City Guide to Brussels, Belgium
A perfect blend of European history, local traditions, and delicious food
Brussels is perhaps one of the most underrated European capitals; it’s a great treat for those on a weekend trip or study abroad program. The capital city of Belgium, it was launched into the world spotlight as the home base for the European Union in 1992 and later NATO. Since then, Brussels quickly became a highly international city in the middle of Europe that opened the doors to tourists and Eurocrats alike. Although some complain that this honor led to the demise of historic old neighborhoods to be replaced by the modern, soulless architecture of the EU quarter, Brussels has managed to maintain its local flair and culture.
Certainly not a city that has lost its soul to the political turmoil of the EU, Brussels maintains its reputation as a place that inspired great art movements like Art Nouveau and is also the comic capital of the world. Countless museums, gourmet food, award-winning beer and famed chocolates await the traveler who ventures to this great city. It is perfect for a weekend trip in the middle of Europe with great connections to cities like Amsterdam and Paris. You can also spend a few months getting to know its backstreets and local picks during a study abroad trip. From cobblestoned streets and corner boutiques to the modern bustle of tall skyscrapers and an efficient transportation system, Brussels should definitely be added to your list for your next trip.
*A note about safety: Although there have been recent terrorist attacks including the March Brussels Airport attack, Brussels is still a great destination. Like any other big city, it is important to stay alert and be smart when traveling around. Since the attacks, security measures have been increased and you will likely see a few Belgian army members patrolling the streets. Following tips like avoiding walking alone, especially for females after dark, will help you enjoy the treasures this wonderful city has to offer.
Top 5 Things to See
1. Grande Place: Victor Hugo reportedly called this the most beautiful square in the whole world with its grand building facades and gold trim. Certainly there’s others who agree as it’s listed on the UNESCO World Heritage site register now. At night, you’ll find groups of tourists drinking on the square and every two years in August (next in 2018) a giant flower carpet takes over the place.
2. Museum of Musical Instruments (MIM): This museum is a beautiful building in itself that lends to a peaceful afternoon. You can wander through the museum and hear music playing from each instrument, getting a nice earful of beautiful sounds instead of traffic. When you’re done, make sure to head up to the 5th floor, the very top, for a refreshing drink or warm coffee on their rooftop café.
3. Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula: One of the most spectacular cathedrals in the city, this church is less ornate than other Gothic churches but has often served as the site for royal weddings and funerals. Constructed in the 13th century, the cathedral is quite impressive with its strong stone exterior and intricate stained-glass windows. You can also pay a small fee to explore the underground archaeological site, too.
4. Atomium: The Atomium is outside of Brussels center, so be prepared to take the metro out there. Built for a World Fair expo, the Belgians embraced it and made it the symbol of Brussels. A 335-foot high model of an iron molecule, it has a small snack bar and different exhibitions on its inside. Heysel Park that surrounds the structure is also a nice walk around dedicated to recreation and leisure.
5. European Parlamentarium: As the headquarters of the European Union, you’ll find countless EU buildings in Brussels, including the Parlamentarium. This free center provides an interactive history lesson on the EU and has some cool exhibitions as well. A perfect chance to learn more about our European neighbors, the Parlamentarium also has a free audio guide to accompany you through its colorful building.
Fun for Free
Mannken Pis: Yes, there is a fountain of a little boy pissing (excuse our French) that is one of the symbols of the city. And yes, the Belgians are very proud of it—they have over 900 different outfits that they like to dress him up in. It’s very small, but iconic to get a picture of and visit.
Walking Tour: This is a great way to explore the city and get a brief overview when you first arrive. The guides are usually local students who have been in Brussels for a few years, so they know not only the history of the city, but give some great local suggestions of things to do and eat. Be sure to tip at the end if you enjoyed it!
Parc Cinquantennaire: A very large park on the outskirts of the city, this is often the site of different festivals in the summer and also a perfect place to have a picnic. There are also two museums at the top of the park and a grand archway with a Belgian flag hanging from it for a nice photo op.
Galleries Shopping: Although shopping itself might not be free, walking through the three Galeries Saint Hubert, Galeries du Roi and Galeries de la Reine is a sight to behold. With a gorgeous glass roof over top and designer fashion and chocolate inside, these covered shopping streets provide a quick reprieve from Brussels’ constant rain with a nice feast for the eyes.
Royal Palace: Although the monarchs no longer live here, it’s open three time periods a year and is free to enter. You can buy an audio guide at the entrance, or you can simply wander through the halls taking in the exquisite paintings and decorations. Be sure to check out the Bug Room that is entirely covered in jeweled scarab wings on the ceiling!
