Chocolates, beer, waffles, art, sculptures, botanical gardens, ancient Gothic-style churches, historical monuments, comics, military museums, art museums… Do any of these interest you? If so, then Brussels is the place to be.
Did you know?
The world’s largest chocolate selling point is The Brussels International Airport.
Brussels is home to Nemo 33, the world’s deepest indoor swimming pool at 34.5 meters deep.
Brussels (French: Bruxelles), is the capital of Belgium. It is officially known as the Brussels Region or Brussels-Capital Region. It is also the de facto capital of the European Union (UN). Out of all the places, Brussels is the largest urban area in Belgium. Historically, a Dutch-speaking city, Brussels experienced a major shift towards the French form of communication since its independence in 1830. Nevertheless, it has officially been declared a bilingual city.
For the shopper in you:
Brussels is home to Les Galeries Saint-Hubert, Europe’s oldest shopping arcade.
For the foodie in you:
On an approximate, Brussels has restaurants per square mile.
For the chocolate-lover in you:
Brussels International Airport is the world’s largest chocolate selling point.
For the musician in you:
The most esteemed and most difficult of all music competitions of the world, the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition, was founded in Brussels.
For the lawyer in you:
The largest court of justice in the world, the Palais de Justice or the Law Courts of Brussels, is in Brussels. The building is the biggest construction of the 19th century.
There is a lot more to Brussels than just Brussels sprouts, beer, chocolate, frites and waffles. Go through the following list of ‘must-dos’, before you plan your trip to Brussels.
Ten Must-Visit Places in Brussels
An extremely famous Brussels landmark, the Manneken Pis (Dutch for Little Man Pee) is a 61 cm tall bronze fountain sculpture of a little, naked boy urinating in the fountain’s basin. It has been officially declared as the emblem of the City of Brussels, depicting its rebellious spirit. The statuette was designed around 1618-19, and placed on the junction of Rue de l’Étuve/Stoofstraat and Rue du Chêne/Eikstraat.
It is a tradition in Brussels to dress up the Manneken Pis in several different costumes every week. The designs for the costumes are submitted to a non-profit organization, The Friends of Manneken Pis, who then select and produce a few to be used. The dress-up is changed based on a pre-decided schedule. The change of costumes for the Manneken Pis is a huge affair and is done amidst celebrations, accompanied by brass band music. All of its costumes are put up on display for viewing at the Brussels Historical Museum at the Grand Place.
Occasionally, it is attached to a keg or barrel of beer. Instead of water, beer flows out from the statue, which is filled in cups or glasses, and given to the tourists and passers-by. In 1987, Jeanneke Pis, the female counterpart of the Manneken Pis, was erected on the east side of L’impasse de la fidélité (Fidelity Alley), Brussels.
If you plan to visit Brussels in August, make the most of it by experiencing the spectacular Flower Carpet at the Grand Place. Every two years, the central square on the Grand Place grounds is covered up with more than a million beautiful, colorful, and assorted begonias, to create a ‘Flower Carpet’. Such an enormous display was first designed in 1971. The tradition gained immense popularity, and has been followed ever since.
The Flower Carpet is left on display for a weekend only, and the entrance to the Grand Place grounds is free for children and minimal for adults. To take in the entire beauty of this spectacle, climb up a few stories of the Grand Place. The view from up there is breathtaking. The music and light shows during the weekend further scintillate your senses, and make you appreciate beauty in its entirety.
The Grand Place is the central square of Brussels. The architecture on this square is a composition of art from three different eras – Gothic, Baroque, and Louis XIV. This ethnicity and beauty led to the declaration of Grand Place as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Also known as Grote Markt, the Grand Place is surrounded by the city’s Town Hall, the Breadhouse (Broodhuis), and guildhalls. In 2010, this square was declared as the most beautiful square in the world.
The main attractions at Grand Place include the Flower Carpet in August (held every two years), the Electronic Christmas Tree light and music show (every year during Christmas), Meyboom (every year on the 9th of August), and the daily flower market. Sometimes, the place is also used to showcase concerts.
