Brussels Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

Brussels has its own unique charm that can easily fill up a couple of days of any European tour. The mix of Walloon and Flemish culture, combined with a large immigrant population to liven things up makes for a distinctly colorful city with an interesting history.
Brussels Travel Guide
Table of Contents

The most sought after attraction to see in Brussels is Grand Place, a massive square with beautiful Baroque and Gothic architecture that is home to the magnificent Hotel De Ville, many cafes, restaurants and pubs. Close by is the equally famous Manneken Pis statue of a little boy taking a leak. The iconic Brussels symbol is loved by Belgians who dress it up in a variety of costumes to suit every occasion.

When in Brussels, you cannot afford to miss out on the elegant chocolate shops at the Place du Grand Sablon. Sablon is one of Brussels’ most attractive and prestigious shopping areas where you can find antiques and explore mini-art galleries. Sablon is also famous for its chocolates with world famous brands such as Godiva and Marcolini calling the district home.

Besides chocolate and beer, comics are another thing that Belgians are big on. Be sure to pay a visit to the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée, the famous Belgian Center for Comic Strip Art which houses some vivid, vibrant and beautiful comic strip culture showpieces that are truly a sight for sore eyes.

Brussels is home to a number of museums and art galleries, the most prominent being the Royal Museums of Fine Arts. Numbering six in total, the museums host some 20,000 paintings, drawings and sculptures in an exquisite collection of art spanning several centuries.

Brussels is also famous for its numerous Art Nouveau buildings that date to the early part of the last century. The best place to savor this architectural scene is by paying a visit to Musee Horta, the former home and studio of Victor Horta, one of the greatest Art Nouveau architects. His house museum is a classic of the Art Nouveau style and a must for every fan of architecture.

Next, wander around the Museum of Musical Instruments and discover a wonderful world of traditional and original instruments from all continents and periods in time. Learn about the harpsichord, bagpipes, the electric guitar and more inside the magnificent Art Nouveau building that houses an exhibit of thousands of musical instruments in a high-quality showcase that is certain to delight.

Be sure to also visit Palais Royal or the Royal Palace, an impressive spectacle with spacious gardens that add to its grandeur. Dating from the Middle Ages, the palace is an art and history lover’s paradise with interiors of elaborate luxury chambers and wall-to-wall fine art.

There’s plenty to see in Brussels from interesting comic strips to some of the best chocolate shops in the world. Within its beautiful Art Nouveau buildings and fine museums, Brussels has something for even the most discerning of travelers. A visit to the Belgian capital is bound to have you returning home with many great memories to share.

1. Grand Place

Known in Dutch as “Grote Markt”, Grand Place is one of Europe’s most beautiful squares. Situated west of Brussels Park, Grand Place boasts architecture from three different eras, namely the Baroque, Gothic and Louis XIV, whose influences have left their mark to give it an eclectic flavor.

Historically, Brussels’ Grand Place was a market place where traders and citizens sold and bought food. You will therefore notice that all the streets that surround the square are named after foods such as poulet – chicken, herbes – herbs, fromage – cheese and so on.

Grand Place is always full of people: tourists during the day and young people at night who sit on the stones in small circles chatting and drinking. Overlooking these groups is the glowing Gothic tower of Hotel de Ville or the Town Hall. Easily mistaken for a castle or church, Hotel de Ville serves as a great landmark because its tower can be seen from most corners of Brussels.

Hotel de Ville is one of the city’s iconic and most beautiful buildings which towers an impressive 96 meters over the south side of Grand Place square, and is topped by a statue of St. Michael slaying a demon. Visitors who feel energetic may climb the Gothic tower and enjoy amazing views of the city.

While Hotel de Ville may be the focal point of Grand Place, in truth, all buildings around the square – many of which were previously merchant guilds, feature designs and engravings that are beautifully detailed. Visitors can admire the grand old buildings that stand today in the place of the former market shelters, most of which were restored or rebuilt following France’s bombardment of Brussels in 1695.

