Brussels was never high on my “to-visit” list, yet it left me wondering when I could return, not least because there was a whole host of those amazing Belgian beers that we never got to sample. Don’t let its grey, bureaucratic, European parliament image put you off…here’s some tips and suggestions on how to spend 48(ish) hours in this vibrant and quirky city.
Don’t let the fact that he is regularly voted the most disappointing tourist attraction in Europe put you off – how can you come to Brussels and not visit Mannekin Pis? Hordes of crowds jostle for position with their camera phones and selfie sticks on a small corner of Rue de l’Etuve and Rue du Chene to view 61cm tall bronze statue of a boy peeing into a fountain. When we visit, he is wearing a school uniform, one of his 800 outfits – meaning he has a bigger wardrobe than I do. This famous but very tiny attraction means that almost all of the souvenirs available in the numerous “gift” shops are adorned with a small boy with his willy in his hand.
Grand Place (Grote Markt)
This is where all my images of Brussels being full of dull, grey architecture are dispelled completely from my mind. Bathed in a warm glow of late afternoon sunshine, the cobbled Grand Place is stunning. This UNESCO World Heritage site is consistently voted top in lists of the most beautiful squares in Europe, and with the Hôtel de Ville, Maison du Roi and spectacular 17th century guild houses, it’s easy to see why. Visitors lucky enough to visit in August 2016 will get the chance to see a spectacular floral carpet decorating the square…an excuse for a return visit for us maybe?
Window shopping at Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert
This beautiful covered shopping arcade is rumoured to be one of the oldest in Europe. In here you’ll find boutiques, bookstores and some of the most famous Belgian chocolatiers…we went at Easter time and some of the window displays were absolutely jaw-dropping! Make sure you look up at the stunning glass roof allowing daylight to filter in and fill the passageways with light whilst protecting shoppers from the elements! I can also highly recommend Le Marmiton – http://www.lemarmiton.be/ – for lovely traditional Belgian fare in a wonderfully elegant environment
Along with chocolate, frites and beer, eating waffles is a national pastime in Brussels. From Grand Place, head back towards Mannekin Pis, where there are a multitude of 1€ waffle stores
Note: 1€ will get you a waffle. No whipped cream, no bananas, no strawberries, no Nutella. Just a waffle. Additional €s are required for the fully loaded waffle experience
Waffles may well be the messiest street food ever. They are also highly likely to increase your sugar levels ten-fold, so don’t eat just before bedtime, or before/after a heavy meal.
The Belgians take their beer very very seriously. It is highly likely that you will be handed a menu the size of the Yellow Pages with lots of different beers, brewed lots of different ways, with lots of different strengths. A 5% beer is considered weak in Belgium. That’s what the tee-totallers drink. Your barperson/server will no doubt take their beer – and therefore your beer – very seriously, so ask for a suggestion or two. Some of the bars we frequented and enjoyed wholeheartedly include Taverne Mannekin Pis, A Le Becasse, Delirium, Au Bon Vieux Temps, Moeder Lambic, and Monk. There are many many more.
If you want to go back in time and test some very traditional beers from the source, you may want to tour the Cantillon Brewery. We didn’t get the chance this time round, but for 7€ you get a tour and a drink. It’s open from 10am-5pm every day apart from Sundays and Wednesdays.
It’s a simple trip out on the tram to Heysel, and to the nine-sphered structure built for the world fair in 1958. Basically it’s a load of old balls – but it’s a popular tourist attraction, and be prepared for a lengthy queue to enter and see the various exhibits that it now houses. The escalators in particular are cool. Its 11€ per adult, and is open from 10am to 6pm every day. I’d recommend getting there early to avoid the worst of the crowds. The views from the top are good (but not spectacular) – it’s one of those sights I can tick off the list to say I’ve done but I wouldn’t say it’s a must-see if your time in Brussels is limited.
Parc du Cinquantenaire
I love to spend a little bit of time getting away from buildings and communing with nature, and Jubilee Park – Parc du Cinquantenaire – is the perfect place to do this in Brussels. This sprawling urban park is home to the Triumphal Arch – (second tallest and widest in the world, fact fans, after the Arc de Triomphe) – and three museums: Royal Museum of Art & History, Royal Museum of Army & Military History, and the Autoworld Museum. Make sure you check opening times if you’re planning on heading to any of the museums, as many are closed on Mondays.
This lively area of Brussels is just a short walk from Grand Place, and is a good place for eating and drinking. The speciality is seafood; indeed this area used to be the location of the ancient port of Brussels and its retained its fishy theme. The square is dominated by the beautiful gothic Saint Catherine’s church. At Christmas, this area is the epicentre of the Brussels Christmas Market, complete with a magnificent ferris wheel and the opportunity to check out the festivities from above.
Grand Sablon / Petit Sablon
These two squares are located on what seems to be the only hill in Brussels, and have become home to antique shops, cafes and luxury chocolatiers. We spent a final leisurely lunch here before our Eurostar back to the UK, and sitting in the warm April sunshine nursing a Leffe (or two) and a carbonnade flamande remains one of my favourite Brussels memories. There are antique markets in the square of a weekend. A walk through this area takes you on to Place Royale with Saint Jacque-sur-Coudenberg church dominating the skyline, the Musical Instruments Museum (definitely one for a rainy day) and the floral carpet of Jardin du Monts des Arts. This is an area which didn’t get the opportunity to explore, and gives us plenty of reasons to return.
Daytrips from Brussels
Brussels is an excellent base to discover what else Belgium has to offer, and the public transport system is cheap and efficient. We’d already visited Bruges, so took the opportunity this time to take the 30-minute train ride to Ghent. Trains leave on a frequent basis from Gare du Midi. It’s even possible to visit the Netherlands or Luxembourg if you’re into ticking off countries!
Ghent is lovely, a university town with those postcard canal views. Like Brussels itself, it reveals more of itself around every corner and on a sunny day like today it’s lovely to while away the hours with a drink on the waterfront.
So, this isn’t a fully exhaustive guide to Belgium’s attractions by any means; this is based on what we got up to in two (and a half) days. We took the opportunity to use Brussels as a base for a daytrip to Ghent, and would do this again. But Brussels is now surprisingly one of my favourite capital cities, with a vibe that I haven’t experienced anywhere else.
If you’ve been to Brussels, what have we missed off the must-see and do list?