Brussels wears multiple hats as capital of Belgium plus that of Europe as the home of the European Commission. For visitors, it is a dynamic cultural center that has much to offer in the way of excellent museums, rich history, remarkable architecture and delicious food and drink. I visited Brussels for several days as part of a multi-week trip through Belgium and Holland and was barely able to scratch the surface of what the city has to offer.
No place in Europe has a more spectacular central square than Brussel’s Grand Place, a wonderful starting point for exploration. And whereas many may first think of gray bureaucrats working for the EC reminiscent of painter Rene Magritte’s faceless bowler-wearing businessmen, Brussels has a vibrant culture that rewards visitors.
The character of the city and its inhabitants can range from the serious through the political and business life as the heart of the EC to the playful as represented by the iconic Mannekin Pis statue that is loved by the local population and the cartoon artwork on the sides of buildings.
The visitor will find a rich trove of world-class museums, from the Flemish Old Masters to surrealist art by Magritte. There are architectural treasures representing the best of Art Nouveau in Victor Horta’s House Museum and a beautiful old Art Nouveau department store that now houses a cutting-edge musical instrument museum, and the spectacular Palace of Justice and the Royal Palace.
Consider the food and drink associated with the city. From Belgian chocolates and Belgian waffles to beer to delicious French fries served with mayo (not ketchup), there is plenty of good eating and drinking in the city. Take a chocolate-making class or see how beer is brewed.
Settle into a café in the Grand Place and soak in the Brussels experience, visit the Victor Horta House to lean about this Art Nouveau master and his work, ramble through lovely squares like the Place du Petit Sablon and pay your respects to the Mannekin Pis, the statue of a little boy relieving himself into a fountain, and see if he is wearing one of his custom-made outfits. There’s much more to see and do in Brussels than may meet the eye!
Brussels is a very walkable city, and one of the best ways to soak in the atmosphere is by visiting the best of the city’s squares to take in the architecture, admire its statues and relax at a café or restaurant to watch the passing scene. Brussels has several worthy candidates.
Historic Squares of Brussels
Simply put, Brussel’s Grand Place is one of Europe’s most spectacular squares. From the moment you enter, you’ll be stunned by the beauty of the Flemish Renaissance Guild houses that ring the square, and the Town Hall whose spire punctuates the sky. It’s so special that it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. There are six narrow side alleys that lead into the square, but try entering from the Rue des Harengs for the most dramatic first impression. I was stunned by just how beautiful the square is. You’ll find yourself lingering here, wandering around to admire all the buildings, and returning for a drink or to simply enjoy the spectacle anew.
The square was blown into pieces by French troops in 1695, using the Town Hall building as their target. Ironically the Town Hall survived though the balance of the square was laid waste. But in the span of four short years between 1696 and 1700, the guildsmen had rebuilt their magnificent houses with their ornamental gables, gold ornamentation and sculptures representing their trades. Today these impressive buildings house restaurants, shops, and cafes where you can admire the beauty of the surroundings. Make a point of going at different times to see the Place, once during the day to admire all the architectural details, and again at night when the square is lit up, creating a magical environment.
This has always been a place of pageantry and that tradition continues today. There is a sound-and-light show that takes place on summer evenings, with colored lights playing off the façade of the Town Hall. There are daily flower markets held here between March and October. Every other August the Place is filled with color for four days in mid-August with the Carpet of Flowers, when the Square is filled with a floral carpet (the next occurrence is August of 2024). It is also the scene of a historic pageant the first Tuesday and Thursday of July called the Ommegang, recreating the reception of the Emperor Charles V in the city in 1549.
The Town Hall (Hotel de Ville) is a Gothic beauty from the 1400s. It is older than the other buildings in the Grand Place, having survived the French bombardment. Its tower soars 315 feet high and affords great views over the city. The façade is adorned with arched windows, gargoyles, and other ornate sculptural work, while at the top of the spire is a gilded statue of patron saint St. Michael slaying a devil. Inside are impressive chambers filled with Belgian tapestries and historical murals. Admission is by guided tour on Wednesdays and Sundays and costs 7 euro per adult.
