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Things to Do in Brussels

Brussels, the official capital of Belgium and unofficial capital of Europe, stands out as the meeting point of Germanic and Romance cultures, boasting cross-cultural and modern charm. The duel official languages of French and Dutch give every street and place two names, and English is also widely spoken, thanks to the European Parliament and other organizations stationed here that make it an international political center. The ornate guildhalls lining the classic Grand Place stand as city centerpiece and showcase, but the Atomium also warrants a visit, a bizarre building of steel spheres created for the 1958 World's Fair that now functions as a museum featuring a prize view over the city. With Belgium seemingly locked in a confectionery competition with the Swiss, a Brussels chocolate tour delivers insight into how the industry grew here and, of course, involves plenty of samples. Visitors can continue tasting their way through town well into the evening with a beer tour, where the rich monastic heritage of Belgian beer bubbles up from the glass. Beyond the capital, Ghent and Bruges make for easy day trips, both charming towns packed with medieval architecture within just over an hour’s drive. The city's central location also makes it easy to go further out for trips to the Flemish countryside and historic battlefields, or into neighboring Luxembourg or Amsterdam (each just over two hours away).
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Grand-Place (Grote Markt)
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Europe’s most picturesque square, Grand-Place is surrounded by baroque and gothic guildhalls and the stunning 315 foot (96 meter) Brussels Town Hall. The stunning buildings in this UNESCO World Heritage site date mainly from the late 17th century. Grand Place is also known in Dutch as Grote Markt as it was the large central market in Brussels. The surrounding streets still bear the names of the stalls that lined the street: Rue des Bouchers (butchers) and Peperstraat (pepper merchants). Every second year, in August, the square is filled with an enormous flower carpet. A million begonias are used to create a stunning pattern. Concerts and music recitals are held here throughout the year. The size and beauty of the square amazes everyone when they first turn a corner to find it unexpectedly in front of them. After the initial shock sit down at a table outside one of the many cafés or chocolatiers and find out why Belgium is justly famous for its beer and chocolate.
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Mini-Europe
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If you’ve only got a few days in Brussels, make a speedy tour of the major sights of the countries in the European Union at Mini-Europe – all in miniature. Among the 350 detailed models exhibited here, the architectural highlights featured include the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the canals of Venice and the Acropolis; they’re all there in carefully replicated models scaled down to 1.25.

The park offers an entertaining way for kids to learn more about the countries of the EU and significant moments from their history. Interactive displays at each model light up various elements of the buildings, trains chuff around tracks, bells chime and national anthems play. Vesuvius erupts, the Berlin Wall comes down and matadors fight the bulls in Spanish bull rings.

As the EU expands, so new models arrive at Mini-Europe. The latest arrivals in 2013 were St Mark’s Church from Zagreb, Croatia, and a diorama celebrating the succession of King Philippe to the Belgian throne in July.

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Atomium
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This alien-looking and vast silvery sculpture near the Bruparck was created in 1958 for the Expo 58 and represents a iron molecule magnified 165 billion times. A mesh of nine corridors leading to nine giant spheres, it was destined to be demolished after the exhibition but proved such a hit with the Bruxellois that it was reprieved and has become a national icon.

Reaching up to 335 feet (102 m) the Atomium underwent a much-needed and rigorous facelift in the early 2000s; the spheres were originally made of an aluminum skin but this has been replaced by stainless steel. An elevator shoots up the central column to the five spheres that are currently open to the public; three provide a permanent record of Expo 58 and two host temporary interactive art and science displays.

The highest sphere stands at 300 feet (92 m) above the ground and now has a glass roof, allowing 360° views across the Heysel Plain towards Brussels.

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Hard Rock Cafe Brussels
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Blending the classic atmosphere of an American diner with the devil–may–care edge of rock ‘n’ roll, the Hard Rock Café is much more than just a café – it’s an international institution, and it was only a matter of time before the legendary restaurant made its way on to Belgian soil. Opening its doors in 2012, the Hard Rock Café Brussels has been enticing locals to swap their French fries and Belgian waffles for some all-American soul food ever since and there are few more atmospheric spots to tuck into a burger. Taking over a restored 16th-century building in the heart of the capital, fans of the Hard Rock Café will find all their favorites on the Brussels’ menu, from Bar-B-Que Ribs to Wildberry Smoothies, but of course, the Hard Rock Café has always been about more than just the food.

