Things to do in Brussels

Brussels is a pretty, temperate and friendly city offering impressive buildings, parks and palaces, excellent fine art and historical museums, and fabulous food and drink (think moules frites, waffles and Belgian beer and chocolate).

The capital of Belgium and home to 1.1 million, Brussels also hosts the headquarters of NATO and is the de facto home of the European Union (with its Commission and Council housed in a state-of-the-art building in the Parliament Quarter).

The city centre can be roughly divided into two: the lower and upper towns. The lower town's principal draw is the Grand Place or town square, bordered by stunning guildhouses and the town hall. Surrounding the square are high-end shops, eateries galore, the famous Manneken Pis (the symbol of Belgium) and the Galeries St-Hubert (a grand covered shopping arcade).

The upper town, to the east, is home to the city's parks, palaces and museums. Start at the Parc de Bruxelles, around which are clustered the Palais de la Nation (Belgium's parliament), the Palais Royal (the official residence of Belgium's monarchy), the Fine Arts Museum, and, slightly further afield, the Cathedral Sts Michel et Gudule. Continue east to find, first, the Parc Leopold (offering great views to the European Parliament building) and Parc du Cinquentaire (housing historical, military and automobile museums).

Brussels is also the gateway to Belgium's other great cities, Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges.

1. The Grand Place

The silhouette of buildings on Brussels' Grand Place (© Michal Osmenda , CC-BY-ASA-3.0) Grand Place at night (© Sergey Ashmarin, CC-BY-ASA-3.0)

The Grand Place (aka Grote Markt in Dutch) is the first destination for most visitors to Brussels.

It is Brussels' town square, originally used in the 11th century for open air markets, and now surrounded on each side by ornate Flemish Baroque architecture dating from the 15th to 17th centuries.

The square measures 68 x 110 metres and was awarded UNESCO world heritage status in 1998. A 1,800 square metre flower carpet, containing around 600,000 flowers, is laid in the square every two years (pictured). The next carpet will be laid between 16-19 August 2018.

The Hotel de Ville, pictured at night, is the most impressive building. Adorned with 137 statues, the town hall's spire, built by Jan van Ruysbroeck in 1449, stands 96 metres high and is slightly crooked! At its apex is a statue of Saint Michael slaying a demon.

The Maison du Roi, on the square's east side, was built in 1536, redesigned in the 19th century, and was formerly used by Spanish monarchs. It now houses the Musee de la Ville de Bruselles (see below). Le Pigeon, also on the east side, was home to Victor Hugo, the exiled French novelist, from 1852.

The Everard 'T Serclaes medley of buildings are located on the south-western corner. A statue of Serclaes, who died defending the city in the 14th century, is found underneath an archway: touching the bronze arm is said to bring good luck.

Finally, Le Renard, Le Cornet and Le Roi D'Espagne on the northern side exhibit interesting architectural traits. Try to spot the statue of St Nicolas, patron saint of merchants, the gable made to look like a frigate's bow, a golden trumpet player, and Saint Aubert, the patron saint of bakers.

Check out the nearby Hotel Amigo, Brussels' premier hotel, which has hosted the likes of Sean Connery and Beyonce. Its bar is a great place to escape the hordes of tourists.

where? Grand Place, 1000 BRU, Brussels. Closest subways: Bourse, Gare Centrale, Hotel de Ville. There are plenty of eateries on the square. So this is a great place to settle down for a tea, coffee or beer, admire the views, and watch the world go by.

when? Year round.

2. The Royal Museum of Fine Arts

The Royal Museum of Fine Arts

The Royal Museum of the Fine Arts of Belgium was founded by Napoleon in 1801 to relieve Paris' packed Louvre.

It now houses the country's premier art collection in three separate museums: the Musee d'Art Ancien, the Musee Fin de Siecle and the Musee Magritte.

The Musee d'Art Ancien displays work from the 15th to 18th centuries, much of it of a religious nature and some of it fairly gruesome (such as Bouts' The Justice of Emperor Otto III, featuring a gory beheading).

The best works are those of Peter Paul Rubens (1557-1640), Anthony van Dyck (his pupil, 1599-1641) and Rembrandt (1606-1669). Rubens' Four Studies of the Head of a Moor is a must-see, as are his gigantic canvasses The Martyrdom of St Livinius and The Assumption of the Virgin.

