Things to Do in Brussels
Arguably Europe’s most beautiful square, Brussels’ Grand Place—in the heart of the historic and hip city—is surrounded by nearly 40 baroque and gothic guildhalls and the stunning Brussels Town Hall. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the large cobblestone square, also known as Grote Markt, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Belgium.
The Manneken Pis—sculptor Jerome Duquesnoy’s small bronze statue of a little boy urinating into a Brussels fountain—is one of Belgium’s most beloved landmarks. Built in 1619, the boy is hailed as the capital’s oldest resident and remains a favorite of both locals and tourists, with a host of myths and legends to his name.
Inaugurated in 1847, the Royal Galleries of Saint Hubert in Brussels form one of Europe’s most beautiful and oldest glass-roofed shopping arcades. Composed of three elegant, Florentine-inspired arcades, the galleries are lined with upscale shops and restaurants and draw around 6 million visitors each year.
One of Brussels’ most iconic structures, the futuristic Atomium is a gargantuan structure designed to resemble an iron molecule magnified 165 billion times. It was created in 1958 for the Expo 58, and though it was originally slated for demolition, it was so popular with locals that it became a permanent feature of the city’s skyline.
Located just a 10-minute walk from Brussel’s bustling Grand Place, Grand Sablon Square (Place du Grand Sablon) is a historic square at the heart of the Sablon quarter. It feels a world away from the busy city center, with striking medieval townhouses, stylish restaurants, terrace cafés, and a lively antiques market.
Dating back to the 18th century and fronted by the idyllic Parc de Bruxelles (Brussels Park), the Royal Palace of Brussels (or Palais Royal Bruxelles) might no longer be the official residence of Belgium’s royal family, but it remains one of the capital’s most magnificent landmarks and the site of various royal and state events.
Autoworld houses over 250 incredible vehicles of various origins and covers the history of the automobile while demonstrating the evolution and development of cars over more than a century. The displays include automobiles that are basically horse drawn carriages from the time when the horse was replaced with a steering wheel and an engine. There are exclusive sports cars from the 1960s and a Bugatti from 1928. The museum even has motorcycles and exhibits about the development of the garage. A separate room houses horse carriages, including one used by Napoleon the Third's wedding in 1853.
The cars on display here are all of European or US origin. They are arranged in chronological order so visitors can start from the origins of the automobile and work their way through the different developments throughout history. There is also an evolutionary time line of cars from the late 1800s to the 2000s including a blank spot for the future. The time line highlights the most popular makes and models in Europe during each decade. The gift shop sells postcards, key chains, and miniature model cars for every make you can imagine.
Named for the patron saints of Brussels, the St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral is a cocathedral of the local Catholic archdiocese and one of the most beautiful churches in the city. It stands upon the ruins of an 11th-century Romanesque chapel, the remains of which can be viewed for a nominal fee.
Brussels is the administrative heart of the European Union and the Espace Léopold buildings are where parliament meets throughout the year to debate and discuss the future of Europe. The main building of the European Parliament complex is the Paul-Henri Spaak building, an impressive glass structure with a distinctive arched roof, it’s been nicknamed "Caprice des Dieux" (whim of the gods) after a similarly shaped French cheese.
The hemicycle is where parliament debates; it seats the 736 Members of the parliament, numerous translators and a gallery for the general public. The semicircular shape is designed to encourage consensus among the political parties.
There are a number of interesting works of art on public view including May Claerhout’s sculptureEuropa,which has become a favorite among tourists.
Set in the private home and studio of the late Victor Horta—a pioneer of the art nouveau movement—Brussels’ Horta Museum (Musée Horta) is a fascinating window into the early-20th-century architect’s work. Marvel at the two buildings’ interiors, facades, and furniture exemplifying Horta’s love of fluid curves and organic forms.
