14 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Brussels
Brussels, capital of Belgium, principal seat of the Belgian Royal Family, and capital of the European Union, is a remarkably small, easy-going, and human-sized city for all its importance. Unlike beautiful Bruges and Ghent, with their hordes of tourists, Brussels is Belgium's main economic and educational hub, which gives the city a more workaday feel than other towns. Here, you get a proper feel for Belgian life, especially its fantastic restaurant and café culture. Although Brussels may not have the star attractions of other Belgian towns, the capital has more than enough to keep visitors occupied for a couple of days with a clutch of world-class museums and art galleries, as well as quirkier sights such as the Atomium, and some wonderful remnants of old architecture in the old town quarter. Once you've craned your neck at Gothic and Baroque splendor, don't forget to stock up on Brussels' famous chocolate.
See also: Where to Stay in Brussels
1 Grand Place (Grote Markt)
Right in the heart of Brussels Old Town, the city's main plaza (known as Grand Place) is one of the best preserved in Europe. Much of the square's elegant character is due to the unique architecture of its elegant Gildehuizen (guild houses) with their magnificent gables, pilasters, and balustrades, ornately carved stonework, and rich gold decoration. Most were built between 1696 and 1700 in the Baroque style but with some Flemish influences. The history of the Grand Place dates back much earlier though. It was first established in the 11th century and evolved soon after, to become the political and economic center for the city.
The most recognisable building on the square is the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), built in 1402 with the intention of upstaging the Stadhuis in the rival city of Bruges. Inside are several magnificent rooms. Among the most impressive are the Maximilian Chamber hung with Brussels tapestries; the large Council Chamber with a superb ceiling by Victor Janssens and tapestries to his designs; the great banqueting hall and the Marriage Chamber, both beautifully panelled; and the Escalier d'Honneur with murals illustrating the history of Brussels.
Address: Grand Place, Central Brussels
2 Mannekin Pis
Along the Rue de l'Etuve is Brussels' best-known landmark, the Manneken Pis, usually besieged by a throng of tourists. Although he can be traced back to at least 1388, nothing much is known about the origin of the figure of a little boy urinating, popularly referred to as "the oldest citizen of Brussels." The Manneken is, however, surrounded by various legends. According to one, the fountain is a memorial to a courageous infant who averted a conflagration, according to another, it commemorates the son of a count who succumbed to a pressing urge while taking part in a procession. The present statue was made in 1619 by Jérôme Duquesnoy the Elder and has been stolen on several occasions though always recovered. During major celebrations, events, and festivals in Brussels, the statue is famed for being dressed in costume.
Address: Rue de l'Etuve, Central Brussels
3 Saint-Michel Cathedral (Sint-Michiels Kathedraal)
Dedicated to St. Michael and St. Gudula (the patron saints of Brussels) this Gothic church was first founded in 1225 but only completed in the 15th century. The facade is impressive, rising majestically above a broad flight of steps and crowned with twin 69-meter-high towers designed by Jan van Ruysbroeck. The beautifully proportioned interior (108 meters by 50 meters) is lavishly furnished and is home to some outstanding stained glass windows created by Bernard van Orley. Head to the transepts to see the finest examples depicting Charles V and Isabella of Portugal (south transept) and the Hungarian royal pair Louis II and Mary (north transept), and then into the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament, to the left of the choir, where the window illustrates the story of the Miracle of the Host.
Address: Parvis Street Gudule, Central Brussels
4 Belgian Comic Strip Center
This gorgeous 1906 building, designed by Victor Horta, is home to the wonderful Comic Strip Center, devoted to the history of cartoons and comic strips in the country that gave the world The Smurfs and Tintin. A constantly rotating exhibition of 200 original comic strip drawings by Belgian and French comic artists is shown here. In addition, the museum documents the rise in popularity of Belgian and French comic strips through a cleverly curated collection of original manuscripts, draft sketches, and imaginatively reconstructed sets including Lucky Luke's saloon and Tim, Struppi, and Captain Haddock's moon rocket.
Address: Maison Waucquez, 20 Rue des Sables, Central Brussels
5 Place Royale (Koningsplein)
The most important building on this square is the Royal Palace (Palais Royal) used by the Belgian royal family as an official residence. The Belgian flag, flown from the roof, signals the sovereign's presence and a ceremonial Changing of the Guard takes place every day at about 2.30pm. Surrounding the palace are an ensemble of cultural buildings boasting neoclassical facades. The Palais des Académies, home of the Royal Academy of Sciences and once the residence of the Crown Prince of Orange, and the Palais des Beaux-Arts (Paleis voor Schone Kunste) on the west side of the plaza, designed and built in the 1920s by Victor Horta, are two of the finest examples.