The King’s House (Maison du Roi) is another architectural highlight of the Grand Place with its arches, mini-spires, and statuary. Today it houses the Brussel’s City Museum, but it used to be a medieval bread market. The museum contains tapestries, paintings and historical artifacts related to the city. One of the highlights is the 1567 painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder entitled the Wedding Procession (Cortege des Noces). But most attention is given to the collection of hundreds of costumes designed for the Mannekin Pis statue that are on display here, from a bullfighter outfit to a Santa Claus suit. Admission is 8 euro.
Place du Grand Sablon
Once a sandy hill, Place du Grand Sablon is now an elegant square surrounded by cafes, restaurants, and antique shops. There is an antique market that sets up its stalls on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Enjoy one of the sidewalk cafes, wander past the gabled mansions and explore the little alleys and arcades to see the shops and galleries tucked away off the square.
Place du Petit Sablon
One of my favorite little enclaves in the city lies just across rue de la Régence from the Grand Sablon. Place du Petit Sablon is a charming ornamental garden with a fountain and pool. Its most fascinating features are the 48 bronze statuettes placed around the wrought-iron fence symbolizing Brussels’s medieval guilds. The two statues in the center pay homage to the Catholic counts of Egmont and Hornes, who were executed in 1568 for protesting the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition.
Superb and Eclectic Museums
Royal Museum of Fine Arts
The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium are comprised of four separate museums: the Museum of Old Masters, which covers the 15th to the 17th centuries; the Museum of Modern Art, with works from the 19th century onward; the Fin-de-Siècle Museum, which covers works around the turn of the 20th century; and the Magritte Museum, devoted to the Surrealist artist René Magritte.
Your personal artistic preferences should guide how you proceed to view this immense collection, but my own suggestion would be to tackle the Old Masters Gallery one day, then pick and choose the second between the Fin-De-Siecle, Magritte and Modern Art. The Old Masters collection is the largest part of the museum collections.
The Old Masters Museum holds a collection of famous works by Flemish and Dutch Old Masters, including works by Brueghel, Rubens, Van Dyck, David, Memling, and Bosch. A large part of the artwork resulted from that seized by Napoléon during the French Revolution.
The Museum of ModernArt focuses on artwork from the late 19th century to the present.
The Musée Fin-de-Siècle contains works from 1868 to 1914. Its collection includes works by the Belgian Symbolists and James Ensor, plus a great display of Art Nouveau art. Brussels was at the center of the flowering of the movement at the turn of the 19th century.
The Magritte Museum collection is the largest in the world of his surreal art, covering all periods of his work. The museum is divided into three floors, each telling the story of a different period of the artist’s life and work. The first floor contains his best-known paintings such as The Dominion of Light and The Domain of Arnheim.
Admission is 15 euro for entrance to the collections including the Magritte. Admission is 10 euro for the Old Masters and Fin-de-Siecle collections. You can buy your ticket in advance for entry to these two collections. Admission is 10 euro for admission only to the Magritte Museum.
Musical Instruments Museum
The Museum of Musical Instruments (MIM) is housed in the former Old England department designed by the Art Nouveau architect Paul Saintenoy in 1899. Inside, you’ll find an impressive collection of 7,000 musical instruments, the largest in the world. The best aspect of the collection is that with the headsets you are given you can approach the instrument and hear it being played. A restaurant on the top floor provides panoramic city views from the terrace. Admission is 10 euro.
Museums for those with more time
Art Nouveau was the artistic style that took Europe by storm at the end of the 19th-century. Victor Horta was an Art Nouveau pioneer who applied its principles to his marvelous house and studio in the southern suburb of Saint-Gilles.