Another building of interest is the Maison du Roi, which means “King’s House” in French, while the building’s lesser used Dutch name is Broodhuis which means “Bread House”. Maison du Roi houses the Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles or the Brussels city museum and its old maps, tapestries, paintings, architectural relics and 3D models displayed on three floors.

The museum was set up during the 19th century to document the history of the city. On the second floor, visitors can view all the models, plans and diagrams involved in the development and expansion of the city. On the third floor is a display of the costumes worn by Manneken Pis, the famous small bronze fountain statue of a peeing boy.

Located southwest of Hotel de Ville, Manneken Pis stands at a mere 61 centimeters or 24 inches. No one would call this art piece majestic – but that’s beside the point. The main draw of Manneken Pis is the fact that locals have numerous stories and ways of celebrating festivals with the little peeing boy that any visitor is bound to leave with a fondness for the bronze statue.

Many legends surround the statue, bringing it to life in the hearts and minds of those who see it. One story has it that a tourist lost his son in the city and after receiving assistance in finding the boy, gifted the statue to the villagers.

Another more daring tale talks of the boy as a spy during a siege of the city, who literally foiled a plot to bomb the city by urinating on the explosives. While such stories firmly secure the place of Manneken Pis in Brussels city-life, none compares to its present-day glory.

The people of Brussels do not simply admire the statue and show it off to tourists; the statue plays an integral role in the annual calendar of the city, and even has an outfit for each occasion. Its wardrobe ranges from Santa suits to national costumes of other countries.

On special occasions, brass bands play as the statue is hooked up to different flavors of Belgian beer which pours from its fountain tip and is given out to the public.

During the Eighties Jeanneke Pis, another statue was built to serve as a playmate to Manneken Pis. This second statue is a little girl fountain and is situated in an alleyway a short walking distance from Manneken Pis. Jeanneke Pis stands right opposite Delirium Café, across the street from the entrance of this famous Brussels bar.

In keeping with the theme, Zinneken Pis was also launched in the form of a statue of a dog peeing against a pole, which already has a cult following that rivals that of Manneken Pis.

Beer is legendary in Belgium and there are over 400 varieties of Belgian beer. Belgian love for beer is strong and because it forms a big part of their culture, sampling Belgian beer is a great way to immerse yourself into local life. Beer lovers will really be spoilt for choice in the bars and pubs around Grand Place where most locals go for a drink.

While most bars stock the popular brands, Delirium Café offers more than 2,000 different brands of beer from all around the world. Situated a short distance from Grand Place, Delirium is a beer lover’s paradise whose ceilings are covered in beer mats, walls lined with various types of pint glasses and the tables made out of old beer kegs. It will take you half an hour just to read the entire Delirium drinks’ list!

Be sure to try out the very popular Belgian fruit beers which are available in all sorts of flavors imaginable, including pomegranate, raspberry and peach.

If you’re lucky, your visit to Brussels may coincide with the famous flower carpet display at Grand Place. Every two years in August, an enormous “flower carpet” is set up in Grand Place in a massive display featuring a million colorful begonias arranged in patterns. The beautiful sight is truly worth seeing if you are in Belgium during this time.

2. Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée

Situated on Rue des Sables, Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée is the Belgian Comic Strip Center, a museum dedicated to exploration of the evolving art form of the comic strip.

For visitors, your adventure will begin with the comic creation process at the gallery of original comic strip artwork. On the next floor you can explore Belgian artists and their work inside the Museum of the Imaginary. Here visitors will be introduced to the story of Tintin and his creator Brussels-born Herge, as well as other Belgian artists such as Tillieux and de Moor.

On the top floor you will find the Museum of Modern Comics whose display will take you on a journey through the evolution of comics in Europe, spanning the years 1929 to 1960. Here you will see the beginning, when comic strips like Tintin and Spirou were created for children, and proceed to the present day when graphic novels are being produced for mature audiences.

New comics no longer follow the same rules as the cartoons, but instead touch on subjects such as sexuality, violence and politics, without censorship or any other form of hindrance. You will also find that unlike American comics which are typically thin and in black and white, European comics generally take on the form of hardcover books with a minimum of sixty pages which are usually in color.