More Things to Do in Brussels
The Palace of Justice is believed to be the largest building constructed in the 19th century. It’s covers 260,000 square feet (24,000 square meters) and dominates the Sablon area.
It was built on an area known as Gallows Hill overlooking the working-class parts of the city. Around 3,000 houses were demolished to make way for the building that is larger than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This angered locals and the word "architect" became a derogatory term.
The style of the imposing grey building is described as Assyro-Babylonian. It’s dominated by columns and a large glittering golden dome. The courts were commissioned by Leopold II and designed by Joseph Poelaert, and ended up costing 45 million Belgian francs to build.
Just a short stroll from Brussels’ central sights, the Sablon district has long been one of the city’s most affluent and atmospheric neighborhoods. Renowned for its elegant architecture and lively antiques market, the area is crammed with terrace cafes, hip restaurants, contemporary art galleries, and fine chocolatiers.
Spanning around 74 acres (30 hectares), sprawling Cinquantenaire Park (Parc du Cinquantenaire) was named in honor of the 50th anniversary of Belgian independence, which was celebrated there with the 1880 National. Today, the park is home to three museums, along with the Great Mosque of Brussels and a triumphal arch dating to 1905.
One of Belgium’s most famous beers and exported all around the world, Stella Artois has been brewed in the Belgian town of Leuven since 1926, when it was originally launched as a Christmas beer.
Today, touring the Stella Artois Brewery in Leuven has become a popular pastime for beer lovers and visitors can go behind-the-scenes, learning how the careful blend of malted barley, hops and water is achieved and watching the high-speed bottling process, before sampling a pint of Stella Artois and shopping for souvenirs at the Stella gift shop. The brewery has a history dating back six centuries, with its namesake Sebastian Artois taking over as master brewer in 1708, and is now run by the world’s biggest brewing company, Anheuser-Busch InBev, producing not only Stella Artois, but other iconic brands like Leffe and Hoegaarden.
Dominating the Gothic and Baroque mansions of Brussels’s glorious cobbled Grand-Place from the south side, the spectacular City Hall has a flamboyant Gothic façade and more restrained classical additions lying around a courtyard behind it.
Begun in 1402, this beloved local landmark was largely designed by Flemish architect Jacob van Thienen, but its distinctive lacy central belfry is the work of his compatriot Jan van Ruysbroeck and doubles the height of the façade, reaching up to 320 feet (97 m). It is adorned with a copper statue of St Michael – the patron saint of Brussels – killing a dragon; the belfry is useful to navigate by when lost in the charming tangle of streets of Brussels old city, especially when gloriously floodlit at night. The entire building is encrusted with 294 sculptures of saints and public figures, which were added by 91 different artists during the late 19th century.
A tour of the interior begins with a stunning marble staircase lined with busts of the mayors of Brussels from 1830 onwards and incorporates visits to the Gothic Chamber, Marriage Chamber and College Chamber. They are all largely neo-Gothic in style, thanks to the 19th-century restoration of the town hall, and are decorated with burnished wood paneling and ornate tapestries depicting ancient trades.
Choco-Story: The Chocolate Museum in Brussels offers a chance to expand your knowledge of the beloved sweet while trying out locally produced chocolates. This small museum is dedicated to the history and manufacture of chocolate and offers all sorts of chocolate-related exhibits, plus plenty of free samples.
Walking down the tree-lined Avenue Louise is the best way to experience the city’s best in luxury and fashion. Belgian and international designer labels line the elegant thoroughfare, which runs adjacent to the Boulevard de Waterloo. Here you’ll find upscale clothing shops for both women and men, with smaller, more affordable boutiques interspersed.
The avenue was commissioned by King Leopold II in 1847 to provide more direct access to the city’s Bois de la Cambre area. Named for his daughter Princess Louise, it now serves as a main street in the heart of Brussels. Keep your eyes peeled for art deco townhouses, extravagant hotels, and small, manicured parks and gardens. The avenue is also home to some of the city’s tallest office buildings. Or go for a leisurely stroll along the avenue’s 2.7 kilometers and be content with window shopping and people watching.
