by Luc O Cinnseala
Whether you’re Interrailing in Western Europe or simply looking for a weekend city break, there are thousands of reasons to visit Brussels. Chips, chocolate, waffles and beer are just four of them and you shouldn’t deny yourself large quantities of any while exploring the Belgian capital. From its ornate buildings to its laid-back vibe, a visit to Brussels will have you planning your return visit before you’ve even left.
Here’s how to get the most out of this enchanting city in just one day…
Start your morning in the ‘European Quarter’ at Schuman Metro Station before grabbing breakfast with the district’s suited workers in Le Grand Central on nearby Place Jean Rey.
This cafe/bar/restaurant, set over two floors, merges wood and metal in its industrial interior and serves whatever fuel you might need for the busy day ahead—from cereals to cake and coffees to cocktails.
Brussels’s European Quarter hosts, among other institutions, the EU’s Council and Commission. It’s hard to ignore the Berlaymont building, home to the European Commission, as it is literally over Schuman Metro stop. On your way to breakfast you’ll also pass the Justus Lipsius building, home to the Council of the European Union.
After breakfast, take a short walk up Rue Belliard to the European Parliament building, where you can take a free tour.
Be warned that on weekends, the entire area can resemble a high-rise glass and steel ghost town as its workers enjoy their days off.
Once you’ve had your fill of democracy, continue westwards towards the centre of town until you hit the imaginatively named Brussels Park. Stop at the south end of the leafy open space to take in the Royal Palace of Brussels; it’s the official palace of Belgium’s royal family, though not their residence (that would be The Royal Palace of Laeken, in the city’s northern outskirts). The palace’s multi-tiered front garden and imposing facade, which is 50% longer than Buckingham Palace’s, show royal European opulence at its best.
All cities have a champion vantage point to look over the city, propose to a loved one or just simply hang out. Brussels’s is in front of the magnificent domed Palace of Justice, ideal for an afternoon break—or if you can make it back for sunset, all the better.
From here, take the adjacent free-standing lift that will lower you into the heart of the Marolles district directly below at no cost. Just one block from the lift’s lower entrance is Place du Jeu du Balle, home of a daily market where you should spend at least half an hour browsing all manner of old objects from phone chargers to model ships. If you’re in need of a pit stop, grab a beer sitting outside a bar on the north side of the square.
If the market isn’t enough for you, the entire neighbourhood is littered with antique shops, each a constantly changing museum in its own right.
Make your way back towards Grand Place, stopping at Rue du Marché aux Fromages, just south of the square, to pick up a meat or veggie pitta and chips in one of the tasty and cheap Greek restaurants that line the street. We recommend Pitta Hellas, a family-run restaurant with delicious food, friendly service and outdoor seating ideal for people watching.
For more of the foods on offer in Brussels check out our blog post on six foods any visitors to Brussels must try.
Now that you’ve re-fuelled, it’s time to see the city’s most famous sights, starting, naturally, with a visit to its most notable resident—Manneken Pis, a small bronze statue of a boy peeing into a fountain on Rue de l’Etuve. The statue’s back-story is still something of a mystery and you will, in all likelihood, be surprised at just how small he is. However, no trip to Brussels is complete until you’ve stood in front of the little guy and had an immature giggle.
Afterwards, it’s back to Grand Place, the city’s ornate main square and home of fairy-tale-like guild houses, the Brussels City Museum and Town Hall. Just north of the square, marvel at Galleries Royales Saint-Hubert. The 200-metre shopping arcade is one of the oldest in the world and its fabulous vaulted glass roof will leave you in awe.
Whether you like beer or not, a visit to the Cantillon brewery is a must. The factory has been operating in Brussels since 1900 and produces geuze, a uniquely bitter Belgian beer that you’ll either love or hate. Forget the multimillion-Euro interactive museums of some of the world’s bigger beer brands; this is a simple first-hand view of the production of a respected brew. When the tour is finished you’ll get a free sample of geuze or a similar beer with added cherries called kriek, which few people are known to dislike.
Dine and drink
Now that you’ve teased your taste buds with beer, it would be a shame to leave them wanting. To revive you after a long day of sightseeing the only place to head for is Place Saint-Géry and the surrounding streets, to eat and drink with the city’s hip locals.
Vietnamese restaurant Hong-Hoa is one of many great Asian restaurants in the area. The small eaterie serves authentic and tasty dishes at reasonable prices and is always a crowd pleaser, provided you can get a table.
Saint-Géry has no shortage of bars, each quirky and hip in its own way and, most importantly, offering a huge range of top-quality Belgian beers. On the corner directly across from Hong-Hoa is Le Rois des Belges; grab a seat outside and order a chalice of Westmalle Tripel 9.5% beer—or better yet, enjoy your beer sitting on one of the swings upstairs. Don’t forget that Belgian beers can sneak up on you way differently than your average lager—always drink responsibly and have water sometimes, too.
If, by midnight, the beer is giving you an urge to dance, make tracks towards Madame Moustache. Don’t be surprised if you don’t remember your night in the club, which has the feel of a vaudeville theatre and serves, you guessed it, a ready selection of strong beer. The music can range from rockabilly to funk to disco and the friendly crowd is guaranteed to be down for a fun time.
Where to stay?
Brussels Hostel Grand Place
It’s all in the name here, really. Turn left when you step outside this hostel and you’re in the main square of this city. But its central location hasn’t come at the cost of a comfortable stay. The hostel has newly renovated dorms and private rooms and blends classic interiors with delightfully kitsch decor.
Meininger Brussels City Centre
What better way to remember your stay in Belgium than by boasting that you stayed in a former brewery. Meininger is Belgian chic at its finest, featuring exposed brickwork and concrete in its spacious rooms and grand common spaces, all decorated with comic book elements.