See & Do in Brussels
Over the centuries, Brussels has been ruled by everyone from the Romans to the Spanish to the Germans, a colonial history that well prepared the city for its current occupiers-diplomats, lobbyists, and Euro-politicians who flock to the NATO and European Union headquarters. International business has also invaded the city in the past three decades, resulting in blocks full of steel-and-glass office buildings, but these modern edifices are only a few steps from the cobbled streets, splendid cafés, and graceful Art Nouveau architecture that speak to the city's eventful past.
Brussels is a city of contrasts with enormous diversity when it comes to places of interest and things to do. Below we've listed a few of those sights from museums and monuments to parks and points of interest. Although this list is by no means exhaustive, we feel it represents a genuine sampling of the diversity Brussels has to offer travelers. After all, you've got to start somewhere!
The Grand'Place, with its ornate baroque and gothic guild houses, is usually the first port of call for most visitors to Brussels and one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. Built as a merchants market in the 13th century, it serves as the center of the city and is a great place to experience Belgian hospitality at one of the many terrace cafes dotting the charming square. It also serves as a venue for numerous concerts and events throughout the year and during the warmer months is adorned by a vibrant, daily flower market. Intersection of rue des Chapeliers, rue Buls, rue de la Tête d'Or, rue au Beurre, rue Chair et Pain, rue des Harengs and rue de la Colline, Lower Town.
Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall)
The first building you notice upon entering the Grand'Place is the striking gothic town hall, which dates back to the 15th century. Its beautiful facade features the famous needle-like crooked spire, which is 315 feet in height and is topped by the archangel St. Michael. Tours are available of the interior, which contains 15th century tapestries and works of art. Grand'Place, Lower Town. Guided tours only, Tues. and Wed.: Dutch: 13:45, French 14:30, English 15:15.
Opened in 1998, this museum devoted to cacao and chocolate gives an inside look at one of Belgium's prize products. Exhibits explain how cacao beans are grown and processed, taking you through all the stages of chocolate production. There's information available in English and small tastings are given. Grand'Place 13, Lower Town, Tues. - Sun., 10:00 - 16:30.
This famous statue of a little boy peeing in a fountain is a perfect representative of the irreverent Belgian humor. The unique Brussels icon has been amusing visitors since 1619. Over time it has become a tradition for visiting heads of state to donate miniature versions of their national costume for the little naked boy. The wardrobe of Mannekin Pis can be seen at the Brussels museum and includes over 800 outfits from all corners of the world - even an authentic Elvis jumpsuit. Rue de l'Etuve at rue du Chêne, Lower Town.
Galeries St Hubert
This gorgeous, glass roofed arcade in the center of town, lined with cafes, theaters and luxury stores has the distinction of being the first shopping arcade in Europe. Built in 1847 and recently renovated, Galeries St Hubert is divided into three parts to the Galeries de la Reine, du Roi and du Prince. The shops, which are generally open Monday - Saturday, 10:00 - 18:00, are interspersed with cafes, restaurants, a theater and a cinema. Access from rue des Bouchers or Carrefour de l'Europe, Lower Town.
The Belgian Center for Comic Strip Art
Housed in an art nouveau masterpiece designed by Victor Horta, this museum pays homage to a particular Belgian passion, cartooning. Tintin and the Smurfs are the most famous Belgian comic strip characters but the museum also displays artwork from over 670 cartoonists. Other displays detail the stages of putting together a comic strip, from examples of initial ideas and pencil sketches through to final publication. Arranged over three levels, the museum also has a library and an art nouveau brewery. Most information is in French. The Center also organizes the Comic Strip Route, where large comic strip images decorate the sides of buildings around Brussels. Rue des Sables 20, Lower Town, Tues. - Sun. 10:00 - 18:00.
Cathedral of Saints Michel and Gudule
This magnificent cathedral, dedicated to the male and female patron saints of Brussels, is located near Central Station. The twin Gothic towers are gleaming white again after the removal of centuries of grime. The cathedral was completed by the end of the 15th century in the Brabant Gothic style, but was damaged by the French shelling of 1695. The façade is from the year 1250 and the interior is splendidly proportioned and stuffed with treasures, including several outstanding stained-glass windows. Parvis Ste-Gudule, Upper Town.