Visiting the Horta Museum, built between 1898 and 1901, returns you to the age of Art Nouveau. From 1892, Horta was the most important architect of Art Nouveau buildings in Brussels. Every detail in the house was planned to fit into the overall design. The magnificent five-floor staircase leads up to a stained-glass skylight. There are mosaics and original furniture, all of which blend in a harmonious whole. Definitely worth a trip out of the center for architecture and design fans! Admission for the house museum costs 10 euro.
Art and History Museum
The outstanding collections at the Art and History Museum cover four main themes: Belgian archaeology, antiquities, European decorative art, and non-European civilizations. First founded in 1835, the museum features wide-ranging works from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, medieval tapestries, and Art Nouveau artwork. They are now housed in buildings designed for the 1880 international exhibition marking the 50th anniversary of Belgian independence in Cinquantenaire Park. Admission is 10 euro.
Museum of Natural Sciences
The Museum of Natural Sciences has a fabulous collection of dinosaurs, the collections main claim to fame. This is Europe’s largest dinosaur gallery (and the largest natural history collection on the continent behind Paris and London), including the famous black fossilized skeletons of 30 iguanodons found in a Belgian coal mine, plus a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Admission is 13 euro.
Musee David and Alice van Buuren
In a 1928 art deco showpiece in the southern suburbs of Brussels house, you’ll find the David and Alice Van Buuren museum. The couple spent more than 30 years building their estate into a museum highlighting the works of famous artists, including Van Gogh.
Inside the museum, five rooms are crammed with beautiful furnishings, stained glass, and paintings by the like of Peter Brueghel the Elder, covering five centuries of art. The grounds also contain the Garden of Hearts, a sculpture and flower garden. Admission is 11 euro for adults.
Royal Museum for Central Africa
The Royal Museum of Central Africa showcases King Leopold II’s collections from the imperial conquests in the Congo. It features a vast collection of 250,000 objects, including sculpture, masks, paintings, and zoological specimens. There is also an extensive collection of items from the famous central African explorations of Stanley and Livingstone. The museum has been renovated to provide a more contemporary vision of Africa. Admission is 12 euro.
This tiny statue of a small boy relieving himself in a fountain has become one of the iconic images of Brussels, and its popularity is reflective of its citizens’ raffish charm and sense of humor. Though first mentioned as far back as 1377, the Manniken Pis in its present version was constructed by sculptor Jerome Duquesnoy in 1619. The current statue is a copy, as the original was stolen by French troops in 1747.
Follow Rue Charles Buls three blocks from the Grand Place to the Manneken Pis. Often you will find the statue clothed in one of his hundreds of outfits, which you can see in the Brussels City Museum in the Grand Place.
Palais de Justice
The Palace of Justice was the largest building in the world when it was built in 1883, and it is one of the most spectacular buildings in the city. Three thousand houses had to be razed to build this huge edifice. Its interior is well worth exploring, starting with the 328-foot-tall entry foyer, and continuing through its two floors and basement areas. The terrace behind the building offers great vistas over the city, with the Atomium and National Basilica of the Sacred Heart the highlights. Admission is free.
Located on he south side of Brussels Park, the Royal Palace of Brussels remains the headquarters of the Belgian constitutional monarchy even though it has been more than a century since the Royal Family resided there.
It houses beautiful artwork, including tapestries, art objects and antiques. The most spectacular space is the Congo-inspired mirror room, the ceiling of which is encrusted with more than a million jewel beetle carapaces. The Royal Palace is open to the public during the summer, normally from late July until the beginning of September. Admission is free.
The space-age Atomium looms over Heysel Park in Brussel’s northern suburbs, looking like a giant’s chemistry set laid on the ground. Built for the 1958 World’s Fair, it consists of nine house-sized metallic spheres linked by steel tubes containing escalators and lifts.
The 335-foot-high steel model of an iron molecule magnified 165 billion times was designed by André Waterkeyn. Inside the spheres are exhibits, the most interesting of which talk about the World’s Fair.
