Welcome to Brussels, the capital of Europe – and arguably Europe’s most underrated capital. It may be home to political heavyweights, but this attractive and multicultural city knows how to cultivate the lighter things in life. Good food, good beer and good cheer are the foundations of Brussels city breaks, thanks to the many hip restaurants, breweries and coffee shops, and a buzzy, laid-back nightlife. There’s excellent shopping to be done too, whether you’re in the market for avant-garde designer gear or something vintage and collectible. Forget outdated clichés: from leafy parks and eye-catching architecture to unique museums, there’s so much more to a Brussels holiday.
There’s no shortage of things to do in Brussels, but the city’s relaxed way of life means you can pack in as little or as much as you want. It’s a joy to explore under your own steam, whether you’re ambling around the historic city centre or venturing further afield. Get reacquainted with Tintin, Bruegel or Magritte in the city’s small but intriguing museum scene, or take a tour at the Cantillon Brewery for a taste of local brews. The off-the-tourist-trail neighbourhoods of Ixelles, Matonge and Saint-Gilles are a tram or metro ride away. They’re worth a nosey for their markets, top brunch spots, independent boutiques and international influences. Still wondering what to do in Brussels? Read on for more inspiration.
Start at the Grand-Place: at the very heart of the historic city centre, this attractive baroque square is within walking distance of most Brussels landmarks worth a visit. The nearby Royal Galleries of Saint Hubert house chic shops and cafés, a theatre and top-tiers chocolatiers. From there, stroll up the Jardin du Mont des Arts to the Royal Palace and the city’s compact cluster of museums. Don’t forget to look up: the city’s art nouveau architectural details are integral to its charm. Other Brussels attractions include the Sablon, an attractive square that doubles up as a weekend antiques market, and the Atomium, a futurist steel structure offering wow-worthy views over the city.
Handily, many of Brussels’ top cultural spots are within walking distance of each other. Just one of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts’ six branches, the Magritte Museum houses 200 of the iconic surrealist artist’s works. Cultural centre Bozar hosts gigs, film screenings and performances. The Comics Arts Museum pays tribute to Hergé’s Tintin, as well as other beloved Belgian characters such as the Smurfs and Spirou. Head to the Horta Museum for a glimpse inside Belgian architect Victor Horta’s former home and workshop – a wonderfully preserved art nouveau time capsule.
The Brussels Grand-Place, rebuilt after a bombardment at the end of the 17th century, has taken its rightful place on the Unesco list of protected sites. Once the seat of Brussels’ power, it now hosts year-round public events. You can tour the flamboyant Brussels Hôtel de Ville and the neo-gothic Maison du Roi, which now houses the City Museum, and gawp at the opulent guild halls surrounding them. Manneken Pis – a comical statue of a little urinating boy – is another must-see icon. If you’re lucky, you might even catch him wearing one of his many ceremonial outfits.
Locals have a soft spot for lively, vibrant Sainte-Catherine, the mainly Flemish neighbourhood where Brussels’ former fish market once stood. This laid-back warren of little streets is packed with casual eating and drinking spots. Perennial favourites include ice cream maestro Gaston, De Markten for its beloved terrace and Noordzee, a fish shop rustling up small plates for punters to devour at stand-up tables. Check out Centrale, a former power station turned art centre, now championing contemporary local artists with an intriguing programme of exhibitions, workshops and tours.
Overlooked by an ornate church, the elegant Place du Grand Sablon is perfect for a slow amble. You’ll find a few sweet-toothed hot spots around town (the Royal Galleries and rue de l’Étuve get honourable mentions), but none as delightful as this genteel corner of Brussels. If the names Marcolini, Leonidas, Wittamer and Neuhaus don’t ring a bell, all the better: it’s just the excuse you’ll need to sample their exquisite chocolate creations. Once you’ve run out of steam, grab a terrace table at Chez Richard for shrimp croquettes and other timeless bistro fare.
Bruxellois head outdoors at the first hint of sunshine, and with good cause: from flower beds to forests, the city has a green space for everyone. Parc du Cinquantenaire is perhaps the grandest of them all. Make a beeline for open-air bar Guinguette Maurice once you’ve worked up a thirst. Tucked away near the museums, Parc d’Egmont has a sculpture garden, orangerie café and fine palace views. For a deep breath of fresh air, head to Bois de la Cambre. This meandering forest trail comes complete with roaming deer, a café only accessible by boat and even a nightclub.
If Belgian gastronomy isn’t yet on your radar, you’ve been missing a trick: the capital has long attracted global culinary talent. The best restaurants in Brussels don’t necessarily offer fine dining, though you’ll find plenty of Michelin-worthy meals. Opt instead for neighbourhood restaurants with a reputation built on inventive cooking and a buzzy atmosphere. Ixelles is packed with such little gems, as is the foodie enclave of Saint Gilles. Eating well needn’t mean a hefty bill: if you’re after cheap eats, there are plenty of casual eateries to try, from sandwich hero Tonton Garby to meatball mecca Ballekes.
Though classic Belgian fare – shrimp croquettes, hearty stews and Dame Blanche sundaes – should definitely be on your must-try list, make time for Brussels’ trendier eateries. The city’s cosmopolitan dining scene is up there with the best: expect small plates, carefully sourced produce and biodynamic wines. Le 203 in Saint Gilles is a stellar example of the genre. Menus change every Tuesday with the chef’s seasonal whims. Venues can be small, so it’s worth calling ahead if you have your heart set on one. If not, here’s more foodie inspiration.
It would be criminal to leave without a taste of moules frites, the city’s signature dish. Where to find the best mussels in Brussels is a matter of heated debate, though the fact remains that bowls of plump mussels and golden fries are hard to beat. Chez Léon is a tourist favourite with good reason. But some might find the formal stylings in classy Aux Armes de Bruxelles more to their taste. At art nouveau brasserie Le Cirio, order your mollusks with a glass of ‘half and half’, a perfect pairing of white wine and champagne.
Is your waffle of choice from Liège (soft, caramelised and craggy-edged) or from Brussels (rectangular, light and fluffy)? When it’s time to pick your fighter, Maison Dandoy handily serves both in its speculoos-scented tearoom. It’s not, of course, the only waffle joint in town: Brussels' favourite snack has many champions. Wildly popular Le Funambule serves theirs with all manner of fruit, cream and chocolate toppings, all the better to Instagram with. Minimalist Galet is innovating with savoury waffle sandwiches and healthy smoothies – traditionalists, look away now.
With such a compact city, you could hardly go wrong when choosing where to stay in Brussels. Whether you’re looking for boutique hotels or cheap places to stay in Brussels, the old town is one of the best neighbourhoods in Brussels for tourists. But it’s worth looking further afield. The gastronomic hubs of Ixelles and Saint Gilles are ideal for foodies. Staying near Louise will give fashionistas easy access to designer shops and luxury boutiques. Don’t discount the hotels near Gare du Midi: the vintage shops around the Place du Jeu de Balle flea market are enough to fill an entire weekend break in Brussels.
Though summer’s open-air hangouts and festivals have many charms, the season isn’t the only one worth a trip to Brussels. The city’s reputation for rainy weather isn’t entirely without merit, but Brussels has wholeheartedly embraced the Scandinavian concept of hygge. Cosy up in autumn and winter with pints of Trappist beers, braised chicons and carbonnade stew, and explore your pick of the best galleries at your own pace. Spring’s brighter and balmier days mean you can make the most of Brussels' café culture. Head like a local to Café Belga’s terrace to bask in the first rays of sunshine. The best time to visit Brussels, in short, is when the urge takes you – whatever the weather.