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Royal Galleries of Saint Hubert (Les Galeries St-Hubert)
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The Royal Saint Hubert Galleries are a series of shops and restaurants in Brussels that are covered by panes of glass. They were designed by the architect Jean-Pierre Cluysenaer in 1847 and are often referred to as the umbrella of Brussels. The galleries are divided into three different sections: the Galerie de la Reine, the Galerie du Roi and the Galerie des Princes. The glass roof helps protect visitors from rain or cold weather. In the past, visitors had to pay 25 cents on Thursdays and Sundays and 10 cents on other days just to access the galleries. Of course today it is free to visit, and over 6 million people visit each year.

The galleries have something for everyone. There are boutiques selling the latest fashions as well as more classic clothing. Accessories shops sell gloves, hats, umbrellas and more. Several jewelry stores are located here along with book stores, chocolate shops, and other specialty shops.

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Grand Sablon Square (Place du Grand Sablon)
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Sablon is a smart little quartier and one of the most charming in Brussels; it is an intricate maze of cobbled streets set around two delightful squares, and was once home to the aristocrats of Brussels. The whole area is packed with stylish restaurants, slick galleries and hip cafés; the bar terraces of the lovely Place du Grand Sablon in particular provide the perfect spot in which to enjoy a glass of Belgian beer after a day’s sightseeing.

This arcaded square is one of the most exclusive in Brussels and is lined with 15th- and 16th-century townhouses showcasing high-end antiques stores, organic delis and expensive restaurants. It’s hard to imagine that a weekly horse market was once held in Place du Grand Sablon and these days it’s better known for the weekend book and antique markets held under cheery red-and-green striped awnings.

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Manneken Pis
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The Manneken Pis, a bronze fountain statue by Jerome Duquesnoy, dates from 1619 when it replaced a stone statue from the 1400s. The residents of Brussels have embraced this diminuitive statue of a small boy urinating into a fountain as a symbol of their irreverence. There are many stories behind the Manneken Pis with most either referring to a young boy urinating on a fire/explosive device thus saving the city from destruction by invading armies or the lost son of a nobleman who was later found urinating in a fountain. The well-loved statue has over 800 costumes and will often wear the national dress of visiting dignitaries. You might otherwise see him dressed in football colors or as a plumber or even Elvis. His costume is changed around 30 times a year. These occasions are marked with brass-band music and an unveiling of the newly kitted-out statue. Sometimes Manneken Pis produces beer to celebrate with the people of Brussels.
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Brussels City Museum (Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles)
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Behind the facade of a dark, grey Neogothic structure lays a collection of artifacts that tell the story of the city of Brussels. This intricate building is known as the Maison du Roi ("King's House”) and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The structure is also known as Broodhuis (bread market), a nod to its use as such in the 13th century.

From its early development to medieval era to present day, learn about the city’s history through its tapestries, paintings, sculptures, and photographs. Altarpieces, porcelain and silverware round out the collection of historical objects on display. Exhibits cover everything from urban development to the social, political, and cultural life of the capital. Envision the past with 3D models to scale of the city in different time periods. Of particular note is the costume collection of the statue of Manneken-Pis, an emblem of Brussels said to have nearly 800 wardrobe choices.

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Autoworld
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Autoworld houses over 250 incredible vehicles of various origins and covers the history of the automobile while demonstrating the evolution and development of cars over more than a century. The displays include automobiles that are basically horse drawn carriages from the time when the horse was replaced with a steering wheel and an engine. There are exclusive sports cars from the 1960s and a Bugatti from 1928. The museum even has motorcycles and exhibits about the development of the garage. A separate room houses horse carriages, including one used by Napoleon the Third's wedding in 1853.

The cars on display here are all of European or US origin. They are arranged in chronological order so visitors can start from the origins of the automobile and work their way through the different developments throughout history. There is also an evolutionary time line of cars from the late 1800s to the 2000s including a blank spot for the future.

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More Things to Do in Brussels

Magritte Museum (Musée Magritte)

Magritte Museum (Musée Magritte)

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Belgium’s most loved surrealist, René Magritte, now has the 26,000 square foot (2,400 square meter) Musée Magritte dedicated to his works. In 1926 Magritte was a founding member of the Belgian Surrealists group. His works play with contrasts intended to shake the intellect.

The museum opened in 2009 and houses over 250 artworks and archival pieces. His trademark motifs of bowler hats, birds and the female torso appear in many favorite works including Sky Bird and Empire of Light.

An afternoon at the museum gives an interesting insight into Brussels from the 1920s to the 1960s and the cultural movements that shaped the city. Magritte's paintings are said to have influenced the ‘pop’ artists including Andy Warhol and later Jasper Johns.