Everard ‘t Serclaes
A war hero, a patriot and a legend, Everard ‘t Serclaes was very popular in Brussels during the 14th century. The Everard ‘t Serclaes monument is a shiny bronze statue of the legend, and honors him and his achievements. The monument is very intricately placed beneath the arcades of Maison de l’Étoile in the Grand Place of Brussels.
It is believed that if you stroke the statue of Everard ‘t Serclaes, especially its arm or the dog’s nose, or the shield, it brings you good luck and fortune. A widely believed superstition is that rubbing the statue with your arms will bring you back on another visit to Brussels. Fallen in love with the city and would like to go back? You know what to do.
Royal Palace of Brussels
As the name suggests, the Royal Palace of Brussels is the official building where the King and Queen of Belgium reside. It has been declared as the most beautiful official building in the national capital of Brussels. To be able to witness the beauty of the Royal Palace of Brussels, you need to visit here during the summers, the public is allowed access to the royalty gates only then.
Located opposite the Parliament on the other side of the Royal Park, the Royal Palace of Brussels is not just a royal residence but also a symbol of the nation’s system of government. It is also the place from where the king executes his political rights and authorities as the Head of State.
A trip to the Royal Palace of Brussels would get you in touch with not just one or two, but four different types of contemporary art forms. The beautifully done interiors of the palace are adorned with pieces of art from all over the world. The new design of the palace, which still maintains ancient beauty and perspective, is a feast for the eyes.
Law Courts of Brussels
Bigger than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Law Courts of Brussels or the Brussels Palace of Justice is the biggest building ever constructed in the 19th century. It has 8 huge courtyards spanning a surface area of 6,000 sq. meters, 27 big courtrooms, 245 smaller courtrooms, and other smaller rooms. Its most striking feature, the dome, is 104 meters high and weighs 24,000 tons.
Located atop the Gallows Hill, the building is the most important court building in Belgium, acting as a very important landmark of Brussels. Its construction had begun during the reign of King Leopold II. Towards the end of World War II, the Germans tried to destroy the Palace of Justice by starting a fire while retreating. The building suffered heavy losses and damage thereafter. The start of 2003 saw the start of the ongoing process of redesign, reconstruction, and renovation phase of the building.
In order to construct the biggest building of the 19th century, the demolition of a massive part of the Marollen neighborhood was required. This was based on the design submitted by an architect, Joseph Poelaert. Due to the destruction of property in the Marollen neighborhood, many citizens lost their houses, due to which, the Poelaert was heavily criticized and disliked. The dislike grew to such an extent that the word ‘architect’ was thought of to be an insult and was looked down upon. In spite of all this, the Palace of Justice was constructed and went on to become the most important court building in Belgium. You can visit here anytime of the year, except when a case of particular importance is in progress.
Basilica of the Sacred Heart
Situated atop the Koekelberg Hill in Brussels, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart is also sometimes known as the Koekelberg Basilica. The first stone of its foundation was laid by King Leopold II in 1905, to mark the 75th year of Belgian independence. However, due to the immediate outbreak of the two World Wars, the construction couldn’t be continued, and was completed only in 1969.
The Basilica is a Roman Catholic Minor Basilica and a parish church in Brussels. King Leopld II’s visit to the Basilique du Sacré Coeur in Paris, inspired him to build a similar monument in Brussels. Standing tall at 89 meters, the church is the largest structure of the world built in the Art Deco style, and is a landmark in the Brussels’ skyline.
The church can hold 3,500 people at one time, and is so huge that it has found its way into the list of the ten largest (by area) Roman Catholic churches of the world. The colossal stone, brick and concrete construction makes the church stand out against the backdrop of the clear Brussels sky. Apart from Catholic ceremonies and religious services, the area is also used for exhibitions and concerts. Don’t forget to hit the green dome terrace of the monument and take in the breathtaking bird’s-eye view of the entire Brussels city.
Botanical Garden of Brussels
If botany interests you, then this is the place you should go to. The Botanical Garden of Brussels was originally founded in 1826. It is located on Rue Royale in Saint-Josse-ten-Noode, which is near the Northern Quarter financial district of Brussels. Le Botanique, or the main orangery (very similar to a greenhouse or a conservatory), consists of rotunda or a dome with two side aisles marked with windows.
