Brussels is often overlooked on the “Grand Tour” of Europe. It’s true, the city may have more Eurocrats than you can shake a Security Policy at, but scratch the surface and you’ll find a vibrant international city with plenty to offer the experiential traveler. Art lovers can spend weeks browsing the galleries, and architecture buffs stroll Art Nouveau–lined streets. Comic book fans spend hours flipping through the city’s “strip” shops, and fashionistas lose themselves (and their wallets) inside cutting-edge boutiques. Add to this the city’s incredible food scene, and you have Europe’s best-kept secret.

Ixelles, Brussels / Belgium - 05 31 2019: People walking over the renovated pedestrian zone of the Fernand Cocq square with a fountain in the front

Photo By Werner Lerooy/Shutterstock


When’s the best time to go to Brussels?

With hundreds of summer festivals and the stunning Christmas Market in December, Brussels is happening year-round. To avoid the heaviest tour-bus crowds and still catch some nice weather, visit in late spring or early autumn. Belgium’s weather is unpredictable, though, so don’t forget your umbrella.

How to get around Brussels

Brussels International Airport, known locally as Zaventem, is a bustling hub, with direct flights from many U.S. cities. A cab ride from the airport to the city center will set you back upwards of €40 (about $50). To save euros, and time wasted in traffic, head to the train station in the airport’s basement. Direct trains to Brussels’ three main stations leave every 20-40 minutes and cost about €8.

Brussels’ historic center is easily walkable, but to explore its other neighborhoods (something you really should do) you need to brave public transportation. The metro, trams, and buses all use the same ticketing system. You can ride anywhere within the system (including transfers) within an hour, for about €2. Buy a 10 “jump” ticket for €13.50 to save time and money.

Can’t miss things to do in Brussels

Visiting Brussels without standing in line for the perfectly double-fried french fry is unthinkable. The best friterie is hotly contested among locals, but the length of the line is directly proportional to the quality of the frites. Good bets are Maison Antoine on Place Jourdan, Friterie de la Chapel, or Place Flagey. Choose from one of the dozens of sauces (“samurai sauce"—mayonnaise with harissa—is a favorite), and enjoy them at a nearby cafe, as long as you’ve purchased a beverage.

Food and drink to try in Brussels

Belgians love to eat and are discerning when it comes to food. This is great news for foodies visiting Brussels. Whether you’re after a Michelin-starred experience or simply the perfect crispy french fry, you’ll find it here. The vibrant international community influences the city’s food scene, resulting in flavors from around the world. The secret to picking the perfect Brussels restaurant: If you almost walk by it because it looks a bit shabby outside, but it’s jam-packed with locals inside, you’ve found a winner. Avoid the tourist traps around Grand Place and Rue des Bouchers, and you’re bound to have a great meal.

Culture in Brussels

The heart of Brussels is its UNESCO-listed Grand Place, but there’s plenty to experience after you’ve gotten a crick in your neck from looking up at the magnificent guildhalls. Brussels is also home to the Art Nouveau movement, and some stunning examples by local architects like Victor Horta still dot the city streets. The city’s art galleries cover the entire spectrum. See Flemish masters at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, modern art at Bozar, or up-and-coming contemporary works at tiny galleries throughout the city. Belgium’s surrealist hero, René Magritte, has his own interactive museum, and just around the corner is the whimsical Musical Instrument Museum. Every weekend, concerts, festivals, exhibitions, and performances take place around the city. The only drawback is the impossibility of experiencing them all.

Belgium has thousands of festivals covering food and drink, all styles of music, centuries-old cultural events, and the downright quirky. Brussels makes a great base for festival-hopping around the country but is also home to some of its own. Winter Wonders is Brussels’ festive Christmas Market and includes food, rides, a nightly light show, international pavilions, and musical guests. The Brussels Summer Festival and Bruxelles les Bains (the city beach) keep the summer months hot, with international bands and plenty of umbrella drinks. Foodies shouldn’t miss EAT! Brussels in early September, the Megavino wine festival in mid-October, or Belgian Beer Weekend in September. Movie buffs can enjoy a week of international films in June at the Brussels Film Festival. Or transport yourself back in time at the Ommegang Festival, taking place in Grand Place since medieval times. Don’t forget the world-renowned Grand Place Flower Carpet, which happens for a week every other August.

