Chances are if you’ve been to Brussels, you were sent there on a business trip — after all, only a quarter of the six million people who visit Belgium’s capital each year come for pleasure. Of the tourists who do visit Belgium, many of them skip right over Brussels in their rush to see the scenic canals and cobblestones of nearby Bruges.
But before you strike Brussels from your own must-visit list, take another look. Get beyond the modern government buildings in the Quartier Europeen and you’ll discover the city’s intimate historic core, where centuries-old houses hug narrow cobblestone alleyways, neatly dressed waiters serve lunch on the terraces along the Place du Grand Sablon, and the mighty Gothic spire of the Hotel de Ville soars above Grand Place, one of Europe’s most magical squares. To the south are the curving facades and wrought-iron balconies of the city’s gracious Art Nouveau neighborhood, while further north you’ll find the wide green lawns and vibrant blooms of the Botanic Garden. Art, history and culture are celebrated in over 100 museums throughout the city, featuring everything from delicate Belgian lace to musical instruments and vintage cars.
As charming and eclectic as these sights are, they’re often overshadowed by Brussels’ no-nonsense reputation as a major seat of international government — and to some extent that reputation is deserved. The city is not only the capital of Belgium but also of the Flanders region and the entire European Union, so it does have a disproportionate share of harried civil servants bustling around with briefcases and cell phones. But Brussels’ position as a center of international government also means that it’s uniquely multicultural and welcoming to visitors from all over the world. One local resident told me that her children never bat an eyelash when they meet someone whose skin color or language are different from their own, because in Brussels diversity is the norm. The city embraces both of Belgium’s official languages with street signs in French and Flemish, while English and German are also widely spoken. And the locals are never too busy to translate a menu or help lost visitors find their way.
Brussels also has a sense of fun that belies its bland, businesslike reputation. Whimsical cartoon murals adorn the facades of buildings throughout the old city, a tribute to the comic strip tradition that thrived in Belgium in the early 20th century. An even older tradition involves the city’s most famous mascot, a statue of a little boy peeing into a fountain. Locals delight in dressing him up in various costumes (Elvis, Mozart, a vampire, a samurai warrior) and occa sionally substituting beer for water in his stream. In 1987 Jeanneke Pis, a female counterpart to the famous statue, was erected in another section of the city. And as if that weren’t enough, in 1998, a canine counterpart to the two was erected a few blocks away as a tongue-in-cheek tribute (all this little bronze dog needs is a fire hydrant!).
Just in case statues of peeing children aren’t enough of a draw, here’s perhaps the best reason to visit Brussels: with the businesspeople tucked away in the modern part of town and a good portion of Belgium’s tourists fighting the crowds in Bruges, it’s easier here than in most European capitals to find a quiet corner to call your own.
Editor’s Note: Metro stations, museums and streets are often known by two different names, one in French and one in Flemish — so keep that in mind when asking for directions and navigating your way around the city. For instance, if you’re looking for Grand Place and you find yourself in Grote Markt, you’re in the right spot. We’ve listed all names and addresses below in French.
The heart of Belgium’s historic district is the breathtaking Grand Place, a cobblestone square surrounded on all sides by elegant Gothic and Baroque buildings — including the massive 13th-century Hotel de Ville (town hall). With a number of sidewalk cafes, this square is one of Brussels’ prime people-watching spots, and during the summer it’s colorfully carpeted by a large flower market. Also on the square is the Maison du Roi, a museum that chronicles Brussels’ history and even includes a collection of costumes for the Manneken Pis, the city’s most famous statue. Just adjacent to Grand Place is Ilot Sacre, a neighborhood of narrow medieval streets whose charm is only partially dimmed by the many cafes and souvenir shops that have taken over the area.
He may be only 22 inches tall, but the Manneken Pis (located on Rue de l’Etuve) has become one of Brussels’ most enduring symbols. This bronze statue of a little boy peeing into a fountain dates back to 1619 and can occasionally be seen dressed in costumes made especially for him (the first such outfit was a gift from King Louis XV in 1747). If you like the Manneken Pis, don’t miss his female counterpart, Jeanneke Pis (east side of the Impasse de la Fidelite) or his canine counterpart, the Zinneke Pis (Rue des Chartreux and Rue du Vieux-Marche-aux-Grains) — a bronze statue of a peeing dog about a 15-minute walk away.
Ornate Gothic architecture and brilliantly colored stained-glass windows make the 16th-century Notre Dame du Sablon one of Brussels’ most beautiful churches. After your visit, you can sit and relax in the tranquil gardens of Place du Petit Sablon or enjoy coffee at a sidewalk cafe overlooking Place du Grand Sablon; both squares are adjacent to the church.
The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium are a storehouse of artistic treasures. The bulk of the collections can be found in the Museum of Old Masters (holding works from the 15th to the 18th century), the Museum of Modern Art (spanning works from the end of the 18th century to today) and the new Fin-de-Siecle Museum (dedicated to the 1900s). The Royal Museums also encompass three smaller collections devoted to individual Belgian artists: the Rene Magritte Museum, the Antoine Wiertz Museum and the Constantin Meunier Museum.
