From the history of some of the world's favorite comics to the most famous chocolate on the planet, Belgium's capital offers something to enjoy for every type of traveler. Here are the top 10 things to do in Brussels.
Watch the World Go by in the Grand-Place
Every visitor to Brussels starts at the Grand-Place, one of Europe’s most beautiful squares. The heart of Brussels began as a thriving market, soon spreading out into the surrounding maze of little streets: the rues au Beurre (Butter Street), the rue des Bouchers (Butchers Street), and the marchés aux Poulets, aux Herbes and aux Fromages (Chicken Market, Herb Market and Cheese Markets).
In the Grand-Place itself, rich merchants built glorious guild houses as headquarters for the different trades and it’s these gilded, ornate buildings along with an astonishing town hall that give the very grand square its wow factor. Many of the guild houses now have pretty ground floor cafés that spill onto the terrace, making the Grand-Place the perfect place for a leisurely coffee or a Belgian beer as you watch the world go by. You’ll be paying tourist rates, but getting great entertainment for your money. Try La Brouette which has a roaring fire inside in winter, plenty of outdoor seating for summer, and a first floor for a bird’s eye view over the scene below.
Get Up Close to Tintin at the Belgium Comic Strip Centre
AddressRue des Sables 20, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
Phone+32 2 219 19 80
Walk into the Comic Strip Centre (Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée) and the first thing you see is a large model of the rocket in Tintin’s Destination Moon adventure. Tintin is definitely the hero of the center along with his companions, Snowy and Captain Haddock but also making an appearance are the likes of Lucky Luke, the Smurfs and a whole host more. There’s a permanent exhibition that takes in how the comic strip developed, an exhibition on Hergé, Tintin’s creator, and a whole section on Peyo with a realistic 3D Smurf village. Temporary exhibitions cover everything about the 9th art. It’s housed in a beautiful Art Nouveau industrial building designed by the Belgian architect Victor Horta in 1906 for a textile tycoon. Eat in the Horta Brasserie and stock up your bookshelves in the excellent shop.
Walk the Cartoon Trail
Comic strip art is alive and well and living outside in Brussels. Walk around the city and you’ll come across huge murals painted on the sides of buildings. Tintin, Captain Haddock and Snowy escape from a hotel in The Calculus Affair in rue de l’Etuve just off the Grand-Place; the mighty and impossibly good-looking Scorpion looks down on you, sword drawn, in rue du Treurenberg. Check out the Brussels Tourist website for a list, maps and routes for a self-guided tour around the cartoon trail, buy their excellent map produced by Brussels Tourism, or take a walking tour with an English-speaking guide.
Grab a Bargain at the Weekly Jeu de Balle Flea Market
AddressVossenplein, 1000 Brussel, Belgium
Since 1919, enthusiasts have been haggling over every object you could imagine at the weekly Jeu de Balle flea market. It’s open from 6am to 2pm on weekdays, but the weekends (Saturday and Sunday 6am to 3pm) bring out many more traders offering furniture, ornate lampshades, jewellery, glasses of every size, colour and shape, and odd objects that you look at and wonder what on earth they could be for. The market is in the Marolles, traditionally the working-class district of Brussels where you can still hear the Marolles dialect based on Flemish. From a thriving area for artisans in the 17th century to a slum in the 1870s, Marolles started to become fashionable in the 1980s. Walk along the two roads that lead to the square (Rue Blaes and Rue Haute) for an eclectic mix of antique and junk shops, bars and restaurants.
Marvel at the City's Art Nouveau Heritage
AddressRue Américaine 25, 1060 Bruxelles, Belgium
Phone+32 2 543 04 90
Brussels has beautiful Art Nouveau buildings, constructed at the turn of the 19th century. You can buy an excellent brochure at the Brussels Tourist Office, which covers the city center and surrounding districts. Better still, take a guided walk in English from ARAU which will lead you through the streets, pointing out houses with those famous swirling, sinuous balconies, elaborate doorways and, high up under the eaves, panels of mosaics that catch the sun. If you have time for only one visit, make it the Victor Horta Museum, the former home of the architect who designed so many Art Nouveau buildings. Everything is in keeping, from the door knockers to the bathroom furniture, making a harmonious and beautiful house that you can easily imagine living in.
