Ultimate Travel Guide to Visit Brussels, Belgium

This article first appeared in My Travelogue by Bhushavali
 
One of the common assumptions about Brussels, in fact about the whole of Belgium is that, there's nothing to see here and all you need is a day in Brussels, a quick stop between Paris & Amsterdam during a pan-European trip. Here's the thing, I've been living in Brussels in the last couple of years, and still there are so many places that I haven't been to. So.... presenting Brussels as I know it!

Brussels Pride March LGBTQ


UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Brussels

INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT BRUSSELS & BELGIUM
  • Brussels is the capital of European Commission and has one of the 3 European Parliaments. Other 2 being in Strasbourg (FR) and Luxembourg City (LU). 
  • Brussels is the home to 4 UNESCO World Heritage Sites - Grand Place, Stocklet House, Town Houses by Victor Horta and Sonian Forest. There are 13 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Belgium.
  • Belgium is one of the countries with the highest density of castles. You can easily cross 3-4 castles in a short 20km cycling route in the outskirts of Brussels! That also means many castles are privately owned as well. Many Belgian rich people live in their own castles/chateaus like Wijnkasteel Vandeurzen's owners living in Linden's white castle. Some chateaus have even been converted to hotels or bnbs, when anyone can stay for a night or more! 
  • Belgium had a very important role to play during both World Wars
  • Belgium was the first European country to connect the entire country by railways
  • Belgium was the 2nd country (following the Netherlands) to legalize same-sex marriage in 2003, thus making Belgium one of the safest countries for LGBTQ+ travel.
  • Belgium has 2 major regions - French-speaking southern Wallonia & Dutch-speaking northern Flanders. Brussels capital region kind-of manages English. You really really don't want to say 'Bonjour' in Flanders or 'Hello' in Wallonia. Like, really, don't!!! 
  • The last battle of Napoleon Bonaparte, the very famous French Revolutionary, was in Waterloo, very close to Brussels, where he was captured and put in jail for the rest of his life.
  • Like all other major cities, Brussels too has a river in the centre called river Senne. Unfortunately, it became very polluted and was covered up and today it flows underground. Today it is possible to visit a portion of the underground tunnel of river Senne via Sewer Museum.
  • When you're in Brussels, you'll come across 3 Luxembourg: one - Brussels-Luxembourg that's within Brussels, close to the European area; two - the province of Luxembourg in southern Belgium where most of Ardennes Hills are located; three - ofcourse the country of Luxembourg which is located to the south of Belgium. So you may want to clarify which Luxembourg someone is talking about. Catching a train from Luxembourg may mean, from inside of Brussels and not another country! A train to Luxembourg may be to another country while a bus to Luxembourg may mean within Brussels!
Brussels Brights Light Festival

