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 things to do 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.
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 recognizable 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 paneled; and the Escalier d’Honneur, with murals illustrating the history of Brussels.
Address: Grand Place, Central Brussels
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
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
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
Place Royale (Koningsplein)
A favorite attraction for photo-ops, the most important building on this square is the Royal Palace (Palais Royal), which is 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
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 attraction, and although it’s a bit of a journey by tram to get out here, the bizarre 102-meter-high steel and aluminum 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
Coudenberg Palace Archaeological Site
One of Brussels’ most unique things to do is explore this active archaeological site, which was rediscovered in the 1980s. Coudenberg Palace has been excavated to reveal the cellars and tunnels of the former Palace of Brussels, as well as forgotten streets that had been buried beneath the city for centuries. The foundations of the medieval palace have been cleared to allow tourists the opportunity to explore, and the museum has free audio guides that take you through the dig site. There are also interactive programs that encourage children to become involved, like the “Underground Treasure Hunt,” which includes a flashlight, treasure map, period costume pieces, and a puzzle for them to solve.
Address: Place des Palais 7, Brussels
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
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 marvelous 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.