Most of the people I’ve spoken to prefer Bruges to Brussels, mainly because Bruges is so pretty and so obviously historically rich.
However, Brussels has so much in terms of history – most of it not obvious at first glance – that I actually prefer Brussels… it feels like there is so much more to discover there. I’ll tell you why, but first…
Ok! So, Brussels is the capital of Belgium, a country made up of 19 municipalities, with Brussels being in the centre one.
The Kingdom of Belgium was only founded in 1830, so it’s really not that old. It started off being entirely Dutch-speaking, but French crept in and eventually became the ‘lingua-franca’ – the main language – but still nearly everything, from street signs to official documents, are shown in both Dutch and French.
The reason for French becoming the main language? Well, because Dutch was considered by the Flemish people to be of lower social prestige, particularly as French was used prolifically in Europe for political and administrative reasons.
Add to that the huge amount of French immigration into Belgium and before long it just made sense for the Flemish to become equally fluent in both French and Dutch (and many of them speak English too)!!
I was super confused when an older lady started talking to me in what I thought was French, but I could only understand a few words… and when I spoke back in French she didn’t understand me!? This is when I realised she spoke French with a super strong Dutch accent … 😛
Brussels itself is a mix of historical haven and modern metropolis. This is a city that is known for it’s hundreds of years of art history (with many galleries dedicated to art in the city), but also known for being the parliamentary capital of Europe, a relatively modern invention in comparison to the rest of Brussels.
With this in mind, there’s so much to do and see in Brussels that one day could never be enough (and probably even a week wouldn’t be enough!). But still, here are 10 great ideas for things to do or see in Brussels 🙂
1. Visit one of the oldest cafés in Brussels
If you like architecture or art in general, you’ll enjoy having a coffee or some food in the Le Falstaff café, situated at Rue Henri Mausstraat 19.
It’s one of the oldest cafés in Brussels, and is decorated entirely in the Art-Nouveau style, giving it a classic and elegant feel, but also a really warm, lovely atmosphere.
With it being right in the centre and super close to the Grand-Place, it’s kind of the perfect place to stop for a coffee or a snack before you get back to exploring.
2. Go See The Musical Instrument Museum
Not only are there over 8000 super-old musical instruments inside for you to look at (some still working!), but the building itself is stupidly beautiful, including staves painted on the outside, and situated on the hill so when you enter or exit you can see a breathtaking view of lower Brussels in the distance.
For an even better, panoramic view of Brussels, you can sit in the rooftop café!
The building itself is called the ‘Old England‘ building, another stunning example of art-nouveau architecture.
Find it on Rue Montagne de la Cour/Hofberg 2 on the Mont des Arts/Kunstberg (map).
3. Go To A Gallery
Brussels is famous for it’s love for all things arty. Galleries, museums, festivals etc all revolve around encouraging and celebrating creativity in all it’s forms.
There are so many galleries and museums that it would be too long a list to name them all here but go on Google and search for art galleries and see which one takes your fancy – there’s contemporary art, fine art, old Belgian art, sculpture… and so much more!
Not only that but Brussels is deemed the ‘capital of the comic strip‘ – this is the place where Tin Tin and The Smurfs were created!). You’ll see loads of murals in the city dedicated to famous Belgian comic strips 😀
4. See the EU building
Now my home country (England) is leaving the European Union I’m even more nostalgic and fascinated by the EU so seeing the EU parliament building was kinda important for me.
But besides that it’s such a huge architectural difference to the more historical centre of Brussels… the area around the EU parliament is beautifully clean and modern, but you’ll still find some hidden pieces of street art amongst the streets, including a few Invaders 😉
5. Eat Some Frites 🍟
This is very important considering Belgium is known for it’s famous, mouth-watering frites! 🍟
At Fritland there’s always a super long line but apparently they’re some of the best in Brussels – you can take away or sit outside. At Bij Chez Papy you can actually sit inside like a restaurant, but it’s no fine dining experience… it’s just a friterie 😉 You decide!
6. Check out the Grand-Place
The Grand-Place is considered one of the most beautiful squares in Europe, something I can wholeheartedly agree with!
It looks like something out of a movie set in the Victorian times. Not only is the architecture absolutely beautiful but the buildings are also painted with an amazing gold trim, which shines even brighter in the night-time with all the light reflecting off it.
Brussels holds lots of important events like here, like music and dance festivals, and the famous Flower Carpet that is created every two years (more than 600,000 flowers are used!).
7. Have a Beer (or two) 😉 🍻
Belgium is known for it’s famously huge variety of beers, so why not try a few?
You’ll find so many bars and beerhouses that you’ll eventually end up being subliminally persuaded into drinking one whether you like it or not so you might as well just give in 😉
I recommend Poechenellekelder because firstly, it’s next to the famous emblem of Brussels, the ‘peeing boy (Manneken-Pis)’ statue (I really don’t understand this one but ok), and it’s also just really cosy inside. They also have sooooo many types of beer!!
Find Poechenellekelder here!
8. Get a Waffle
After all that walking and exploring, the evenings starts to set and the temperature drops. The perfect time to warm yourself up with a delicious belgian waffle and a nice hot drink!
Belgian waffles are soooo delicious – soft, yet chewy. Sweet and warm. And above all, you can have them plain or with a huge variety of sweet toppings like ice cream, fruit, chocolate, fresh cream… the possibilities are endless. But unfortunately the waffle isn’t. You might be tempted to buy a second one….
9. Visit the Royal Palace (there’s something amazing inside) 😉
The Royal Palace only opens its doors to the public in the summer. The Royal Family don’t live here; instead this is more of an administrative base for the King, who takes foreign visitors and meetings here.
From the outside it’s huge and elegant, with neatly-groomed gardens and grand architecture but on the inside it’s even more grand! However, the King and Queen of Belgium are big art-lovers and supporters, and for this reason they accepted an offer from Belgian artist Jan Fabre to create a mural on the ceiling of the ‘Hall of Mirrors‘ room in the palace.
The artist, known for his boundary-breaking work including using his own blood and raw steak, created a mural of iridescent beetles on the ceiling (not the first time he’s created artwork with beetles).
The Hall of Mirrors was commissioned by King Leopold II, the man who claimed the Congo as his own. He wanted the ceiling to be inspired by the Congo and Africa, but as he died before the room could be finished, the ceiling was never completed- that is, until Fabre stepped in. Fabre says it was fitting to use jewel scarabs to decorate the ceiling since they can also be found in the Congo.
If you love sort-of macabre-ish art that’s somehow also exquisitely beautiful, check out Jan Fabre’s art work here. I absolutely love it!
10. Go See The Atomium
For all you science nerds, you’ll love this!
A building constructed in the shape of a cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. Crazy, huh?
The spheres are all clad in stainless steel, and the tubes, which contain escalators (how cool is this???), connect all the spheres to the centre.
There’s a lift in the central tube (the vertical one), which was one of the fastest lifts in the world when it was built, and the spheres are now exhibition spaces, museums and public spaces. The top sphere is a restaurant with a panoramic view of Brussels.
Designed by André Waterkeyn and architects André and Jean Polak, this building is most definitely an example of architectural modernism, and is just amazing to see.