Today: Top 10 best things to see & do in Brussels
The multicultural metropolis of Brussels is not only the capital of my home country Belgium, but also the unofficial capital of the European Union. The Lonely Planet describes Brussels as “historic yet hip, bureaucratic yet bizarre, self-confident yet unshowy” and I couldn’t agree more. Brussels is one of Europe’s most underrated tourist destinations, since it lacks the star attractions of other European capitals like Paris, London and Rome (except for its stunning Grand Place, the world’s most beautiful square). However, Brussels has more than enough things to do to keep visitors occupied for a couple of days, offering world-class museums, famous art galleries, century-old architecture, magnificent parks, and some of the best dining in the world. Here’s my list of the top 10 tourist attractions & sites of interest in Brussels, the political heart of Europe.
Below, you can watch my YouTube video (in 4K ultra HD) with a walking tour of Brussels (featuring some stunning sights & heavenly music). What is your favorite spot in Brussels? Leave a comment.
10. MANNEKEN PIS
This bronze statuette, created in the 17th century, embodies the irreverent spirit of Brussels. Also known as “Little Julian”, it was one of the many fountains serving the city. Manneken Pis was kidnapped in 1745 for the first time by the English. Two years later, it was the turn of the French to steal him. Hearing of this, Louis XV gave him, by way of reparation for this outrage, a rich costume in gold brocade and decorated him with the cross of Saint-Louis. In 1817, the statuette was stolen again, this time by a reprieved French convict, and was found broken in pieces. The fragments were used to make the statuette which you can see today on the old fountain. From being a public fountain, the little fellow has now become a legendary figure and a symbol of Brussels’ rebellious spirit.
9. RUE DES BOUCHERS
The Rue des Bouchers – or Butcher Street in English – is a medieval street complex of three picturesque alleys in the historic center of Brussels that is is lined by dozens of restaurants. Some say the restaurant density in these streets is the highest one in the world. The restaurants serve all kinds of dishes, including local dishes like Brussels Stoemp with sausage and Belgium’s famous Moules Frites (mussels with fries). Unfortunately, the restaurants here don’t serve the best food and the district is often labeled as a tourist trap. My advise is to visit the historic food street to experience the atmosphere, but to dine elsewhere in one of Brussels’ many great restaurants, which are mainly centered around the Place du Chatelain area, the church of St. Boniface, and Place Stephanie. You won’t be disappointed since Belgium is known to have some of the best food in the world.
8. CATHEDRAL OF ST MICHAEL & ST GUDULA
The Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula is one of the most important landmarks in Brussels. It was built in a Gothic style at the beginning of the 13th century on the foundations of a Romanesque church established in the 11th century. The actual cathedral took 300 hundred years to complete. The cathedral was initially called the church of St Michael until, in 1047, the relics of the martyr of St Gudula were brought to the church. This is when the church was renamed St Michael and St Gudula. Although the cathedral was built centuries ago, it was only given the cathedral status in 1962. It features a splendid interior with magnificent stained glass windows dating from the Middle Ages.
An iconic symbol of Brussels en Belgium, an important place for international tourism, and a unique creation in the history of architecture, the Atomium is today the most popular tourist attraction of Europe’s Capital. The Atomium was constructed for the first post-war universal world exhibition, also knows as EXPO 58. The building’s nine spheres represent an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times, and symbolize the faith in the power of science (especially in nuclear science). The Atomium’s top floor houses an observation deck and a restaurant, which can be reached by elevator or via a surrealistic walk through tubes, spheres and art displays.
- Website: Atomium
6. ROYAL PALACE
The Royal Palace is where the King of Belgium exercises his authority as Head of Stateand is the official palace of the King and Queen of Belgium. However, the massive building is not used as a royal residence, as the king and his family live in the Royal Palace of Laeken on the outskirts of Brussels. The Royal Palace was built on the site of the former Palace of the Dukes of Brabant which was destroyed by fire in 1731. Started in 1820 under the reign of King William, it was modified in 1904 under Leopold II, who had it rebuilt in Louis XVI style. The side wings date from the 18th century and at the end of each wing there is a pavilion. Each summer, the palace is open to the public.
The Cinquantenaire (50th anniversary) site is comprised of a vast set of gardens dotted with monuments and museums. It is dominated by a triumphal arch with three arches. At the top of the three triumphal arches there’s a bronze quadriga and an unbeatable sweeping view over Brussels and its surroundings. This place of interest was built in 1880 for the 50th anniversary of the independence of Belgium. The park’s broad pathways lead to the Pavilion of Human Passions designed by Victor Horta, the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces & Military History, the Royal Museums of Art and History and to Autoworld. The park hosts numerous activities throughout the year (e.g. events, celebrations, firework displays, sporting events, concerts, etc …).
4. MAGRITTE MUSEUM
The Magritte Museum opened its doors on the 2nd of June 2009 in a wing located within an enormous complex that is known as the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. The multidisciplinary Magritte collection is the largest one of its kind in the world and assembles over 230 pieces: oil paintings on canvas, gouaches, sketches, sculptures and painted objects as well as advertising posters, music scores, old photographs and films made by Magritte himself. René Magritte was a Belgian surrealist artist, who became well known for creating a number of witty and thought-provoking images. Often depicting ordinary objects in an unusual context, his work is known for challenging observers’ preconditioned perceptions of reality.
- Website: Magritte Museum
3. MONT DES ARTS GARDENS
The Mont Des Arts is an extension of the neighborhood around the Royal Palace. Situated on the North-South axis that used to connect the lower, working-class part of Brussels with the upper, aristocratic part, the Mont des Arts has had quite an eventful history. The park was created by Jules Vacherot at the request of the infamous King Leopold II in the run-up to the Expo of 1910, and redesigned by landscape architect René Pechère for the Expo 58. The geometrical gardens are surrounded by the imposing structures of the Royal Library of Belgium and the Congress Palace. Due to its hillside location, the Mont Des Arts offers one of the most iconic views of Brussels, especially around sunset.
2. GRAND PLACE
Brussels’ central marketplace – the Grand Place – is known as the world’s most beautiful square. UNESCO sees the Grand Place in Brussels as being “an outstanding example of the eclectic and highly successful blending of architectural and artistic styles that characterizes the culture and society of this region”. The square’s centerpiece is the gothic Town Hall, which was built in the 15th century in three stages; it was also in this century that the guilds established themselves in the houses around the Grand-Place. After being bombarded by Louis XIV’s troops in 1695, it was almost entirely rebuilt. The Grand Place is especially idyllic when you bring a visit during the Christmas period, or when a flower carpet is set up every two years in August.
The Hallerbos is a magnificent forest located in the municipality of Halle on the outskirts of Brussels. Every spring, thousands of tourists and locals flock to this forest to witness a breathtaking natural spectacle: the transformation of the Hallerbos from a sea of green into a sea of purple, thanks to millions of bluebells. There are different walking paths spread throughout the Hallerbos and visitors are urged not to stray from them, so that the flowers are protected. It’s very important to plan your visit since these bluebells only bloom once every year and only for a few weeks around mid-April (however, the precise flowering season varies with the weather). Besides the bluebells, the giant Sequoia trees also make a visit to this forest more than worth it.
- Website: Hallerbos