Brussels, the capital of Belgium (and de facto capital of the European Union), is a dynamic, multicultural city, and one of the most underrated destinations in Europe.
It is also a city of contradictions: both serious and fun, ornate and minimalistic, historic and modern, Brussels is full of surprises. From cutting-edge art to beautiful Art Nouveau architecture, and from comic strip murals to the best waffles ever, this city has so many layers that it can never be boring. Brussels may be small, but it sure has a big-city attitude.
A few things to know about Brussels
It is a city rich in history and culture. Fans of historic European architecture won’t be disappointed here. At the same time, as the administrative centre of the EU, it can often be serious and businesslike. And yet, it doesn’t take itself too seriously: only in Brussels, you’ll find a statue dedicated to a cartoon.
Also, don’t be surprised to see street and place names in more than one language; Brussels is a bilingual territory, while Belgium as a whole has three official languages, French, Dutch (Flemish), and German.
However, Brussels isn’t the best option if you are on a diet. You can practically smell the waffles baking all over the place! Moreover, this is the birthplace of french fries (or chips, if you are from the UK). And if you add to the list the world-famous Belgian pralines, mussels, and beer, then you can kiss your willpower goodbye.
The nice thing about Brussels is that it’s quite compact. You can easily see the highlights and get a good idea of local life in just a couple of days. If you have an extra day or two, you can go on a day trip to Bruges, Ghent, or even Antwerp. Otherwise, you can explore deeper this fascinating, multifaceted city.
So let’s see which are the top things to do in Brussels, Belgium:
1. Grand Place (Grote Markt), Brussels main square
You can’t possibly go to Brusells and not see the Grand-Place (main square). Possibly Europe’s most beautiful square, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998. It is famous for its Gothic and Baroque-style buildings, many with ornate golden decorations.
The square has been a marketplace since the 12th century, while the majestic City Hall was built in the 15th century. Around the same time, the city’s merchant guilds built their headquarters around the square. Today, the ornate facades of these guild houses are the highlight of Grand Place, along with the City Hall.
Grand Place sits in the heart of Brussels and it is close to most of the city’s main attractions. If you visit around Christmas, you can see the splendid Winter Wonders light show at night, while in August the square gets covered by a huge carpet of flowers.
2. Brussels City Hall (Hôtel de Ville/Stadthuis)
While exploring Grand Place, if time allows, take the opportunity to visit the Town Hall. It is the centrepiece among all the ornate guild houses of the square, and its balconies are quite popular as a photo spot for newlyweds/
Typical of the Gothic style of architecture, the City Hall was built in the 15th century. It still functions as the seat of the mayor and the city’s council. Its 96-metre tall belfry is a landmark for the city. Inside, elegant marble staircases, wood-panelled walls, and majestic paintings will make your visit worthwhile. Guided tours are also available several times a day.
3. The Atomium and Mini-Europe
One of the most popular attractions in Brussels, futuristic Atomium is essentially a gigantic iron molecule. It was designed by engineer André Waterkeyn for the 1958 International Fair. The Atomium proved so popular that it became a permanent attraction. You can go inside, as it houses multiple exhibitions. It is quite an experience! If nothing else, you should go for the incredible panoramic views of Brussels the Atomium offers.
Moreover, if you have time to spare and the weather allows (it was, unfortunately, raining when I visited), you can check out the Mini-Europe theme park nearby. It features miniatures of more than 350 of Europe’s most famous landmarks, complete with visual and sound effects. Great for kids!
There is also another little surprise on your way out: the final bit of the escalator gets illuminated with futuristic lights and sound effects. Going down the escalator you’ll feel as if in a time- or space-travel tunnel. As a fan of science-fiction, this was the highlight of my visit (along with the view of Brussels at the top).
Address: Place de l’Atomium 1 – Atomiumplein 1. 1020 Brussels, Belgium
4. Manneken Pis (Peeing Boy) and his family
I’m sure most of you have heard of the city’s mascot, the famous statue of the Peeing Boy (Manneken Pis). Popular with tourists and locals alike, this quirky and tiny statue near Grand Place is one of the city’s highlights. First installed in 1619, he is a clear sign that Brussels has always had a great sense of humour and doesn’t take itself too seriously.
But did you know it’s not the only peeing statue in Brussels? The residents are so fond of this naughty boy that over the years, artists have made him a peeing sister (Jeanneke Pis) and even a peeing dog (Zinneke Pis). Contrary to Manneken Pis, his peeing sister is rather difficult to find. You’ll find her on on the east side of the Impasse de la Fidélité / Getrouwheidsgang (Fidelity Alley), a small, narrow cul-de-sac off Rue des Bouchers / Beenhouwersstraat. As regards the peeing dog, he is forever lifting his leg to pee onto a street pole on the corner of Rue des Chartreux and Rue du Vieux Marché aux Grains. That said, unlike his master, the peeing dog is not a fountain, but a regular bronze statue.
Furthermore, the Bruxellois like to dress Manneken Pis in special costumes, to mark special dates and celebrations. You can find out what he’ll be wearing in the coming months by checking his official dressing calendar (yes, there is such a thing!)