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Brussels Royal Palace (Palais Royal de Bruxelles)

Brussels Royal Palace (Palais Royal de Bruxelles)

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Although the Royal family no longer call the Royal Palace (or Palais Royal Bruxelles) home, it is where the King and Queen still have their offices and the King carries out his duties as the head of state. The building also houses state rooms where large receptions are held and also living quarters for visiting dignitaries. The Palace was built in 1775 on the site of the former Coudenberg Palace which was built in the 11th and 12th centuries, but burnt to the ground in 1731. The Palace is at the southern end of the Parc de Bruxelles, at the northern end is the Palace of the Nation which houses the Belgian Parliament. Between them they are said to reflect Belgium’s constitutional monarchy. Over summer the Palace is open to the public. On show are fantastic State Rooms like the Goya Room with its Goya inspired tapestries, the imposing Throne Room with bas-reliefs by Rodin and the well-preserved 18th century Large White Room.
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European Parliament

European Parliament

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Brussels is the administrative heart of the European Union and the Espace Léopold buildings are where parliament meets throughout the year to debate and discuss the future of Europe. The main building of the European Union Parliament complex is the Paul-Henri Spaak building, an impressive glass structure with a distinctive arched roof, it’s been nicknamed "Caprice des Dieux" (whim of the gods) after a similarly shaped French cheese.

The hemicycle is where parliament debates; it seats the 736 Members of the parliament, numerous translators and a gallery for the general public. The semicircular shape is designed to encourage consensus among the political parties.

There are a number of interesting works of art on public view including May Claerhout’s sculpture Europa, which has become a favorite among tourists.

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Palace of Justice (Palais de Justice)

Palace of Justice (Palais de Justice)

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The Palace of Justice is believed to be the largest building constructed in the 19th century. It’s covers 260,000 square feet (24,000 square meters) and dominates the Sablon area. It was built on an area known as Gallows Hill overlooking the working-class parts of the city. Around 3,000 houses were demolished to make way for the building that is larger than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This angered locals and the word "architect" became a derogatory term.

The style of the imposing grey building is described as Assyro-Babylonian. It’s dominated by columns and a large glittering golden dome. The courts were commissioned by Leopold II and designed by Joseph Poelaert, and ended up costing 45 million Belgian francs to build.

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Sablon District

Sablon District

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The Sablon District is a neighborhood in Brussels that was once home to the city's elite. In the 15th century, the Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon was rebuilt, and it later became the site of royal baptisms. The district began to expand during this time, and more nobles began to call it their home. Soon it was the richest part of the city. In the 19th century, the area was transformed when Rue de la Régence split the Sablon District into two sections. At the beginning of the 20th century, the district began to decline, but in recent years it has become hip again.

Today you can stroll through the cobbled streets of the Sablon District and soak up a little history. Antique and art lovers can enjoy the galleries during the week and find treasures at antique markets on the weekends. The district has also become the perfect place to find Belgian chocolates from names like Godiva, Wittamer, Pierre Marcolini and more.

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Cinquantenaire Park (Parc du Cinquantenaire)

Cinquantenaire Park (Parc du Cinquantenaire)

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A large public park, the Cinquantenaire Park (or "Parc du Cinquantenaire" as it is known in French) is dominated by buildings built for the 1880 National Exhibition which also celebrated fifty years of Belgian independence. The centerpiece of the park is a triumphal arch finished in 1905.

To the north of the arch is the Royal Military Museum. To the south are the Royal Museums for Art and History (these hold artifacts gathered from around the world), and AutoWorld, a vintage car museum with over 350 classic cars, one of the largest collections in Europe.

If you’re looking for an impressive place to lie under a tree the Cinquantenaire Park is especially lovely in the summer when it’s filled with locals making the most of the sunshine. Also in summer the area surrounding the arch is turned into a drive-in cinema. There’s discounted tickets for people driving vintage cars and a lawn reserved for people on bicycle or foot.

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Museums of the Far East

Museums of the Far East

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King Leopold II wanted famous structures from around the world represented on his royal estate at Laeken, and architect Alexandre Marcel undertook the project with these two towers representing Japan and China. It is said that King Leopold was inspired by his visit to the 1900 Exhibition in Paris. The towers were completed in 1904, built entirely of wood, and connected by tunnel. The woodwork was completed by specialists from Shanghai and Yokohama, and on display are both Chinese and Japanese arts and artifacts dating back to the 17th century.

The area around both structures is surrounded by a lush garden, fit for picnics. The distinct cultural styles of both the Chinese pavilion and the Japanese pagoda makes them stand out amongst the rest of the city’s architecture. Standing tall in red and with adjacent wooden pavilions, the towers are unique parts of Brussels that are not to be missed.

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Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

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Brussels has several top-class museums and the Royal Fine Arts Museum is foremost among them. The four main galleries are adjacent to each other in the place Royale; these comprise the Musée Old Masters, Musée Modern and the Musée Fin-de-Siècle, connected underground to the Musée Magritte.

