Brussels is both a city and a region in Central Europe, full of quirky charm and unexpected gems. As the capital of Belgium, it draws in millions of visitors per year. What is it about Brussels that makes it so popular with travellers worldwide, and how does it stand out from the rest of Europe?
Operating in two official languages (French and Dutch), Brussels has an internationally diverse population. Being the home of the European Union doesn’t necessarily scream tourist hotspot, yet this underrated city has so much to offer. Known for its fascinating architecture and its wide selection of local beers, Brussels is a superb European destination for anyone to explore.
Taking a trip to Brussels soon, or just curious to know about the many attractions? Here are 16 suggestions for things to do and even more places to visit in Brussels.
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Get to know Art Nouveau
A significant part of any Brussels sightseeing adventure is scoping out and admiring the most impressive buildings. Brussels is well-known for its Art Nouveau architecture, which became a popular style in the 1890s thanks to architect Victor Horta. If you want to learn about Horta’s life and work in detail, you can check out the Horta Museum on Rue Américaine. While you’re there, you can pick up a brochure to begin your own self-guided tour of buildings designed by Horta and his associates. Of course, you can always book a tour if you’d rather let someone do the planning for you.
The majority of Art Nouveau buildings are found in the neighbourhood of Ixelles. Hôtel Tassel on Rue Paul-Emile Jansonstraat and Hôtel Solvay on Avenue Louise are two noteworthy buildings and also happen to be Horta’s former residences. Other whimsical Art Nouveau architectural sites include Maison Saint-Cyr, Hôtel Hannon, and Maison Cauchie.
Appreciate more architecture
Although the Art Nouveau architecture is the most unique, the other buildings in Brussels deserve just as much attention.
The Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon is a magnificent structure on Rue des Sablons. The Roman Catholic church was constructed in the 15th century in Brabantine Gothic style, and the sophisticated façade will certainly amaze you.
Another Roman Catholic church worth seeing is the Cathedral of Saint Michael and Saint Gudula. The Gothic spires reach a height of 64 metres, triumphantly looming over the peaceful Treurenberg Hill area. Take note of the intricate marble and alabaster altarpiece, which dates back to 1538.
One more building to check out is the Palais de Justice, aka the Law Courts of Brussels. It’s reported to be one of the largest buildings constructed during the 19th century, with a total ground surface area of 26,000 square metres. I’m sure you didn’t expect to be heading to court during your overseas holiday, but this eclectic, neoclassical building is absolutely worth visiting. Head straight to the monumental marble staircase and spot the enormous statues of Lycurgus, Demosthenes, Cicero and Ulpian.
See the Manneken Pis
One of Brussels’ most iconic tourist attractions is the Manneken Pis, a tiny, 61-centimetre-high bronze statue. The current replica on the corner of Rue de l’Etuve and Rue du Chêne depicts a naked boy urinating into the fountain below. While it seems somewhat silly, this little statue has become a huge symbol of the city’s laid-back culture and sense of humour.
Go on a walking tour
There are numerous walking tours throughout Brussels that will give you a fun overview of the city. Hear urban legends and be shown the city’s hotspots by a local, all while meeting other fellow travellers from around the world. While many group walking tours are technically free, you’re expected to leave a tip at the end and pay what you think the tour was worth to you.
Your walking tour options on sites like Viator include both small group and private tours. You can mix it up and take a four-hour mysteries and legends tour, or even a walking tour that stops to enjoy some of the best foods in Brussels. Whatever your preference, a great way to see and experience this city is by exploring on foot.
Visit the Grand Place
One of the best free things to do in Brussels is to visit the Grand Place or Grote Markt. It’s the central square of the city, measuring 68 by 110 metres, and it’s where you can find many other memorable Brussels attractions. The area has developed from an open-air market in the 11th century to become an important place for cultural events and festivities.
Most notably, you’ll find the opulent Town Hall. This Brabantine Gothic-style guildhall is the only remaining building from the Middle Ages. Completed in 1420, its extravagant, pinnacled tower stands 96 metres high.
