Brussels probably isn’t the first place you think to visit in Europe. It may not even be the first place you think of to visit in Belgium. It doesn’t have the blockbuster attractions like Buckingham Palace, the Louvre, or La Sagrada Familia.
What Brussels does have is some of the best food, beer, and chocolate you will find anywhere. It’s home to one of the most beautiful squares in the world and numerous interesting museums. This city even has its own unique mascot.
Is Brussels worth visiting? I have been to Brussels a few times and hope to make it back again soon. If you’re looking for somewhere to travel to in Europe, Brussels might just surprise you. Let me tell you more about this underrated city and explain why you should visit.
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Brussels is the capital of Belgium and the capital of Europe – well it’s home to the European Union headquarters and that’s as close to a capital as the EU gets! It is also the largest city in Belgium. If you include the suburbs, Brussels has a population of over two million.
The city is home to the Royal Palace, where the Belgian monarch exercises the duties of head of state. (Note: The Belgian Royal Family’s official residence is the Castle of Laeken located near the city of Laeken.) The Belgian Federal Parliament (held in the Palace of the Nation), the Prime Minister’s Office (also known as Law Street 16), the Palace of Justice, the Royal Belgian Mint, and the National Bank of Belgium are also all in Brussels.
Brussels is also the capital of both the French Community of Belgium and the Flemish Community. Both have parliaments and government offices in Brussels.
You can get an overview of the city on this free walking tour.
12 Reasons to Visit Brussels
I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food in Brussels. Before I traveled to Brussels, I had never eaten any mussels. When I saw everyone else enjoying them, it gave me the courage to try them too – and I loved them.
The fries, or frites as they are known in Brussels, are definitely some of the best I have ever had. They like to serve them with mayonnaise but I still prefer ketchup. If I am having moules frites then I will dip them in the broth.
You also must try the waffles when you visit Brussels. Of course, there are a variety of toppings you can choose from, but I actually preferred the waffles with just a bit of powdered sugar.
Of course, you could include chocolate with the rest of the amazing food in Brussels but it deserves a separate mention. Belgian chocolate is my favorite and arguably the best in the world.
What makes Belgian chocolate special? They introduced the Belgian Chocolate Code in 2007, but most Belgian chocolate is made following recipes that haven’t change in more than 100 years. It has a higher cocoa content than many other chocolate products.
Belgian chocolate is delicious, but is not cheap! I have been known to spend 100€ at Wittamer, my favorite fancy chocolate shop. It was not all for me though – it makes a great gift. Get more recommendations for chocolate shops in Brussels here.
Normally I prefer wine to beer. To be honest, it’s actually rare for me to drink beer. In Belgium, beer is my drink of choice. (Note: Next time I am in Belgium, I do plan on trying several wines, as I have been hearing it is underrated.)
In Belgium, they make fruit beers called lambics, which are more like a fruit soda with alcohol than the typical fruit beer you might find in the US. You can choose from many different flavors, and I encourage you to try them all. Personally, I have enjoyed all of them, but cherry (kriek) is my favorite.
For traditional beer lovers, there are lots of excellent options as well. My favorite more traditional beer is Duvel. If you want to do a beer tasting, check out Brussels Beer Project, a Belgian Beer Bar, or maybe time your visit so that you can go to the Belgium Beer Weekend (held in the Grand Place every September).
Those interested in learning more about the history of beer can visit Belgian Brewers Museum or the Schaerbeek Beer Museum. The Cantillon Brewery, which makes lambic, offers tours.
Note: Beer in Belgium has a considerably higher alcohol content than American beer.
#4 Grand Place
It is easy to see how the Grand Place got its name. Pronounced Gran Plass, many think it’s the most beautiful square in Europe. In 1998, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The construction of most of the buildings in the square began in the 15th century. It was destroyed by the French Army in 1695 and then rebuilt in less than five years.
The Grand Place contains opulent guildhalls, the city’s Town Hall with its 300-foot tall tower, and the King’s House or Breadhouse building housing the Brussels City Museum. The different buildings have different architectural styles – gothic, art nouveau, baroque, neo-classical, and neo-Gothic.
You must plan on spending some time in the Grand Place when you visit Brussels. At night, it is lit beautifully and has a magical atmosphere. Once in my life, I want to go when they cover the Grand Place with a carpet of flowers. It happens every two years during August and lasts a few days. The display includes over half a million begonias covering 19,000 square feet. Get more information about the event here.
#5 Manneken Pis
Just a short walk from the Grand Place, you will find Manneken Pis, which means “little pissing man” in Dutch. Manneken Pis is a statue depicting a little naked boy urinating into the fountain’s basin. It’s only two feet tall.
Manneken Pis has become Brussels’ mascot and has been around since at least the 15th-century based on mentions in administrative texts. It used to play an important role in the distribution of drinking water.