The revamped, spacious galleries show off Belgian art from the 14th-century Flemish Primitives to the 20th-century Surrealists. Star turns in the Old Masters include Hans Memling, Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Brueghel the Elder and Lucas Cranach. Next door, the modern art galleries are currently being re-organized, so a tiny percentage of collection’s treasures – such as Van Gogh or Delvaux – are on revolving display. Musée Magritte opened in 2009 and holds the world’s biggest collection of more than 200 works by the Belgian surrealist master René Magritte, including his seminal The Dominion of Light as well as sculptures, sketches, photos and musical scores.

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Horta Museum

Horta Museum

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The Horta Museum in Brussels, Belgium was once the home of the architect Victor Horta. Horta is considered the father of the Art Nouveau style of architecture, and his house is a fantastic example of this style. He built the house for his own use and lived there from 1901 to 1919. The interior designs are original, including the mosaics, stained glass windows, furniture, and wall paintings. The museum also has a collection of furniture designed by Victor Horta as well as old photographs, scale models of some of his other buildings, casts and plans explaining his work.

The museum consists of two buildings, Horta's house and his studio. He favored warm woods and wrought iron, and a tour through his home will reveal many interesting characteristics. Look for the shapes inspired by nature and art from Celtic and Asian cultures. Pay attention to the chairs, tables, lamps, door handles, banisters, and candelabras.

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Avenue Louise

Avenue Louise

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Walking down the tree-lined Avenue Louise is the best way to experience the city’s best in luxury and fashion. Belgian and international designer labels line the elegant thoroughfare, which runs adjacent to the Boulevard de Waterloo. Here you’ll find upscale clothing shops for both women and men, with smaller, more affordable boutiques interspersed.

The avenue was commissioned by King Leopold II in 1847 to provide more direct access to the city’s Bois de la Cambre area. Named for his daughter Princess Louise, it now serves as a main street in the heart of Brussels. Keep your eyes peeled for art deco townhouses, extravagant hotels, and small, manicured parks and gardens. The avenue is also home to some of the city’s tallest office buildings. Or go for a leisurely stroll along the avenue’s 2.7 kilometers and be content with window shopping and people watching.

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Belgian Comic Strip Center

Belgian Comic Strip Center

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This exploration of comic strips as art is appropriately housed in an Art Nouveau building designed by Brussels’ most famous architect, Victor Horta. It traces the history of first comic strips through to the evolution of European comic books and present day pieces. The museum celebrates both the heroes and the creators of so many beloved comic strips. Many know of the Smurfs or the famous character Tintin of “The Adventures of Tintin,” and the center’s exhibit on imagination traces comic strip art from the development of Tintin in Belgium in 1929 up to 1960. Comic strips in French, Dutch, and English as well as from genres ranging from politics to science fiction and children’s comics are all represented.

In addition to the permanent collections, visitors have the option to delve into animation, a reading room, a research library, and a conservation facility.

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Brussels Town Hall (Hotel de Ville)

Brussels Town Hall (Hotel de Ville)

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Dominating the Gothic and Baroque mansions of Brussels’s glorious cobbled Grand-Place from the south side, the spectacular City Hall has a flamboyant Gothic façade and more restrained classical additions lying around a courtyard behind it.

Begun in 1402, this beloved local landmark was largely designed by Flemish architect Jacob van Thienen, but its distinctive lacy central belfry is the work of his compatriot Jan van Ruysbroeck and doubles the height of the façade, reaching up to 320 feet (97 m). It is adorned with a copper statue of St Michael – the patron saint of Brussels – killing a dragon; the belfry is useful to navigate by when lost in the charming tangle of streets of Brussels old city, especially when gloriously floodlit at night. The entire building is encrusted with 294 sculptures of saints and public figures, which were added by 91 different artists during the late 19th century.

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Coudenberg (Former Palace of Brussels)

Coudenberg (Former Palace of Brussels)

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Found at the southern end of the Parc de Bruxelles, Coudenberg marks the site of the original palace of the Belgian Royal Family, which was destroyed to make way for the present Palais Royal. In the 12th century a small, fortified castle stood on Coudenberg Hill, and this was gradually extended and reworked by successive monarchs until it reputedly became one of the most beautiful palaces in Europe and the main residence of King Charles V.

In 1731 this imposing palace was destroyed by fire but it was not until 40 years later that its ruins were pulled down and the site flattened in preparation for the building of today’s stately Palais Royal. The cellars and chapel of the original palace can now be viewed underground as they stretch far underneath the present-day Rue Royale. Once open to the elements, the forgotten medieval cobbled Rue Isabelle is now below the Place Royale.

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