Featuring six different galleries, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium house more than 20,000 works of art dating from the 15th to the 21st centuries. Individually and collectively, the Brussels museum complex provides a fascinating overview of the great movements and artists of Western art, from the medieval to the modern era.
Behind the facade of a dark, grey Neogothic structure lays a collection of artifacts that tell the story of the city of Brussels. This intricate building is known as the Maison du Roi ("King's House”) and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The structure is also known as Broodhuis (bread market), a nod to its use as such in the 13th century.
From its early development to medieval era to present day, learn about the city’s history through its tapestries, paintings, sculptures, and photographs. Altarpieces, porcelain and silverware round out the collection of historical objects on display. Exhibits cover everything from urban development to the social, political, and cultural life of the capital. Envision the past with 3D models to scale of the city in different time periods. Of particular note is the costume collection of the statue of Manneken-Pis, an emblem of Brussels said to have nearly 800 wardrobe choices.
Founded in 2013 to showcase Belgium’s contemporary beer scene, today the Brussels Beer Project (BBP) has taprooms in both Brussels and Paris. In the Brussels location, you'll find 17 taps with a number of BBP classic brews, along with a few new beers and a handful of offerings from outside breweries.
Right in the center of Brussels, a stunning art nouveau and neoclassical building is home to a vast collection of musical instruments from around the world. The Musical Instruments Museum (aka the MIM) showcases everything from Western keys and keyboards to classical instruments from medieval times through the late 1800s.
Blending the classic atmosphere of an American diner with the devil–may–care edge of rock ‘n’ roll, the Hard Rock Café is much more than just a café – it’s an international institution, and it was only a matter of time before the legendary restaurant made its way on to Belgian soil. Opening its doors in 2012, the Hard Rock Café Brussels has been enticing locals to swap their French fries and Belgian waffles for some all-American soul food ever since and there are few more atmospheric spots to tuck into a burger.
Taking over a restored 16th-century building in the heart of the capital, fans of the Hard Rock Café will find all their favorites on the Brussels’ menu, from Bar-B-Que Ribs to Wildberry Smoothies, but of course, the Hard Rock Café has always been about more than just the food. Like all Hard Rock Cafés, the Brussels franchise is crammed full of priceless rock memorabilia including items from legends like Bono, The Sex Pistols, Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley, as well as a stage costume worn by Madonna and a guitar played by Eric Clapton. Not only that, but there’s a live music area, a late night lounge, a Rock Shop filled with Hard Rock-inspired merchandise and the innovative Rock Wall™ Solo, an interactive touch wall offering a virtual tour of the Hard Rock Café’s 174 venues around the globe.
Found at the southern end of the Parc de Bruxelles, Coudenberg marks the site of the original palace of the Belgian Royal Family, which was destroyed to make way for the present Palais Royal. In the 12th century a small, fortified castle stood on Coudenberg Hill, and this was gradually extended and reworked by successive monarchs until it reputedly became one of the most beautiful palaces in Europe and the main residence of King Charles V.
In 1731 this imposing palace was destroyed by fire but it was not until 40 years later that its ruins were pulled down and the site flattened in preparation for the building of today’s stately Palais Royal.
The cellars and chapel of the original palace can now be viewed underground as they stretch far underneath the present-day Rue Royale. Once open to the elements, the forgotten medieval cobbled Rue Isabelle is now below the Place Royale. It ran alongside the Coudenberg Palace up to the Cathedral of Sts-Michael-and-Gudula on nearby Place Ste-Gudule.
Artifacts recovered from 25 years of excavation on the site at Coudenberg are now displayed at Hoogstraeten House, which was one of many aristocratic mansions that bordered the grounds of Coudenberg Place. Exhibits include clay pipes, armor and Venetian glassware.
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