Atomium has become the image of the Belgian capital, much like the Eiffel Tower became a landmark of Paris after its World Fair of 1889. At night the spheres sparkle magically, and there is a restaurant on the top floor with great city views. Admission is 15 euro. You can also buy your ticket in advance for $18.49 per person.
A Trio of Worthy Churches
Brussels Cathedral of Saint Michael and Saint Gudula
The magnificent Gothic, twin-towered Cathedral of Saint Michael and Saint Gudula was begun in 1226 and took over 300 years to complete.
The beautiful stained-glass windows in the Chapelle du St-Sacrément were donated by the 16th century Habsburg Emperor Charles V. Other highlights in the somewhat spare interior include the wonderfully carved wooden pulpit from 1699, depicting Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden, and the statues of the Apostles along the columns.
In the crypt are the foundations of the earlier Romanesque church dating from the 11th century that the present church was built atop. The Treasury contains the cathedral’s ecclesiastical vessels in gold, silver, and precious stones. Although general cathedral entry is free, there is a 2-euro fee for the Treasury of the Cathedral (open limited hours) and an additional 3 euro to visit the Crypt (appointment only).
National Basilica of the Sacred Heart
Constructed outside the city center, the massive National Basilica of the Sacred Heart is the fifth largest church and largest Art Deco building in the world. The Basilica was another brainchild of Leopold II, begun in 1905 to mark the country’s 75th anniversary. It was only completed in 1970 due to delays during the two world wars.
What stands out is its enormous, green-colored dome in contrast to the red-colored terracotta stones. The artwork inside the church includes a notable picture of Christ giving his blessing which hangs above the altar. There are also exhibitions on the history of the basilica. The Basilica’s observation deck offers some of the best views of the city. Admission is 8 euro for entrance to the panorama terrace.
Notre Dame du Sablon
Notre Dame du Sablon was built for the crossbow guild of Brussels. In the 1300s the Crossbowman’s Guild used the Place du Grand Sablon for target practice and built a small chapel there. Inside the church you can see hints of this connection in the stained-glass windows, featuring crossbowmen.
The church itself was subsequently built in the 15th and 16th centuries, its entrance adorned with dozens of statuettes of medieval knights and court ladies. The church’s beautiful stained glass and vaulting are beautiful and worthy of your time for a visit. Admission is free.
Drink in the Views
Mont des Arts
Visitors to Mont des Arts, the “hill of the arts” will find a lovely garden plus some of the best views of Brussels from here, with the Town Hall spires the centerpiece of the beautiful city vista.
The area is another legacy of Leopold II, who envisioned a cultural center he could see from the windows of his Royal Palace. The dream led to the creation of the garden along with several museums and cultural institutions such as the Museum of Musical Instruments and Royal Museum of Fine Arts.
Cinquantenaire Park with its grand triumphal arch was built in 1880 to celebrate 50 years of Belgian independence. It was part of the building program of then-King Leopold II. The bronze chariot atop the arch is reminiscent of that of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
The Park features three museums, including the Art and History Museum, along with Autoworld and the Royal Military Museum. It’s also a nice green space for a picnic and to rest tired feet from sightseeing.
Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert
Perfect for shopping no matter what the weather, The Royal Saint-Hubert Galleries are a covered shopping arcade that was opened in 1847. This elegant, glass-roofed shopping arcade reminds me of the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle in Milan, Italy. Saint-Hubert is over 650 feet long and is protected by the glass roof that allows the sunshine to stream in but not the frequent rain. The Galleries feature various shops, cafes, and bars, along with a small theater and cinema.
Brussel’s Delightfully Diverse Food and Drink Experiences
Brussel’s has a dynamic food and drink culture. Tap into this part of the Belgian culture with visits to the local markets, delving into the chocolate and beer making processes, and sampling some of its iconic dishes.
