More insider guides for planning a trip to Brussels
These are unusual times, and the state of affairs can change quickly. Please check the latest travel guidance before making your journey. Note that our writer visited pre-pandemic.
The pleasure of Brussels lies in wandering its streets, taking in the views from the hilltops, looking in shops, and stopping in the cafés. The centre of Brussels now has the second largest pedestrianised zone in Europe (after Venice), making it even more attractive to walkers, but even beyond that the city is eminently walkable. Brussels is not large, but there’s plenty packed in and lots of things to do, from glittering historic architecture and modern art to music and Tintin.
Make a grand entrance
Brussels’ central square, the Grand Place, is a masterpiece of theatrical architecture. Guildhouses in Flemish baroque style line the sides, embellished with gilding and sculpture. This was the centre of power throughout Brussels’ history, a marketplace and place of execution – and still serves as a gathering place to this day. Pull up a chair on one of the bar terraces and drink it in.
Insider’s tip: The Grand Place is mainly a place to stand and gawp: you can visit the Gothic Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), and neo-Gothic Maison du Roi opposite, now home to the Museum of the City of Brussels – but these are no match for what lies outside.
Nearest metro: Gare Centrale
Pay a pilgrimage to a little boy weeing
No one can quite explain how a tiny bronze statue has become the city’s emblem and mascot, but the Manneken-Pis – just a short, tourist-thronged walk from the Grand Place – has played this role for centuries. He is regularly dressed up from a collection of nearly 1,000 costumes, a selection of which can now be seen nearby at the small GardeRobe MannekenPis museum.
Insider’s tip: Walk further up the Rue du Chêne and turn right into the Rue de Villers to see a chunk of the first city walls, built in about 1100. There will almost certainly be less tourists here. The second much bigger set, built in the 14th century, is now marked by the Porte de Hal and the pentagonal ring-road.
Nearest metro: Anneesens, Bourse
Price: Free; museum, £
See Tintin in his home town
Comic strip books (bandes dessinées in French) are one of Belgium’s great contributions to popular culture. Brussels has an excellent museum devoted to them, the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée (translated as ‘Comics Art Museum’), housed in a splendid old Art Nouveau fabric shop. You will see here that it’s by no means limited to Tintin – although he features strongly.
Insider’s tip:The Comics Art Museum will not necessarily appeal to children, especially British children not brought up in the tradition. They might enjoy the many huge comic-strip murals dotted around the city more though. The tourist office has an illustrated map, with itineraries, to guide you.
Contact: 00 32 2 219 19 80; comicscenter.net
Marvel at the brilliance of Belgian painting
The Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts is a showcase for the brilliance of Belgian art. It begins with the late-medieval Flemish pioneers in oil painting (such as Rogier van der Weyden), and leads through the Bruegels to Rubens, van Dyck and Jordaens. The adjacent Musée Fin-de-Siècle has an excellent late-19th-century collection, while the great surrealist René Magritte has a whole wing all to himself.
Insider’s tip: Although it contains fewer ‘big names’, do allow enough time to visit the Musée Fin-de-Siècle. This spiralling underground building has a fascinating collection by the weird and wonderful Belgian Symbolists and James Ensor, plus an exquisite section devoted to Art Nouveau artefacts.
Contact: 00 32 2 508 32 11; fine-arts-museum.be
Nearest metro: Parc or Gare Centrale
Price: ££; free for children and young people under the age of 19, concessions for seniors over 65 and students under 26. Free on the first Wednesday of every month after 1pm
Hear a sackbut, serpent, slit drum and shawm
At the Musée des Instruments de Musique (MIM), you can not only see an outstanding collection of historical and international musical instruments, but – through an audio guide with headphones – you can listen to many of them play. What’s more, MIM is housed in a beautifully renovated Art Nouveau building, formerly a department store called Old England, which was completed in 1899.
Insider’s tip: MIM has a top-floor restaurant, and rooftop terrace, with unparalleled views over central Brussels. It is open the same hours as the museum, and is excellent for snacks, full-scale meals and Sunday brunch, or just to take the lift up to see the view.
Contact: 00 32 2 545 01 30; mim.be
Nearest metro: Parc or Gare Centrale
Price: £; reductions for seniors over 65 and art students; free for children and young people under the age of 19. Free on the first Wednesday of every month after 1pm
Eat golden frites and find treasures in the flea market
A true Belgian experience: a cone of crispy frites (fries) from a traditional fritkot (chip stand), and a choice of 20 sauces. Friture de la Chapelle is in the Place de la Chapelle, the gateway to the Rue Haute and Rue Blaes, as well as the Marolles district, famous for its antique and bric-a-brac shops, and the daily flea market in the Place du Jeu de Balle.
Insider’s tip: While you’re in the area, take time to explore the enormous Palais de Justice (lawcourts; built 1866–1883) which looms over the Marolles district, and indeed all central Brussels. You can reach it via the public lift in Rue de l’Épée (Mon-Fri, 9am-3pm), and wander through its colossal and impressive interior for free, via airport-style security.
Friture de la Chapelle
Address: Rue Haute 25
Opening times: Mon-Sat, 11am-12am; Sun, 11am-8pm (closed mid-July to late August)
Visit the home of the master of Art Nouveau
Art Nouveau was the innovative, sinuous and sensual style that became all the rage at the end of the 19th-century. Victor Horta (1861-1947) was a pioneer of this school of architecture, and applied it to his grand house and studio in the southern suburb of Saint-Gilles. This is now preserved as the Horta Museum, which is one of the great and unmissable monuments of the Art Nouveau story.