The Musee Fin de Siecle contains works from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Highlights include Georges Seurat's La Seine a la Grande-Jatte and Gaugin's Portrait of Suzanne Bambridge.

The Musee Magritte is devoted to the art of the Belgian surrealists and in particular Rene Magritte (1898-1967). The collection is arranged into chronological sections.

The first, 1898-1929, addresses Magritte's constructivist period, contact with the 7 Arts group, discovery of de Chirico and first surrealist works.

The middle section, addressing the years 1930-1950, displays work from Magritte's self-confessed 'idiotic' period, his 'full sunlight' surrealism (produced when he was lying low to avoid the Nazis), and 'vache' period (which came with liberation).

The final section, 1951-1967, is devoted to Magritte's research into repetition and the large images, such as the Domain of Light, which occupied him during his last years.

where? Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Rue de la Régence 3 1000 City of Brussels, Belgium. T +32 2 508 32 1. Metro: Gare Centrale; Parc.

when? 10am to 5pm; Tues to Sun. Closed Mondays and public holidays.

£$€¥ (For the museums individually) Adults: €8; Children €2; (For a combined ticket covering all three museums) Adults: €13; Children €3. (Sept 16)

3. The Quartier Royal

Brussels' Royal Palace (© Matthias Zepper, distribued under a CCASA 1.0 Generic licence). The Parc de Bruxelles. The Royal Palace by day (© Martin Falbisoner, CC-BY-ASA-3.0)

Built on the top of Couldenberg Hill, where the air was thought to be purer, the Quarter Royal was home to Brussels’ nobility and rulers from the 15th century.

It is now home Belgium's Parliament, Royal Palace and much fine 18th and 19th century neo-classical architecture. 

Start exploring the area at Place Royale, an attractive square built around the statue of Godefroi of Bouillon (a Brabant soldier who fought in the first Catholic crusades). 

On the square’s eastern side is found the Eglise St-Jacques-sur-Coudenberg, modelled on a classical temple and displaying a number of neo-classical paintings. 

Continue on to the Place des Palais, the road at the southern end of the Parc de Bruxelles, bordering the Palais Royal.   The Palace, the official home of Belgian’s monarchy, is used for granting audiences and dealing with affairs of state.  Construction took place between 1783 and 1934, with highlights including

  • the Throne Room (containing bas reliefs by August Rodin representing the economic activities of Belgium’s provinces, oak wood parquet and 39 bronze and gilded candelabras and chandeliers),
  • the Hall of Mirrors (similar to the eponymous room at Versailles, whose ceiling is decorated by more than a million green jewel beetle carapaces by sculptor Jan Fabre) and
  • the Small White Room (the wedding present given by King Louis-Philippe of France to his daughter, Louise-Marie, and King Leopold I, a gilt chamber decorated with royal portraits).

At the opposite end of the Parc de Bruxelles is found the Palais de la Nation, Belgium’s parliament since 1831, built by French architect Barnabe Giumard.    The parliament is bicameral, consisting of the Chamber of Representatives (with 150 members) and the Senate (with 71 Senators).   

The Parc de Bruxelles itself is a pleasant place to while away a few hours. Highlights include its fountains, statues and children's playground.

where? Place des Palais 7, 1000 City of Brussels, Belgium.

when? The Palais Royal is open to visitors between late July and early September each year (Tues-Sun, 10am to 5pm)

£$€¥ Admission to the Palais Royal is free.

4. Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles

The Museum of the City of Brussels (© Myrabella, CC-BY-ASA-3.0) Learn about Brussels at the Museum of Brussels

The Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles, which charts the city's varied history, is found on the Grand Place opposite the Hotel de Ville.

The Museum is also known as the Museum of the City of Brussels or the Brussels City Museum.

Its ground floor houses gothic statues dating from the 13th century, removed from local churches during 19th century restoration works, local porcelain, and a number of large tapestries. The latter date from the 15th to 16th centuries, after Brussels had overtaken Arras and Tournai as the most important regional production centre.