Address: Place des Palais, Central Brussels
6 Belgian Royal Museum of Fine Arts
Belgium's Royal Museum of Fine Arts (1875-81) is one of the largest and best art galleries in the world. The museum grew out of a collection first set up in 1797 and was originally housed in the former palace of Charles of Lorraine. This was transferred to the newly established Musées Royaux in 1846. The collection is divided into two parts: the Musée d'art ancien (Museum of Ancient Art) with a famous collection of Flemish and Dutch Old Masters including works by Petrus Christus (Pietà), Rogier van der Weyden (The Mourning of Christ), Dirk Bouts (Judgment of the Emperor Otto), Hans Memling, and a fine Adoration of the Magi by Gerard David; and the Musée d'art moderne (Museum of Modern Art), which has a range of mainly 19th- and 20th-century Belgian works.
Address: Rue du Musée 9, Central Brussels
Along with Manneken Pis, the Atomium is Brussels' best-known landmark, and although it's a bit of a journey by tram to get out here, the bizarre 102-meter-high steel and aluminium structure, designed by the architect André Waterkeyn for the 1958 Brussels World Exhibition, is the city's most surreal sight. The building represents a molecule of iron magnified 165 million times, and visitors may enter the interior where four of the nine spheres are now used for the presentation of a show about human life called Biogenium.
Address: Eeuwfeestlaan 20, Boulevard du Centenaire
8 Northern City Center
The majestically proportioned Church of Sainte-Catherine was built in 1850 in a blend of Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance styles to replace an earlier building. Of particular interest in the interior are the 14th- or 15th-century figure of a black Madonna and a painting by de Crayer. The 11th- to 12th-century Tour Noire, which stands behind the church, is a remnant of the old city wall, while on the west side, the delightful fish market is a reminder that this was once one of the old town quays. Even when seen at a distance from the fish market, the magnificent facade of Saint-Jean-Baptiste au Béguinage Cathedral is an impressive sight. The church, all that remains of a Béguine convent founded in the 13th century, was built between 1657 and 1676. Designed by Luc Fayd'herbe it is one of the finest Flemish-Italian Baroque churches in Belgium. Among the items of note in the light and spacious interior are the beautiful pulpit and the many paintings, including seven by the Brussels artist Van Loon.
Address: Rue du Peuplier, Central Brussels
9 Mont des Arts
The Mont des Arts was created between 1956 and 1958, occupying the elevated site between the Place Royale and the Place de l'Albertine. The architecturally imposing complex of large buildings includes the Bibliothèque Albert I and the strikingly modern Palais de la Dynastie and Palais de Congrès. From the square between them is a fine view of the lower central city. The Bibliothèque Albert I was founded during the period of Burgundian rule and comprises more than three million volumes together with a valuable collection of manuscripts and several interesting museums.
Address: Boulevard de l' Empereur, Central Brussels
10 Notre-Dame du Sablon
The 15th- to 16th-century church of Notre-Dame du Sablon (Onze Lieve Vrouw op de Zavel), generally considered one of the loveliest Late Gothic churches in Belgium, was built as a replacement for a small chapel first erected on the sandy expanse of the Sablon by the Crossbowmen's Guild in 1304. The interior of the church is breathtaking, in particular because of its marvellous stained glass. Also of interest is the burial chapel of the Thurn und Taxis family, partly the work of Luc Fayd'herbe. Kept in the sacrarium is a figure of the Virgin, a copy, so legend has it, of a Madonna brought to the chapel in 1348 by a woman from Antwerp, Baet Soetens, to whom the Virgin had appeared.
Address: Rue de la Regence, Central Brussels
11 Parc du Cinquantenaire
The Parc du Cinquantenaire was established in 1880 to commemorate the country's 50th anniversary. Its centerpiece is the monumental Palais du Cinquantenaire, the two wings of which, linked in 1905 by a massive triumphal arch designed by the French architect Charles Girault, house two of Brussels' most interesting museums. The Royal Art and History Museum is home to one of the most extensive tapestry collections in the world, and the Belgian Army Museum and Museum of Military History (Koninklijk Museum van het Leger en van de Militaire Geschiedenis) provides an overview of the development of military technology and of the major campaigns fought on Belgian soil.
Address: Avenue de la Renaissance, Central Brussels
12 Château Royal
Although the Château Royal, home of the Belgian Royal Family, is not itself open to the public, the park surrounding it at Laeken is. There are delightful footpaths and a number of attractions worth seeing, such as the monument to Leopold I at the center of the circular flowerbed in front of the palace. The Japanese Tower, in the northernmost corner of the park, was originally built for the Paris Exhibition of 1900. The hothouses, erected in Leopold II's time, are the highlight of the gardens and are open to the public during April and May when many of the plants are in flower.