Due to financial disabilities, the construction was withheld, until in 1870, when the Belgian state bought the garden and took up the responsibility to enhance its beauty and up its value with respect to art, culture, and heritage. This was done by finalizing contracts of electric lighting, different types of fountains and sculptures depicting various pieces of art.
The Cinquantenaire Arch
Parc du Cinquantenaire, French for ‘Park of the Fiftieth Anniversary’, is a recreational park located in the easternmost part of the European Quarter in Brussels. The park was built in 1880 to mark fifty glorious years of Belgian independence. Its main attraction is the triumphal arch which was erected in 1905. Built with iron, glass, and stone to depict the growth and development of the Belgian economy, the triumphal arch adds a touch of royalty to the beautiful park.
When it was first constructed, the place was used to hold exhibitions, trade fairs, exhibitions, national festivals and concerts. Gradually, precisely in 1930, these events were no longer held, and the park was declared a leisure park. However, many museums still hold works of art and history from the Roman, Greek, and Egyptian cultures, as well as artifacts from the military, army, and automobile sectors.
Go here if you want a break from the city’s hustle-bustle, and want to enjoy a silent stroll on some quiet streets that are lined with beautiful trees. Connect with the locals of Brussels as you watch dog-owners, corporates on a break, groups playing their favorite sport, and the occasional couple in love, as they take in their moments of peace and happiness.
Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula
Victor Hugo, one of the many world famous and greatest French writers, novelist, poet, and a dramatist of the Romantic movement, described this monument as ‘the purest flowering of the Gothic style’. The Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula is a Roman Catholic Church located in Brussels at the Treurenberg Hill.
The church was renovated and reconstructed in the Gothic style in the thirteenth century. Exclusive Gothic architecture characteristics like the pointed arch, the flying buttress, and the ribbed vault, make this cathedral stand out, and lend it a distinct sense of powerful beauty and elegant style.
Its location in the national capital makes it a monument of national interest, where many important events like state funerals, Catholic ceremonies, and royal marriages take place. As soon as you enter the gates of the church, you are awestruck by the grand arches, high ceilings, and tall pillars. Watch out for the ‘judgment window’, which is glass-painted and lights up as the rays of the sun shine through it. A must visit, if age-old, yet modern architecture interests you.
Food/Beverages Not to Be Missed
Beer and Breweries
Did you know that Belgium produces more brands of beer than there are days in a year! According to sources, there are more than 800 different types of beer produced in Belgium. The citizens of Belgium feel that beer is more than just a beverage or a drink to them. Beer is more like a culture to be respected, and a tradition to be followed. So serious are they about their beer, that they have a road running parallel to the countryside named ‘Beer Route’. If this wasn’t enough, they have special glasses for each type of beer, which may be served in those particular glasses only. This is said to enhance the flavor of the beer, and make it a more enjoyable experience.
Just like a visit to Belgium is incomplete without having Belgian beer, it is just as much incomplete a visit to Brussels without visiting the Cantillon Brewery and Museum. It is the only brewery that has remained in the city of Brussels. Founded in 1900 by Paul Cantillon, the brewery is famous for lambic beers (beer formed by spontaneous fermentation), Gueuze, Kreik, and fruit beers.
Waffles. Kid or not a kid, everybody has to love them. Waffles topped with vanilla ice-cream and chocolate or strawberry syrup. Best breakfast ever. The world has a lot to thank Belgians for, as it was them who introduced waffles to the world. It would be the biggest mistake ever to be in Brussels and not have a waffle breakfast. Contrary to popular belief, there is no one identified ‘Belgian Waffle’. There are many kinds, and Brussels Waffles is one of them. Brussels waffles are crispy and hard on the outside. Also, they have bigger pockets as compared to the other European varieties, and are lighter, too.
The first time waffles were ever showcased was in Brussels in 1958. Waffles were introduced to the Americans in 1962, as Brussels Waffles. The name was later changed to Belgian Waffles, as the American population could connect with a national name. Whether you have them at a roadside stall, or a cafe or a five-star hotel, it doesn’t matter. The varieties of toppings are innumerable, and the next one is much better and tastier than the previous one.
