Brussels, capital of Belgium and seat to the European Parliament is the heart of Europe both physically and politically. With an incredible 60 million people living within 300 km from the city, a few days in Brussels is an enticing prospect as there so many things to do in Brussels.
Attracted by world-famous destinations such as the UNESCO World Heritage Grand Place, the whimsical Manneken Pis or its traditions for chocolate and beer making is it any wonder that 3 million people choose to spend at least one day in Brussels every year?
Add the futuristic Atomium, a lustrous contrast to the grandeur of its medieval center, its amusing comic strip walking tour, and a hearty dish of moules frites and you have the recipe for a city to suit all the family. And then you should add a few days to your stay to do a few day trips from Brussels, for example to Bruges or Ghent.
If you only have a day or two in Brussels, a great way to see the top sights is the Hop on Hop off tour in combination with the Brussels Card. It not only gives you easy transportation between the sights, but also free entry to 41 museums and attractions in Brussels. Book your Brussels Card/Hop on Hop off ticket here>>
To help you decide on the best Brussels itinerary, here is our guide to the things to do in Brussels.
Top Things to Do in Brussels
The first attraction for any Brussels itinerary is a visit to the remarkable Grand Place. This UNESCO World Heritage site in the heart of Brussels is one of Europe’s most stunning squares.
Originally a 12th-century market place, visitors cannot fail to be impressed by the magnificent architecture lining the Grand Place. Reconstructed following 3 days of bombardment by the French army in 1695 the square’s splendid building includes examples of gothic, baroque, neoclassical and neogothic architecture.
Brussels Town Hall
The most impressive building in Grand Place is undoubtedly the 15th century Brussels Town Hall. The square’s only remaining medieval building is located on its western side. In addition to its imposing tower reaching almost 100 meters in height, the building’s impressive facade is adorned with sculpted decorations. Guided tours of the rich interior are also available.
On the opposite side of Grand Place lies the hugely impressive gothic revival styled King’s House. Known as Broodhuis (Bread House) in Dutch the building was rebuilt in 1873 by architect Victor Jamaer. The Kings House has been home to the Brussels City Museum since 1887.
Following the splendid Grand Place, it is just a short walk south to the junction of Rue du Chêne and Rue de l’Êtuvee. Here amongst the inevitable crowds, you’ll find the Manneken Pis, Brussels’ most well-loved symbol and landmark. Considering this is a 61 cm tall statue of a naked boy urinating gleefully into a fountain the extent of its beloved adoration is hugely impressive.
Manneken Pis is symbolic of the Belgian sense of humor and irreverence. Add in the hundreds of costumes he is dressed in each year to celebrate anniversaries and significant occasions and you have a statue visited by thousands of sightseers every day. You can find his image across Brussels on a magnitude of souvenirs. Seemingly such an item can not be from Brussels if it is not adorned by the Manneken Pis!
The origins of the little boy design are uncertain with several variations and legends told to tourists each year. From 2-year-old Duke Godfrey urinating on opposition troops from a tree in the 12th century to a boy called Little Julien in the 15th century urinating on a burning fuse of explosives at the city walls to a boy urinating on a fire to prevent the king’s castle burning down. What is known though is that the original fountain erected in 1618 designed by Jérôme Duquesnoy the Elder sits in the Brussels City Museum. The replica viewed by millions since its erection in 1965.
A 15-minute walk southwest of the Grand Place and Manneken Pis in the Royal Quarter lies the Royal Palace. Constructed in 1820 on the former site of the Palace of the Dukes of Brabant the Palace was modified in 1904 in the style of Louis XVI. Despite not being home to the Royal Family since 1831 the Palace remains the headquarters of the constitutional monarchy. Prominent guests, such as Heads of State, often stay there during their visit to Belgium’s capital city.
Each year from the 21st July, Belgium’s National Day, the Palace is open to visitors to tour its internal rooms. During the summer until early September visits are possible every day except Monday. For those visitors that have thought ahead, the adjacent Park of Brussels, a verdant oasis in the city, is ideal for a picnic or short stop.
