Brussels is a complex city. Both historic and modern, ornate and sleek, busy and quiet, the city has different personalities in only the span of a few blocks. But despite these contrasts (or maybe because of them), there’s something new and different at every turn. And I loved every bit of it. My Brussels visit was a rather quick one. I had just over two days in Brussels to explore this expansive capital city and the administrative center of the European Union before heading to Bruges, but I made the absolute most of my time. As I pounded the pavement, bused my way through the city, and even climbed high above it, I discovered that there are more than just a few fun things to do in Brussels. Here’s a look at my lucky 13 favorite activities.
Go for a tasting at Cantillon Brewery
Cantillon Brewery (aka Brasserie Cantillon) is one of the best places in Brussels for beer fans. This historic brewery makes only lambic beer, which spontaneously ferments with wild yeast–compared to most beers on the market that have a tightly-controlled fermentation process with specific strains of brewer’s yeast. Founded in 1900, Cantillon was one of more than 100 breweries in Brussels when it began but is the only one that’s still around from that time. That sense of history is clear when you walk through their brewing and bottling facility just outside Brussels’ historic center.
A self-guided tour of the Cantillon Brewery takes about 30-45 minutes and lets you see the brewing, fermentation, and bottling areas. And, of course, there’s plenty of time for a tasting. You can pick your poison from several available products at the bar, but Cantillon is best known for its gueuze and kriek (sour cherry) varieties.
Channel a bit of Paris at the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula
When I first gazed up the hill to the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, I paused for a second to remember that despite the beautiful building in front of me and the French speakers surrounding me, I wasn’t actually in Paris. That’s how much the Gothic cathedral reminded me of Notre Dame in Paris.
A chapel dedicated to St. Michael has been on this spot since at least the 9th century, though the current version of this stunning building honoring the male and female patron saints of Brussels opened in 1519 (but it was under construction for 300 years before). At nearly 600 years old, it must be one of the oldest and prettiest places to see in Brussels. Its two towers are typical of the French Gothic style (hence the similarity to Notre Dame), and the south tower contains a whopping 49-bell carillon. Inside are gorgeous Gothic and Baroque chapels and plenty of elaborate stained glass windows to lose yourself in, even if you’re not much into churches.
Indulge your love of comics
We love street art in every place we visit. From Canada to Ecuador to Northern Ireland, we’ve sought out political murals and artistic expressions. Brussels takes street art to a different level, actually creating a Comic Book Route that pays tribute to well-known local comic characters and authors. In more than 50 spots around the city, you can find these fun artworks. It almost becomes a game to see how many you can locate as you explore Brussels. Ultimately, I think I found 10, mostly in the city center. If the Comic Book Route isn’t enough to satisfy your interest in the comic history of Belgium, stop by Brussels’ Comic Book Museum. There you’ll learn about the history of comics and how they’re made and see some of Belgium’s most famous comic creations—The Smurfs!
Bring the comics “home” with you
In Brussels, the love of comics is pervasive. Some spots—like the fabulous Radisson Red Brussels—make them part of your morning, noon, and night in your hotel. At the Radisson Red, I encountered comics from the minute I stepped through the lobby door…and then on my breakfast napkins, in the hallways, and all the way to my spacious suite. The whole effect is light-hearted, energetic, and happy because there’s something fun to see everywhere you look. After all, what are cartoons for if not for making you smile?
Learn about world affairs at the Parlamentarium
Just a three-minute walk from the Radisson Red is a spot of international importance, the European Parliament. Even if you’re not deeply into politics, a stop at the visitor’s center here—the Parlamentarium—is worth your time. An engaging, multimedia exhibit walks you through the World Wars, showing visitors what life was like throughout Europe during war times and explaining the reasons why the European Union was developed (in short: build alliances, improve trade, and give people a reason to care about the welfare of other countries).
On your visit that lasts about 60-90 minutes, you get up close and personal with members of the European Parliament (or at least their stories) and watch mini-documentaries about how being part of the EU has benefited regular citizens. Not currently (or unsurprisingly) part of the exhibit: Brexit.
Hang out at Grand Place
Undoubtedly, one of the best things to do in Brussels is to visit the heart of the city—the Grand Place, or Grote Markt in Dutch. The central square is surrounded by ornate guildhalls, the city’s towering Town Hall, and the Breadhouse that is home to the Museum of the City of Brussels. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, most of the buildings in Brussels’ Grand Place date back to the late 1600s, although there have been buildings here since the 1200s.
Stepping into the Grand Place, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the beauty and size of the lavish historic buildings on all sides of the square. Everywhere you look, tourists are picnicking, chatting, searching for a prime spot for a late-afternoon beer, and trying to fit the tops of the buildings into the perfect selfie. There’s so much to see all at once. It’s definitely worth a visit (or more) on any trip to Brussels.