Contrary to popular belief, and as misleading as the name may be, French fries weren’t a French invention. It was, in fact, in Belgium where the earliest of fries were cooked and tasted. The history of ‘thinly cut and deep-fried potato slices’ dates back to as far as 1680, when ancient Belgian inhabitants used to substitute fish with potato fries.
Frites in Brussels are more than just potatoes; they are a treat for your taste buds. The best frites are fried in beef or duck fat, for that extra greasiness and flavor, cooled off and fried once again before serving. You would find a variety of accompaniments to go with your frites, like chocolate, salads, mayonnaise, more than fifty types of dips, and the evergreen ketchup. There are more than 5,000 frite vendors and friteries in Belgium, and more than half of them are in Brussels alone. A well-researched suggestion, visit Antoine’s, on Place Jourdan, which is known for serving the best frites ever. Don’t miss out on the ever-popular local dish of moules frites, a French dish which comprises mussels and frites.
Belgium is practically the birthplace of the heavenly delicious praline chocolates. Those little treats which are full of flavor, packed with just the right amount of sweetness, bitterness, and nuttiness, come in a variety of flavors and are extremely light on your pocket. To make the most of your trip, visit the Place du Grand Sablon-Grote Zavel Plein, which is a one-stop shop for the best chocolates that you will find in the world. It houses chocolates by Pierre Marcolini, Neuhaus, and Wittamer, each serving their own special delicacies. With a sumptuous spread of cakes, pastries, Belgian chocolates and other chocolate savories, this is the place to be if you are a chocoholic.
If you somehow, don’t get a chance to visit any of the chocolate shops or confectioneries (which I think would be highly impossible), don’t worry. When you leave Brussels, you can shop for chocolates at the Brussels International Airport, which is the highest chocolate selling point in the world. Things made so much easier, no?
Other Places to Visit
A structure constructed out of inter-connected steel spheres, such that it looks like an atom, the Atomium is a landmark of Brussels in itself. Named as ‘Europe’s Most Bizarre Building’ by CNN, the shape of the Atomium is that of a unit cell of an iron crystal, that has been magnified 165 billion times. The nine spheres connected by twelve tubes are entirely habitable. You can actually walk through the connecting tubes, or else use escalators which are enclosed within the building. The view from the topmost two spheres is amazing, and should not be missed at any cost.
A miniature park located at the foot of the Atomium in Brussels, Mini Europe showcases a display of imitations of Europe’s most attractive monuments and places of interest. A tour around Mini Europe will show you more than 80 cities and 350 buildings, that have been represented in the most intricate and beautiful way. Apart from gardens, buildings, sculptures and art, these representations include live models as well. Some of them are that of trains, cable cars, volcanic eruptions, etc. Don’t miss the ‘Spirit of Europe’ exhibition at the end of the tour. It gives an interactive overview of the European Union in the form of multimedia.
Belgian Comic Strip Museum
Tagged your kids along with you and not sure what would keep them entertained while in Brussels? The Belgian Comic Strip Center is your savior. Watch your kids squeal with joy as they come across life-sized statuettes of cartoons like Tintin and The Smurfs, among others. The museum covers an entire range of comic art that includes fiction, science, politics and crime, apart from showcasing comics and cartoons as well.
Other attractions to keep your child entertained are the Aquarium of Brussels and The Toy Museum.
Although it doesn’t have a coastline, every year, the banks of the Brussels channel are covered entirely with real sand, and the place is transformed into a real beach. The beach is set up every year during the summer, and can be accessed for a month, generally between the 15th of July and the 15th of August. Make sure you visit here if you travel to Brussels in the summer, and experience a day at the artificial but amazingly beautiful beach cum holiday resort.
Brussels is a haven not only for foodies, but also for travelers, historians, architecture fanatics, and world heritage and culture lovers. It has something on offer for everyone. Go ahead, visit Brussels, and find out what intrigues you the most… the beer, the chocolate, the churches, the waffles, the sculptures, the heritage, or the entire City of Brussels itself!