Quick Travel Guide: Brussels, Belgium

BRUSSELS

Country: Belgium

Population: 1,175,173

Time zone: UTC +1

Closest airport(s): Brussels Zavantem, Brussels Charleroi

 

A little bit about Brussels

The Royal Palace of Brussels is the official residence of the King and Queen of Belgium.

The Royal Palace of Brussels is the official residence of the King and Queen of Belgium.

Bruxelles, Brussel; the capital of Belgium, the capital of the European Union. Brussels has multiple guises, and that’s definitely appropriate for somewhere as culturally diverse as this particular city is.

Its history dates back to the 11th century when it was a small dukedom which was approximately the size of today’s downtown area.

In 1830 the city was the site of the Belgian revolution which saw the secession of the southern provinces from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, establishing the Kingdom of Belgium of which Brussels became the capital.

Following the Second World War, Brussels was thrust into the position of being a major centre for international politics and is home to the headquarters of the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Today Brussels retains such importance, and is one of the most diverse cities in the world with approximately 27 % of its population being foreign, not including those who have taken Belgian citizenship, leading to a multilingual society where neither French nor Flemish is the dominant language.

Why should I go?

Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert - a glazed shopping arcade in Brussels city centre.

Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert - a glazed shopping arcade in Brussels city centre.

From the World's Fair to the European Championships of football, Brussels has seen a lot in its time and this is reflected in the variation of attractions on its palette.

Whether it’s a trip to the Atomium or an afternoon of over-indulgence of chocolate and beer, Brussels caters for a wide age range.

Understandably, Brussels is not high on a lot of people’s lists right now following the worst act of terrorism in Belgian history when bombs at Brussels Airport in Zavantem and at Maalbeek metro station in the city centre caused the deaths of 32 people and injured 340 others, but it is safer than you may think.

Avoiding Brussels would be such a shame as it is a place brimming with attraction, deliciousness and invitation.

It doesn't matter if it's a weekend break or one leg of a European journey, Brussels is a fantastic place to explore.

The main attractions

Atomium

The Atomium is great to visit, and a great spot to photograph.

The Atomium is great to visit, and a great spot to photograph.

While Paris has its Eiffel Tower, Brussels has the Atomium. A symbol of the city of Brussels, it was originally constructed for Expo 58 – the 1958 Brussels World Fair.

The structure depicts an iron unit cell, magnified 165 billion times over, but before its renovation which started in 2004, it was covered in aluminium.

It is the most popular tourist attraction in Belgium, with eight levels spread over five spheres which are open to the public.

Inside is a permanent exhibition dedicated to Expo 58 and the Atomium’s construction and upkeep, and is joined by temporary exhibitions, a 360-degree observation deck with views as far as Antwerp and a Panoramic Restaurant.

Atomium opening hours and Prices

Grand-Place

Trafalgar Square, Piazza del Campo, Red Square and Rynek Glowny – these are some of Europe’s most famous inner-city open spaces not just in Europe, but also the world.

Grand-Place is Brussels’ answer to those landmarks, with the 15th century times square a relic in the city’s history, with almost every surrounding building having some past significance.

Here’ you’ll find the Town Hall with its large, Gothic tower, the Brussels City Museum, a Hard Rock Cafe and even a brewery museum.

Grand-Place is a popular spot at night with people who sit on the square's cobbles.

Grand-Place is a popular spot at night with people who sit on the square's cobbles.

It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and is very popular with tourists who at night, along with young locals, can be found sitting on the stones of the square in circles, drinking and chatting the night away.

Mannekin Pis translates into English as "Little man pee."

Mannekin Pis translates into English as "Little man pee."

Grand-Place is also a few steps from the infamous Mannekin Pis, the statue depicting a naked little boy urinating into a fountain’s basin. Mannekin Pis is also dressed regularly in costume according to a published schedule on the railings around the fountain, with many previous costumes on display at the city museum.

Mini-Europe

The Atomium provides a nice backdrop to Mini-Europe, and combined tickets for both attractions are available to save visitors some cash.

The Atomium provides a nice backdrop to Mini-Europe, and combined tickets for both attractions are available to save visitors some cash.

As it turns out you don’t have to make a catalogue of travel plans to visit the whole of Europe – in fact you can do it in an afternoon at one of Brussels’ best attractions.

Featuring each of the nation members of the European Union, this miniature park brings to life over 80 cities and 350 of the continent’s most famous buildings, containing live action models such as trains, fire, mills and cable cars.

Mini-Europe's recreation of Nyhavn in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Mini-Europe's recreation of Nyhavn in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Signposts and guides are on hand to help visitors understand what they are seeing, while a “Spirit of Europe” exhibition makes the EU’s history interactive.

An aerial view of Mini-Europe from the Atomium, with King Baudouin Stadium - home of Belgium's national football team - in the background.

An aerial view of Mini-Europe from the Atomium, with King Baudouin Stadium - home of Belgium's national football team - in the background.