Address: Avenue de Madrid, Laeken, Brussels
13 Basilique Nationale du Sacré Coeur
The Koekelberg district is dominated by the massive Basilique Nationale du Sacré Coeur (Nationale Basiliek van het Heilig Hart), the fifth largest church in the world and brainchild of Leopold II, begun in 1905 to mark the country's 75th anniversary. The building was only completed in 1970. Not surprisingly, it displays something of a mixture of styles, impressing nevertheless by its sheer size (141 meters by 107 meters). Inside is an excellent collection of art and an ongoing exhibition on the history of the basilica. The picture of Christ giving his blessing, which hangs above the altar, is by Georges Minne. From the cupola is a breathtaking view of the city and across the countryside to Antwerp. Binoculars can be rented on-site.
Address: Parvis de la Basilique 1, Koekelberg, Brussels
14 Abbaye de la Cambre
In 1200, Cistercian nuns founded an abbey here, which was later destroyed in the 16th century but then rebuilt. Now, set in lovely French gardens, the abbey houses the National Geographical Institute and an art college. The former 14th-century abbey church is a slender, elegant building with Baroque vaulting. Inside is a painting by Albert Bouts (The Mocking of Christ) and the shrine of St. Boniface, a 13th-century Bishop of Brussels. The windows of the cloister are decorated with the arms of more than 40 abbesses and nuns.
Address: Rue du Monastere, Saint Gilles, Brussels
Where to Stay in Brussels for Sightseeing
The best place to stay in Brussels for sightseeing is within walking distance of Grand Place (Grote Markt). This wide square in the heart of the Old Town is popular for its great shopping, dining, and well-preserved architecture and is a great place from which to explore attractions such as the Mannekin Pis fountain and Saint-Michel Cathedral. The following hotels are close to Grand Place and come highly recommended:
- Luxury Hotels: In the heart of the old town, near Grand Place square, with its many fine boutiques and cafés, Hotel Amigo offers spacious, modern rooms with unique art as well as on-site amenities including a gym (for an alternative workout, take the massive spiral staircase to your room). Other centrally located luxury options include the MAS Residence with its large, brightly-painted, high-ceilinged rooms (each with basic kitchen facilities) and trendy, ultra-modern The Hotel - Brussels, popular for its panoramic views and posh lounges.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Popular for those wanting a more intimate taste of Brussels, the 100-plus-year-old Made in Louise offers cozy rooms, a games room, and a comfortable lounge area to mix and mingle. Also close to the city center, Motel One offers modern, well-appointed rooms. Perfect for younger travelers, the trendy Aloft Brussels Schuman Hotel offers fun activities in its lounge area, including board games and foosball, along with spacious, modern rooms. It's a little out of the city center but close to public transport.
- Budget Hotels: Always busy, the centrally located MEININGER Hotel Brussels City Center with its modern, no-frills rooms is perfect for young travelers. Also worth considering are the following family-run hotels: Hotel a la Grande Cloche, with some rooms large enough for cots; and Hotel Noga Brussels, with its intimate, brightly painted rooms and richly decorated lounge and foyer.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Brussels
- Sightseeing: A convenient and flexible way to see the city sights is aboard the Brussels Hop-On Hop-Off Tour, which stops at 22 different points around the city, including Grand Place, the Atomium, and the Royal Palace. Thanks to the informative commentary, you can learn about the city's prime attractions from the comfort of an open-top double decker bus, hopping off to explore your favorite sights. If you're a chocoholic, the Brussels Chocolate Walking Tour and Workshop appeals to all the senses. This four-hour guided tour visits historical landmarks as well as the city's best chocolate shops (with free tastings) and culminates in a workshop, where you can learn about the history of chocolate, watch a demonstration, inhale the sweet aromas, and create your own treat to take home.
- Day Trips: From Brussels, it's easy to explore Belgium's other world-class cities and even neighboring countries on a day trip while basing yourself in one place. A popular excursion is the full-day Ghent and Bruges Day Trip from Brussels, which explores the historical and cultural attractions of these beautiful UNESCO-listed cities. This is a fun and time-efficient way to see the picturesque Belgian countryside and visit iconic city sights, such as Ghent's St. Bavo's Cathedral and the Basilica of the Holy Blood in medieval Bruges. The Amsterdam Day Trip from Brussels allows you to visit another country without changing bases. On this full-day guided tour, you travel through the pretty windmill country of both Belgium and Holland and explore the quaint cobbled streets and canals of Amsterdam visiting top sights such as Dam Square, the Anne Frank House, and the Royal Palace. Luxembourg is also a day trip away, and the Luxembourg Day Trip from Brussels: Two Countries in One Day tour takes you to all the highlights without the need to research attractions and worry about navigating your way around. The tour includes a scenic drive through the gorgeous Ardenne region, a tour through Luxembourg's old town, and a chance to explore the pretty town of Dinant and its 13th-century cathedral.