Brussels Travel Guide

What to Do in the City of Beer and Chocolate

brussels picture
••• Aerial view of Brussels, Belgium. Alexander Gatsenko/E+/Getty Images

Brussels is the Capital of Belgium and the European Union. A majority of the Brussels metropolitan area's 1.8 million inhabitants speak French, but Brussels is historically Dutch-speaking.

Although Brussels dates from the 19th Century, most of Brussels old town was destroyed for new construction between 1880 and 1980, so very little of the old city is preserved. The Grand Place-Grote Markt is the exception, and it's the tourist center of Brussels.

But potential tourists should not despair, Brussels has an extraordinary number of interesting museums, restaurants, and galleries to visit.

Brussels is in our list of Top Youth Destinations in Europe as well as the ​Best Eurostar Destinations from London

See also: Europe's Top Cities: From the Cheapest to the Most Expensive

When to Go to Brussels

Brussels is prone to rain all year around, but storms tend to be short. Summer is ideal, when city folks leave for vacation and high temperatures average just over 70 degrees Fahrenheit. For Temperature and precipitation charts and current weather, see: Brussels Travel Weather.

Brussels on the Cheap

Larger cities in Europe may be expensive on the surface, but offer many opportunities for cheap amusement. See Brussels on the Cheap for some travel tips for budget travelers. You'll find cheap eats, free museums and museum days, and even suggestions for cheap dates.

Brussels Train Stations

Brussels has three train stations, Brussels Nord, Brussels Centrale and Brussels Midi.

Brussels Nord, as the name implies, is to the north of Brussels. It is the least convenient station to get to the city center.

Brussels Centrale is in the center of Brussels, and thus far more convenient for tourists.

It is surrounded by hostels and hotels. Trains depart from Brussels Centrale for all the other cities of Belgium.

Brussels Midi is in the south of the city, and is the busiest train station, hosting not only intercity trains but international high-speed trains like the Eurostar and Thalys. It is about an hour and a half travel time to Paris from Brussels and an hour and 50 minutes to London on the high-speed trains from Brussels Midi. Hotels near the Gare du Midi (book Direct)

Brussels Airport

Brussels Airport is located about 14 kilometers (9 miles) from the city center. Major hubs associated with Brussels are London, Frankfurt and Amsterdam. Find out how to get from the airport to Brussels with our Brussels Airport Transportation Guide.

Brussels: Where to Stay

Traditionalists may wish to book a user-rated Brussels Hotels (book direct). To get closer to the culture you're staying within, you might wish to rent a vacation rental.

Brussels has many self-catering accommodations, from small apartments to sprawling villas for large families and groups. Self-catering can save money over renting hotel rooms, especially for families. HomeAway lists almost 50 vacation rentals in Brussels (book direct).

Brussels: What to See and Do

Brussels Tours - for travelers who don't want to discover Brussels on their own, try these tours whose themes range from gourmet food to chocolate to beer to day trips around Brussels.

One of the top attractions in Brussels is the Atomium, a representation of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times built as a temporary exhibit for Expo '58. The atom is composed of 9 spheres, 6 of them open to visitors and connected by escalators. There's a good view from the top sphere, which serves as a restaurant. A recent renovation has turned one of the spheres into a "Kids' sphere hotel."

Brussels is loaded with museums, and Thursdays night those museums are open late with special events, interactive activities and tours. To prepare yourself, you might want to check out Museum Talks, where you can hear short talks in many different languages (including English) on particular exhibits found in Brussels museums.

A Brussels Card offers good discounts on museums and events in Brussels, plus free access to public transportation and a 25% discount to the Atomium. You can buy the card online in French, but it might be better to wait and purchase one at a Tourist office on the Grand Place, at midi train station or on the Mont des Arts.

The Mont des Arts, the "Art Town in the City" offers gardens and a profusion of museums, theaters and historic buildings. Its position between the upper and lower town have made it a favorite view spot, especially at sunset.

The top art museums in Brussels are The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts). 2011 is not the time to visit, as they will be closed most of the year for renovation.

Lovers of music and the instruments that have produced it over the years will like the Museum of Musical Instruments (Musee des Instruments de Musique--or MiM) in the center of Brussels. You get some headphones at the entrance of the Art nouveau building to hear the musical instruments you're standing in front of, which include instruments from all over the world. Address: Rue Montagne de la Cour 2 Brussels.

Also popular with visitors is the Belgian Comic Strip Center located in the Art Nouveau Waucquez Warehouse and open every day except Monday.

The Royal Greenhouses of Laeken can only be visited in a two-week period of April-May when most flowers housed in the 18th century greenhouses are in bloom. The information page will tell you the planned dates for the current year.

Not only can you visit the Brussels Gueuze Museum at the Cantillon Brewery (Gueuze is a type of lambic beer) but they've mapped a historic walking tour in PDF form you can take to get to the museum. Download and print Brussels is definitely worth a gueuze before you go.

Peeing Statues

Need a short walk after your beer? You can take an itinerary that includes Brussel's three peeing statues.