Mini-Europe sits at the foot of the Atomium, so it’s best to do them both together and kill two birds with one stone.

Mini-Europe opening hours and prices

Parlamentarium

The headquarters of the European Union in Brussels.

The headquarters of the European Union in Brussels.

Despite having administrative centres in Strasbourg and Luxembourg, the EU headquarters are in Brussels. However, EUHQ isn’t just a destination for employees, but also tourists via the Parlamentarium – the European Union’s visitor centre.

Open seven days a week with no admission fee and audio guide included, visiting the Parlamentarium is a cheap and informative way to spend a couple of hours for visitors of all ages,

One of the exhibitions at the Parlamentarium - a walk-through timeline of EU history.

One of the exhibitions at the Parlamentarium - a walk-through timeline of EU history.

I am not even a fan of politics, yet I still found a lot of value in visiting the place (and that’s nothing to do with the price tag). Yes, it shows the evolution of European politics since World War II, but it also documents how the continent has shaped itself in other ways and how it has affected its citizens in doing so.

Parlamentarium opening hours

Belgian Comic Strip Center

Inside the Belgian Comic Strip Center.

Inside the Belgian Comic Strip Center.

Brussels is adorned with many great museums. But if you want a blend of history and fun then head on down to the Belgian Comic Strip Center.

Located a little walk from the centre of town it is here that the so-called “ninth art” – comics – is laid bare.

Watch the transition from early Franco-Belgian comics to the complex world of strips, cartoons and books that we have today, while also meeting Belgian creations such as Tintin, The Smurfs and Lucky Luke.

A massive print from Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland.

A massive print from Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland.

The museum also and tells the tale of how Brussels and Belgium became a cartoon powerhouse and cemented their place not only on paper, but also on screen.

Smurf figurines at the MOOF Museum.

Smurf figurines at the MOOF Museum.

That transition is further magnified at the MOOF (Museum of Original Figurines) Museum, where one can discover the great myths of comic strip in the form of small figures along a trail which jumps from one theme to the next.

Belgian Comic Strip Center opening hours and prices

MOOF Museum opening hours and prices

Getting around

In addition to serving international routes, Brussels Central Station has its own Metro stop that visitors can use to get around the city.

In addition to serving international routes, Brussels Central Station has its own Metro stop that visitors can use to get around the city.

Brussels is another city with a fantastic transit network, particularly its Metro system, which reaches most areas of the city. It's a simple system with single fares starting from €2.10, and a full breakdown of the tariffs on offer can be found here.

There's also a similarly useful tram system with busses running regularly, and tickets purchased for public transport are available to use across all three networks.

But, honestly, Brussels is navigable just by walking which means not only will you get to see the sights, but also the interesting things in between.

Getting there

Brussels is served by two airports – Zavantem and Charleroi. Zavantem is the bigger of the two and a base for Brussels Airlines, TUIfly Belgium and Thomas Cook Airlines Belgium. Zavantem typically caters for international destinations and is the closest airport to the centre. To find out how to get from Brussels Zavantem Airport to Brussels, click here.

Charleroi is the secondary airport and a hub for budget airlines – in particular, Ryanair. Flights to and from this airport tend to generally be cheaper, particularly as it lies 45 minute south of Brussels, traffic permitting. To get from Brussels Charleroi to the city, it is best and cheaper to use the Brussels City Shuttle. Trains and taxis provide alternative forms of transfer, but are either less convenient or more expensive.

There are three major railways stations in Brussels-North, Brussels-South and Brussels Central Station with all serving a variety of domestic and international roots, with Central Station also providing a direct link to London and the United Kingdom on the Eurostar via Lille.

Coach travel is also a cheap way to get to and from Brussels, with tour providers such as Eurolines, OUIBUS and Flibco serving several desternations in and around Belgium.

Nestled between France and The Netherlands and with Germany providing a border to the east, Brussels is well located for a European tour and has plenty of great transport links. As a member of a Schengen area it is easy to pass through the borders of Belgium and its neighbouring nations which means that it is drivable. Go here to check out car rental options in the area.

Where to stay

There are so many options in Brussels that it is hard to find reasonably priced or cheap rooms to suit your needs.

Booking.com has a great selection of hotels, hostels and apartments in the city. I stayed at the two-star Hotel Galia. It was basic, but it had a nice, big bathroom and was suitable for what we needed as we weren’t in the room for much of our stay.

Eat and drink

Belgium is synonymous with a famous trifecta – beer, chocolate and waffles. Not surprisingly, then, that all three are easy to find and readily available.

Its biggest attraction across each of the three delicacies is Delirium Café which holds a Guinness World Record for having the most beers, serving over 3000 varieties. Delirium is spread out across seven bars and creates its own nightlife hotspot. Any drinkers would surely love this place, although prepare for big queues as there is, naturally, high demand.

At the time of the count, Delerium broke the record with 2,004. But 13 years later, their offering has risen by more than 1,000 different types.