The pictured tapestry, showing the army of Charles de Lorraine, was produced from a Rubens pattern and was formerly displayed in the ceremonial rooms of the town hall. Brussels' tapestry production, which once employed many hundreds, declined from the early 18th century.

The Museum's first floor displays paintings and photographs of Brussels together with a scale model of the city in the mid-13th century, complete with Franciscan monastery and Coudenberg Castle, the former residence of the Duke of Brabant.

The top floor is known as the dressing room of the Manneken-Pis, Brussels' most famous statue. It displays around 100 of the young boy's outfits (of a total collection of 800), including astronaut, fireman, chef, Welsh guard and ice hockey player costumes. Visitors should also take in the impressive wood-paneled building, together with the vibrant stained glass seen from the central staircase.

where? Museum van de Stad Brussel, Grote Markt, 1000 Brussel T. 02 279 43 50. E. [email protected]

when? Tues to Sun, 10am to 5pm; late opening Thursday (to 8pm); closed Mondays, 1 Jan, 1 May, 1 Nov, 15 Nov and 25 Dec.

£$€¥ Adults €8; Seniors/Students: €6; Children: €4. (Sept 16)

5. The Lower Town

The Manneken Pis, found to the South of Grand Place Galiers St Hubert, a short walk from the Grand Place. La Bourse, Belgium's stock exchange (© EmDee, CC-BY-ASA-3.0)

The Lower Town of Brussels has a number of other great attractions.

Start with the Manneken Pis, to the south of the Grand Place. This is a two foot statue of a young boy relieving himself into a small pool, by sculptor Jerome Duquesnoy the Elder and dating from 1619.

Various legends abound as to what it symbolises: one theory claims that the son of a duke was found urinating against a tree at the height of battle; the scene was commemorated by his father as a symbol of military courage.

Another is that Vindicien, the bishop of Arras, interceded on behalf of a wealthy landowner who was desperate for a son; but when the son was born, his first act was to urinate into the bishop's beard! Whatever the truth, this humorous fountain is to Brussels what the Trevi fountain is to Rome.

The Galeries St Hubert should be next on your list. Found to the north of the Grand Place, these grand arcades—the first in Europe—were inaugurated by Leopold I in 1847. The galleries remain extremely elegant, housing a range of luxury chocolate and clothes shops and trendy cafes. A vaulted glass roof covers Galeries' three sections (Galerie du Roi, Galerie de la Reine and Galerie des Princes).

La Bourse is found to the west of the Grand Place. Designed by Leon Suys and constructed between 1867 and 1873, La Bourse is an imposing building in Neo-Renaissance style which now houses Brussels' stock exchange and temporary exhibitions (currently the excellent da Vinci exhibition). Don't miss the early Rodin and de Haen sculptures which decorate the structure.

where? The Lower Town is the area surrounding the Grand Place.

6. The Cathedrale Saints Michel et Gudule

The St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral (© Donaldytong, CC-BY-ASA-3.0). Beautiful stained glass dating from 1870 at the Brussels Cathedral (© Maxifred, distributed under a CCASA 3.0 Unported licence).

Built on the top of the Treurenberg Hill in central Brussels is the Catherale Sts Michel et Gudule (aka the Cathedral of Saints Michael and Gudula). 

This is Belguim’s national church, holding state weddings and funerals, and is the cathedral of the Primate of Belgium (currently Archbishop Andre-Mutien Leonard).   It was constructed in Gothic style between 1225 (during the reign of Henry I, Duke of Brabant) and the early 16th century (when the impressive front towers were completed during the reign of Charles V).   

Measuring 114 metres in length, 54 metres in width and up to 64 metres in height, the Cathedral is built of sandy limestone from local quarries. 

Highlights include the Cathedral’s fabulous stained glass, such as the Last Judgement Window (dating from 1528 and including vibrant reds, blues and yellows) and the Miraculous Sacrament Window (pictured) and the Baroque Pulpit (featuring an intricate carving of Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden, by Antwerp-born sculptor Henri-Francois Verbruggen). 

where? Parvis Sainte-Gudule - 1000 Bruxelles. Metro: Gare Centrale, Parc.

when? Mon - Fri: 7am to 6pm; Sat to Sun: 8am to 6pm.