One of the most famed attractions in Brussels is Manneken Pis, literally "Little Man Pee," which is a bronze statue of a little boy peeing into a fountain. Its origins are unclear, but sculptor Hiëronymus Duquesnoy the Elder's fame has reached around the globe. Today, it is a bonna fide symbol of the city. But did you know there are two other "peeing" sculptures?

The second one is Jeanneke Pis, a girl equivalent made in 1987. Some calls it gender equality; some may find it offensive--while to most others, it stands as another example of Belgians' sense of humor.

And the third peeing sculpture is the canine Zinneke Pis. This easy-to-overlook sidewalk sculpture at Rue de Chartreux 31 shows... well, a dog peeing.

Free Museums

Brussels, home of Art Nouveau, has great museums that chronicle Belgium's present and past. A number of public museums open their doors for free on first Wednesday of each month, from 1pm . Some of the participating venues are:

Got Kids?

Yes, Brussels will accommodate them. Free Mussels for the little tykes? Yup. See 5 Things to do in Brussels with Kids.

Brussels Day Trips

A short drive or train ride north brings you to the town of Mechelen, then further north to Antwerp.

Brussels Cuisine

Enjoy Belgium's famous fries in a frietkot. Brussels offers many sauces or dips as an alternative to ketchup and plain mayo. Waffles also are popular and inexpensive.

Belgian beer--Lambic is Brussels' regional brew, fermented from the wild yeasts of the Senne valley. Try Brussels' famous Rabbit cooked in beer; beer cookery is renowned in Belgium.

Try the Rue des Bouchers for your shellfish craving, especially for Moules, the famous mussels of Brussels.

Buying Chocolate in Brussels

While luxury chocolate boutiques like Pierre Marcolini may seem pricey, they are certainly much more affordable here than in other cities. So despite their prices, they can be good deals. (But resist the temptation to stock up on them--good truffles contain no preservatives, and therefore only last a few weeks.)

Those of us who want to save should beeline to a supermarket. You'll taste that a Belgian brand found in a grocery store still trumps what passes as chocolate in most other countries. A generic Delhaize supermarket baking chocolate is superb. And at €3, jars of chocolate spreads make great, affordable gifts. Try homegrown names like Newtree and Leonidas.

Godiva, while marketed as luxury overseas, is another solid everyday product in Belgium.

A word of caution, however: Stay far away from souvenir shops and their "discounted" boxes of inferior chocolate. You won't see a local buying them.

For connoisseurs and die-hard fans, Brussels also offers the Museum of Cocoa & Chocolate at Rue del tete d’or 90-11.

Wittamer place du Grand Sablon has a cafe where you might try some of Belgium's famous chocolate in a hot chocolate.

Cheap Eats in Brussels

1. Fritland
49 rue Henri Maus
Let's clear up one thing. The French may have been unfairly credited, but it's really the Belgians who invented the culinary perfection that is frites. And they know how to make fries like no other. In the heart of (touristy) Brussels, you'll find this excellent frietkot, or fries stand, that serves fries in all shapes. Try the mayo, not ketchup, as it is the choice condiment in Belgium.

2. Noordzee / Mer du Nord
Place St. Catherine
A fishmongers in trendy St. Catherine also serves seafood that is grilled, poached, fried or however the cook's whimsy inspired him. It's super crowded--for a good reason. Grab one of the outside tables where you stand, and dine with a fashionable crowd.

3. Chaochow City
Boulevard Anspach 89-91
If you want to eat very cheaply, go straight to this Chinese restaurant. In the shopfront looking out to the bustling sidewalk, diners choose from a respectable selection of dishes. Daily specials are as low as €3.50 for lunch and €5.20 for dinner. And before you dismiss it as a poor fast food substitute, watch the busloads of Chinese tourists coming in to eat here as well.

4. Mr. Falafel
Lemonnierlaan 53
Really good falafels prepared right before your eyes for €4--but that's not the end of it. After you get your falafels, you fix your sandwich at the salad bar yourself. Load up on the fixings and sauce as much (and often) as you want. It's a steal.

5. Msemen at a food stall
Gare du Midi market, Avenue Fonsny
Brussels has a sizable North African population, and you have to look no further than the bustling Gare du Midi market to see the proof. Follow the comforting smell of cooking oil and mint tea, and you'll find a popular stall serving Msemen, or stuffed Moroccan crepe. A huge portion goes for €2.50.

Cheap Nightlife in Brussels

  • Cinematek
    Baron Hortastraat 9, Brussels
    The royal film museum, known as Cinematek, is one of the largest film archives in Europe. It shows a roster of classics and world cinema--for €3 a pop.
  • Cinema Nova
    Rue d’Arenberg 3, Brussels
    Another great art house movie theater also stocks a selection of uncommon brews--so you can kick back with a bottle of obscure beer and watch an even more obscure film. €5 for a film.
  • Bonnefooi
    Rue des Pierres 8, Brussels
    The "music cafe" bar is a live concert venue with an eclectic lineup. Most often there's no cover. The crowd is also mixed and lively. It's a great place to enjoy live music and meet people.
  • De Markten
    Rue du Vieux Marché aux Grains 5, Brussels
    This "cultural center" has diverse program of concerts and theater performances, as well as children-friendly shows. There's also a cafe with a good, affordable selection of food.