Brussels, the symbol of a united Europe, is a city of great charm. Let's find out what there is to see in the city and what are the countless places of interest in the capital of Belgium.
Brussels is a city that symbolizes a United Europe, because it is here that both the European Commission and the European Council have their headquarters. Synonymous with diplomacy, today the city welcomes personalities from all over the world, engaged daily in activities related to European affairs. Yet Brussels is not just politics and business – there are many treasures that this city has to offer, both in terms of architecture and in terms of cultural ferment.
Multicultural by vocation, Brussels is a city that needs to be discovered in order for one to fall in love in it. Although it is not at the top of the list of the most visited European capitals, it hides a very special Flemish charm that, together with the rivers of beer that are tapped in the city, will not leave the visitor dissatisfied.
Let's take a walk now to find out what there is to see in Brussels, a city full of attractions and places of interest.
What to see in Brussels, a city of art and culture
Brussels is the tailgate of European tourism and welcomes just over 3 million visitors every year, compared with over the 20 million that visited London in 2018. But Brussels has a lot to offer to those who decide to visit it. The purpose of this guide is to help you discover the hidden beauties of the city, which deserve to be visited and appreciated. From the splendid and majestic Grand Place to the Museum of Fine Arts, from the majestic Maison du Roi to the Atomium, here is our step-by-step itinerary that will lead us to the discovery of the undervalued Belgian capital. Let's start our tour from the city’s center by definition: Grand Place.
Grand Place in Brussels: one of the most beautiful squares in the world
Squares like these are hard to come by. Grand Place literally takes your breath away when you cross it. It is no coincidence that it rightfully has been included in the list of
world heritage sites protected by UNESCO. Every visit to Brussels necessarily must start from this place full of charm and history: because monumentality and grandeur are everywhere in Grand Place. Victor Hugo was in love with the square, which he considered to be one of the most beautiful in Europe. It is no coincidence that the famous French writer stayed here in 1852. The undisputed protagonist of the square is St. Michael who, from the top of the tower of the Hotel de Ville (the City Hall), dominates the city skyline. This is a true masterpiece of Gothic architecture which, built at the beginning of the 15th century, still preserves its original design. Now we suggest that you turn around, because behind you is another highlight of Grand Place: the Maison du Roi where, today, there is a museum on the history of the city. The other beautiful buildings overlooking the square are the guildhalls that, one by one, tell the genesis and history of the professions that have animated the commercial life (and beyond) of Brussels over the centuries.
Discovering the Ilot Sacré in Brussels
Take one of the narrow streets that open behind Grand Place and head towards Ilot Sacrè, a maze of narrow streets that lies right next to the town square. We are in the oldest heart of the city, a pedestrian area that now houses shops, restaurants and, above all, breweries, the great local pride (and attraction). It is a very beautiful place, which is worth visiting far and wide, with mugs of good Belgian beer to accompany delicious local dishes. The other side of the coin? Being such a characteristic place, you will find it difficult to clear it of tourists armed with cameras.
The cathedral of Saint Michel, the main church in the city
From the mundane to the sacred: starting from Ilot Sacré, a walk only 500 meters long gets us to the Cathedral of Saint Michel which, with all its grandeur, is the main religious building in the city. Majestic and built in gothic style, we recommend stepping inside to admire the magnificent and splendid windows that brighten up the interior. But the windows are not the only beauty contained within the cathedral: from the wooden pulpit made in Baroque style, to the great Grenzing organ with 4 keyboards that fits perfectly in the sacred ambient of this place.
Sablon district: from Notre-Dame to the antique markets
Although the Saint Michel Cathedral is the largest in the city, it is probably Notre Dame du Sablon that is the one most cherished and beloved by locals and tourists alike. It is said to be one of the most beautiful late Gothic churches of the 16th century. The cathedral stands majestically in one of the most elegant districts of Brussels, which on Sundays comes alive with a lively antique market, attracting flocks of tourists and locals. But the cathedral and the market are not the only attractions of this refined district. The area is also packed with what are veritable gastronomic institutions, both linked to two of the city's symbolic confectioneries. On one side Wittamer, the oldest pastry shop in Brussels, and on the other the Maison du chocolat, which will have your mouth watering with its delicious pralines.
Museums in Brussels – the Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Magritte
Let's continue our visit of Brussels to find out more about the museums the city has to offer, which are quite diverse and varied. The Museum of Fine Arts is one the city is much proud of and is actually a complex that includes five museums. Art lovers will find something to suit their taste here. The museum of ancient art joins the museum of modern art, along with three other theme-based museums dedicated to three great Belgian artists: Wiertz, Meunier and the beloved Magritte.
