Europe’s capital, Brussels, has everything that you could ever want in a city break and more: historic buildings, beautiful streets to meander along and incredible street art on literally every corner. Oh, and don’t forget the food. Waffles, chocolate, mussels and fries should all be on your to-try list here – read on to hear about some of Brussel’s best.
Start your first day with a walk around the city’s most famous sights. The weird and wonderful takes pride of place here with Mannekin-Pis, the ‘Pissing Boy’, one of Brussel’s best-loved sights. Depending on the day and time you visit you might find him dressed in a fetching outfit; past costumes have included Dracula and a surfer boy, among many others. This statue, a replica of the original which was designed in 1618, represents the sense of humour of the people of Brussels – and what a sense of humour that is!
Grab a waffle (drenched in Nutella, Biscoff – known a speculoos here – or whatever your topping of choice is) from one of the nearby shops, then eat it en route to the Grand Place, the city’s central square just a few minutes away. This opulent, UNESCO-listed marketplace houses some incredible buildings, including the Town Hall and the Museum of the City of Brussels, all of which boast a multitude of histories. From its birthplace as a market in the 11th century to the tragic fire which burnt it down in the 1600s, and its use as a makeshift hospital during WWI, this place has seen a lot. Nowadays, artists sell their paintings in the middle of the square while the outside is inhabited by shops, brasseries and restaurants.
Just around the corner from the Grand Place, you’ll find another statue having a wee, Jeanneke-Pis, the ‘Pissing Girl’. Unlike the more famous boy version, Jeanneke is located down a little side street, and you won’t find queues of people jostling to the front for a picture. A short walk away there’s also a peeing dog, leg cocked against a bollard on an unassuming street corner – if this is weird and wonderful I don’t know what is.
Once you’ve got your full peeing statue experience, spend some time admiring the street art, which you’ll find on walls throughout the city. There are some tours which will take you around the most famous ones, but I think it’s nicer just to hunt them down yourself. A lot of them are based around Belgium’s most famous comic, Tintin, plus the iconic Smurf characters, also Belgium-born. However, you’ll also find incredible stencilled pieces and some more political artworks. See below for some of my favourites.
Next up, stop off for lunch; some quintessentially Belgian mussels. We went to Chez Leon, just outside the Grand Place (and they were delicious), but there are so many great places dotted around the city centre. Pair your lunch with a few pints of Belgian beer, it would be rude not to.
After lunch, continue the theme at the Belgian Comic Strip Centre, which boasts great exhibitions on Belgian favourites, you guessed it, Tintin and the Smurfs. You can see original drawings from Hergé, including his comic strip work before Tintin, a 3D replica of Smurf Village, and an exhibition on how comic strips are created.
If comics aren’t your vibe, then other fascinating museum options include the Magritte Museum, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, which house some rather famous Dali paintings or the Museum of the city of Brussels back in the Grand Place, where the original Mannekin-Pis, and a collection of his costumes, live.
Now you’ve had a day to explore the centre of Brussels, its time to head out of the city a little. We bought a hop-on-hop-off bus pass, which worked perfectly as it took us everywhere we wanted to go (just make sure you get on the blue line; we got on the red and took an unintended, albeit nice tour of the south of Brussels).
You’ll want to ride out of the city to the Atomium, an incredibly impressive structure built for the World Expo in 1958. A literal giant atom, this feat of engineering offers amazing views from the top-floor gallery and you can ride through the arms of the atom on strobe-lit escalators – it’s pretty cool!
Just a short walk from here is Mini Europe, which sits in complete contrast to the giant Atomium next to it. Here, 350 miniature models of famous European landmarks take centre stage, and you can wander from London to Poland in a matter of minutes. We’re big fans of model villages (read: nerds) so we loved seeing all these mini architectural wonders.
Hop back on your bus from the Atomium stop and ride it down to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, also known as the Basilica of Koekelberg, the fifth-largest church in the world. It boasts the largest Art Deco edifice ever built, and a panoramic view which lets you gaze through two of its spires, down Parc Elisabeth and out across Brussels.
Ride the bus back to the city centre and hop off near the Grand Place again, to treat yourself to some iconic Belgian chocolates. If you have time, stop in at Choco-Story Brussels – while the exhibits leave a little to be desired, the bowls of chocolate chips available for unlimited munching, and the chocolate-making demonstration, definitely do not.
There’s a bit of everything here in Brussels, so it really depends on what you fancy, but both the places we went for dinner get glowing recommendations.
The first night we went to Le Malte, hidden in a converted house on a side street in Saint-Gilles. The interior looks like a combination of a candlelit speakeasy and your grandmother’s living room – think antique furniture, gilded ceilings and renaissance-esque paintings but with superb cocktails. We opted for small tapas-style dishes plus a beef carpaccio which was out of this world – second only to the one I had the following night (I love beef carpaccio, okay).
On the second night, we had what was hands down one of the best meals of my life, at La Quincaillerie. This former ironmongers-turned-restaurant maintains its original features, like walls full of tool drawers and wrought-iron staircases. Forget the beautiful setting though, because the food here is what’s really important. I had beef carpaccio (again) to start, then we shared a tomahawk for two, which I very nearly gnawed off the bone because I didn’t want it to end. If you’re looking for an out-of-this-world meal in Brussels, you need look no further.