Japanese tower & museums of Far East Chinese Pavilion Brussels

TOP 10 MUST-VISIT TOURIST ATTRACTIONS IN BRUSSELS 
(and the often-missed, unusual places to visit in their neighborhood)
Grand Place (Grote Markt) in Brussels is the central square built in 14th C CE. This is the location where the bi-annual Flower Carpet show happens as well as the magical sound & light show during Christmas. Within Grand Place are Brewers Museum and Brussels City Museum (which is also where the original statue of Manneken Pis is present). Btw, the pronunciation of 'Grand Place' is not similar to English. No one will understand if you say so! Locally, it is pronounced more like 'Graan(g) Plaas'. 
2. MANNEKEN PIS 
Quite amusingly this peeing boy is the symbol of Brussels worldwide (apart from Atomium)! At a short distance from this fellow are his sister (Jeanekke Pis) & his dog (Zenneke Pis). Here are more details about all the 3 peeing statues of Brussels
3. ATOMIUM 
Atomium is another symbol of Brussels along with Manneken Pis. While no one visiting Brussels would miss Atomium, its often overlooked neighbours are Mini Europe and ADAM (Design Museum). Very close to Atomium is the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken which opens for 3 weeks every summer for the general public. Close to this is the Japanese Tower and Chinese Pavilion. The nearest tram station De Wand is the largest graffiti in Belgium covering 4500sqm (larger than Antwerp's Zomerfabriek murals).
Cinquantenaire Arch located in the Cinquantenaire Park and Autoworld located just beside it are 2 of the top things to do in Brussels. Often overlooked is the Royal Museum of Armed Forces & Military located just opposite Autoworld. The  Aviation section here is so majestic and is filled with 130 aeroplanes and 100 obsolete engines. 
5. ROYAL PALACE OF BRUSSELS 
Royal Palace of Brussels is the residence of Belgium's Royal family which is open for the public for 1 week in July. The best time to visit the Royal Palace of Brussels is at 2:30PM when the Change of Guards ceremony happens. Right here is also the remnants of the old palace underground - Coudenberg Palace. The area is filled with many museums including Musical Instruments Museum, Magritte Museum, Royal Museum of Fine Arts etc.
6. ST.MICHAEL & ST.GUDULA CATHEDRAL 
The main Cathedral of Brussels is St.Michael & St.Gudula Cathedral. Very close to it is the Belgian Comic Strip Centre and Museum of the National Bank of Belgium.
The 2 must-eat food items in Belgium are Waffles and Chocolate! Belgian Chocolate Village goes through the process of cultivation of cocoa to the production of chocolate, including huge chocolate sculptures. Koekelberg Basilica is located very close to it.
8. TRAIN WORLD 
Like the Aviation section of the Royal Armed Forces Museum, the Train World in Brussels has the biggest collection of actual trains of Belgium since the inception of railways in Belgium including the oldest steam locomotive preserved in Belgium, the Pays de Waes, to the typical steam locomotive 12, whose speed in 1939 broke all records and many more.
9. PARLAMENTARIUM 
Brussels is the capital of the European Union, also has one of the 3 European Parliaments. Visiting the hemicycle of the parliament is very much possible when the sessions aren't happening. The best thing is it is free of cost as well!
10. MEISE PLANTETUIN 
Technically, this is outside of the city limits of Brussels, but it is included in MuseumpassMusees as well as Brussels Card. Meise Botanic Gardens is the Belgian version of Kew Garden, London

TOP 5 THINGS TO DO IN BRUSSELS
1. EAT WAFFLES & DRINK BEER 
That's rather obvious! But did you know there are 2 types of waffles - Brussels and Liege? Brussels Waffles is a rectangle with clean edges and a bit crispier while Liege Waffles has undefined edges and is a bit gooier. Sitting in Grand Place with a bottle of beer and waffle is definitely the best thing to do in Brussels.
2. VISIT A BREWERY 
Visiting a brewery is the most obvious of the things to do in Brussels. Belgium is filled with so many breweries that are micro-breweries that brew their own beer in the traditional way with unique flavours like coriander & rose & so many more. The only brewery within Brussels that still brews in the traditional way is Cantillon Brewery
3. COMIC STRIP WALK 
Brussels & Comics go hand in hand. Belgium is after all the birthplace of Smurfs & Tintin. The city is filled with so many murals and there's a dedicated Comic Strip walking Route. There are also 2 museums - MoOF and Comic Strip Museum dedicated to the comic culture of Brussels.
4. CLIMB THE CINQUANTENAIRE ARCH 
Yet another reason why the Royal Museum of Armed Forces & Military must not be missed, apart from the Aviation section is that it is through this museum that climbing Cinquantenaire Arch is possible! On a clear day, it is possible to see the Atomium, Halle Gate, Koekelberg Basilica and many other landmarks of Brussels.
5. SHOP AT THE ANTIQUE MARKET IN MAROLLES 
While there are many shopping streets & markets & bazaars everywhere, shopping in Brussels is best done at Marolles Market. It is the antique market of Brussels located close to Gare du Midi. It is open every day from 9AM to 2PM. 
 
