Brussels: Historic and Hip, Bureaucratic and Bizarre

As Lonely Planet puts it: “Brussels is historic yet hip, bureaucratic yet bizarre, self-confident yet unshowy, and multicultural to its roots.”

Many visitors to Belgium limit their time to Brussels, which is where they almost all arrive. The city is a hub of transportation in Western Europe, with flights to all over the world and high-speed train connections to Amsterdam, Paris, London and beyond. It’s extremely easy to get to Brussels, so there really is no reason not to stop and pay a visit. Additionally, virtually every city in Belgium can be reached by public transportation from Brussels as well—fascinating old cities such as Antwerp, Bruges, Leuven and Ghent are no more than about an hour away.

Brussels may have a reputation of being a rather boring, bureaucratic capital city—it is, after all, the headquarters of NATO, the European Union and many other European institutions—it also has some fantastic attractions, world-class museums and unique architecture.

Located pretty much on the border between efficient Germanic northern Europe and laidback Romance southern Europe, Belgium’s largest city features a great mix of cultures. Add to that an undeniable African influence in certain areas, which dates from the days of the Belgian Congo, and you have a lively and charming city.

I don’t want to delve too deep into the city’s history—there’s plenty of information on the web—so let’s move on to an overview of the main attractions in Brussels… after this video.

Main Attractions in Brussels, Belgium

Grand-Place and Town Hall

Although Brussels may not have an old medieval core like most other larger cities and towns in Belgium, especially in Flanders, it does have a truly magnificent touristic focal point. Surrounded by ornate gilded guild houses, Brussels’ Grand-Place is the most beautiful urban square in the world. Seriously, I challenge you to find a town square that rivals the one in Brussels.

The majority of those guild halls were constructed in a four-year period (1696-1700), but the square itself is much older (dating back to the 11th century). As stunning as the guild halls are, they are overshadowed by the towering Town Hall, the absolute highlight of the Grand-Place. This should be the first stop during your visit to Brussels—the Grand-Place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

More information: Grand-Place of Brussels

Main attractions in Brussels: Grand-Place
The majestic Grand-Place

St. Hubert Galleries

The Royal St. Hubert Galleries have the distinction to be the oldest shopping arcade in Europe. Covered by a huge glass roof, it was constructed in 1847 and consists of high-end stores, cafés and theaters. The arcade is made up of three separate sections—the large King’s and Queen’s Galleries and the smaller Gallery of the Princes. This indoor shopping arcade is as stunning as it was 150 years ago. It’s a major attraction in Brussels.

More information: Royal St. Hubert Galleries

Main attractions in Brussels: Royal St. Hubert Galleries
Royal St. Hubert Galleries

Royal Museums of Fine Arts

A collection of four art museums, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts has two main museums that you should focus on—the Museum of Ancient Art and the Museum of Modern Art. They are conveniently house in the same building.

Especially the Museum of Ancient Art, also referred to as the Old Masters Museum, is an extraordinary museum with vast collections of paintings by the Flemish Primitives and later Flemish artists that date from the 15th to the 18th century—including world-renowned painters such as Brueghel, Jordaens, van Dyck, van der Weyden, Rubens, Bosch and Memling. It also exhibits works by international artists, more notably from the French and Italian schools.

The Museum of Modern Art focuses on the period from the 18th century until the present. Is displays modern and contemporary art. Although it’s worth strolling through, it is the Old Masters Museum that you should dedicate most of your time to.

The other two museums of the Royal Museums of Fine Art are the Fin-de-Siècle Museum that focuses on the 1900s when Brussels was the capital of the Art Nouveau movement, and the Magritte Museum that houses the world’s largest collection of works by the Belgian surrealistic artist René Magritte.

More information: Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

Main attractions in Brussels: Royal Museums of Fine Arts
Royal Museums of Fine Arts

Additional reading: 10 Belgian Towns That Will Surprise You


Manneken Pis

Arguably one of the most overrated tourist attractions in Europe, but an attraction nonetheless, is Manneken Pis. This tiny statue of a peeing boy is somewhat of a symbol of Brussels, which is something that could be misinterpreted. It’s not that Manneken Pis is the absolute number one highlight in the city; it’s simply a symbol of the down-to-earthness  and self-deprecating humor of the people of Brussels and Belgium in general.

The story behind the statue dates from as far back as the late-14th century and there are several legends attached to it. The origins of the real Manneken Pis may be a bit obscure, but it is a fact that this statue has stood on the same street corner since 1619.

This little naked boy is often not naked at all. He has no fewer than 760 different costumes. Although it may be a major tourist attraction, I’d suggest walking over, taking a look, possibly snapping a photo and moving on. There’s no need to linger there.