Local travel tips for Brussels

Brussels is a city of closely guarded secrets. It can take newcomers ages to find the city’s heart. That’s because Brussels is actually a series of cities within a city. The Brussels capital region is made up of 19 communes, or neighborhoods, each with its own town hall, shopping area, restaurants, and personality. It’s worth venturing into some of the less visited communes to experience a completely different atmosphere. Explore St. Gilles for its quirky ethnic restaurants, Ixelles for its posh shopping, or Woluwe-Saint-Pierre for its vast green spaces. Contact the Brussels Greeters for free tours of Brussels by local volunteers who will show you the best their neighborhood has to offer.

Guide Editor

Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Brussels-based Canadian journalist and photographer specializing in travel and food.

Read Before You Go
The route will begin with Brussels–Amsterdam–Berlin service and will extend to Dresden and Prague in 2024.
Resources to help plan your trip
Expect to find much more than pommes frites, moules, and Brussels sprouts at the restaurants and bistros of Brussels. Belgian cuisine picks up traditions from the tables of its neighbors, France and Germany, as well as reflecting the cuisines of its international population and the bounty of local farms, ocean, and gardens.
Belgium has only 43 miles of coastline but, as with everything here, good things come in small packages. From vibrant coastal cities like Oostende to quieter villages like Blankenberge, the highlight is watching the traditional horse fishermen haul in their catches of gray shrimp. The best way to explore the area is on the world’s longest tramline, which stretches the length of the Belgian coast.
The Ardennes refers to a hilly, forested corner of Wallonia and encompasses the cities of Namur and Dinant as well as many picturesque towns and villages. Largely undiscovered by foreign tourists, it’s a local getaway for sports activities, relaxing, and enjoying nature. The drive along the Meuse River is studded with castles, scenic lookouts, and wonderful restaurants.
Antwerp is the beating heart of Flemish Belgium and deserves at least a weekend of exploration. Here is great food, fascinating history, stunning architecture, and a bit of quirky fun.
The capital of Belgium has small town charm with big city attractions such as cute cafes, excellent restaurants and distinctive architecture. The eight-room, Fellini-inspired Odette en Ville is an ideal base to explore the well-heeled Châtelain neighborhood. The Radisson Blu Royal Hotel puts you in an art deco–inspired building in the heart of the city. Design lovers will want to book one of the bright rooms of the Pantone Hotel, each themed according to its own color.
With countless museums, numerous parks, and abundant art and cultural happenings, Brussels offers much for the culturally curious. Entertaining yourself in the city can be as cheap and easy as lacing up some comfortable footwear and taking a self-guided walking tour.
Belgium’s Royal Family may not be well-known outside the country, but over the years they have influenced the look of Brussels. You can drive by the Royal Residence and maybe catch a glimpse of the current King and Queen—or peek inside the Royal Place during the summer months. Here are places around Brussels to see the impact of the Belgian Royals.
Autumn is busy in Brussels, with school and work beginning after the lazy summer holidays. New expats and students descend on the city, and the streets have a renewed bustle. Festivals and events mark the ramp-up to Christmas (think beer, wine, and food), and a walk in Parc Royale or Tervuren is a great way to see the changing leaves.
After you’ve seen the essentials—the City Centre, the government buildings, the botanic gardens and tulips, it’s easy to grab a bus or train to the surrounding towns for a flavor of rural life and many more fantastic experiences.
Perhaps you don’t have all day to spend combing the extensive collections of the major museums. That’s OK, because Brussels has bite-sized cultural attractions, too.
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