£$€¥ Entrance to the Cathedral is free. A small charge is payable to access the cyrpt.

7. Autoworld

The huge atrium of Brussels' Autoworld museum Brussels' Autoworld is home to over 250 cars, including this Berlina A Belgian FN 1300 Sports car on display at Autoworld (© André Ritzinger, CC-BY-ASA-3.0)

Autoworld has over 250 cars, ranging from the famous to the fast and the bizarre.

They are housed in the spacious south wing of the Cinquantenaire Palace, and organised by era. Whilst the collection of more modern cars is limited, this is a great attraction for kids and petrol-heads.

The standard of curatorship is high and a number of interactive games have recently been introduced. Sunday visitors will be able to watch the painstaking restoration of a racing car in the Museum's workshop.

Highlights include: a 4 cylinder Ford Model T from 1922 (the original production line car, of which 15 million were built between 1908 and 1922); a 1911 Rolls Royce silver ghost; a 1922 6 cylinder Daimler, used during the reign of Queen Mary and complete with interior snakeskin trim from the British colonies; a 1907 Model K Cadillac; a 1927 Bugatti Type 44.

More modern cars include a Porsche 911 SC Targa used by the Belgium police; a Lincoln Continental convertible from 1965 formerly used by King Bandouon I of Belgium; a 1921 Minerva Type 00 used by King Albert I of Belgium; a 6 cylinder 1948 Bentley Mark VI; a 1969 Lotus Elan S4 DHC; a 1950 type 1 Volkswagen Beatle (designed before WW2 by Ferdinand Porsche); a 1975 Chevrolet Bel Air hearse; a 1954 6 cylinder Jaguar D-type; and a 1953 4 cylinder Porsche Spyder.

A must for all car lovers!

where? Parc du Cinquantenaire 11, 1000 Brussels. T. +32 2 736.41.65. Closest Metro: Station Merode.

when? Summer: 10am to 6pm. Winter: 10am to 5pm. 7 days a week.

£$€¥ Adults €9; Seniors/Students: €7; Children: €5.


8. The Atomium, Mini-Europe and Bruparck

The Atomium, a 102-metre tall aluminium and steel structure built in 1958 for the World Fair. A scale model of the Pompidou Centre at Bruparck's Mini-Europe (© Michael Kramer, CC-ASA-3.0 Unported) A scale model of Paris' Sacre Coeur at Bruparck's Mini-Europe (© Michael Kramer, CC-ASA-3.0 Unported)

The Atomium, built as the main pavilion for the 1958 World Fair, is a 102 metre high structure found to the north of central Brussels.

Designed by Andre Waterkeyn, to reflect an iron crystal magnified 158 billion times, the Atomium comprises nine aluminium spheres with a diameter of 60 feet connected by 3.5 metre diameter interlocking steel tubes.

One of the landmarks of Brussels, the Atomium was renovated in 2006 and offers a permanent exhibition providing information about the iconic structure, temporary science and architecture exhibitions, great views over Brussels, and a highly rated restaurant, bar and tea room on its eighth level.

The nearby Mini-Europe is another great place to visit, housing over 300 1:25 scale models of Europe's most important buildings including London's Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, the Maastricht Town Hall, the Berlin Wall, the Acropolis in Athens, and Paris' Arc de Triomphe, Pompidou Centre and Sacre Coeur.

Bruparck's other attractions include the 29-screen Kinepolis, showing a range of international films and including a 600 square metre IMAX cinema, and the Oceade, a swimming paradise complete with sand, slides (including the 250 metre long Anaconda, the longest slide in Benelux), waves and water heated to tropical temperatures!

where? Square de l'Atomium and Boulevard de Centenaire, B-1020 Brussels. Closest metro: Heysel (line 6).

when? 10am to 6pm (ticket office closes at 5.30pm), 7 days a week.

£$€¥ A combination ticket for the Atomium and Mini-Europe costs €24 for adults and €16 for children.

9. Cinquantenaire Park and Museum

The Cinquantenaire Park.

The 73-acre Cinquantenaire Park was constructed in 1880, during the reign of Leopold II, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Belgium's independence.