TOP 6 UNUSUAL PLACES TO VISIT IN BRUSSELS
1. UNUSUAL MUSEUMS OF BRUSSELS
There are more than 100 museums, which includes some very very unusual museums to visit in Brussels. The most unique one is perhaps the Sewer Museum, where you can even see a portion of the river Senne. Halle Gate is another unique museum because it is a part of the medieval city fortification wall. Other unique museums of Brussels include Fashion & Lace Museum, La Fonderie (industry museum) and many more.
2. STOCKLET PALACE
It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Brussels! But unfortunately, it is private property and the interiors cannot be accessed, but that's no reason to not see it from outside, esp., when it is only a short ride away from Cinquantenaire Park!
3. MAJOR TOWNHOUSES OF ARCHITECT VICTOR HORTA
Victor Horta is the pride of Belgian Architecture! 4 of the buildings he designed with art-nouveau architecture style have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites - Hôtel Tassel, Hôtel Solvay, Hôtel van Eetvelde, and Maison & Atelier Horta! While the first 3 are open only on very few select days every year, the Maison & Atelier Horta has been converted to Horta Museum and can be visited easily. 
4. KOEKELBERG BASILICA
Koekelberg Basilica is one of the most unique churches with a very unique Art-Deco architecture. Its Art-Deco style is quite intriguing and at the first instance, it doesn't even feel like a church! This is located very close to the Belgian Chocolate Village.
5. SONIAN FOREST - WATERMAEL-BOISFORT UNESCO
Sonian Forest is one of the largest wooded areas in Brussels and 5 different portions of Sonian Forest are listed under UNESCO and within the city limits of Brussels is the Watermael-Boisfort area which is one of those 5 areas. UNESCO or not, the forest is gorgeous. Choose one of the routes via RouteYou and go on a wonderful walk! I have been on 3 trails here so far - Groenendaal Trail, Watermael-Boisfort area, Chateau de la Hulpe trail
6. ANIMAL FARMS
If you're with kids, one of the unusual things to do in Brussels is to visit farms where kids can handle farm animals incl. chicken, goats, sheep, donkey & more. There are about 6 major children farms in Brussels and a few larger, more interactive ones in the outskirts of Brussels. We've been a quite a few and here's my article on the Kinderboerderij/Ferme Pedagogique in and around Brussels.

TOP 25 DAY TRIPS & WEEKEND DESTINATIONS FROM BRUSSELS WITHIN BELGIUM
I've written a detailed article on my various day trips from Brussels & weekend trips from Brussels by train, to all over Belgium including Ypres, Mons, Hasselt, Spa, Durbuy and so so many more.

Cinquantenaire Park Brussels in Autumn

Cinquantenaire Mosque Brussels
 
HOW TO REACH BRUSSELS 
(and places to visit in its neighbourhood)
1. BRUSSELS ZAVENTEM AIRPORT  
Zaventem airport is the main city airport in Brussels. It is located very close to, in the outskirts of Brussels. It is very easy to reach central Brussels by train from inside the airport.
2. SOUTH BRUSSELS CHARLEROI AIRPORT 
Let it not fool you! Though called South Brussels, it is nowhere near Brussels, Its a solid 1 hr ride by bus in Southern Belgium. That said, there are quite a few things to do in Charleroi and you can plan to spend a day there.
3. BRUSSELS GARE DU MIDI/ZUID/SOUTH RAILWAY STATION - This is the biggest railway stations where all international trains start from / stop at, including Thalys, ICE etc. Close to this is the Cantillon Brewery (the only brewery that still brews beer in the traditional method within Brussels), Halle Gate (a part of the medieval city wall).
4. BRUSSELS GARE CENTRAAL RAILWAY STATION - Very close to Central station is MoOF (Museum of Original Figurines) - a comic characters museum. Infact, Grand Place itself is very very close to Brussels Centraal.
5. BRUSSELS GARE DU NORD/NORTH BUS/RAILWAY STATION - Very close to the Nord station is Train World.
6. BRUSSELS LUXEMBOURG or SCHUMAN - Very close to Luxembourg & Schuman is the Parlementarium & Natural Sciences Museum of Brussels (which has a huge variety of excellent dinosaurs fossils).
  