Complete your experience with a tour of the museum shop which is dedicated to the sale of comic books, Japanese manga, t-shirts, figurines and posters. These make for great souvenir and gift ideas to take home with you. The museum also has a research library that houses over 60,000 comic books, as well as a restaurant.

Fans of architecture will also want to check out the museum building itself which was designed by Victor Horta in the Art Nouveau style. Known as the “Magasins Waucquez”, the building was previously a department store. As you walk in, take note of the support beams, staircase, gates, tiled floor and skylight which are all reminiscent of the early 1900s architectural style.

3. Les Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique

Les Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique or the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium are home to a prestigious collection of over 20,000 artworks. This collection traces the history of visual arts: drawing, painting and sculpture, from the 15th to the 21st century.

The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium are jewels among the cultural institutions of Belgium and comprise the following six museums: the Old Masters Museum, Modern Museum, Wiertz Museum, Meunier Museum, Magritte Museum and the new Fin-de-Siècle Museum.

At the Old Masters Museum, visitors can witness an outstanding collection of the rich and creative past of various European Old Masters, over a period spanning the 15th to the 18th centuries. Here you can find exceptional paintings by the Flemish Primitives, and many artists from the flowering periods of Baroque and Flemish Renaissance including Gauguin, Rubens and Bosch.

At the Modern Museum, lay your eyes on a collection of contemporary and modern artworks dating back from the 18th century to the present day. The museum also regularly hosts thematic selections of rich artworks, in addition to its permanent collection. The glorious collection of this museum is housed within the Vanderborght buildings, close to Grand Place.

Fin De Siècle Museum will especially please fans of art history. This museum is dedicated to the 1900s when Brussels as the European capital, served as a unique artistic crossroads, as well as the Art Nouveau capital of the world. A sanctuary for cultural history, the museum hosts drawings, paintings, sculptures, watercolors, models, prints, films, photographs and other decorative objets d’art.

Magritte Museum is an essential cultural center within the heart of Brussels. The museum offers a great collection of works by Rene Magritte, the Belgian Surrealist artist, and one of the most famous artists in the world. The collection features more than 200 works that make up the largest in the whole world. The museum is also the international reference center for this multidisciplinary artist’s works.

Probably the most famous Belgian artist, Magritte’s paintings depict everyday objects such as men in bowler hats, apples, stones, umbrellas and pipes in juxtapositions and odd arrangements. His paintings range from the wonderful to the weird, displayed in chronological order to provide an overview of the life of the artist and enable the visitor to watch the progression of his work over the years.

Meunier Museum is the studio and home of sculptor and painter Constantin Meunier. Located in Ixelles, the museum is home to 150 monumental and bronze works of all sizes. Meunier’s creations were inspired by the social, political and industrial developments of the late 19th century Belgium, and offer realistic views of the world of industry and work during his day.

At Wiertz Museum, visitors can immerse themselves in the unique world of writer, sculptor and painter Antoine Wiertz. One of the most controversial Belgian Romantic artists, Wiertz was a visionary who had his impressive studio built at the expense of the Belgian state in 1850. Here you can admire Wiertz’s monumental paintings inspired by great Old Masters such as Michelangelo, Raphael and Rubens.

4. Place du Grand Sablon

When chocoholics visit Brussels, they may be tempted to run into the many shops surrounding Grand Place to find their chocolate ‘holy grail’. While Grand Place is popular with tourists and therefore a strategic location for many well known chocolate brands such as Godiva, make no mistake: the crown jewels of Belgian chocolate are to be found elsewhere.

Situated within the district of Sablon in the heart of Brussels, Place du Grand Sablon is the haven for chocolate lovers the world over. Chocolatiers spare no expense in achieving their goals at Place du Grand Sablon. In terms of elegance, creativity and refinement, their boutiques are matched only by the jewelry shops of Paris. In fact, these are not just shops, but sanctuaries of chocolate.

