Brussels is a city full of character, history, and architectural charm. It’s the de facto home to the European Union, making it a capital of not only Belgium but also Europe. And it’s easy to see why this buzzing city holds such importance. From the gilded facades of the buildings lining Grand Place to the museum halls filled with art and culture, there is plenty to see and do when visiting Brussels. Just ask the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Rene Magritte.
While there is plenty to do in Brussels to fill an itinerary, I didn’t feel it was necessary to spend more than a day in this capital. If you’re traveling for as little as a weekend, I recommend splitting your time between Brussels and Bruges, Belgium’s medieval city to the north. With that said, it’s possible to pack plenty of sightseeing into twenty-four hours, so here’s my tips for spending one day in Brussels!
A few tips for first-time visitors: the Euro is used for currency, locals speak a mix of French and Dutch (although most everyone speaks English), and you should prepare to eat a lot.
|| Stroll through the Grand Place
La Grand Place is the architectural gem of Brussels. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this plaza is considered to be one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. The square measures 68 x 110 m (223 x 361 ft), and the earliest references date back to the 12th century. It is lined with opulent Baroque guildhalls trimmed in gold – Victor Hugo once lived at number 16. On one side, the 15th century gothic Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) towers over the square, and opposite it, the Maison du Roi (King’s House) houses the City Museum. Every two years in mid-August, the square is famously covered in an elaborate carpet made of more than 500,000 begonias.
|| Grab a Belgian waffle for breakfast.
If you love nothing else about Brussels, you will love the food. It was a highlight of the city! I was excited to find few sprouts and plenty of Belgian chocolate, beer, frites and of course – waffles. The four main food groups, right?
Fun fact: there are actually different waffles that you can try. The Brussels waffle is much lighter and serves as a good base for loading on toppings like fresh fruit, chocolate, and ice cream. The Liège waffle is thicker and more cake like – the dough contains sugar that caramelizes the waffle. These are best enjoyed with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar or sauce!
Although chances are that you can’t go wrong finding a good waffle anywhere in this city, some of the more popular eats come from Maison Dandoy and Le Funambule. Peck 47 is a buzzy brunch spot famed for their savory waffles, like ones served with a hearty topping of poached eggs.
|| Shop for Belgian chocolate in Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert.
Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert is a stunning glass-roofed shopping arcade dating back to 1847. It stretches for 200 meters and is lined on each side with ornate window displays of boutiques, cafes and chocolatiers. Jean Neuhaus famously invented the praline in 1912, and you can purchase some at Neuhaus. Or perhaps pick up a box of truffles from Pierre Marcolini or Laurent Gerbaud. It certainly doesn’t come cheap, but I’ll admit it was the best chocolate I’ve ever had. A fun tip: I noticed that most chocolatiers offered samples when a new visitor walked through the door. Bounce between shops along the Galeries to get a hearty tasting!
|| Check out Mannekin Pis.
To be quite frank, this statue ranks up there with the Mona Lisa when it comes to most overhyped attractions. Manneken Pis literally translates to Little Boy Pee, and it is a small statue of, well, you get the picture. In what was one of the stranger moments on my travels, there was a full marching band performing in front of the fountain and a crowd of at least a hundred.
If nothing else, Manneken Pis is worth a walk-by due to the city’s strange fascination with it. Not to mention that with nearly 1,000 costumes, this statue has a larger closet than I’m sure any of us do. You can view a portion of them at the Garderobe Manneken Pis museum just up the street.
There are also two equally underwhelming matching statues located around the city, if you’re on a quest for the bizarre. Jeanneke Pis and Zinneke Pis feature a little girl and a dog also peeing in public. And that’s all I have to say about that.
|| Find the street art inspired by your favourite comics.
While exploring the city, be sure to keep an eye out for comic murals along the sides of the buildings. Did you know that Belgium has more comic strip artists per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world? Brussels pays homage to the many characters and authors that began there, like Tin-Tin. There are more than fifty murals to find through the city center and Laeken regions. Explore the full route on your own, or there are plenty of guided walking tours as well. You can also visit the Comic Arts Museum for more information.
|| Snack on some frites.
Belgium claims to be the home of what we’ve come to know and love as the ‘French fry’ – and you’ll find the best pommes frites of your life here. These friteries (French) or fritkots (Dutch) serve up cones filled with potato slices that have been fried and doused in your sauce of choice. Don’t worry, there’s plenty to choose from – while mayo is a classic, you can try Andalouse, pili-pili, brasil, samourai, pitta-pitta, and any other sauce that suits your taste!
|| Visit the Royal Palace of Brussels.