The latter of the three, inaugurated in 2009, has since attracted a large number of visitors, two-thirds of whom from abroad. In short, it is a destination you can’t afford to miss out on not, a place where you can admire the hundreds of works of the famous painter, the greatest exponent of surrealism in Belgium.
From Flemish painters to Rembrandt, from Rubens to Jaques-Louis David and Magritte, Brussels can definitely be referred to as a city of art.
And in a city that has provided a home to so many works of art, there simply had to be a space dedicated entirely to the so-called “fifth art”, or comic strips. The Comics Museum in Brussels, which has been housed in a former textile warehouse since 1989, has a permanent exhibition and numerous periodical exhibitions, often dedicated to avant-garde artists. If you're travelling with the whole family, this is the perfect place to entertain the little ones.
Visit to the Atomium, the futuristic symbol of Brussels
Among the many symbols of Brussels, the most futuristic is undoubtedly the Atomium, built inside the Heysel Park to commemorate the international exhibition of 1958. It is a construction with a very particular architecture that, 102 meters high, retraces the shapes of an iron atom. The interior of the structure can be visited and from the highest spheres, you can enjoy a magnificent view of the city, especially when the sky is clear (which is, in fact, a rarity in Belgium!). If you want to visit the Atomium, be ready to venture outside the city center: the structure, in fact, is located in the northern suburbs and, accessible by subway, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Other things to see in Brussels: The Maison du Roi and the Manneken Pis
Let's head back into the city to complete our itinerary, which includes a visit to the Maison du Roi, the official seat of the Belgian monarchy. The exterior of the building is quite the spectacle, and the interior matches the splendor the building exudes from the outside. Here, glitz is at home: from the throne room to the mirror room, from the Goya room to the royal archives, this is a place created specifically for those who have blue blood in their veins. You can only visit it if you decide to plan your trip to Brussels between 21 July and the beginning of September, when the Maison du Roi opens its doors to visitors in conjunction with the suspension of the royal family’s political activities.
Another symbol of the city, one of the most photographed in Brussels, is undoubtedly the Manneken Pis, the statue of a little boy peeing. Its fame is linked to the legend that accompanies the figure of Julien who, according to tradition, apparently saved the city by peeing on the fuse of a bomb. Manneken Pis isn't the only statue to be depicted peeing, though. There’s also Jeanneke pis, the statue of a little girl peeing and, finally, the statue of a dog engaged in the same activity.
What to eat in Brussels: typical dishes of the city
It might sound odd, but in Brussels one of the typical dishes is mussels, served strictly with French fries. The two great local gastronomic prides come together in a single dish, giving life to the moules et frites. The mussels, stewed and flavored with different spices and condiments, are a true local delicacy to be enjoyed while comfortably seated at the table of a restaurant.
The best food to eat on the go, as you may have already imagined, are the chips, to be eaten directly from the characteristic cardboard cone, perhaps served with a tasty local sauce. They are simply delicious, and the reason for their exquisite taste is the double frying method used to prepare them, which makes them soft inside and crunchy on the outside. Not the best food for a healthy heart, but your palate will no doubt thank you!
Among the typical local sweets, in addition to the ubiquitous chocolate, we ought to mention the gauffre, or waffles. You can order them in any pastry shop but, to make this sweet moment even more poetic, go to one of the many street kiosks scattered throughout the city. You won't regret it.
And when it comes to desserts, we have to dedicate a separate paragraph to Brussels’ chocolate. Perhaps not everyone knows that Belgium was one of the first countries to use cocoa imported from the Americas. Here, the master chocolatiers base their knowledge on a centuries-old tradition that, today, has shaped an incredibly lucrative business. In short, this is to say that you can't go home without a nice supply of chocolate in your suitcase.
And after all that eating, we imagine you’ll probably be thirsty. Don't worry, waiting for you are rivers of delicious Belgian beer, served in different glasses depending on the variety you pick. In short, since beer is an art in Belgium, you’ll almost feel obliged to learn more about it.
To plan a trip to Brussels, you must have a valid passport or valid identity card for expatriation with you. Belgium, in fact, is a member of the European Union and adheres to the Schengen agreement.
What is the best time of the year to visit Brussels? Before we answer that question, we recommend you take our advice, and that is, bring an umbrella. The climate in the city, in fact, is humid and rainy. But there are some positive aspects: winters are not as cold as you might imagine and summers, on the contrary, are quite cool. Although unstable weather is the norm in Brussels, we recommend visiting the city from mid-May to mid-September, i.e. during the hottest months of the year. And in June, the Ommegang takes place, a medieval procession that has animated the capital for about five centuries. In mid- August, instead, the city is festively decorated with the Tapis de Fleurs, during which the Grand Place is adorned with a million begonias arranged to form the most diverse patterns. It is really a wonderful and impressive spectacle to witness.