Insider’s Tip: the Manneken Pis, much like the famous Mona Lisa painting in Paris and the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, is much smaller than one would expect. It is also hidden by groups of tourists struggling to get a selfie with it. So the experience can be rather underwhelming. I think his “sister” and the little dog are more interesting, being lesser-known. However, as it is just off the Grand Place, you’ll be nearby anyway, so if you wish, you can check it out.
5. The Galeries Royales de Saint-Hubert
If shopping is more of your thing, then you can’t miss the elegant Galeries Royales de Saint-Hubert. Even if you only do some window shopping. It is a beautiful Renaissance-style arcade built in the 19th century, with upscale shops, boutiques, restaurants, and even a cinema. Don’t forget to look up and admire the stunning glass roof, also known as the “umbrella of Brussels”.
With so many things on offer, from shops to restaurants, this is the perfect place to spend a rainy day in Brussels. Especially in colder weather, make sure you stop by Neuhaus chocolatier for the best hot chocolate in town.
6. Belgian Comic Strip Center (Centre Belge de la Bande Desinée)
Belgium is the birthplace of a great many world-famous cartoons and comics. Such as Lucky Luke, The Smurfs, Spirou, and Tin Tin, just to name a few. So it’s no wonder that Brussels has its very own cartoon museum, or more correctly, the Belgian Comic Strip Center.
The Comic Strip Center has over 60,000 works, covering the history of European comics from their very beginnings to this day. In addition, the Center often hosts temporary exhibitions that showcase different aspects of comic art. It is housed in a lovely Art Nouveau building, designed by architect Victor Horta (who has his very own museum in Brussels). This museum is as Belgian as it gets and if you visit, your inner child will thank you.
Address: Rue des Sables 20, 1000 Brussels
7. Treat yourself to the delicious waffles of Maison Dandoy
Ah, waffles! I could swear the whole country smells like waffles. Though I noticed this mostly in Antwerp, I don’t know why. Bruges has a whiff of chocolate, Antwerp smells a lot of freshly-made waffles, and Brussels, I am not sure… Perhaps french fries?
Anyway, the Belgians created the waffle so you can’t leave Brussels without eating at least one. Preferably more. And with chocolate syrup. There are two types of waffles in Belgium: the Liège waffle and the Brussels waffle.
The Brussels waffles are light and fluffy, crispy on the outside, soft inside, with the rectangular shape that most of us associate with what a waffle is. The Liège waffles (Liège is a big city in eastern Belgium by the way), are massively popular, thicker in texture, with a crispy coating of caramelised sugar. You can recognise them by their characteristic rounded corners and smaller size.
I suggest you try them both and decide which one you prefer for yourself. At any rate, you’ll find the best waffles (of either type) at Maison Dandoy, a true Brussels institution. They have eight shops in Brussels, but the easiest for visitors to go to is either the one in the Galleries Royales or the one near Grand Place. Oh, forgot to mention, they make amazing speculoos biscuits too.
Address: Rue au Beurre, 31, 1000 Brussels // Galerie du Roi, 2, 1000 Bruxelles
8. Follow the Comic Strip Route (Parcours de Striproute)
By now you’ve probably guessed that the Belgians do love their comics. In fact, in Franco-Belgian culture, they are often referred to as the “ninth art”. As you might expect, in Brussels they are everywhere. Even street art pays homage to the country’s most famous comics artists.
It all started in 1991 when the Belgian Comic Strip Centre commissioned a mural of a local comics artist. This move proved very popular, and the city started commissioning more works over the years. Nowadays, these murals have formed a trail of over 50 spots, most of them around the city centre. You can get the brochure “Brussels, the comic strip capital” for about 2.5€ at any Visit Brussels information desk. It will help you find all the cartoon murals in the city.
9. Try some delectable Belgian chocolate
No visit to Brussels is complete without trying Belgian chocolate. After all, Belgian pralines are famous the world over, and for good reason. The chocolate here is one of the best in the world. The city has a great number of excellent chocolate workshops and boutiques, and there is even a Chocolate Museum.
You may already know the globally established brands of Leonidas and Godiva, but you can get these pretty much anywhere. Instead, I’d suggest you try the chocolates of Wittamer (the chocolatier most favoured by the Belgian royals), Pierre Marcolini (whose chocolate boutiques look like an elegant jewellery shop), Neuhaus Chocolates (creator of the Belgian praline, opened for the first time in 1857), and Artisan Chocolatier Mary (another royal warrant holder, first opened in 1919), just to name a few of the best.
10. Art Nouveau in Brussels
Brussels could easily be named the capital of Art Nouveau. The city is a real treasure trove for architecture lovers, especially the buildings created by famous architect Victor Horta. The four townhouses he designed, Hôtel Tassel, Hôtel Solvay, Hôtel van Eetvelde, and Maison & Atelier Horta (Horta’s home and studio) are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. However, of these only the latter is fully open to the public.
Both Horta’s private home and his studio, built between 1898 and 1901 in the Saint-Gilles neighbourhood, are now a museum, the Horta Museum. Most of their original interior has also been preserved, including mosaics, stained glass windows, and wall decorations.
Summing things up
Brussels is one of the most underrated destinations in Europe. There is so much more to this city than bureaucrats and EU institutions. It is the birthplace of many famous comics, the first-ever chocolate pralines, “French fries” and of course, delicious waffles. With so many things to see and do in Brussels, you’ll want to visit again and again!