The magic at Place du Grand Sablon begins from the mouthwatering window displays. Once inside, you will need a very strong will not to buy each and every single box of chocolate you find. This is because each chocolate is a piece of artwork, beautifully presented in glass cases.

The chocolatiers at Place du Grand Sablon are happy for visitors to simply window shop, and normally offer free samples to try such that you won’t have to spend a pretty penny just to get your chocolate fix. Strolling through the glistening Sablon neighborhood today with its chic chocolatiers and numerous antique galleries, you will find it hard to believe that the site was originally a vast sandy marsh.

During the Middle Ages, the square was a desert plain used in the 13th century as an open-air dryer for wool. In fact, the area derives its name “Sablon” which means “fine sand” from the presence of sandpits and swamps now long gone. Until the 1960s, the area was known as the “bad boys” district, after having gained a bad reputation.

Today, the tiny district of Sablon is one of the most charming in Brussels. Its intricate maze of cobbled streets is set around two delightful squares that were once the home to the aristocrats of Brussels. The arcaded square is one of Brussels’ most exclusive and is lined with 15th and 16th century townhouses that showcase high-end antique stores, organic delis, slick galleries, bar terraces and stylish restaurants.

The open space of Place du Grand Sablon stands surrounded by period houses, whose wrought iron balconies are adorned with colorful flowers. An ideal place to have a walk, the area is also a fashionable spot for end of day aperitifs. Once done browsing the antique shops and salivating at all the mouth-watering chocolates, sit down in one of the many hip cafes for some hot chocolate.

There’s an antique market held every Saturday and Sunday morning at Place du Grand Sablon, which is a major event for antiques and art lovers. Although traditionally referred to as the “district of antiquarians”, Sablon has not been under their hegemony for decades. Over time, the area has become the lair of chocolatiers such that it is today referred to as the “Place Vendome de Chocolate”.

Wittamer was the very first chocolatier to open shop here in 1910. Slowly, other renowned brands from Belgium also decided to settle here including Godiva, Marcolini, Leonidas and Neuhaus. There are also foreign brands at Place du Grand Sablon, such as Patrick Roger, the French chocolatier.

5. Atomium

Situated in Heysel north of the city center, Atomium was created in 1958 for the Brussels World Fair. The only structure left standing after the fair, Atomium enables visitors to experience a giant molecule model that rises up into the Belgian sky. If you tilt your head sideways, you will notice that the structure resembles a cube with an extra sphere at its center.

Atomium was designed as a replica of a single unit of iron crystal blown up 165 billion times. Today it stands at 102 meters, with each sphere measuring 18 meters in diameter, which is roughly the size of a large apartment. Altogether, there are 9 spheres connected by tubes and wrapped in stainless steel.

The top sphere houses a restaurant that offers panoramic views of the city. Visitors can access the restaurant via an elevated located at the bottom of the structure. The other 4 spheres that are open to the public are only accessible via escalator. Of the upper spheres, 3 are reserved for events, including a kid’s sphere which hosts school events.

6. Mini-Europe

Located within the Brupark entertainment park, close to Atomium, Mini Europe is home to approximately 350 monuments from across Europe. Opened in 1989, the Mini Europe park measures 24,000 square kilometers and is filled with 1:25 scaled models that resemble the actual monuments, buildings and sites of famous European cities surprisingly well.

Mini Europe was commissioned by the Belgian government and makes for a great day trip. Walk past Manneken Pis one second and come face to face with Mount Vesuvius the next. If you are unable to go on an 80 cities tour during your trip in Europe, within about four hours you can still see the European highlights without having to get on another plane.

Some models feature moving parts such as the Thalys Train, which goes past the historical monuments, rivers and streams of Mini Europe. Because the entire site is situated outdoors, all the miniatures have been built to withstand rain, sunshine, hail and snow. It is definitely worth taking your camera with you to take pictures of some of the miniatures, which are actually quite big.

While it could never replace the real experience of visiting historical European sites, Mini Europe has got them all in a single location and enables you to make size comparisons, as well as obtain some quick education on each building, while admiring the varying architectural styles of cities in Europe.