The Royal Palace of Brussels sits at the head of Brussels Park, across from the Palace of the Nation, home of the Belgian Federal Parliament. Together they symbolize a constitutional monarchy. The palace isn’t a royal residence, as the family lives at the Royal Palace of Laeken outside of the city. Instead, it is the King’s administrative residence and main workplace where he receives the representatives of political institutions and other guests. The architecture is reminiscent of the opulent buildings of Paris, and the façade of the palace is 50% longer than Buckingham. The Royal Palace opens its doors to the public free of charge every summer, from July to early September.
|| Visit one of the city’s many museums.
There are more than 100 museums in Brussels, and many of them offer free admission. The Brussels City Museum is located in the Maison du Roi building on the Grand Place. The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium hold a collection of 20,000 artworks and six museums that show Belgian history through art. It’s here you’ll find the Magritte Museum, featuring the surrealist works of Belgian painter Rene Magritte. You could say a visit here is a surreal experience.
There’s also the Musical Instruments Museum, the Museum of Belgian Brewers, the Belgian Chocolate Village, and plenty more to choose from. I recommend a visit to at least one! You can see a full list of museums here.
|| Take in the view from Mont des Arts.
Mont des Arts is a garden connecting the lower city to the upper aristocratic area of Brussels. Created in the early twentieth century, Mont des Arts offers one of the best views over the city. From here, you can catch a glimpse of the spire of City Hall and the dome of the Basilica of Koelkerberg beyond it.
|| Take a stroll through a park – and visit the Atomium and Cinquantenaire.
Brussels is full of beautiful parks and well-manicured gardens. In addition to Mont des Arts, take the time to explore some of the grounds surrounding the palaces and monuments. Petit Sablon square borders the Palais d’Egmont (home of the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs) on one said, with Egmont Park on another. Parc de Bruxelles is hard to miss, located adjacent to the Royal Palace. You’ll find the famous Atomium outside of the city center (built for the 1958 World’s Fair) in Osseghem Park and the Cinquantenaire in Jubelparc.
|| Explore Brussels’ Sablon neighborhood.
The Sablon (or Zavel in Dutch) is a historic neighbourhood in the upper town near Mont des Arts, lying between the Royal Palace and the Palace of Justice. It is divided by two main squares – Grand Sablon (Grote Zavel) and Petit Sablon (Kleine Savel) – separated by the Church of Our Lady of the Sablon (L’eglise Notre Dame du Sablon). This neighbourhood is refreshingly more local in its feel than the lower town. The streets are lined with boutiques, restaurants, cafes, and chocolatiers.
|| Visit the sites of the European Union.
If you’re interested in politics, be sure to explore some of the buildings home to the European Union. Brussels hosts seats of the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, the European Council, and the European Parliament, as well as the main offices of the members of parliament.
|| Visit one of the city’s many cathedrals.
The Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula (Cathédrale des Sts-Michel-et-Gudule) is the national church of Belgium and is a 12th century Gothic cathedral on Treurenberg Hill, between the lower and upper city. The Church of Notre-Dame de Bon Secours (L’église Notre–Dame de Bon Secours) is a stunning 17th century chapel near the city center and Chapel Church Brussels (L’église Notre-Dame de la Chapelle) is built in the Romanesque-Gothic styles, located near Grand Sablon. The Church of Our Lady of the Sablon (L’eglise Notre Dame du Sablon) borders the Grand and Petit Sablon squares.
|| Dine on some moules-frites.
Moules-frites, or mussels and fries, is the national dish of Belgium – you’ll find no shortage of restaurants boasting this as the highlight of their menu. To be honest, I skipped these as I don’t enjoy seafood – but I was given several recommendations for Chez Leon. This hot spot serves up moules-frites and is conveniently located near the Grand Place and Delirium Cafe!
|| Try one of 2,000 beers at Delirium Cafe.
Delirium Cafe is a sprawling bar famed for offering more than 2,400 types of beer. Be sure to stop by to taste some of Belgium’s greatest exports – there are nearly 180 breweries in Belgium! Delirium Tremens has been named the ‘best beer the in the world’ and you can’t argue that with titles. I opted to try the Delirium Red, a delicious brew infused with cherry. Or try one of the more unique ales, like a cookie beer. Delirium Cafe is only 100 meters away from the Grand Place, making it easy to find. And if you’re still on the hunt for those odd statues for some reason, you’ll find Jeanneke Pis hiding in this alley.
What is your favorite thing to do in Brussels?