The current version of the statue was designed by Jérôme Duquesnoy the Elder and put in place in the early 17th century. It has since been moved to the Brussels City Museum and a replica from 1965 stands in its place.
A few times a week, Manneken Pis gets dressed up in costume. On some special occasions, the statue is hooked up to a keg of beer. The beer flows from the statue and cups are filled up for spectators.
Many people think that Manneken Pis is overrated. I disagree. He may be small but he made me smile. Even if you don’t catch him in costume or serving up beer, it’s still a fun spot for a selfie.
#6 Day Trips
Brussels is centrally located making it an excellent place to base yourself to see some of the other charming cites in Belgium. It’s easy (and affordable) to do a day trip to Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Waterloo or Liege. If you prefer, you can also do a day trip to Lille in France. All these destinations are only a short train ride away.
If you are not comfortable navigating public transportation on your own, there are several tours that you can choose from:
- Day Trip to Bruges from Brussels
- Day Trip to Antwerp from Brussels
- Day Trip to Ghent from Brussels
- Half-day Trip to Waterloo from Brussels
You may be surprised to learn that Brussels has over 80 interesting museums. They cover a wide variety of subjects (art, history, science, beer, chocolate, fashion, and more), so there is something for everyone.
The Brussels Card includes entrance to 44 museums and is an easy way to save money on your trip. Some of the most popular museums in Brussels are:
- Royal Museums of Fine Arts Belgium
- Museum of Brussels City
- BELvue Museum
- the Museum of Natural Sciences.
Find out more about the Brussels Card here including the discounts you can get for numerous guided tours, attractions, restaurants, stores, and bars.
The Atomium was originally built for the World’s Fair, which was held in Brussels in 1958.
It is an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times showing the power of nuclear energy that in 1958 was intended for peaceful use. Inside the debate continues – What kind of future do we want for tomorrow?
Science, Progress, and the Future are covered in changing exhibitions throughout the year. The permanent exhibition tells the history of Atomium. The highlight of your visit, though, is the panoramic view over Brussels. If you like, grab a bite to eat at the restaurant and marvel at the view.
It’s the most popular attraction in Brussels, so it’s wise to splurge for the skip-the-line ticket here.
#9 Mini Europe
Mini Europe is a park where you can see miniature versions of all the major monuments in Europe like the Eiffel Tower, the Doge’s Palace, the Acropolis, Big Ben, and more. Some of the models are animated – you can see Mt. Vesuvius erupt and the Berlin Wall fall – and all are at a scale of 1 to 25.
In addition to the miniature park, there is a newly renovated exhibition called “The Spirit of Europe.” You can learn more about the European Union including what it does for its citizens, the elections, and its symbols.
#10 European Parliament
Since Brussels is the capital of Europe, it is home to the European Parliament, which you can visit for free if you make a reservation here. Not only do you get to see where European laws are passed in the Hemicycle, but there is also the Parlamentarium, the House of European History, and Station Europe.
Plan on spending some time exploring the area around the European Union, called the European Quarter, too. You will find some boutique shops, lively squares, peaceful greenspaces, international restaurants, and more museums. It’s also a lovely area to walk around and appreciate the architecture as you will find examples of several different styles including Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Belle Epoque.
If you are interested in learning more about Art Nouveau in Brussels, you might enjoy this tour.
You won’t have any issues getting around Brussels even if you only speak English. Belgium has three official languages – Flemish (in the Flanders region in the north), French (in the Wallonia region in the south) and German (in the eastern regions of the province of Liege near Germany).
In Brussels, 80% of the population learned French as their first language. Since Brussels is a truly international city, there are many language schools for French, Flemish, English, and most other European languages as well. I was impressed with how well so many locals spoke English, especially in the tourist areas.
#12 It’s Easy to Get To
Brussels is an easy city to get to. There are direct flights from the US. Brussels Airport is located about 10 miles from the city. Once you land, it’s a short ride in a taxi, train, or bus to get to the city center.
It’s also easy to take the train from several other major European destinations like London, Paris, Cologne, and Amsterdam.
Where to Stay in Brussels
Since the Grand Place is the cultural center of Brussels, try to find a hotel nearby. I stayed at the Brussels Hilton (read Tripadvisor reviews here) and it was lovely to be able to walk a short distance and see the Grand Place in the evenings. Additionally, many of the tourist attractions will be within walking distance and for those that aren’t, it is easy to take the metro.
You could also look at the Airbnb options in Brussels here.
Is Brussels Worth Visiting?
I hope I have convinced you to give this underrated city a visit. It’s a beautiful place with plenty to do, plus some amazing food and drinks. With its central location, you also have the option to do a day trip (or two) to other nearby places.
Have you visited Brussels? Or is it still on your bucket list?
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Last Updated on September 25, 2020