Off the Beaten Path
Mont des Arts: This is another beautiful hill for a quick rest and great view of the city. Not too far from the city center, there’s also the bonus of several food trucks often parked nearby and different outdoor art expositions happening throughout the year.
Jeu de Balle Flea Market: If you’re looking for a place for gems, secondhand goods, and other knick knacks, this is the place for you! Although prices are listed, it’s one of the few places you can still bargain vendors down. The market is open everyday, year round, from 6am to 2pm on weekdays and from 6am to 3pm on weekends.
Comic Hunting: As the comic capital of the world, Brussels has some pretty cool murals that are hidden on the other sides of buildings around the city. You can make your own route that will lead to some cool backstreets, but also catch a glance of them just around the corner from popular attractions like Manneken Pis. Want more? Check out the Belgian Comic Center with even more drawings and sculptures of Belgian characters like Tin Tin and the Smurfs.
Local art: There’s a small art street off of Brussels’ LGBT+ Street (Rue du Marché au Charbon) that has some good wandering to it, especially on a nice weekend day. Definitely not on your tourist map, this street is a much more local thing to do.
What to Eat
Fin de Siècle: 9 Rue des Chartreux. Highly recommended by several tourist books, this restaurant is a great value place to taste some authentic Belgian food such as carbonade (meat stew) and more. There are no reservations at this popular place, so try to go early or late to get a spot. Try something from the blackboard specials and enjoy the friendly atmosphere complete with wooden furniture.
Green Kitchen: 9 Place Royale. This is a great place for cheap eats and healthy food. Located just to the right of the Royal Palace inside its courtyard, this café has a pay-by-weight salad bar and other daily specials to choose from. Choose to sit inside the glass-wall building or sit outside enjoying Brussels’ rare sunshine.
Café Belga: 18 Place Eugène Flagey. A perfect cafe to blend in with both locals and expats alike, head to this place whether it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner time. Open all day and situated in Place Flagey in Ixelles, this large café can get quite busy at nights with local DJ’s and concerts, but can also be quite relaxing during Sunday brunch while taking in the local lake views.
Cowfish Burger: 48 Rue de Pépin. In addition to being known for its fries, Belgium also has some great burgers. This restaurant is a great find, casual enough for lunch or dinner, where you can choose between beef, chicken, or fish. Be sure to have a glass of homemade iced tea while you eat too.
Thai Row: Between the Bourse and St. Gery’s. Since Brussels is such an international city, there are a ton of great ethnic restaurants scattered around, including this area for Thai-lovers. There are about ten Thai restaurants on this street alone, all of them providing delicious food at great value for your tourist wallet.
*Pro Tip: If you’re on a budget or time constraint, there are plenty of sandwich shops and salad bars to grab something for cheap. Pick your meal and head to any one of Brussels’ several parks for a great meal!
Chocolate: A lot of cities and countries claim to have the best chocolate in the world, but chocoholics around the world continue to say that Belgium gives most a good run for their money. When buying chocolate in this city, go to the Sablon area – that’s where the best ones are: Pierre Marcolini (most expensive but worth the money), Wittamers, Neuhaus, Godiva and Leonidas. Mary’s is also extremely delicious and is where the royal family gets their chocolate.
Waffles: No, these are not like “French” fries – there is a life-changing difference in Belgian waffles. Want to try one like the locals do? Buy it from a food truck and eat it plain. Ready to embrace your inner tourist? Load up with fruit, whipped cream, and chocolate. Order one to go and sit down at the Grande Place, enjoying yourself for the rest of the day.
Fries: Just like the waffles, these are mind-numbingly and heart-stoppingly good. Literally. The thing that makes Belgian fries (or “frites”) taste so good is they are double fried, the second time being in beef fat if they’re truly Belgian fries. Sounds like a heart attack? Maybe, but it doesn’t matter—either way you’ll end up in heaven after eating them since they’re that good.
Beer: Belgium has a way of transforming even those who turn their noses up at beer into a beer fanatic. Some favorites: Chimay, Leffe, Duvel, Belgian Pale Ale, etc. Avoid Jupiler and Maes—they’re the cheap but tasteless ones. Yes, Stella Artois is also Belgian, but there are so many better choices than this Americanized beer. And be sure to read the label—Belgian beers are typically higher alcohol content, ranging from 7 to 11%.
Place Lux: Every Thursday, all the interns, trainees, full-time staff, and anyone else who works at the EU institutions or other organizations go to Place Luxembourg right after work (usually around 6 PM). People show up in anything from suits to jeans, especially on nice weather days when it gets quite crowded. It’s great to meet others, or just good for happy hour until partying later in the night. Who knows, you might even rub elbows with an important European official!