Explore the Surreal World of René Magritte
AddressRue Esseghem 135, 1090 Jette, Belgium
Phone+32 2 428 26 26
Catch the 74 tram out to the suburb of Jette to see the house where the Surrealist artist René Magritte lived a startlingly normal life with his wife. Better still, spend some time in his distinctly weird world at the Musée René Magritte on the Mont des Arts in central Brussels. It’s a comprehensive trot, on four floors, through his life from his job producing adverts to his own peculiar world of bowler hats, pipes, odd figures and dream-like clouds that fill his paintings.
Then follow in Magritte’s footsteps for a drink in the atmospheric Le Greenwich where he played chess with his friends.
Have a Beer at A la Mort Subite
AddressRue Montagne aux Herbes Potagères 7, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
Phone+32 2 513 13 18
You can’t go to Brussels and not undertake a serious study of Belgian beer — arguably the best in the world. You’re spoilt for choice for beer cellars, many of them around the Grand-Place. But one bar that combines a fabulous Art Nouveau interior with its own eponymous beer, A la Mort Subite (sudden death), is the one to head for. It’s worth seeking out and has been famous since the days when Jacques Brel made it his local.
Enjoy a Green Oasis at the Bois de la Cambre
Arriving in Brussels, you might be excused for thinking the capital is one of the most urban places in Europe. But it is, in fact, one of the greenest cities in Europe, and on the northern edge of the huge Forêt de Soignes. So if you want to get away from the city, take the 71 or 81 bus to Flagey. From here it’s a short walk south through streets lined with Art Nouveau buildings, past the ponds of the Etangs d’Ixelles with their splashing fountains to the Abbaye de la Cambre. The Cistercian abbey was founded in 1201; today you see the 18th-century yellow stone buildings that house the Belgian National Geographic Institute and an art school. You can wander into the church, stroll past the ponds and sit on a bench taking in the birdsong and the peace of this pretty landscaped park.
Explore Trendy Sainte-Catherine
AddressRue des Riches Claires 23, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
Phone+32 2 213 00 65
Shop and eat in this now trendy district just opposite the old Bourse (stock exchange). If you’re interested in sightseeing, don’t miss the delightful Notre-Dame-aux-Riches-Claires. This Flemish baroque church is well worth going into if it’s open. To the west, rue Antoine Dansaert is full of fashion shops with a reputation for cutting-edge design. Step into Annemie Verbeke for asymmetrical, often hand-worked women’s clothes, or walk to Martin Margiela for some of the most fashionable styles in town. Don’t miss the Vieux Marché aux Poissons, the old fish market. Once the main harbour of Brussels, this is where ships from around the world unloaded salted herrings, timber, grain coal and silk. There are notable fish restaurants along here like the long established François, serving lobsters, crabs and huge plateaus de fruits de mer to customers since 1922.
AddressGuldenhoofdstraat 9-11, 1000 Brussel, Belgium
Phone+32 2 514 20 48
The exhibit at Choco-Story tells you everything you need to know about chocolate, offers demonstrations of the subtle art of chocolate making and displays some extraordinary sculptures and objects—made of chocolate, of course! Now that you're suitably knowledgeable, it’s time to do some serious chocolate buying. If you’re willing to splurge, try Pierre Marcolini, where the man with the same name chooses the unprocessed cocoa beans personally. This master of the art has various stores in Brussels, but for a central, well-stocked store go to 1 rue des Minimes where the sheer invention of his taste combinations and colors will blow your mind (and the bank).
Or go to the shop where members of the Belgian royal family have been indulging their sweet teeth since 1919. Mary is unashamedly old-fashioned and elegant, the place to buy gilded, decorative gift boxes. The only problem will be getting them home without devouring the lot.