Another important landmark opposite the Town Hall is the King’s House, also known as Maison du Roi in French and Broodhuis in Dutch. After the building suffered damage in 1695, it was rebuilt in its current Gothic Revival style. In 1887, the building became the Museum of the City of Brussels. Inside are dioramas of early Brussels, as well as other paintings and artifacts.
The lined guild houses around the Grand Place are magnificent too. The well-structured and richly decorated façades are influenced by both Italian Baroque and Flemish styles. There are almost 40 different houses lining each side, so leave a fair amount of time if you want to see as many as possible.
On the west side, the houses line the corners of Rue de la Tête d’or and Rue au Beurre. Towards the south, head to Rue Charles Buls and Rue des Chapeliers. The private houses along the north are found between Rue de la Colline and Rue de Harengs, as well as Rue Chair et Pain and Rue au Beurre.
One of the top things to do in Brussels at Christmas is to catch the light show at the Grand Place. If you’re visiting during December or over the New Year, the exteriors are lit up by LED lights in tune with music every half hour, so remember to stop by.
Shop along the Royal Galleries
Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert is the most famous shopping strip in Brussels. The glazed arcades were built in 1847 in an Italianate Cinquecento style, with the delicate shopfronts under an arched glass ceiling. So, even if you don’t purchase anything, window shopping is a beautiful experience in itself. Many chic and luxury brands are found along the 200-metre stretch, including Belgian-born Raidillon and Delvaux.
Once you’re done shopping, there is even more to discover at Les Galeries Royales. Stop at any of the charming cafes and bakeries, like La Belgique Gourmande, for some authentic Belgian waffles.
Taste the local beer
There are over 180 breweries in Belgium, meaning there’s a lot of local beer to try while in Brussels. If all of the different varieties are too overwhelming and you don’t know where to begin, solve your troubles and book a Brussels beer tasting tour. Beer tasting is one of the most enjoyable things to do in Brussels at night, and almost a rite of passage for first-time visitors to the city!
One of Brussels’ most famous and beloved beers is the family-run Cantillon. You can take a tour of the brewery in the neighbourhood of Anderlecht, which has been in operation since 1900. While the guided tour involves a tasting at the end, you can also wander around on your own.
If you’d rather taste multiple different beers without the fuss, find a guided beer tour on Viator and explore the city’s thriving beer scene while making some new friends. A few of these tours also include a selection of Belgian cheeses, chocolates, and smoked ham to ensure you’re not drinking on an empty stomach.
See panoramic views from the Atomium
A stand-out attraction in Belgium is the 120-metre-tall Atomium. This bizarre building is made up of nine stainless steel spheres, depicting an iron molecule magnified 165 billion times. Constructed in 1958 for the World Fair, it represents the new atomic age of the city. If you want to take in the panoramic views from the top, a glass-roof escalator can get you there in under 30 seconds. Head to Heysel Park to see the Atomium at night, as the spheres illuminate with blue lights.
Eat some traditional pommes frites
While you might think the French invented fries, hot chips, or whatever name you call them by, these delicious fried potatoes actually originate from Belgium! Belgian frites are always served with interesting condiments, far from the standard ketchup or tomato sauce you’re used to. Andalouse sauce is typically the most popular to serve with fries, made from mayonnaise, tomato paste and red peppers. Even if mayonnaise seems a bit strange at first, give it a try anyway.
Friterie de la Barrière on Avenue du Parc serves up some of the best pommes frites in the city. If you find yourself out late at night and feeling peckish, you’ll be glad to discover they stay open until five in the morning. Maison Antoine on Place Jourdan is a fantastic spot too, offering a range of sauce choices.
When ordered at a restaurant, fries are commonly served with a bowl of mussels. If you’re ever stumped at what to eat for lunch or dinner, order some moules frites and you won’t be disappointed.
Buy some Belgian chocolate
You can’t leave Brussels without sampling some delicious Belgian chocolate! After all, one thing Belgium is known for is its excellent chocolatiers.
