Despite being the capital of Belgium, Brussels often loses out on international visitors, who tend to flock to other nearby capitals or places such as Bruges or Ghent instead. Maybe the European rumor that Belgium is terribly boring has reached shores outside of Europe? Where exactly that rumor originated is unknown, and it’s unfounded.
Personally, I have always loved Belgium, from Brussels to the smaller towns to the beaches and the canals, and of course the food. How can anybody declare a country that serves the world’s best fries, chocolate, waffles, and beer to be boring? Even if there were absolutely nothing to see and do, you can eat all day long, and that is — in my book — worth a trip or two.
But kidding aside, Belgium is quite an underrated country to visit in Europe, and that is a big bonus in my book, meaning fewer crowds. I love Brussels in particular for its relatively small size, its beautiful architecture, its great atmosphere, and many hidden corners.
Here are my favorite sights to see when you are in Brussels, from the quirky to the historic, the scenic to the arty. After you have explored these sights, you will be able to contradict anybody who might mention boring and Belgium in one breath.
1. The Grand Place
The Grand Place is one of the world’s finest squares. Some 360 feet long and 223 feet wide and dating to around 1695, it is lined with a mix of architecture so unique and beautiful that it was granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Even when it is not covered in a floral carpet, it is imposing.
The town hall, the King’s House, together with various guildhalls and private residences, tell of the mercantile wealth of Brussels. Each building is adorned with so many intricate designs that you can spend hours just looking at one building. One of the best ways to do this is with a glass of beer in hand and a cone of Belgian fries before you in one of the many terraced cafes lining the square.
2. Magritte Museum
The Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte is one of my favorite artists, and I still have some rather unflattering copies of his work I produced decades ago in my old school art portfolio. Wherever there is one of his exhibitions, I’m there, and to see the world’s largest collections of his works in one spot is a true privilege.
Not only does the museum tell the story of his life, but also shows some old favorites. you know — man with bowler hat, apple, pipe, that sort of thing? And, even better, the museum shop is full of gorgeous souvenirs. If only I could have afforded the cloud umbrella…
3. Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert
I absolutely adore turn-of-the-(previous)-century shopping galleries, and the ones in Brussels just behind the Grand Place, are on par with some of Europe’s best. These grand galleries are two stories high and filled with wonderful individual boutiques, old-fashioned shops, and plenty of lovely places where to leave your hard-earned money in return for some quality. Don’t miss the Ganterie Italienne, a glove maker with a superb assortment, and stop at the pretty Le Marmiton restaurant for lunch.
4. The Atomium
I remember seeing pictures of the Atomium when I was a small kid and an avid Star Trek fan (the original TV series…), and I was fascinated. When I finally got to see it for the first time, I was older and a little disappointed, to be honest. Constructed for the 1958 World Fair, it is not quite in the league of the SS Enterprise, but nevertheless an iconic sight in Brussels. Ideally, you will spend time in the Atomium as well as the surrounding park, especially Parc de Laeken (see below).
5. Laeken Park
Also called the Royal Park, or Parc de Laeken, Laeken Park is wonderful. Nestled alongside other parks in the area, it is home to the palace of the Belgian Royal family, several monuments, numerous lakes, an orangery, and the wonderful Royal Greenhouses. These architectural wonders open to the public once a year for a short period of time and are well worth scheduling a visit for.
In and around Laeken Park, you will find the Japanese garden, complete with a pretty tower and the Museum of the Far East, a planetarium, as well as Mini-Europe, which is interesting if you are traveling with grandkids.
6. The Art Nouveau Buildings
Brussels is full of extraordinary Art Nouveau houses, and in the neighborhoods of Ixelles and St Gilles, you will stumble across many great examples. But there are some buildings that need to be singled out, and the Musical Instruments Museum is the best.
If you just see one building in Brussels, make it this one, especially as you can discover it inside and out. From the rooftop to the stairwell, from the windows to the doors, there is not a bit that is not stunning. The musical instrument exhibition is interesting too. Head to the rooftop café for great views.
7. Manneken Pis And His Friends
Manneken Pis, the urinating little man, is a statue of roughly 22 inches in height, standing in a fountain and peeing into it. Created in 1619, he has a bit of history behind him but is most famous for his ever-changing wardrobe. He dresses up for special occasions (think Santa suit), and rather than a walk-in closet, he has an entire museum dedicated to his wardrobe.
But what I love most about him are his friends. There is Jeanneke Pis, a girl crouching to pee not far from the Grand Place, and Zinneke Pis, a dog lifting his leg at a street corner. Quite an unusual trio.
8. Musée Royaux Beaux Arts
With this fine arts museum, you get two for the price of one, as there are two art museums housed in the same building that are also connected to the above-mentioned Magritte Museum. Called Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique or Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van Belgie, the fine arts museums are located on the royal mile near the palace in the neighborhood of Sablon.
There is a wing for old art, including works by Brueghel and Rubens, whereas the modern art wing lies underground — and not just one story underground, but several. Regular world-class traveling exhibitions add to the display, so you better plan in plenty of time. There is a café and a brasserie to get a rest and some sustenance during your visit.
9. The Comics Art Museum
Belgium has been and still is a hotbed of comic strips, cartoons, or graphic novels — whatever you’d like to call them. The most famous comic heroes are probably Tintin and the Smurfs, but there are countless others, admittedly better known around Europe than across the ocean. The street art in the city features a lot of comic figures, but to learn more and see quite how much Belgian artists have this genre under their control, head to the Comics Art Museum.
And don’t think it’s just for kids, far from it, you’ll find that there are more adults inside than kids. The displays are fun, as well as artistically interesting, and you can buy some comics to get into the genre. And, if you love architecture (and how can you not be in Brussels?) you will appreciate the setting of the museum, a beautiful Art Nouveau building that used to be a store.
10. The Markets
Nearly every neighborhood in Brussels has its markets, and they are all worth searching out. Near the museums in Sablon, there is the weekend antique market, held on a lovely square rimmed by cafes and filled with tables selling treasures to discover and take home.
Less high-brow and more colorful are the daily flea markets such as the Jeu de Balle Flea Market in Les Marolles or the Midi Market in Saint-Gilles. Add to that farmers markets, and Brussels has so many markets that the city has set up a website for you to click on a weekday and see what market is on where on that particular day, which is particularly interesting if you opted for self-catering accommodation and are looking for fresh, seasonal, local produce.
Keep in mind that haggling is not common at the farmers markets, but at the antique and flea markets, you can haggle to your heart’s content. For the antique market on Sablon, the best advice is to come either really early (it opens officially at 9 a.m., but come before then to get your hands on good finds) or leave it until closing (around 5 p.m.) to get big discounts.
Buy yourself the Brussels Card; it not only allows you free entrance to 49 museums and attractions in and around Brussels, but also free use of public transport (although you can opt in or out of this feature), and discounts to numerous restaurants, cafes, bars, etc. The card is available for 24, 36, and 48 hours, and you can book online to have it ready as soon as you land — all for between $25 to around $50, depending on duration, options, and dates of travel.