Gare du Midi Market
As the name suggests, the Gare du Midi market is a large collection of colorful stalls next to the railway lines. Open on Sundays from 7 am to 1 pm, the market is the largest in Belgium and 3rd largest in Europe! It has a wide assortment of fruits and vegetables, cheese, fish, spices and more, and is a great place to wander for some colorful photos and get a sense of what the locals are eating.
Rue des Bouchers
Take a walk down the colorful Rue des Bouchers, a narrow alley filled with restaurants and food displays. While great for taking pictures and taking in the local scene, the restaurants here are geared to the tourist crowd, and you can find better prices at other local spots in the city. Interesting places along the way include the marionette theater Toone, plus the biscuit shop Dandoy.
What is a visit to Belgium without a taste of fine Belgian Chocolate? To learn more about how these treats are produced, you can visit Chocolate Village or the Choco-Story Museum. Admission to the museum is 9.50 euro for adults.
Another great chocolate stop is the Laurent Gerbaud Café, where you can enjoy lunch with a hot chocolate or buy some candies to take along with you. If you’d like to have a go at making some tasty chocolate treats yourself, try this one-hour Belgian Chocolate Workshop priced at $40.45 per person.
Cantillon Brewery and Brussels Gueuze Museum
Belgium is famous for its beer, and what better way to discover this part of Belgian culture than to visit the Cantillon Brewery for a tour of the beer-making process followed by some free samples? They have been producing beer here since 1900. You will visit the barrel rooms where the beers mature for up to three years, and the brewing room on the tour. They also have their own bistro on site if you’d like to pair some food with your beer! Admission for a self-guided tour is 7 euro.
Here are some of the most well-known foods to try on your rambles through Brussels.
Mussels and frites
One of the most popular dishes on local menus is this combination of savory mussels in their shells along with crispy pommes frites (French fries).
Locals eat their waffles with a dusting of powdered sugar instead of all the fruit toppings you may be used to. There are two kinds, either light and fluffy (the Brussels Waffles) or thicker and crunchier (the Liege Waffles). They aren’t considered breakfast food but are eaten any time of day as a snack. One great place to try them is at Maison Dandoy.
Pommes frites with mayo
Here’s a true Belgian experience: grab yourself a cone of frites (fries) from a traditional fritkot (chip stand), and a dollop of mayo for dipping. This is a great take-away snack as you are out exploring.
Getting Around Brussels
I found that I was able to get around Brussels inner core easily by walking, but there may be times you want to make use of the public transportation system. There’s even noteworthy public art in the metro stations while you wait! The city offers the Brussels card which provides wide-ranging discounts for 24-, 48- or 72-hour periods on sights, attractions, and the transport system.
If you’d like to use a local guide to get the most of your time in Brussels, consider one of these options: a three-hour private tour of the upper and lower city for $288.79 for a group of up to 20 people, and a three-hour Brussels Highlights and Hidden Gems tour for $67 per person.
Discover the unexpected on a visit to Brussels. From the splendors of the Grand Place to the depth and richness of its artistic treasures, this is a city that will provide ample attractions to reward your stay, whether it’s only a few days or a week.
Delve into the Royal Museum’s holdings of old master paintings, take a walking tour to admire the Art Nouveau buildings of Victor Horta and others, engage with the musical instruments you can hear at the MIM and gasp at the size of the dinosaur skeletons on view at the Natural Science Museum.
From the humorous Mannekin Pis statue to the glorious stained glass of its churches, and the staggering size and architectural beauty of the Palace of Justice, Brussels offers up its spectacles large and small.
Take the time to explore the food and drink experiences that will make meal and snack times an adventure. Tour the Brewery with free samples and then settle down in one of the city’s squares to select your favorite brew and do some people watching. Have some moules frites, make Belgian waffles the centerpiece of your breakfasts, take a chocolate making tour or simply grab some frites with mayo for a snack on the go.
Brussels is a fun and rewarding experience that will surprise you and provide ample reasons to include it in your travel plans!