Located 8 km north of the city center the Atomium, named after its design based on an iron crystal atoms magnifies 165 billion times is another of the city’s major landmarks. Accessible via the city metro system in around 40 minutes many visitors spending just a short time in Brussels will consider whether a visit here is worth the effort.
Yes, this futuristic style landmark does not boast the history and architectural elegance of the Grand Place and rest of Brussels center but it does retain an elegance and uniqueness to be admired. Designed and constructed for the Brussels World Fair in 1958 this 102-meter tall edifice doubles as exhibition space as well as dramatic sculpture.
Approaching the Atomium from Heysel metro station the Atomium looms over you like a visitor from another planet. Picture the giant machines from War of the Worlds and you have a sense of its stature. The design with its nine interconnected spheres no doubt splits opinion among the 600,000 annual visitors.
They cannot be in any doubt though that this gleaming marvel is unique with no close comparisons anywhere in the world. Part of the joy of a visit to the Atomium is to walk beneath and around its site to see the shape evolve and present interesting angles and geometric wonder.
Internally the Atomium houses permanent and temporary exhibits including one centered around its design and the 1958 world fair. Traversing the spheres and levels by escalator the light shows provide an added sensual attraction and experience. In the top sphere, there is also a bar and restaurant offering panoramic views over the surrounding area and the city of Brussels to the south.
The Atomium is open every day of the week between 10.00 and 18.00. Adult tickets cost €15.00 and children €8.00. Tickets combining visits to the Atomium together with the adjacent Mini Europe are also available for €27.50 and €21.10. Book your tickets here>>
Adjacent to the Atomium is Mini-Europe, a miniature park celebrating the most important landmarks from over 80 cities of the European Union. Here at a scale of 1:25 the Eiffel Tower is 13 meters high and Big Ben just 4 meters tall. Given the other treasures awaiting you on Brussels itinerary, we suggest a visit here should only be considered for those staying longer.
Comic Strip Walk
The attraction of any city break, no matter the length of your visit is the freedom to walk its streets at your own pace stumbling across sights low down in any guide book. To enhance the enjoyment of such a walking tour Brussels has an added experience to reflect its light-hearted nature and celebrate one of the country’s most famous sons.
Among its historic architecture and narrow streets above its restaurants, bars and chocolatiers you’ll find buildings brightly decorated with comic characters and cartoons. The most famous depicting Tintin, his dog Snowy, and friend Captain Haddock can be found on Rue de l’Étuve between the Grand Place and Mannekin Pis.
These many cartoons make for a hugely enjoyable treasure hunt style walking tour and fascinating activity for children of all ages. Brochures detailing the location of each cartoon mural are available for €2.50 from tourist centers and information desks across the city. You can also book a guided comic walking tour that tells you more about the history of the comics, the artists, and more. Book your ticket here>>
Whilst Brussels is not known as a major shopping destination visitors during their one day in Brussels should head to the beautiful Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. Designed by the architect Jean-Pierre Cluysenaer and completed in 1847 this parade of symmetrical arched shopfronts beneath an arched glass planed roof and delicate iron framework is a visual delight.
Its architectural splendor only enhancing the feeling of luxury and exclusivity of its boutique stores and cafés. Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert can found east of the Grand Place and is accessed via the Rue de la Montagne.
Without a doubt, the most popular souvenir visitors will take home from Brussels is Belgian chocolate. Manufactured here since the 17th-century chocolate is one of the country’s most important exports. As you walk the streets of Brussels it is inevitable that you will find yourself in more than one of its delightful chocolatiers.
Names such as Godiva, Neuhaus, and Leonidas appear on almost every street corner tempting customers with their free samples. The tackier yet still delicious offerings come in Manneken Pis designed tins adorned in the kits of a selection of the continent’s most successful football teams.
A great way to learn more about Belgian chocolate – and of course try some – is a Chocolate tour with visits to some of the best Chocolatiers in Brussels. Book your ticket here>> Or even better? How about a Chocolate Making Class?
