Brussels is probably best known for being the seat of the European parliament; however there’s much more to Belgium’s capital than stuffy looking government buildings and important looking politicians.
From cheap, homely Brussels hostels to beautiful art nouveau buildings, fine museums and the world’s best chocolate shops, Brussels has something for even the most discerning of backpackers. Here’s our guide to the top 10 things to do in Brussels…
1. Experience the Grand Place
The Grand Place is one of the most famous Brussels attractions and is a must-see sight. The Place is home to some of the city’s most beautiful and iconic buildings, including the City Town Hall which towering over the south side of the square at an impressive 96 meters (310 ft) and the hall is capped by a 3m (12 ft) statue of Saint Michael slaying a demon.
The City Town Hall may be the focal point but in truth all the buildings around the Place, many of which used to be merchant guilds, feature beautifully detailed engravings and designs. Every two years in August, an enormous “flower carpet” is set up in the Grand Place; a huge display that features a million colorful begonias arranged as a pattern and covering a massive 24m x 77m area.
The Place is the hub of activity during the day but is also well worth a look at night when all the buildings are lit up.
2. Take a brewery tour at Cantillon Brewery
The Cantillon Brewery is the only brewery in Brussels to offer tours. Situated in one of the more run down areas of the city, some way out from the city centre, the brewery does not look much from the outside.
Inside you’ll find a fully working brewery and a merry band of happy Belgians willing to take you on a tour of the factory and show you the entire brewing process from the vat of steaming barley to a bottle of beer.
The brewery experience costs just €6 which includes a complimentary glass of beer in the front of the factory which doubles up as a hall and greeting area while you wait for the tour to start. The purists amongst you will enjoy the lambic although the framboise (raspberry) or kriek (cherry) are a safer bet if you’re not much of a beer person.
Once you’ve finished your drink you’re ushered in to the bottling area and the tour begins. Over the course of the next hour and a half, your guide will talk you through all the tricks of the trade and will answer any questions you have.
After the tour you can try some of the finished products at the brewery’s in-house bar or buy bottles and glasses for friends and loved ones. If you’re lucky enough to be in town when the brewery is hosting a public brewing session you’ll be able to see them brewing the beers.
3. Have a Belgian beer in a Brussels bar
Belgian’s love for beer is as strong as an Englishman’s love of tea; it forms a massive part of their culture and if you really want to immerse yourself in the local way of life then you’ll have to try the beer.
There are hundreds of different beers to choose from but the fruit beers are very popular and come in every flavor you can imagine from raspberry to peach to pomegranate!
You really are spoilt for bars and pubs here too. The Saint Gery area has a much better atmosphere than the pubs and bars around the Grand Place and is where many locals in the know go for drinks.
A favourite local spot is A l’Imaige Nostre-Dame (Rue Marche-aux-Herbes 8). Boisterous and merry, they have a good selection of beers which the owner will gladly talk you through. On Saturday or Sunday mornings, head to La Brocante (Rue Blaes 170) which is great for those of you who fancy a rummage at the nearby flea market – Jeu de Balle .
There are a couple of touristy Brussels bars worth popping in to. The Delerium Café (Impasse de la Fidelite 4a) is situated just off the Grand Place and has 2000 different varieties of beer for you to try. It will take you half an hour just to read the entire drinks list! The ceilings are covered in beer mats, the walls are lined with different types of pint glasses and the tables are made out of old beer kegs. Another fascinating but touristy Belgian pub experience is at Toone (Petite Rue des Bouchers 6). It serves ‘quack’ beer in funny glasses and marionette puppets and dolls hang from the ceilings with daily performances from puppet masters.
4. Take a look at Manneken Pis
This statue of a small boy taking a piss on the corner of Rue de l’Étuve/Stoofstraat and Rue du Chêne/Eikstraat, is one of Brussels top attractions and adorns many a post card.
The truth behind its background is unclear but one of the many stories out there is that the statue was built to commemorate a battle where the then infant Duke Godfrey III of Leuven urinated on the troops of the Berthouts, prompting them to lose the battle.
It is a popular tradition to dress the young lad up in some kind of costume. The Manneken Pis has had many different egos over the years from judo artist to member of the Belgian guard.
The cheeky chappy is not the only urinating fountain in the city- there is a statue of a girl relieving herself- Jeannenken Pis– tucked away behind some bars outside the Delerium Cafe. There’s even a statue of a dog called Zinneken peeing against a bollard to be found somewhere in the city. Zinneken has a bit of a cult following and a parade in his honor every couple of years, making him almost more popular than young Manneken.
5. Visit the Notre Dame du Sablon
This beautiful late-Gothic church is famous for its four-fold gallery with brightly colored stained-glass windows and two beautiful baroque chapels decorated with funeral symbols in white marble, though you would never have guessed the extent of the church’s inner beauty based on the huge gray-white arches and walls that make up its exterior.
Notre Dame holds regular services which you are welcome to attend and on Sundays there’s a great market selling antiques and all sorts of jewelry which is well worth a look when you’ve finished looking round the church.
6. Read comics at the Belgian Comic Strip Centre
Rue des Sables 33
Brussels is the spiritual home of the comic strip and the Belgian Comic Strip Center houses everything you could possibly want to know about the ninth art, from the history of comics to original story boards and comic strips. You can discover the history of Tin Tin, Belgium’s most famous comic export, and its creator Georges Rémi (more commonly known as Hergé).