At the time of the count, Delerium broke the record with 2,004. But 13 years later, their offering has risen by more than 1,000 different types.

Duvel and Stella Artois are also brewed nearby, and both offer tours of their facilities.

There are some other great bars around, including The Big Game Brussels, a sports bar with multiple screens and drinks promotions throughout the week. Even if you’re not a sports fan, the atmosphere and prices in this place should be tempting enough.

Delerium Café brews its own brand of beer which dons the famous pink elephant logo. I tried the red variation.

Delerium Café brews its own brand of beer which dons the famous pink elephant logo. I tried the red variation.

There are plenty of chocolate shops around with many of them selling gift sets to take home as souvenirs, while Belgian waffles can be found in most cafés and restaurants, as well as being for sale by street vendors and in hole-in-the-wall type establishments.

And let’s not forget Brussels sprouts, the less-prominent part of Belgian cuisine, which are thought to have originated and gained its name there. But, ironically, I did not see a single menu with them listed. Oh, well, I guess I’ll have to wait until Christmas!

To check out some of Brussels' best restaurants, click here.

Five observations

Brussels IS safe to visit

Army wagons stationed outside Brussels-North train station.

Army wagons stationed outside Brussels-North train station.

Following the March 2016 Brussels bombings, the Belgian capital’s tourism numbers took a big hit with hotel occupancy hovering at just above 60%, while restaurant takings are down by at least a quarter.

But any fears that the general traveller might have should be allayed. Not only are those believed to be directly involved with the attacks dead or captured, but a heightened security presence reduces the likelihood of any repeat offences.

The tourism industry in the area might be slowly finding its feet again, but there’s no reason why this should be off-putting. Brussels may be on high alert from the threat of terrorism but, then again, this is one step down from the severe status of the United Kingdom.

Now is the time to go

A presumably quiet Grand-Place compared to years past.

A presumably quiet Grand-Place compared to years past.

It’s basic economics that when demand falls, the price falls with it, and Brussels is experiencing a similar trend.

Whilst what happened to the city at the beginning of last year was an atrocity, it plays into the hands of travellers looking to save a few pennies. Brussels is cheap to fly to, reasonable to stay in and, if you play your cards right, reasonable to dine in and explore.

As well as lower prices, there are less tourists visiting Brussels than in previous years. This works in the favour of 2017 visitors as it will mean lower waiting times and less bustle.

If ever there was an opportune moment to visit Brussels, now is it.

It’s one of the smallest big cities in Europe

There’s a Parthenon of European cities – London, Paris, Berlin, Rome and maybe even Moscow. World-renowned places that have a lot of global and historical significance.

Brussels is important in its own right, but is never held in the same regard as those cities listed above.

But surely it can’t be too much further down the pecking order, and it is recognised as a ‘major world city’ on the Globalisation and World Cities (GAWC) list.

Yet, speaking in a travel and tourism sense, it still lags. It’s not one of Europe’s 10 most-visited cities, nor is it a name synonymous with backpacking, stag and hen parties and romantic breaks – yet it is in fact suited each of those three traveller-types.

Maybe one day Brussels will emerge from the shadow of nearby Paris and Amsterdam, but for now it is, in my opinion, an underrated and underappreciated destination.

Street art savvy

As previously mentioned, Brussels has an artistic pedigree as one of the centres of the ninth art movement, but the city also has works beyond just comic.

Murals, obscure sculptures and statues can be found dotted around the centre, and a lot of them are little gems.

It’s a nice compliment to sights like the Atomium and the Parlamentarium and an alternative to some great contemporary art galleries.

It’s cheaper than anticipated

I ordered two beers and handed over €12 to the bartender. After all the price said €6 for a 500ml glass of the amber nectar, and two would cost twice that amount.

To my surprise the man behind the bar looked at me as if I was crazy and I responded in a manner which would suggest that I was taken aback.

I thought I hadn’t given him enough, maybe I’d misread the price list. But I couldn’t have been more wrong – I’d actually given him three times the amount.

It was happy hour. Beers were now €2 apiece.

I had a similar surprise on a hunt for my first Belgian waffle. I was expecting that a waffle slathered with a coating of Nutella would set me back at least four or five Euros.

Little did I know €1 waffle shops existed.

I really expected Brussels to be like London or Berlin with its pricing. It’s a politician’s playground, and luxury and expense would be acceptable answers in a game of word association.

But Brussels is a reasonable place to spend a few days. Sure, there will be some places where prices are astronomical, but for one expensive restaurant there are three affordable ones.

Did you know?

Brussels, Belgium isn’t the only Brussels in the world. Four namesakes exist in North America with two in Canada – Brussels, Ontario and Bruxelles, Manitoba – and two in the United States – Brussels, Wisconsin and Brussels, Illinois.

Useful links

Visit Brussels (Tourism Board)

Brussels Tourism Information (Brussels.info)

City Card

Brussels on TripAdvisor

Belgium travel advice