7. Musée des Instruments de Musique

Musée des Instruments de Musique or the Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels is dedicated to the celebration of music-making, with its collection of thousands of instruments from around the world. The museum was originally established in 1877 as part of the Brussels Royal Music Conservatory, and intended as a place for students to study traditional instruments.

Situated on Rue Montagne de la Cour 2, the museum occupies the Art Nouveau building of the Old England stores. The building is a stunning amalgamation of glass and steel whose beautiful exteriors are complemented by the beauty of what its interiors house.

The museum boasts one of the world’s largest collections of musical instruments, which is exhibited on 4 exhibition levels. Of the 7000 antique and contemporary instruments that make up the entire collection, 1200 are displayed in a stage that blends visual and acoustic aspects, while integrating technological tools such as sound spaces and interactive terminals.

In one section of the museum, visitors can explore a diversity of instruments throughout history, from antiquity to the present day. In another section, you can check out displays of popular Belgian instruments, as well as some from other places in Europe and other continents.

Another section of the museum has its focus on keyboards and string instruments. Here you can learn about the piano, violin, harp and more. There is also a section for electrical, electronic and mechanical instruments, as well as bells and clocks. The star in this section is the componium, a 19th century orchestrion that can automatically compose an infinite variety of music.

Many of the exhibits are designed to enable visitors to hear exactly what the instruments sound like. All you have to do is stand on numbered spots on the floor and the music will be transmitted to your headphones using wireless technology. As you approach a particular exhibit, your audio-guide will begin to play music of the instrument you are looking at.

In this way, rather than just looking at the exhibits, you actually get to experience them. This is a wonderfully interactive approach to learning, so take your time and discover the sound of each instrument on display at your own pace as you appreciate these musical breaks along your tour.

The museum often holds temporary exhibitions that focus on various musical topics, instruments and their inventors. All exhibitions are supported by text panels, images and a sound system. There is also a library, shop, workshop and concert hall, while the roof houses a restaurant with terrace that offers refined cuisines and splendid views of the city – in fact one of the best in the city.

8. Cathedrale St-Michel et Ste-Gudule

Cathedrale St-Michel et Ste-Gudule is an impressive cathedral situated on the Treurenberg Hill in Brussels. This Roman Catholic Church is the national church of Belgium, and the venue at which royal weddings and funerals take place. The patron saints of the church: Archangel St. Michael and the martyr St. Gudula are also the patron saints of the city of Brussels.

Described by Victor Hugo as the “purest flowering of the Gothic style”, the cathedral is truly a Gothic marvel. Once inside, you will understand why. While the interior is not as decorated as one might expect of a Gothic cathedral, its simplicity of décor enables you to truly appreciate the beauty of the Gothic architecture.

A chapel dedicated to St. Michael was built on the site of the present-day cathedral as early as the 9th century, but was replaced by a Romanesque church during the 11th century. The modern cathedral got its name in 1047 when the relics of Saint Gudula were transported to the church from Saint Gaugericus church. It was during the 13th century when the cathedral was renovated that it received its Gothic style.

At the Cathedrale St-Michel et Ste-Gudule, you can feast your eyes on a blend of architectural styles including Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance, achieved over the 300 year period during which the church was built. As you step inside the marvelous structure, the visitor’s attention is immediately drawn to the stunning arches and columns of the building.

Above the West Front, you can admire the impressive judgment window donated in the 15th century by Emperor Charles V. The brightness of the colors in these glasses is bound to amaze. Next, move to the end of the cathedral where you will find the beautiful 18th century Baroque Pulpit beautifully sculptured in wood.

9. Musée Horta

Situated on Rue Americaine 25 in Saint-Gilles, Musée Horta or Horta Museum is devoted to the design style of renowned Belgian architect Victor Horta. Horta is regarded as the “father” of the Art Nouveau architectural style which emerged at the turn of the 19th century.

The Art Nouveau style incorporates architecture with interior design, drawing inspiration from nature and the present. This style remained popular until the mid Fifties during which time it gained a following of architects who studied with Horta.

