The Best small museums in Brussels

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.

Rue Montagne de la Cour 2, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
My favourite building in Brussels is the Old England on Mont des Arts, just around the corner from Place Royal. It’s a striking concoction of steel and glass in the Art Nouveau style Brussels is so famous for. But what’s on the inside is just as good as the beautiful exterior. Once a department store, the Old England building now houses the Musical Instrument Museum, or MIM. This fascinating collection of more than 8000 instruments is internationally renowned. Rather than just looking at the exhibits, you actually get to experience them. An audio-guide is included in the cost of admission, but this is no stuffy commentary. As you approach particular exhibits in the MIM, your guide begins to play the music of the instrument you are looking at. It’s a wonderfully interactive approach to learning. I have one more reason to love the Old England building and that is the cafe on the top floor. The food is good, but the selling point of this particular restaurant is the view – one of the best in the city centre. In nice weather, you can even dine on the roof terrace. You don’t have to visit the museum to enjoy the restaurant (although you should). Just tell the door attendant you want to go to the cafe and he’ll load you into the period glass and steel elevator and take you to the top floor.
Place Royale 7, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
Despite being a modern capital city, Brussels is still very much in touch which its historic past. Festivals, parades, architecture and traditions all hint at times gone by. One fascinating tradition is still active in Brussels and you can see it in action every Thursday night, near Place Royal. Tucked behind the museums and palace is a nondescript door, leading to a time gone by. It opens into the home of the Grand Serment Royal et de Saint-Georges des Arbalétriers de Bruxelles - the Crossbow Guild of Brussels. At one time, Brussels had many crossbowmen who protected the city walls from intruders. These days, they let the tourists in, but the crossbowmen (and now women) remain. The current mandate of the guild is to preserve the history and traditions of the crossbowmen and to teach others about this fascinating trade. Their guildhall is now a museum dedicated to the guild’s history. It still contains three shooting ranges of different lengths, where members practice every night. Meetings are open to the public (but are conducted in French) and new guild members are welcome. Being Belgium, there is a bar stocked with Ommegang beer, named for a historic pageant that was once integral to the crossbow guilds. It’s a fascinating way to watch history come to life before your eyes.
Kasteleinsstraat 49, 1050 Elsene, Belgium
The Contemporary Art scene in Brussels is thriving, but it can also be intimidating to newcomers. Many galleries can feel cold or stuffy, and visitors can be put off by the high prices of the works on display. Maison Particulière is a different kind of gallery. Here, nothing is for sale and the space is warm and inviting. Visitors are encouraged to relax on comfortable furniture and enjoy the art as if it was in their own homes. The art on display is on loan from private collectors, passionate about sharing their art with the public. They choose which of their works to include, based on a particular theme. Each room, in this beautiful gallery, reflects the personality of the individual collector, and stepping inside is like taking a peek into their own private world. Maison Particulière makes contemporary art feel accessible and demonstrates how you can live with art in a non-confrontational way.
Avenue Van Praet, 1020 Bruxelles, Belgium
The Chinese pavilion was built on the edge of the Royal Estate at Laeken on the orders of King Leopold II between 1901 and 1910. The wooden paneling on the outside of the Chinese Pavilion and its entry pavilion were sculpted in Shanghai. We went there when all the rhododendron flowers were in bloom and it was very beautiful. Definitely recommended!
Porte de Hal, Zuidlaan 150, 1060 Sint-Gillis, Belgium
The Porte de Hal (or Hallepoort in Flemish) may look like there should be a long haired princess trapped in the attic, (There isn’t. I checked.) but its function was much more important. Built in 1381, the Porte de Hal was one of the seven main entrances through the Brussels city wall. It was named Porte de Hal, as it faces the direction people would travel to and from the city of Hal (the door to Halle). Since its opening, in 2008, the Porte de Hal (or Halle Gate) museum has been telling visitors the story of Medieval Brussels. There is a strong focus on the city’s defence, with collections of weapons, armour (pieces of which you can actually try on) and exhibits on the former city walls. A highlight of the museum’s collection is a cradle said to have been used by Charles V. But by far the most interesting (and somewhat disturbing) artifacts in the museum are the horses ridden by Archduke Albert and his wife, Infanta Isabelle. They look rather ghoulish but are prized possessions of the museum nonetheless. Head to the tower’s roof for a beautiful view of the St. Gilles neighbourhood of Brussels.
10 Parc du Cinquantenaire, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
The Art & history Museum (formerly the Cinquantenaire Museum), located right beside Brussels’ iconic triumphal arch, is one of the best hidden-gem museums of the city. This museum of civilizations is part of the Royal Museums of Art and History. Permanent collections include archaeological artefacts and everyday items from Egypt to South-East Asia, and everywhere in between. Highlights include Egyptian sarcophagi, a mosaic floor from Apamea and one of the famous statues from Easter Island. There is also an impressive collection of Art Deco and Art nouveau items from right here in Belgium.
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