Bourse Area: The Bourse is the name of the old stock exchange of the city, created to attract rich investors and their money. Although no longer in use today, this grand building is an important landmark for tourists searching for a good bar to kick their feet up. There are several bars in the area, such as O’Reilley’s, a pretty decent sports bar with a hearty Irish Breakfast.
Delirium Café: One of the most famous bars in the world, Delirium’s claim to fame is it’s more than 3,000 beers on tap. With beers from over 60 countries, including many famous Belgian beers, it’s guaranteed to be a night to remember. It’s located in a small alleyway called Impasse de la Fidélité not too far from the Grande Place and across the street from Jeanneke Pis (yes, Brussels also has a peeing girl statue).
Le Corbeau: Located at 18 Saint Michielstraat/Rue St. Michel. Great bar, great crowd, great music. You also can dance on the tables there! If you’re not one to usually jump on a chance like that, don’t worry; everyone is vying for a table-dancing spot so you won’t stick out. Fridays and Saturdays are the best days to visit this bar, and the party only gets started until after 11 PM.
Le Tavernier: Located at 445 Chaussée de Boondael, down in Ixelles near the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB). It’s a fun outdoor student bar that also has indoor seating. To get there, take the tram to the ULB stop, get off and walk straight down the road away from the University. Go to the roundabout with all the restaurants, by the cemetery, and take a left. In addition to some nice views, this bar also has some really good mojitos and great student discounts.
Airports: There are two airports that serve Brussels: Brussels Zavantem and Charleroi South. If you’re flying on any of the budget airlines (RyanAir, EasyJet, etc.), odds are you will be arriving at Charleroi airport. *NOTE: this is a different city! If you’re looking to get into Brussels proper, there are taxis and buses you can take, but the easiest one is the Brussels City Shuttle. A €14 one-way ticket will give you an express coach from the airport and the main train station in Brussels where you can easily connect to any metro station (or vice versa).
Trains: The three main train stations in Brussels are Gare-Centrale (Centraal), Gare du Midi (Zuid) and Gare du Nord (Noord). The main one is typically Gare du Midi, but most trains will stop at the other two as well. If you’re planning on taking multiple day trips out of Brussels, check out the GO pass which gives you 10 one-way trips and are very handy to explore cities like Bruges, Ghent, and Amsterdam. Make sure to know both their French and Dutch names of stations as they might only announce one while you’re on the train.
Metro: Metro cards are €50 a month and really easy to get if you’re going to be staying in Brussels for a longer time. They offer unlimited train, tram, and bus use within the city so commuting wouldn’t be difficult. If you’re only there for a short time, consider buying a day ticket (€7.50) or packet of tickets (€8 + €5 MOBIB card) as each individual ride can be quite expensive at €2.10. BEWARE: The metro in Brussels typically stops running around midnight.
Trams & Buses: The rest of the general public transportation system (STIB) also includes trams and buses in addition to the metro that makes Brussels a very easy city to navigate. Some trams connect underground at the metro stations and some go above ground. There are several buses that also go throughout the city. Click the link above for a map of the entire STIB system (including metro).
Collecto: For the bar-hopping tourist, the city of Brussels has a great night taxi service. From 11 PM to 6 AM, 7 days a week, this is the service to use. It’s a taxi service that runs to basically all bus and metro stops in town for a flat rate of €5 per ride with a metro card and €6 without one. Give them a call and order one from any stop. Just be sure to look up their system stop number you’re at and where you’re going before you give them a call, otherwise they’ll tell you to call again. You can also reserve one in advance with their free app.
Walk: Especially depending on where you’re staying, Brussels is small enough where you can walk anywhere you want to go. It’s also pretty easy to navigate once you have the five points of its pentagon shape down. It’s great exercise to work off all the beer/ chocolate/ fries/ waffles you’ll gorge yourself on while here, and you can see the city too. Just don’t forget an umbrella!
– If you’re looking for a place to eat, avoid the restaurants around the Mannken Pis statue unless you want to get caught in a tourist trap. The food is not authentic, often overpriced, and doesn’t taste half as good as what you could find.
– Although in a highly international city like Brussels, you won’t likely have any trouble navigating in English, it’s always helpful to learn a few words in the local language to impress the locals. Brussels is officially in Wallonia (French speaking), but there are quite a few Dutch speakers in the city as well.
– Always bring an umbrella or wear a hooded coat when you’re walking around Brussels. The rain is unpredictable and happens year-long in this city. You won’t see a local without one!
– Most museums are free on the first Wednesday of each month and closed on Mondays. Be sure to check the hours/times before you go.
– Like most of Europe, tips have typically already been included in the price. Only feel the need to tip if the service was extra special.
So, what are you waiting for? Buy your ticket to Brussels today!