Brussels is a city of nuance. Its beauty lies in its details: wrought iron flourishes on seemingly plain houses, locals’ wry jokes paired with warm welcomes, provocative murals that make you do a double take. If you only have a few days, here are some of the top things to do in Brussels to experience the little delights of Belgium’s underrated capital.
Though Brussels’ central square, the Grand Place, is its most touristy spot, you can’t deny that it’s, well, grand. If you only have one day in Brussels, head there. To dig deeper, rather than treating it as a big gilded selfie backdrop, take a moment to sit and take in the intricate details of each building: a swan rearing where Marx wrote his Communist Manifesto, the boatmen guild’s gable shaped like a ship’s stern, a bas relief of Romulus and Remus with their wolf mother.
Find the peeing trio
Manneken Pis, the “little pissing man,” is a perfect example of Belgians’ cheeky humor. Most tourists stop at the bronze boy with the bottomless bladder, but he actually has two urinary comrades. Since 1987, Jeanneke Pis has been squatting behind a red fence near Rue de Bouchers. Manneken’s best friend was added in 1998: a statue of a dog, Zinneke, casually answering nature’s call on a Rue des Chartreux bollard.
Eat waffles like a Belgian
Countless tourist shops offer “authentic” Belgian waffles loaded with all kinds of sugary additions. Sprinkles, nuts and whipped cream have their time and place, but Belgians usually skip the shops and mountains of tops. Freshly made and sticky sweet Liege waffles (Luikse in Flemish) are best enjoyed sans toppings. Waffle vans serving piping hot waffles wrapped in paper can be found all over Brussels – city parks and weekend markets are good places to look.
Drink a beer in a brown cafe
Cramped seating, smoke-darkened wooden panels, and an extensive (but tasteful) beer list are defining features of classic Belgian “brown cafes.” Tables packed with friends laughing into the early hours are proof: having a beer in a brown cafe is one of the best things to do in Brussels at night.
No matter where you stay, there’s sure to be at least one brown cafe nearby, but centrally located favorites include Moeder Lambic in Ixelles, Poechenellekelder by the Manneken Pis, and Nüetnigenough near the Grand Place. Delirium Café merits an honorable mention: though it’s objectively touristy and often sloppy, it does have the world’s biggest beer menu.
Visit the home of an Art Nouveau master
Curling steel vines and floral flourishes were signatures of illustrious architect Victor Horta. Considered to be one of the fathers of the 19th century Art Nouveau movement, his work influenced countless elegantly understated façades found throughout Brussels today. To honor his work, his family home in Ixelles’ Chatelain neighborhood is now open to the public as a museum. It’s not hard to find Art Nouveau’s influences in Brussels, but the Musée Horta is one of the few places where travelers can see the inner workings of Horta’s artistry.
Devour a cone of frites
Belgians love their perfectly crispy fries so much that they want the vendors’ stands placed on UNESCO’s Cultural Heritage list! Snacking on fries is a must do while in Brussels. Portions come in many shapes with many sauces—mostly variants of mayonnaise—but the classic method is to eat the fries straight from a paper cone. Maison Antoine in Place Jourdan is a centrally located cult favorite, but prepare to wait in line!
Take a historic tram to Tervuren’s Africa Museum
Belgium’s colonial history is dark: “crimes against humanity” was a phrase used to describe King Leopold II’s genocide in Congo. After decades of denial, Belgium is slowly coming to terms with its crimes. Tervuren’s palatial Africa Museum is a must-visit to see the changes in progress. Tervuren is connected to Brussels by a century-old wooden tram line that passes towering trees and stately mansions on Avenue de Tervuren.
Sample gueuze beer at Cantillon Brewery
Subtly sour and extra effervescent? Must be a gueuze beer! The curious lambic-style beer hails from the Senne Valley around Brussels. Some say the doubly fermented brew is a craft substitute for champagne, others find the flavor unsettling. The only way to determine that on your own is to do a tasting at the family-run Cantillon Brewery and museum in the west of Brussels.
Savor the world’s best chocolate
Belgians will never agree on which chocolatier is best. What they can agree on is that some of the finest chocolate is in Brussels. Connoisseurs should head to the Sablon neighborhood: there you’ll find names like Wittamer, a master of the “older” generation, alongside newer chocolatiers, like Marcolini, who are more experimental with their creations. High quality comes at a high price, so if you’re traveling Brussels on a budget, the Neuhaus factory is a more budget-friendly alternative.
Walk the comic book route
Comics are a huge deal in the “comic book capital” of the world. Literally huge: Brussels is decorated with more than 60 multistory murals honoring famous comic strips! One of the best things to do in Brussels is follow the comic book route across the city, seeking out characters like Tintin and The Smurfs, plus local Belgian favorites like Suske and Wiske and Rode Ridder.
Treat your ears at the Musical Instruments Museum
Musical instruments might seem a strange choice for nonmusicians, but the interactive MIM is one of the best things to do in Brussels with kids. They can play for hours, exploring the sounds of squiggly horns and plucky pipe organs neither children nor adults have ever heard of. Once done, MIM has a rooftop restaurant that offers spectacular views of central Brussels through arched Art Nouveau windows. It’s a welcome change from somber art museums.
Tuck into a hot pot of moules
Moules-frites, steaming pots of mussels served with sides of fries, are a Belgian classic. Some restaurants dish up pots of mussels year-round, but Belgians claim the best mussels are only available in months whose names contain an “r.” If you’re in Brussels at the right time of year, don’t pass on the chance to tuck into fresh mussels at Le Zinneke or Le Chou de Bruxelles. Pro tip: dip your fries into the sauce at the bottom. You won’t regret it.
Hunt for bargains in Le Marolles
Long a neighborhood of the working class, Marolles is the historic heart of Brussels. The original Brusseleer dialect can still be heard on its streets today. Though times are changing and accents are fading, Marolles is still a place to get a glimpse of the past at bargain prices. Both trash and treasure are sold at the Place du Jeu-de-Balle flea market running 365 days a year, and shopping streets Rue Haute and Rue Blaes around the square are equally rife with shops selling antiques and vintage clothes.
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