More information: Manneken Pis

Main attractions in Brussels: Manneken Pis
Manneken Pis

Atomium

The strange-looking Atomium was constructed for Expo 1958, the 1958 World Fair, held in Brussels. Representing an iron crystal that’s magnified 165 billion times; symbolizing scientific progress, the atomic revolution as well as optimistic view of the future after World War II, this remarkable building consists of nine huge spheres that are linked by escalators, stairways and an elevator.

You can climb the Atomium—its top sphere offers amazing views over the city. Additionally, it is also an event and exhibition space.

More information: The Atomium

Main attractions in Brussels: Atomium
The Atomium

Belgian Comic Strip Center

It’s a less-known fact, but Belgium has one of the highest numbers of cartoonists per capita in the world. Some of the world’s most famous comic book figures were created in Belgium—examples are Tintin, the Smurfs, and Spike and Suzy.

A fascinating museum housed in a spectacular building designed by the master of Art Nouveau architecture, Victor Horta, the Belgian Comic Strip Center showcases the works of more than 670 cartoonists from both Belgium and France, including sketches, drafts and manuscripts.

Additionally, you may also want to walk to Comic Strip Route, a walking tour through the heart of Brussels that runs past statues, and walls and buildings painted with scenes from comic books.

More information: Comics Art Museum

Main attractions in Brussels: Belgian Comic Strip Center
Belgian Comic Strip Center

Additional reading: 8 Delicious Belgian Dishes


Rue des Bouchers

Located just behind the Grand-Place, the Rue des Bouchers (Butchers’ Street) is arguably the most famous street in the entire city. This is Brussels’ restaurant row, a pedestrianized cobbled street lined with dozens of restaurants, bars and cafés housed in 17th-century step-gabled buildings. The street is well-known for its seafood restaurants—while walking through, you will see fresh fish and seafood piled on top of huge mounds of ice.

This is both Brussels’ most atmospheric street and its most tourist-centered street. Most restaurants offer relatively cheap food, but of average quality. That being said, however; Rue des Bouchers is home to a few superb restaurants as well—most notably Chez Leon and Aux Armes des Brussels.

Main attractions in Brussels: Rue des Bouchers
Atmospheric Rue des Bouchers

Royal Palace

Set on Royal Square, the Royal Palace is the official home of the Belgian royal family. This immense Neo-Classical building overlooks Brussels Park and is opened to the public in summer. If you see the Belgian flag fly on top of the palace, you know that the king is home.

More information: Belgian Monarchy

Main attractions in Brussels: Royal Palace
Royal Palace, the residence of the Belgian king

Cathedral of St. Michel and Gudule

This massive cathedral is dedicated to the patron saints of Brussels: St. Michel and St. Gudule. Built in Gothic style, this enormous structure—the two towers are 69 meters (226 feet) high—dates from 1225, but wasn’t finished until the late 1400s. The gorgeous white façade dates from 1250. The cathedral’s interior is equally as huge, filled with lavish decorations and beautiful stained-glass windows.

More information: Cathedral St. Michel and Gudule

Main attractions in Brussels: Cathedral of St. Michel and Gudule
Imposing façade of the Cathedral of St. Michel and Gudule

Additional reading: Urban Belgium in 50 Photos


I recommend spending at least two days in Brussels. You will need a full day to simply wander around the city center, see some of the architectural highlights and get a feel for the charm of Brussels. The second day, you can dedicate to visiting some particular attractions, such as a museum or two, and the Atomium.

If you have more days to spend—and you should set aside more than just two days in Belgium—you can go on day trips to other places. I’d suggest Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and Leuven, the major cities in Flanders. That’s a week right there. Other places you might want to visit include the abbey ruins of Villers-la-Ville, Dinant, Ypres, Waterloo and Mechelen.

The pictures of the Grand-Place, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, the Belgian Comic Strip Center, Rue des Bouchers and the Royal Palace are available on Flicker via the Creative Commons License. Credit goes to Jiuguang WangBob Ramsak/piran caféfmpgoh, Ludovic Lubeigt and Dennis Jarvis.

This article is also available as a smartphone app, allowing you to use it as a reference when visiting Brussels. You can get the app right here!

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2 thoughts on “Brussels: Historic and Hip, Bureaucratic and Bizarre

  • We were in Brussels this past March with our kids, boys aged 7 and 10. They really enjoyed the top notch Natural History museum as well as the Royal Museum of the armed forces. Both were spectacular and the armed forces museum was free. I would recommend both to any visitors with kids.

    • Nicole, I agree. The Natural History Museum is world-class; I used to love going there when I was a kid as well.

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