Insider’s tip: A wander around the neighbourhood reveals many other Art Nouveau buildings and details, for example in Rue Defacqz and Rue Faider. At No. 6 Rue Paul-Émile Janson is Horta’s very first creation in this style: the Hôtel Tassel, built between 1893 and 1895.
Contact:00 32 2 543 04 90; hortamuseum.be
Price: £; reductions for seniors, students and young people aged six–18; children under the age of six free
Discover Deco in the park
There are many grand houses in the suburbs of Brussels: the Villa Empain, built in 1930–1934, is a rare Art Deco classic, backing onto the Bois de Cambre in southern Brussels (take trams 25 or 94 to Solbosch). It’s owned by the Boghossian Foundation, which has beautifully restored it and mounts temporary art exhibitions of high calibre that take you through the rooms, with views out onto the Hollywood-style swimming pool.
Insider’s tip: The Bois de la Cambre is a beautiful wooded park. Its lake has an island with a large Swiss chalet on it, reached by a small cable ferry (€1/£1). This is the Chalet Robinson, a restaurant serving good Belgian food, and a café/bar.
Contact: 00 32 2 627 52 30; villaempain.com
Revel in riches from around the world
The Musée du Cinquantenaire is Belgium’s hoard of international antiquities. There are great chunks of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome here, but there is also plenty of local talent, including medieval Brussels tapestries, retables (sculptured altarpieces), and Art Nouveau objets d’art. They are housed in buildings originally designed for the 1880 international exhibition marking the 50th anniversary of Belgian nationhood.
Insider’s tip: Neighbouring buildings in the Parc du Cinquantenaire house the Musée Royal de l’Armée et d’Histoire Militaire (a huge military museum), and an impressive collection of antique cars called Autoworld. Combination tickets to all three are available, valid for three months.
Contact: 00 32 2 741 73 31; kmkg-mrah.be
Price: £; concessions available
All aboard for a historic railway adventure
What’s clever about Train World is that you don’t even have to be a train buff. Through careful staging and lighting, this large railway museum draws you into the evolving history of train travel, as it was experienced by succeeding generations, taking you through a historic collection of carriages and locomotives, plus railway artefacts and curios. It begins in the beautifully restored 19th-century Schaerbeek station in north-eastern Brussels, which is easily reached (by train, of course).
Insider’s tip: A key to the success of Train World was the involvement of the comic-strip artist François Schuiten. His influence can also be seen at the Maison Autrique, Victor Horta’s first major (pre-Art-Nouveau) project. It was completed in 1893 and since been restored to evoke its past life; you can visit from Wednesday to Sunday, from 12pm-6pm.
This small town (called Louvain in French) is famous for its old university, founded in 1425, where Erasmus taught. It has the most beautiful Stadhuis (town hall) in Belgium, which looks rather like a flamboyant Gothic wedding cake. The St-Pieterskerk has an excellent collection of early Flemish paintings, and the modern M-Museum Leuven (closed Wednesdays) has richly rewarding collections of paintings, furniture and decorative arts.
The centrepiece of Mechelen (Malines in French) is the Gothic St-Romboutskathedraal, with a tower that soars to 318 ft and was planned to be almost twice as high before reason prevailed. It now has a ‘Skywalk’ at the top, with astonishing views. Mechelen had a grand past, serving briefly as capital of the Burgundian empire in the 16th-century. The Museum Hof van Busleyden (closed Wednesdays) – once the grand home of a 16th-century humanist who hosted Thomas More and Anne Boleyn – serves as a city museum focusing on this era.
When the University of Leuven switched to teaching in Dutch in the 1960s, a brand new university for the French-speakers of Belgium, called Louvain-la-Neuve (New Leuven), was built in the countryside near Ottignies, 19 miles south-east of Brussels. The town itself is an interesting piece of urban design, but the real draw today is the Hergé Museum. Set in a strikingly innovative building, the Hergé Museum provides a fascinating insight into the life and work of Tintin’s creator. A little rarefied for children perhaps, but a place of pilgrimage for older aficionados.
Belgium’s premier theme park lies 15 miles south-east of Brussels, near Wavre. This is a full day out, with the latest thrills-and-spills rides and rollercoasters, gentler rides for younger children, a schedule of live shows, and plenty of eateries. Visits can also be combined with the adjacent Aqualibi, a large indoor waterpark packed with tubes, shoots, themed cascades, pools, whirlpools tubs and hot baths. The most convenient way to reach Walibi is by car, via the A4/E411 motorway from Brussels; trains from Brussels (via Ottignies) go to Bierges-Walibi (52 minutes), from where there is a 150-yard walk to the theme park. Open Easter-October; see walibi.com for opening hours.
The battle of 1815 that saw the final defeat of Napoleon took place in rolling open country about 12 miles to the south of Brussels. The battle site has a number of interpretive exhibitions and museums, at the main centre near the artificial memorial mound called the Butte du Lion, in the various farmhouses used by the combatants, and in Waterloo itself. The battlefield is the sort of place that really rewards a little background research so you can make sense of the landscape and people it with your imagination. Once brought to life in this way, it becomes a compelling place to visit. It is best to come by car, or on a tour bus. See waterloo-tourisme.com for more details.