Construction of the massive Cathedrale des Saints Michel et Gudule was begun in the early 1200’s but not completed until some three centuries later. Visitors can wander through the present-day Gothic nave and then head underground to see the remains of the 11th-century Romanesque church over which the current structure is built.
The cure for the art museum fatigue that plagues many visitors to Europe is the unique Musical Instruments Museum. This is a place where the exhibits are not only seen but also heard; included in the cost of admission is a headset that plays a sample from each musical instrument as you step in front of it. You’ll hear and see both familiar instruments (violins, harps, guitars) and more foreign ones — like a gigantic Tibetan mountain horn or a carved wooden fish totem from Vanuatu.
Though Brussels’ historic core dates back hundreds of years, the city also has an Art Nouveau quarter where visitors can enjoy the architecture of a more modern era. Victor Horta, one of the leaders of the Art Nouveau movement, once lived and worked in Brussels’ St. Gilles neighborhood, and today his house has been transformed into the Horta Museum. Its elegant rooms feature curving lines, stained-glass windows and a dramatic main staircase. There are a number of other Art Nouveau residences in the surrounding neighborhood, so be sure to leave time for a quick stroll after you visit the museum.
On a nice day, join the locals at the Parc de Bruxelles for a stroll through its neatly manicured flower beds — or for an afternoon nap in the grass. Classical statues, colorful blooms and several lovely fountains make this a serene place to rest after a long day of sightseeing.
Just an hour outside of Brussels by train is the romantic city of Bruges (Brugge in Flemish), with its picturesque canals, colorful flower markets and beautifully preserved historic buildings. Another fun day trip from Brussels is to take a 45-minute train ride to Antwerp to see its gorgeous cathedral and famous Diamond District. Viator offers day trips to both cities.
Belgium’s cuisine is best known for a number of signature dishes: moules (steamed mussels), frites (fries, dipped not in ketchup but mayonnaise) and, of course, gaufres (waffles), served warm and delicious with toppings such as powdered sugar, chocolate, fruit or ice cream. Of course, you’ll also want to save a little room for handmade chocolates and Belgian beer.
Its high ceiling and cavernous dining area might make you feel like you’re sitting in a train station rather than a restaurant, but Belga Queen, housed in a converted bank, is one of Brussels’ prime spots for fine dining. The focus is on seafood (there’s an extensive oyster bar) and local Belgian ingredients. The prix fixe business lunch is a bit pricey but not a bad deal with a menu that changes daily.
The elegant, sun-splashed dining room at Kolya (located in the Hotel Manos Premier) offers exquisitely presented dishes like tuna carpaccio, lobster ravioli and rack of lamb in garlic leaf juice. Fresh flowers and soft jazz music contribute to the serene ambience.
In the midst of all the pricey sidewalk cafes along Place du Grand Sablon is Chez Richard (2 Rue des Minimes), a cozy neighborhood hangout where beer and conversation flow freely. The unpretentious fare (quiches, salads) is tasty and reasonably priced. Plus, every weekend between October 1 and April 30, the eatery puts out an oyster bar spread.
You don’t want to visit Belgium without trying a waffle, so be sure to treat yourself to one as a light lunch or a sweet afternoon snack. Vendors are legion, but we like Belgaufra (tongue-in-cheek motto: “Probably the best since 1950”), which has outposts throughout the city — just look for its yellow cartoon logo.
If the weather is sunny, enjoy a view of Grand Place from the terrace at ‘T Kelderke (15 Grand Place), or, if it’s not, dine inside in a 17th-century vaulted cellar. Traditional Belgian cuisine is the order of the day here, including mussels, eel in herb sauce and mashed potatoes with sausage.
Shopping in Brussels
Brussels is the birthplace of Godiva chocolates, and there are numerous outposts throughout the city where you can pick up a sampler of Belgium’s signature sweets. Another popular souvenir to bring home is lace, which is available in many locations but particularly near Grand Place. Goods are fairly pricey here, as they are in many big Western European capitals, but keep an eye out for the city’s twice-a-year sale periods, running throughout January and July.
The first stop for shoppers should be the popular Rue Neuve, home to big-name boutiques and department stores as well as several malls. You can stroll to your heart’s delight, as it’s a pedestrian-only street.
In Ilot Sacre, shoppers should head for the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert (between Rue du Marche-aux-Herbes and Rue de l’Ecuyer), a grand neo-Renaissance gallery filled with jewelry stores, upscale cafes, chocolatiers, clothing boutiques and bookstores.
The city’s finest antique stores can be found in the neighborhood surrounding Place du Grand Sablon — and if you’re in town on a weekend, don’t miss the antique market held on the square in front of Notre Dame du Sablon for unique and reasonably priced finds.
If you’re looking to take home a little piece of Belgian haute couture, head for Avenue Louise, a major shopping artery packed with high-end department stores and chic boutiques such as Cartier and Louis Vuitton.
Flea market fans shouldn’t miss the fun at the Vieux Marche, held daily until 1 p.m. on Place du Jeu de Balle. The 500 stalls offer a little bit of everything, including clothes, furniture, decorative items, paintings and postcards.
–written by Sarah Schlichter, updated by Dori Saltzman