The building itself – a beautiful Art Nouveau building designed by Victor Horta – is worth the entrance money alone (€8). Don’t forget to visit the museum shop on the way out for all your Tin Tin merchandise including postcards and limited edition annuals. You can even read comics in the basement! Geek heaven. They have both permanent and temporary exhibitions.
7. Check out the Royal Palace
Place des Palais
The official seat of the Belgian Royal Palace barely gets a mention in most guide books.
Backing on to Brussels Park, the Palace is an impressive spectacle and is enormous, spanning the entire length of a road. The big gardens in front of it and the two guards that protect the main gate (similar to the Royal Guards that stand outside Buckingham Palace) add to its grandeur.
The facade we see today was only built post 1900, however, the grounds on which the palace stands were once part of a very old palatial complex that dated back to the Middle Ages. Inside the palace is filled with elaborate chambers, luxury chambers and wall-to-wall fine art.
The majestic proportions of the throne room and party hall with their high vaulted ceilings and enormous bronze and crystal chandeliers highlight Belgium’s former status as the fourth largest trading power in the world, while the large state rooms are also particularly interesting with installations by several well-known artists.
The Royal Palace is only open to the public from Tuesday 26th July 2011 through to 11th September 2011 after the national holiday (it is closed on Mondays). The best bit? It’s free!
8. Soak up the culture at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts
Koningsplein 1 Place Royale
Brussels is home to some of the finest art collections in the world, some of the best pieces are in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts/Les Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique. The museum contains more than 20,000 drawings, sculptures, and paintings dating back to as early as the 15th Century.
Unsurprisingly, the museum concentrates on Belgian and Flemish artists, housing an extensive array of paintings by some of Belgium’s finest sons including Bruegel, Rogier van der Weyden and Robert Campin.
One of the most popular exhibitions is the Musée Magritte Museum which contains the largest collection of Magritte under one roof.
For those of you unfamiliar with René Magritte, he was a surrealist painter of the early and mid 20th Century and is probably the most famous Belgian artist. His paintings depict everyday objects such as apples, men in bowler hats, umbrellas, stones and pipes in odd arrangements and juxtapositions.
His paintings ranged from the weird to the wonderful, while the museum is laid out chronologically to give you an overview of the artist’s life, allowing the visitor to watch the progression of his work over the years.
Due to the popularity of the exhibition, admission is staggered and the queues for a ticket for the Magritte section are often long; but don’t let this put you off- the museum is well worth the wait. Admission is €8 but you can buy combi tickets for €13.
9. Explore Sablon
Sablon is one of the most prestigious and attractive areas of the city and is where all the super suave and aristocratic types come to buy antiques and check out the mini-art galleries.
The area boasts hundreds of antique shops and comes alive at weekends when the weekly antiques market comes to town. The market is open from 9-6 pm on Saturdays and 9-1pm on Sundays and is a great place to go to get a gift for a loved one.
Sablon is also famous for its chocolate with world renowned names like Pierre Marcolini and Wittamers in residence here. Prices are expensive but not extortionate, and all the chocolatiers are happy for you to simply window shop. They also provide free samples for you to try so you won’t have to spend a penny to get your chocolate fix!
After browsing the market and going gaga over all the chocolates you can sit down in any number of the good restaurants and pleasant cafes that Sablon has on offer. A hot chocolate at the mini coffee shop at the back of the Côte d’Or is supposed to be nothing short of spectacular and is an absolute must.
10. Go to Horta House
Rue Américaine 25
Some way out of the centre of Brussels in the southern sector of Saint-Gilles, the Horta Museum is tricky to get to but well worth making the effort if you have enough time during your stay.
It is among the finest examples of art nouveau architecture in the world and was actually the Brussels home of Victor Horta, one of the most important figures of the art nouveau movement.
The main attraction is the stairwell which is absolutely stunning and has to be seen to be believed, but the whole house in all its lavish grandeur will impress. You’ll want to take pictures, but sadly it is prohibited to take photos inside and you will be unceremoniously chucked out if you try to do so.
Another thing to bear in mind is that the museum is only open from 2-5.30pm each day so a trip is best combined with another activity in the morning.
Tickets cost €7 for adults and are €3.50 for students.
1. Don’t forget to try Belgian fries with mayonnaise- this is a Belgian institution and there are loads of good places to get your fries with mayo hit including Fritland near the Grand Place. If you’re feeling particularly hungry try the mitrailleuse- a foot long baguette stuffed to bursting with chips, mayonnaise, salad and burgers. It makes a subway look tame.
2.Keep change with you for the Metro- The metro stations do not accept foreign cash cards in their ticket machines or notes so make sure you have change to hand as the cashiers are rarely there.
3.Be weary about eating around the Grand Place or anywhere where they have the menu board outside in English as these places are often overpriced and over touristy.
2GO4 Hostel is a modern and nicely furnished hostel with both shared and private rooms. It is located in the heart of the downtown area and close to all the main Brussels attractions. They have free internet kiosks, self-catering facilities and your bed linen is included in the price.
Prices from €19-€25 per person, per night. Find more Brussels hostels.
Thanks to Redvers, infomatique, To Save On Postage, Rachel E. Chapman, tpholland, Dominique Darcy, e³°°° & Miguel_CD for the images off Flickr. Please note, all images were suitable to use at time of publication according to the Creative Commons License.