Brussels Street Art Graffiti SNCB Belgian Train Stations Meiser

PRACTICAL INFO ON BRUSSELS
PAYMENTS - Being a part of EU, the local currency is Euro. Most business establishments accept the card. However, the small kiosks near touristy spots like shops near Grand Place, waffle vans etc accept only cash. So it is a good idea to always carry some cash like say €20 and a few €0.50 (I'll tell you why next). 
PUBLIC TOILETS - Public toilets in Brussels are available in most metro stations, railway stations and some tourist attractions. However, almost all of those require a payment of  €0.50. So it is always wise to carry a few coins (that's why!).
LANGUAGE - Local languages in Belgium are French & Dutch (the Belgian dialect of Dutch is called Flemish). Brussels, being a metropolitan city, manages English too. But not everyone is proficient in the language. Brussels in culturally French, though it is surrounded by Flanders. If you know French, awesome!!! Even if you don't, it is a good idea to begin all conversations with locals &  shopkeepers in Brussels with a 'Bonjour'. 
TRANSPORT WITHIN BRUSSELS - More details below...
TRANSPORT WITHIN BELGIUM - Belgium being the first-ever country in Europe to be completely connected by train, the easiest option to travel within Brussels is ofcourse by train. While superficially Belgian Train may look expensive, there are things like weekend rates are 50% cheaper, discounts for youngster below 26 years of age, 10 journey pass etc. Here's my detailed article on how to find cheap Belgian train tickets incl., tickets from Brussels to Paris, Brussels to Amsterdam etc. 
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT BRUSSELS - Being an absolute cosmopolitan city Brussels is good to visit throughout the year. However 2 major tourist attractions in Brussels - Flower Carpet at Grand Place and Floralia Brussels happen in summer, so if you do not want to miss the 2, plan your trip to Brussels accordingly.
BELGIAN WEATHER - It's mostly cold & rainy like typical western Europe! But summers can be really warm. One of the hottest days in Brussels in 2020 was 35°C which we spent just sitting at De Panne beach and eating icecream and one of the coldest days in Brussels in 2021 was -10°C when we made a snowman on our balcony! Normal winter weather is around -1°C to 5°C and normal summer weather is around 25°C to 30°C. 
DOES IT SNOW IN BELGIUM? Yes!!! Brussels doesn't experience much of snow. We had one amazing snow day in 2018 in recent years, followed by a very cold & snowy week in 2021 when the temperature hit a phenomenal -10°C. But southern Belgium (Wallonia), which has the majestic Ardennes Hills, has regular snowfall. The highest point of Belgium, Mont Rigi is one of the best places for skiing in Belgium.

TRANSPORT WITHIN BRUSSELS 
PUBLIC TRANSPORT - Brussels is well connected by metro, buses and trams and together they are called STIB-MIVB. It is a good idea to buy a Brupass 1 jour (day-pass) of STIB if you're here for a day or a Brupass 10 voyage pass (10 journeys) if you're here for more than a day. Tap-in in all public transport is obviously necessary. Some metro stations require a tap-out but otherwise, it is not required. Taps done within 1 hour are considered a single journey, so don't worry about having 2-3 legs of journey to reach your destination. 
UBER - Uber is very much available all over Brussels. There are also other taxis available (black cars with yellow 'taxi' board atop).
BICYCLE RENTALS - Another awesome aspect of Brussels is the availability of cycles & e-scooters. The most widely used cycle service is Villo. There are Villo stands near most metro stations. Villo requires you to create a login id & buy a subscription with their app. You can pick up a Villo cycle from any of its stands and drop it at any other stand.
Uber's bicycles Jump is another option whose locations can be found & can be hired with the regular Uber app. Jump bicycles can be dropped anywhere! Just be responsible. 
Jump is better for quick rides (if its a bit too far away to walk) while for a day-long or multiple days rental, Villo is better. 
E-SCOOTER (KICK-SCOOTERS) RENTALS - E-Scooters are similar to Kick Scooters, just that they have, are electrically charged and goes faster. E-Scooter riders normally take the cycle lane as well. Do keep in mind that they can reach a speed of 25kmph and that's pretty fast when you're riding without any protection, not even a helmet! Be careful. 
Lime is the most commonly used E-Scooter brand. Other brands include Circ and Dott. Each has their own apps. The function is similar to Uber - create your profile, find the ride close to you, add your card details for payment, use the scooter, drop it anywhere (again, be responsible) and close the ride on the app. 

Snow in Brussels Cinquantenaire Tour de Tournai

Snow in Brussels

WHAT NOT TO DO IN BRUSSELS
  • DO NOT call it French Fries. Those are Belgian Fries! People will get angry here if you call it otherwise! The thing is, it was created in Namur which was a part of France centuries ago, when the dish was created. So yes, French fries. But today, Namur belongs to Belgium, so yes, those are Belgian Fries.
  • DO NOT plan a day-trip combining Ghent & Bruges. Both cities are similar but each of them has so much to see & do. I visited Ghent for a weekend and Brugge (Bruges) for another weekend. Half day in a place doesn't do justice at all!
  • DO NOT plan a day-trip to Luxembourg (with or without a stop in Dinant). Dinant is a quaint little town and is worth a day-trip. Luxembourg City is gorgeous with its fortifications, views, museums and more and is can be seen in 2 days (a weekend trip). A day trip combining the 2 (or even just to Luxembourg) is totally not worth it. 