In 1963, Horta’s home was purchased by the district of Saint Gilles, which then transformed it into the Horta Museum to showcase the Art Nouveau style in the best possible way and exactly how it was intended: as art both in the building and in the furniture. The museum comprises two buildings – Horta’s studio and his house of residence.

On the first floor are the reception, dining room, music room and living room. On the second floor is the private apartment of Mr. and Mrs. Horta and on the floor above is Simone Horta’s room, a guest room, and servants’ quarters on the top floor. Downstairs is the basement which houses some miniature models of Horta’s buildings.

The main highlight of this museum is the absolutely stunning stairwell which you have to see to believe. That said, the entire house in all its lavish grandeur is certain to impress.

As soon as you enter the building, the browns and warm yellows of American ash and mahogany will invite you in. Take note of the stained-glass skylight at the top level which was designed to let in natural light into the house and give a natural glow to the entire stairwell.

Horta favored warm woods, as well as painted steel and copper, which he had his craftsmen weave into knots, twists and whiplashes that are difficult to imagine without seeing them for yourself.

Pay close attention to the curvilinear shapes present in each design which were inspired by nature and art from oriental and Celtic cultures. This motif is present in the detailing of the chairs, tables, lamps, door handles, vase holders, cardboards, banisters and candelabras.

After the tour, visitors can also visit the shop at the museum entrance which sells old postcards, books and posters on Art Nouveau, to find some souvenirs and gift items to take back with you.

10. Palais Royal

Palais Royal or the Royal Palace is one of the most beautiful official buildings in Brussels. Standing opposite the Parliament building, on the other side of Royal Park, the palace is a symbol of the Belgian system of government, that is, the constitutional monarchy.

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It is at the Palace that His Majesty the King exercises his powers as Head of State, granting audiences and dealing with state affairs. In addition to housing the offices of the Belgian King and Queen, the palace also hosts the services of various departments of the government. Large receptions are held in the palace State Rooms, while the Apartments host foreign Heads of State on official visits.

The Royal Palace of Belgium is also home to four contemporary works of art that visitors can admire. “Heaven of Delight” comprises the ceiling and the central chandelier within the Mirror Room which are covered with the wing cases of 1.4 million Thai jewel beetles that reflect light with a curiously vibrant energy.

The hall leading to the King’s Office holds seven paintings by Marthe Wery in a monochrome series. The works are sources of clarity and purity that also reflect light from the outdoors.

The rooms around the Grand Staircase have on display two life-size portraits of King Albert II and Queen Paola. Exuding the stateliness of previous times, the portraits have the gardens of Brussels and Laken in the background. Four other photographs show details of the Royal Palace drawing rooms.

The Empire Room contains the “Royal Palace Flowers” by Patrick Corillon. This artwork features eleven golden pots on display which are filled with flowers whose stalks each tell the story of the earth in which they are planted, in all the languages of the world.

Since 1965, it has been a tradition that the Royal Palace in Brussels be open to the public each year. Visitors who wish to admire the prestigious history-laden state rooms should visit during the summer, after the 21st July National Holiday, until the beginning of September.

During this tour, visitors can take in the majestic Grand Staircase with its imposing proportions. Its pale walls, stone columns, white and green marble, gilding, mirrors, picture windows and marble Minerva, all of which contribute to the staircase’s overall impression of harmony.

The Goya Room derives its name from the tapestries found there which were woven in Madrid from drawings by Goya. The tapestries: Blind Man’s Bluff and The Dance were presented by Queen Isabella of Spain to Belgium’s King Leopold I.

The Small White Room was a wedding present from the King of France, Louis-Philippe to his daughter Louise-Marie and King Leopold I. The room is decorated with portraits of the queen and her parents. Visitors to the Small White Room can also take a peek at the magnificent Empire chairs.

The Vase Room was built during the reign of King William I of the Netherlands to serve as an audience room for the Queen. Its current décor dates from the Thirties after the room was restored. The room derives its name from a vase made in the 19th century by a porcelain manufacturer. There is also a painting depicting the reception of King Leopold I when he took his oath of office.

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