All visitors spending one day in Brussels will at some juncture need to stop for refreshment and sustenance, even with the large number of free samples consumed. Belgium is as famous for its wide selection of beer as it is for its chocolate.
With over 180 breweries in the country, we recommend ordering a wooden tasting paddle allowing you the opportunity to sample as many as six different options, or even better, do a beer tasting tour. Frequently accompanied by a bowl of crisps or nuts these 14 cl servings are an excellent way to taste simple lagers, fruit beers, wheat, and Trappist beers.
Pick one of the numerous bars close to the Grand Place and you can even enjoy your paddle whilst sitting outside in the fresh air, admiring the historical architecture, and watching the world go by. Book your beer tasting tour here>>
Another popular Belgian dish ideal for a quick snack waffle kiosks almost outnumber chocolatiers in the center of Brussels. Their sweet enticing smell an unseen but unmistakable symbol of the city.
The Brussels version is larger and thicker than its Liège cousin but they share the same favored toppings of chocolate, whipped cream, and fruit-based sauces. Who can resist such a delight when they can be bought for as little as €1.50?
Potato fries may be named after its much larger neighbor but these worldwide favorites are originally from Belgium. Belgians pride themselves in their ‘frites’ stalls and Brussels is no different.
Long queues form at their numerous stalls displaying the ‘Brusselicious’ mark guaranteeing quality. Such establishments serve freshly cut chips fried in beef or horse fat served with homemade sauces. Often open until the early hours these fries make for a perfect post beer treat.
Should a simple snack of French fries not suffice you will be tempted by another of Brussels’ most favorite and widely ordered dishes. As you walk its streets the popularity of moules frites illustrated by both the number of restaurants and a variety of recipes on offer.
Traditionally served in a black mussel pot of 500 grams or 1 kilo and accompanied by the finest French fries moules frites makes the perfect culinary celebration of your trip to Brussels.
Getting to Brussels
With its close proximity to some of Europe’s major cities and populous countries, Brussels is easily accessible to millions.
Brussels boasts 3 main train stations – Brussels Nord, Brussels Midi, and Brussels Centrale. Whilst all three lie on the same line the busiest is Brussels Midi, home to Eurostar trains to France and the UK as well as intercity trains across Europe.
Located just a mile south of Grand Place Brussels Midi is just a 20-minute walk or 10-minute taxi to the city’s center. London can be reached in a little over 2 hours, Amsterdam 3 hours, Cologne 3 1/2 hours and Paris just 1 1/2 hours.
Whilst arriving by car will be an attractive option since 1st January 2018 Brussels and its surrounding region have been designated a Low Emission Zone (LEZ). In addition, foreign-registered vehicles must register online prior to entering. For these reasons and for ease of access visitors should strongly consider utilizing one of the many park and ride car park areas on the outskirts of Brussels.
As you can see, Brussels is definitely worth a trip. I hope you enjoyed my recommendations for the best things to do in Brussels.
This article was written by Paul Rought. Paul was born and raised in Solihull, just outside Birmingham in the center of England. After university, he moved to London in the mid-1990s to become a Chartered Surveyor and has lived there ever since.
Paul’s initial travel experiences were family holidays to the Mediterranean although a school cruise to Greece, Egypt, Turkey, and Israel was a childhood highlight. Concentrating on his move to London his next travel adventure wasn’t until 1999 and a backpacking trip to Thailand and Hong Kong. It was love at first sight. He was immediately enthralled by Hong Kong, the skyscrapers, the city buzz, the food, and the language. His love for Asia continues to this day although Japan has overtaken Hong Kong in his affections. Paul is definitely a city person and ideally would visit New York, Tokyo, Sydney, and London every year. Just don’t push him to pick a favorite!
He loves all things sport and still follows Birmingham City despite 40 years of mostly pain. On autumn and winter Sunday evenings you’ll find him somewhere in front of a TV with his favorite bottle of red enjoying NFL.