BRUSSELS ITINERARY
DAY-TRIP TO BRUSSELS, BELGIUM: Grand Place, Manneken, Jeanekke & Zinneke Pis, Atomium, Koekelberg Basilica, Chocolate Village Museum, Cantillon Brewery

3 DAYS IN BRUSSELS, BELGIUM
  • Day 1 - Grand Place, Manneken, Jeanekke & Zinneke Pis, Garderobe Manneken Pis, Koekelberg Basilica, Chocolate Village Museum, Atomium
  • Day 2 - Half day trip to Waterloo, Cinquantenaire Arch, Autoworld/Military Museum 
  • Day 3 - Parlamentarium, Comic Strip Route, Cantillon Brewery

1 WEEK IN BRUSSELS, BELGIUM 

Brussels Travel Guide Pinterest Brussels Travel Guide Pinterest

Bhushavali

An ardent traveler by passion. Being an ex - Art History Teacher, my area of interest especially lies in Nature and Heritage. Visited 78 UNESCO World Heritage sites as of Sept 2020. I've been listed among the Top 7 Women Travel Bloggers of India, Top 50 in UK. I have been interviewed in a couple of TV Shows, Radio Channels and Events as well. Read more about me and read the testimonials of different brands

8 comments:

  1. Fantastic list for those who are thinking about stopping in Bruxelles. Your right, it deserves more than a day. But for me personally, I am not a great fan of Bruxelles. Other Belgium cities I love but I didn't enjoy my time working and coming here as a tourist. I first started coming here back in the early 2000s and it was a dirty city but has cleaned up its act a bit since then. I cant quite point my finger at it, but I still find Bruxelles a bit gloomy when I walk around the place. Its just my opinion. However away from all that, the only places I do like checking out (and its a bit touristy) is the Grand Place especially when they have the flower carpet down and waffles with ice cream! That I cant say no too. I havent been in about three years, so who knows, a return visit might be needed, just to get the gloom of me. :D

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  2. I've never really been to Brussels, only as a transit point to connect to other cities in Belgium. Interesting to read see such a long list of things to do in your ultimate guide to Brussels with so much practical information. I'd definitely be trying the beer, I love Belgian beer.

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  3. Your blog is always a great source for awesome travel guide around Europe. You are so lucky, and seems it is easy to get around and explore different cities. Do you think a week or two of vacation in Brussels would be a great start to thoroughly enjoy the city?

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  4. I don't count myself among those who believe there is very little to see in Brussels. I have a good friend living there and I know this is a very attractive city, but unfortunately I haven't visited it yet. I had no idea that Waterloo is so close to Brussels, or that the statue of the peeing boy is the symbol of Brussels. From what I understand, I'll need a minimum of 3 days to visit the city. This is a beautiful itinerary. Hope to make it there soon.

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  5. A great guide to Brussels. I want to visit it for a summer weekend, so I'd like to use your tips. It's great to know that it's easily cross by 3-4 castles in a short 20km cycling route in Brussels' outskirts! I like your 3 days itinerary.

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  6. What a great info from someone who lives there for a couple of years! I don't think there's not much to see there, but sometimes people are just like comparing places of interest to bigger and more known destinations in other part of Europe. I didn't know that Manneken Pis has a sister and a dog! And I found the info about fries was interesting and so helpful. One time my husband had an exchange student from Brussels and he could eat the whole Nutella in a day. A very high maintenance boy to have for a year. lol.

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  7. Wow Belgium has so many things to do and even many unique facts associated to it. I always though Germany has country of castles but now through you, I am coming to know that there are 3 to 4 castles within 20 km of cycling. Also good to know it was the first country in Europe to connect whole country with railways. It would be interesting to see French and Dutch speaking parts here.

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  8. Thank you for this virtual trip. For me a second visit this time through your post. This would be a great guide for first timers. Realized missed a few things when we were there. Calls for a second trip as we just loved it the first time staying in my brother-in- laws place.

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