At the Park's centre is found a magnificent 40-metre high triumphal arch, based on Paris' Arc de Triomphe, surrounded by the various wings of the Cinquantenaire Palace (which now house some of the city's best museums). The arch is crowned by a bronze sculpture of fighters from Brabant raising the national flag.

Autoworld, described above, is found in the Palace's south wing, with the Musee de l'Armee found to the north. The Cinquantenaire Museum is to the south-east. Its extensive collection is arranged into four collections: National Archaeology, Antiquity, European Decorative Art and Non-European Civilisations.

The archaeology collection includes a 400 BC drinking horn excavated from a Celtic grave in nearby Eigenbilzen and a Roman standard from Flobecq. The antiquity exhibits include a relief fragment from the Assyrian period depicting a demon's head and the Egyptian Lady of Brussels (a relief image of Queen Tiy from the eighteenth Egyptian dynasty, accompanied by ten mummies and their sarcophagi).

European decorative art is displayed in fifteen galleries, covering the gothic, renaissance, baroque, art nouveau and art deco periods. Highlights are the St-George retable made by sculptor Jan Borremans in 1493, Charles Van der Stappen's Mysterius Sphinx ivory sculpture and a vase with Breton decoration by Gaugin.

The Non-European galleries display high quality Islamic works, including textiles and weaponry. Also on display are artifacts from the Americas, including the oldest Inuit kayak in the world, and from India, including a thirteenth century bronze of Shiva, the King of the Dance.

where? Cinquantenaire Museum, Parc du Cinquantenaire 10, 1000 Brussels. [email protected]

when? Tues to Fri: 9.30am to 5pm. Sat-Sun: 10am to 5pm. Closed on Mon and 1 Jan, 1 May, 1 Nov, 11 Nov and 25 Dec.

£$€¥ Adults €5; Seniors/Students: €4; Children: €1.50; Children under 13 with their family): free.

10. Basilica of the Sacred Heart (aka Basilica Koekelberg)

The Basilica Sacre Coeur, Koekelberg, Brussels.

Construction of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart started in 1905, with the first stone being laid by King Leopold II to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Belgium’s independence, but was interrupted by the world wars and not completed until 1969.

The Basilica, also known as the Koekelberg Basilica, is the fifth largest church in the world with a length of 165 metres, a width of 107 metres wide and a maximum height of 89 metres (at the apex of its central copper dome, which dominates the city’s north-western skyline). 

Designed by architect Albert van Huffell in art deco style, the Cathedral is built of reinforced concrete with terracotta layering and can accommodate up to 3,500 worshippers.  The Basilica’s main dome can be climbed in summer for stunning panoramic views over Brussels. 

Other highlights include the Basilica’s 80-metre high towers, the eight stained glass windows depicting Jesus’ life by Belgian painter Anto Carte (1886-1954), the Black Sisters and Modern Religious Art Museums, and the Basilica’s pretty gardens.   

where? Basilica of the Sacred Heart (aka Basilica Koekelberg, Parvis de la Basilique 1, 1083 Brussels. T. 024211667. Metro: Simonis (lines 1A and 2)

when? Summer: 9am to pm; winter: 10am to 4pm.

£$€¥ Entry is free. A ticket to the top of the Basilica's dome costs €5.

Day trips from Brussels: Antwerp

Silvius Brabo, the nephew of Julius Caesar, throwing the hand of Antigonius into the RIver Scheldt (©  Ph.viny, distributed under a CCASA3.0 Unported licence).

Found about 30 miles to the north of Brussels, Antwerp is Belgium's second city.

Located on the banks of the River Scheldt and home to 500,000, Antwerp has been a major port since the middle ages. Today, Antwerp is a mix between old and new: old because it is home to scores of beautifully restored historical buildings, often displaying the work of the city's most famous son, Peter Paul Rubens; new because this is a modern city with efficient public transport, which handles 80% of the world's rough diamond trade and has a cutting edge fashion industry.

Start your visit in the central square, Grote Markt, bordered by the Stadhuis or town hall on one side and guildhouses on the others (the most impressive being the House of Crossbowmen). Don't miss the famous Brabo Fountain (pictured), in the centre of the square, depicting Silvius Brabo, the nephew of Julius Caesar, throwing a giant's hand into the River Scheldt.

