Belgian culture are:
Brussels Chocolate Fair
March: With 130 participants showcasing their delectable treats, this one is not to be missed if you’re a Belgian chocolate lover. Did I mention there is over 8,000sqm dedicated entirely to celebrate all things chocolate here??
Tapis du Fleur (Flower Carpet)
August: Despite planning my entire visit around this spectacular event, I was disappointed to later realise this only occurs once every TWO years (on even-numbered years) and not the year I was there! *sigh.*
If you’re planning on visiting Brussels in August, check beforehand to see if the Tapis du Fleur will be on display. The carpet is assembled by special horticulturists from Ghent and is a truly amazing sight!
Belgian Beer Weekend
September: With so many different varieties of beer available in Belgium, it’s almost like this festival is everyday! However, specifically this festival is held in early September and breweries large gather at the Grand Place with stalls to sample their liquid gold.
Comic Strip Festival Weekend
September: An entire festival dedicated entirely to Belgian comics! You’ll get the chance to meet your your favourite comic strip characters, see comic exhibitions, go to book-signing sessions and witness the Balloons Day Parade and Comic Strip Car Rally – it’s a weekend jam-packed with fun!
Click here for more info and a full list of events and festivals – maybe you’ll be lucky enough to experience one during your visit.
How to get to Brussels
From outside Belgium
Brussels is easily accessible by direct, high-speed trains from many major European cities. The prices I’ve mentioned below are an average for adult one-way tickets as they change depending on what season and time of day you travel, but it should give you a rough idea to help with your itinerary planning:
- From France: Paris Nord to Bruxelles-Midi via Thalys / 1 hour 30mins / Cost: approx €80
- From the Netherlands: Amsterdam Centraal to Bruxelles-Midi via Thalys / 1 hour 50mins / Cost: approx €65
- From Germany: Köln Hauptbahnhof to Brixelles-Midi via Thalys / 1 hour 50mins / Cost: approx €50
- From the United Kingdom: London St Pancras to Bruxelles-Midi via Eurostar / 2 hours / Cost: approx €100
From other Belgian cities
Prices listed below are for an adult, one way, second class tickets via Belgian Rail:
- From Ghent: Gent Sint-Peters to Bruxelles-Midi / 30mins / Cost: €9.30
- From Bruges: Brugge to Bruxelles-Midi / 1 hour / Cost: €14.80
- From Antwerp: Antwerpen Centraal to Bruxelles-Midi / 45mins / Cost: €7.70
Getting Around Brussels
All of the places I’ve mentioned in this article are easy enough to reach by foot as Brussels is quite flat (no hills, thank goodness) making it perfect for exploring at a leisurely pace. Keep in mind the farthest places from Grand Place like the European Quarter and Parc du Cinquantenaire are about 30-40mins walk. But, if the sun is shining on a brilliant day it’s much more enjoyable than using the Metro underground!
Things to keep in mind and Brussels travel tips
Brussels is officially a bilingual city
About 80% of people in Brussels speak French as their first language, although street signs, roads, metro stations, parks etc will also be in Dutch. English is also understood but as I always recommend, if you need help from a local be sure to address them politely in their native language first before using English. You can find out the resources I use to learn language for travel fast here, so you’ll be linguistically prepared for your trip!
Your waffle says a lot about you
Did you know it’s said that locals and tourists can be differentiated simply by what they order on their Belgian waffles? Visitors to Belgium tend to go for waffles loaded with different toppings – cream, chocolate, fruits and the like. Locals prefer their waffles plain, maybe with a little sugar instead!
TIP: A kind local reader pointed out there are 2 types of waffles in Belgium: the Brussels waffle, (known as the Belgian waffle), which is light and crispy and mostly eat with either sugar, or butter and sugar, or whipped cream, or whipped cream and strawberry. The Liege waffle is eaten plain, as it contains lumps of sugar. Around the Grand Place, you mostly find the Liege waffle with all those weird toppings!
Unpopular truths about visiting Brussels
Areas to avoid in Brussels
Here’s the question probably niggling at the back of your mind: Is Brussels safe to visit? Generally speaking, Brussels is safe but like most major cities around the world, there are places tourists are advised to avoid.
You may read many stories about petty theft in Brussels but please remember – I can hold my hand on my heart and say my travel buddy and I never had any issues in Brussels during our week stay, and we were travelling with two large suitcases. It comes down to exercising common sense.
Basically, I would advise visitors to Brussels to avoid neighbourhoods west and north of the R20 motorway: Schaarbeek, Brussels North, Molenbeek and Anderlecht if possible (read more here).
Also, avoid the main train stations at night, if you can. I strongly suggest you conduct your own research in addition to my advice so you can draw your own conclusions, too.
A visitor who is caught off guard without knowing this beforehand may find themselves falling victim to pickpocketing or other types of crime, especially if walking back to their hotel at night.
I am not stating this to be fear-monger but sometimes I see things tourists do that make them vulnerable in particular situations that could have been otherwise been avoided. This is why it’s so important to be aware and have your wits about you! I’ve written about how you can be an Invisible Tourist in 10 easy steps and avoid being a target, too.
Begging for change
Although this is certainly not unique to Brussels, be aware of children being forced by their parents to beg for money whilst you’re dining outdoors. Visitors seem to have more of a soft spot for these helpless little folk over their parents.
As awful as this is for the child, I wouldn’t recommend giving them any spare change as it encourages many more children over to you.
It’s a sensitive topic and a sad reality that you cannot help everyone. It’s also clear they are not local children and too often I witnessed their parents abusing this money and leaving rubbish strewn about the cobblestone streets of Brussels.
Think of it what you will, but I would rather not support that kind of disrespectful behaviour by foreigners.
TIP: I discuss more about this topic and similar issues in my guide to adopting responsible tourist traits.
Concluding what to see in Brussels
I’m not sure I will ever understand the current trend of visiting Brussels in one day. Maybe it’s because visitors quickly get their Instagram shots then leave, I can’t be too sure. To me, one day simply does not do this significant European city any justice, nor does it do you any justice especially if you’re missing out on the buzzing nightlife!
Now you know what to see in Brussels, I hope I’ve managed to convince you to spend longer than one day and you found these Brussels attractions as impressive as I did, for whatever the reason. Have you been to Brussels? What was your experience like? I’d love to hear in the comments below!
Until next time,
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