The Best Things to Do in Brussels

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.

4 Avenue Palmerston
Belgium is famous for its Art Nouveau architecture from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While many architects were experimenting with this new style, Victor Horta is Brussels’ undisputed father of Art Nouveau. Many of his stunning creations are still in use around the city, like the Hôtel van Eetvelde on Place Ambiorix, added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list in 2000. While the Hôtel van Eetvelde is only open to the public during special ‘open heritage’ days in Brussels, it’s well worth walking through the neighbourhood, rich in dramatic architecture. To see inside one of Horta’s creations, visit the Horta House Museum, in the St. Gilles neighbourhood. This was Victor Horta’s home and studio and he designed every last detail, inside and out. It is also a UNESCO listed building. Guided Art Nouveau walks are provided by many tour companies, including the Brussels Greeters volunteer network. You can also download a self-guided tour map from the Visit Brussels website.
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.
1000 Brussels, Belgium
The Grand Place in Brussels is the magnificent main square in Brussels. The square is the main tourist attraction in Brussels and is surrounded by numerous cafes and shops. Most of the buildings were constructed in the late 17th century, although market activity in the square dates back to the 12th Century. It’s a great place to hang out, grab a coffee or a liege waffle, and people watch.
Rue des Sablons, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
While Brussels Sablon Square is most famous for shopping (especially if you are in the market for Belgian chocolate) it’s well worth visiting the pretty church at the top of the triangle. The Église Notre Dame du Sablon (Church of Our Lady of Sablon) is a late Gothic church with a royal connection. The church is the starting point for the annual Ommegang procession, commemorating the arrival of Charles V in Brussels. Notre Dame de Sablon was built for the Grand Serment Royal et de Saint-Georges des Arbalétriers de Bruxelles, the crossbow guild of Brussels. Inside the church you can see hints of this connection in the stained glass windows, featuring crossbowmen. The crossbow guild’s other connection to Notre Dame de Sablon is seen during their shooting competitions. The most difficult event consists of shooting 36 meters straight up into the air, to hit a tiny metal bird target. The distance is taken from the ground to the top of the steeple of the church, where the target used to be placed.
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.
Rue Vandenbussche 54, 1030 Bruxelles, Belgium
Brussels has plenty of green spaces to choose from. One of my favourites is in a neighbourhood often overlooked by tourists, but is well worth a visit. Parc Josaphat, in the commune of Schaerbeek, is 20 hectares of green parkland, filled with plants, people, art, and bunny rabbits. The park was created in 1904 and is all that remains of the Linthout forest. Legend says it was named by a pilgrim who had just returned from Palestine. He was struck by the resemblance of Schaerbeek’s Roodebeek valley with that of the Josaphat valley, in the Holy Land. These days Parc Josaphat is a multicultural meeting ground, due to Schaerbeek’s large Middle Eastern community. Throughout the park, you’ll find works of art, from historic statues to modern sculpture. There is a mini-golf park, a playground, and areas for archery, football, petanque, and tennis. If you visit early in the morning or at dusk, you’re sure to see the park’s other inhabitants – dozens of wild rabbits who have made Parc Josaphat their home.
Rue Gheude 56, 1070 Anderlecht, Belgium
No trip to Belgium is complete without experiencing the Belgian beer culture. The best place in Brussels to take a look at beer history is the Cantillon Brewery. Even as a non beer drinker, it’s a fascinating place to visit. One of the things that makes Cantillon so special, is that it has hardly changed since it opened its doors in 1900, (including the dust and cobweds!) The second unique aspect of Cantillon, is the spontaneous fermentation of its tart Lambic beers. Beer really is in the air around Brussels! Cantillon beers are 100% organic and come in a variety of styles and flavours, from traditional Lambic and Faro beer to the tart cherry beer, Kriek. Tours take place every day in multiple languages and, if you’re lucky, your visit could coincide with brewing or bottling days.
Rue Américaine 25, 1060 Bruxelles, Belgium
Brussels has over 200 examples of Art Nouveau buildings, many of which are open to the public at certain times of the year. Even if you can’t view them all from the inside, it’s worth admiring the exteriors. Visit Brussels has put together a free, downloadable map of all of the important Art Nouveau architecture in the city, divided into 11 neighbourhoods. You simply print the guide and let your feet do the work. Don’t forget your camera!
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.
Square de l'Atomium
I wasn’t sure what to think when I first saw a picture of the Atomium in a Belgium guidebook, but it turned out to be one of the coolest kitschy tourist attractions I’ve ever visited. The Atomium was built for the World’s Fair hosted by Brussels in 1958. It’s not quite as famous as other monuments like the the Eiffel Tower and Space Needle, built for similar expos, but in some ways it’s far more intriguing. Visits start with an elevator ride to an observation deck. After returning to the ground floor, visitors explore remaining levels of the Atomium by escalator and stairs. The exhibits inside focus on the history of the Atomium and on Belgian design. The exhibits aren’t always thrilling, but there is absolutely nothing like spending a couple of hours wandering around inside a giant metal atom.
Rue Antoine Dansaert 6, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
L’Archiduc is Brussels best loved venue for live jazz. This Art Deco cocktail bar is a favourite for Saturday night’s “After Shopping Jazz” and Sunday’s “Round About 5” live music. The club has been in existence since 1937 and under its current ownership since 1985. With its classic atmosphere, it’s like stepping back in time as you sink into one of the cozy benches. The well-stocked bar carries everything from whiskeys to champagnes but is best known for its cocktails. L’Archiduc is open from 5pm ‘til late’ (generally 5am), every night except Christmas Eve. Press the buzzer by the door to be admitted, order a champagne cocktail, pull up a chair by the grand piano, sit back and enjoy the music.
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.
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