To the south of Grote Markt is found the city's cathedral, the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe Kathedral (Cathedral of Our Lady). Built over two centuries from 1352, the structure's majestic spire rises to a height of 123 metres. Continue south to find the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, displaying the works of the Antwerp Trio of Rubens, van Dyck and Jordaens as well as international artists such as van Gogh in a stately neo-classical building.

Other highlights include the Rubenshuis, to the south-east of the town square, where Rubens lived between 1611 and 1640. Visitors can explore the artists recreated living quarters, studio and garden, adorned by a large number of his paintings and sketches. Another top attraction is the Museum Plantin-Moretus/Pretenkabinet, devoted to the printing press. Housed in the former home of successful printer Christopher Plantin, and awarded UNESCO world heritage status, the Museum displays gems such as an edition of the Gutenberg Bible (the first work printed using moveable type).

Day trips from Brussels: Bruges

Bruge's Belfort.

Located about 60 miles to the north-west of Brussels is the beautiful medieval town of Bruges.

Unspoiled by the excesses of commercialisation, visitors will enjoy exploring the narrow medieval streets, taking a trip down the city's various canals, and some of the best Gothic architecture in the world.

Begin at the central Markt, lined by 13th century medieval houses including one occupied by Charles II during his exile from England between 1656-7. At the square's centre is found the statue of Breidel and Pieter de Coninck, who rebelled against French occupation in 1302. Towering above the Markt is the city's magnificent Belfort (pictured). This 83 metre high octagonal bell tower was built between the 13th and 15th centuries and is Bruge's most famous landmark. Visitors can climb a spiral staircase to a viewing platform.

Another must-see is Bruge's Stadhuis (town hall), built between 1376 and 1420: the exterior is adorned by intricate carvings, whilst the interior is home to a parliament chamber dating from 1400. Further south is found the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk (the Church of Our Lady), built from 1220 and famous for its brick spire (the tallest in the country) and Michelangelo sculpture Mother and Child (1504-5).

Another great attraction is the Gruuthuse Museum, housing an eclectic mix of treasures such as a terracotta bust of Charles V, coins, tapestries and weaponry. Art lovers should head straight for the Groeninge Museum, which majors on Dutch masters such as van Eyck and Bosch and more modern artists such as Belvaux and Magritte.

Day trips from Brussels :Ghent

Ghent at night (© Jesus Solana, distributed under a CCA2.0 Generic licence).

Ghent is about 30 miles to the north-west of Brussels.

A major cloth trading centre in medieval times, and an industrial powerhouse during the 18th and 19th centuries, the city centre has undergone major renovations over the past decades. Visitors can expect beautiful medieval buildings and world class museums lining cobbled streets and the pretty River Leie.

Start your trip at St Baafskathedraal (aka the Saint Bravo Cathedral), best known for its imposing main tower. The exterior is made up of an eclectic mix of gothic, Romanesque and baroque styles, whilst the interior is adorned by works such as Rubens' Conversion of St Bravo and Hubrecht and Jan van Eyck's multi-paneled Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. Also take in the adjacent Belfort, a 91 metre tower topped by a gilded-copper dragon; visitors can take a lift to the tower's parapet, which at 65 metres offers great views over the city.

To the south west is found the city's Stadhuis (town hall); guided tours take in the coronation throne of Joseph II (the Holy Roman Emperor and ruler of the Habsburg lands) and the richly decorated Pacification Hall (where the treaty of the Pacification of Ghent was signed in 1576). Continue in the same direction to the Het Gravensteen (Dutch for the Castle of the Count). This medieval castle, built by Philip of Alsace in 1180, was used by the Counts of Flanders until the 14th century, and later as the city's jail and as a cotton mill. There is lots to see and explore, such as the obligatory collection of torture instruments.

Take time to explore Ghent's museums, such as the Design Museum (displaying art and design from the 16th century onwards in fine surroundings, including furniture by Victor Horta). Art lovers will enjoy the Museum voor Schone Kunsten (the Fine Arts Museum, displaying works by the likes of Rubens, Bosch and van Dyck) and the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (the Modern Arts Museum, with works by Bacon and Warhol).