Stop for a sip at Le Cirio
Check out a bit of Brussels’ café culture at Le Cirio. This sumptuous grand café dating back to 1886 caters to locals and tourists alike. Inside, you’ll see unique touches like polished brass and artwork from the time the place opened. Outside, you can enjoy the patio and people watch to your heart’s content. I stopped here to give my feet a break and to enjoy the house speciality, a half en half, which is a mix of still and sparkling wines poured perfectly at your table.
Pay a visit to a peeing fountain
I have to confess that I don’t really “get” the Manneken Pis statue, but it’s an absolute must-see for any Brussels sightseeing trip. The 2-foot-tall peeing boy statue is photographed and gawked at all hours of the day by everyone from high school students to businessmen in suits—many posing for a selfie with the famous boy, of course. The statue was originally made all the way back in 1619. So even though it’s a bit odd, it’s quite historic.
Manneken Pis has been stolen several times over the years, and the current version dates from 1965. He’s often dressed in unusual costumes, many of which have found their way to a permanent exhibition inside the City Museum located in the Grand Place. He’s so famous that two other peeing statues—one of a little girl and one of a dog—have also made their way into the Brussels landscape. Grab a waffle from one of the many nearby storefronts, and make your way to the corner to join the group of onlookers.
Stroll through Cinquantenaire Park
Brussels is a busy metropolitan city, but it also has plenty of green space. Since the weather can be a little unpredictable, the whole city comes alive when it’s sunny. One prime place for spending time on fair-weather days is Cinquantenaire Park (Parc du Cinquantenaire). During my visit to the sprawling park, cyclists rode down the paths while families picnicked in the open spaces and visitors lounged around the fountain. The park is also home to the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History. Not only is the museum itself super interesting, but it’s a great point to access the park’s Arc de Triomphe for views of Brussels.
Enjoy an afternoon at Place Sainte-Catherine
Not far from the Grand Place is Place Sainte-Catherine, a lively neighborhood full of cafes, a market, and its namesake church. One must-visit spot at Place Saint-Catherine is De Noordzee, an atmospheric restaurant and fishbar serving fresh seafood. Stop in for a fish burger or any of their other delicious specialties. If seafood isn’t your favorite, there are plenty of other outdoor cafes to choose from, or you can come back in the evening to check out the nightlife scene that pops up along the quai. Several days a week, you can also visit the food and flower market here that runs all day, but Wednesdays are particularly special when the market focuses on all-organic food from 7:30am-3:00pm. The cornerstone of the area is Sainte Catherine’s Church. Completed in 1874, it’s quite new compared to many other such buildings in the city. Because the church’s architecture draws inspiration from 16th century French churches, there are still plenty of buttresses, gargoyles, and grand statues to be seen.
Get your culture on at the best museums in Brussels
I have a confession: my interest in art is…limited. I know enough to appreciate the works of the masters, of course, but I’m generally not inclined to spend hours in a museum looking at Renaissance paintings and such. But I love pop art, surrealism, and the like. That’s why the Magritte Museum was at the top of my list for my Brussels visit. From vanishing faces to pig men to all the apple artworks you can imagine, the museum displays 200 original Magritte works. It’s part of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, which also includes the Old Masters Museum, the Modern Museum, and others, in case your artistic tastes don’t match mine.
Visit the Sablon neighborhood
When I first saw the Jardin du Petit Sablon—a beautiful park tucked away in the middle of a long block—I did a double-take. I was on a bus zooming by the Brussels sites, but I knew I had to go back to find that park. When I did, I was enthralled by the manicured garden, the fountain, and the statues. I spent at least 20 minutes just sitting and staring, lost in the peace of the quiet space. Even in the midst of a busy trip to Brussels, I highly recommend taking a few minutes to breathe deeply and enjoy the surroundings.
Across the street from the park is the Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon (Église Notre-Dame du Sablon), a 15th century church visited for hundreds of years by the nobility and wealthy citizens of Brussels. At other spots in the neighborhood, you can see modern art and sample some of the city’s best chocolate. When you’re done there, browse an antique store, stop for a coffee, and just enjoy.
Try the traditional food
Most people associate Belgium with waffles, frites, and beer. And there’s good reason for that—they’re everywhere, and they’re excellent. But Belgian food goes beyond these snacks and sips to some really delicious specialties. Branching out to try some traditional Belgian foods is one of the top things to do in Brussels.
There’s waterzooi, a creamy stew using eggs and butter that usually features fish or chicken. If you’re more of a seafood person, the moules frites are an authentic, can’t miss dish. On this trip, I discovered my love for stoemp. This Belgian staple blends mashed potatoes with vegetables like carrots, onions, or brussels sprouts and is usually served either as a side dish or as an entrée with sausage or other meat. But my favorite Belgian find was carbonade flamande. A dish similar to beef bourguignon, carbonade is slow cooked in Belgian brown beer until the meat nearly falls apart. It’s earthy, filling, and delicious. And as a bonus, it’s typically served with frites, so you get two tasty Belgian foods on one dish.
I was the guest of the Radisson Red Brussels. As always, all opinions of the fun, fascinating, and delicious are my own.