Pierre Marcolini is arguably the best chocolatier in the country, personally selecting and roasting cocoa beans from around the world himself. Stop by Avenue Louise 75 or Place du Grand Sablon 39 to pick up a box and sip some hot cocoa.
Godiva is another iconic Belgian chocolate company with a few shopfronts around the city. Find a store at the Grand Place, near the Mannekenpis, and along Place du Grand Sablon or Chaussée de Charleroi. Sample some of the rich truffles and chocolate-covered strawberries, then purchase a box to take home with you.
Catch the flower carpet in bloom
Every two years, nearly one million begonias decorate the Grand Place to coordinate with the Catholic holiday Assumption Day. These colourful flowers are intricately arranged by volunteers to create a 1,800 square metre carpet.
A new theme is chosen by a committee each time, often inspired by or paying tribute to international cultures. In 2014, for example, a kilim-like tapestry was weaved to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Turkish immigrants coming to Belgium. The next event will take place between August 13 and 16, 2020.
Chill out at Mont des Arts
Mont des Arts is a place for anyone and everyone to relax on a sunny day and take in the scenery. The complex is surrounded by the Royal Library and the National Archives, though most people come for the beautiful public garden. Walk to the very top of the stairs for an outstanding view of the city.
See some vintage instruments
For an interesting educational experience, stop by the Musical Instrument Museum on Rue Montagne de la Cour. The collections hold some fascinating antique instruments, including Chinese stone chimes, a serpent bass, and the only existing luthéal in the world. Even if you can’t play a single instrument, the extravagant architecture (part Art Nouveau, part neoclassical) still makes this museum worth visiting.
Discover surrealist art
A visit to the Magritte Museum is one of the more unusual things to do in Brussels. The gallery inside the neoclassical Hotel Altenloh will transport you into the world of surrealist artist René Magritte. The collections showcase over 200 of his original paintings, including the oil on canvas series The Empire of Light.
Magritte is responsible for introducing the surrealism art movement to Belgium in 1926. His witty and thought-provoking art pieces challenged preconceived notions of reality through the use of mundane objects in unexpected contexts. If you’re looking to see something a little different in Brussels, don’t miss the Magritte Museum on Rue de la Régence.
Wander the markets
Easily one of the best things to do in Brussels in winter is to head to the Christmas Markets. There’s not really one location the markets are held at, as the festivities can be found all around the city centre. That being said, you can find most of the action around the Grand Place. Over 200 stalls are set up, offering local treats and perfect homemade gifts. There are also fairground attractions including an observation wheel and a large Christmas tree. The fun, festive vibes are contagious here, and the setting is absolutely magical.
If you’re visiting at any other time of year, there are always some wonderful flea markets to browse. Place du Jeu de Balle in the district of Marolles is the most well-known daily market in Brussels. Here you can find some antique artwork, old books, vinyl records, and some cool vintage clothes. The market starts early in the morning and wraps up by two or three in the afternoon.
Go on a bike ride
Promenade Verte (Green Walk) is a 60-kilometre trail surrounding greater Brussels, created with the purpose of connecting the region’s most beautiful and natural areas. The luscious pathway is popular with cyclists and ideal for an afternoon bike ride. Divided into seven sections less than 10 kilometres long, you can choose your preferred landscape or starting-off point, rather than riding the entire ring. If you begin around the Sonian Forest, you can rent a bike for the day from Pro Velo.
Recommend tours in Belgium
- Brussels Chocolate Walking Tour and Workshop
- Small-Group Brussels Beer Tasting Tour
- World War I Battlefields Tour of Flanders from Brussels
- Day Trip to Bruges from Brussels
- Mini-Europe and Atomium Combo Ticket
- Private Tour: Luxembourg and Bouillon Day Trip from Brussels
- Brussels Food and Beer Walking Tour with Mussels and Chocolate
- Skip the Line: Hard Rock Cafe Brussels Including Meal
- Ghent and Bruges Day Trip from Brussels
- Brussels Hop-On Hop-Off Tour
- The Brussels Card
- Brussels Myths and Legends Walking Tour