In the first of the interconnected art museums, the Ancient Art Museum pays special attention to the Flemish Primitives of the 15 th Century. Included in the collection are works by Memling, Petrus Christus, Rogier van der Weyden and Hieronymous Bosch. Works by Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaans are also displayed. Place Royale 3, Upper Town, Tues. - Sun., 10:00 - 17:00.
Connected by an underground passageway to the Ancient Art Museum, the Modern Art Museum burrows underground, circling downward for 8 stories. The collection is strong on Belgian and French art of the past 100 years, including James Ensor, Paul Delvaux and Rene Magritte.
Palais de Justice
Bigger in area than St. Peter's in Rome, the city's law courts were built in Neo-Classical style using the profits of colonialism, and completed in 1833. The impressive structure rules the Brussels skyline and can be seen from almost any vantage point in the city. Visitors are only allowed into the entrance hall. Pl. Poelaert, Upper Town. Weekdays 09:00 - 17:00.
Place du Grand Sablon
This picturesque square is situated on the slope that divides Brussels between the upper and lower halves of the city. Decked out with chic boutiques, al fresco cafes, fashionable restaurants, and trendy bars, the Grand Sablon is most famous for its lively open-air antiques market which attracts antiques dealers from all over the world. Market open every weekend (Sat 9-6, Sun 9-2). Intersection of rue de Rollebeek, rue Lebeau, rue de la Paille, rue Ste-Anne, rue Boedenbroeck, rue des Sablons, petite rue des Minimes, rue des Minimes and rue Joseph Stevens. Upper Town.
Place du Petit Sablon
Opposite the Grand Sablon is the jewel of a square known as the Petit Sablon. Originally a horse market, this central area was converted in 1890 into an elegant and charming flower garden with lavish fountains, surrounded by wrought-iron fences decorated with stone statuettes. Each figure represents a medieval trade or craft that brought prosperity to the capital. Today the square is a favorite spot for tourists and locals alike to stop for a rest while taking in the pretty view.
This brewery, which uses the same brewing process as it did when it was founded in 1900, has been converted into a working museum providing visitors with tours and tastings throughout the year. In an hour and a half the Van Roy-Cantillon family invites you to discover all the trade secrets of making lambic beer, faro, kreik and the archetypal Brussels beer known as gueuze. Gueuze is a blend of lambic beers and has the dryness and sparkle of a good champagne. Rue Gheude 56, St-Gilles, Weekdays: 08:30 - 17:00, Sat.: 10:00 - 17:00.
This monument was erected to mark the 50th anniversary of Belgium's independence from the Netherlands. The structure stands 144 feet high at the head of Avenue de Tervuren and is topped by a bronze chariot being ridden by the female personification of a triumphant Belgium, arms up in the air. Adding to the arch's drama are the multi-columned Royal Museum of Art and History and the Royal Museum of Army and Military History the King Leopold II had erected on either side of the Arch, with the 90-acre Parc de Cinquantenaire forming a verdant backdrop for all three.
European Union (EU)
Brussels is home to the European Union (EU), which is comprised of 25 European countries. On any given day there are over 20,000 people working in the offices of the EU. The infrastructure of the EU is divided into 3 big institutions: the European Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament.
For individual visitors, the European Parliament offers audio-guided visits and, during part-sessions, the chance to attend a parliamentary sitting. Audio-guided visits to the debating chamber of the European Parliament take place from Monday to Thursday at 10:00 and 15:00 and on Friday at 10:00 only. There are no such visits during EP plenary sittings in Brussels. There are no visits on official holidays or office closing days. Visitors must be at least 14 years old. These visits are free of charge and are conducted in all of the official languages of the EU. It is not possible to reserve in advance. If you wish to take part in an audio-guided visit: come to the visitors' entrance about 15 minutes before the start of the tour, and for registration purposes, please bring your passport, identity card or driving license. rue Wiertz 43. Wiertzstraat.
Built for the 1958 World's Fair, the Atomium represents a molecule's nine atoms - magnified 165 billion times. Take an express elevator to the top, 400 feet up, for panoramic views of Brussels. Boulevard du Centenaire, Heysel. Daily: 10:00 - 17:00.
In a 5 acre park next to the Atomium stands an impressive collection of 1:25 scale models of more than 300 famous buildings and sights from 15 European Union countries, including a chiming Big Ben and steaming Vesuvius. Boulevard du Centenaire 20, Heysel. Daily 09:30 - 17:00.
For more information on the sights and sounds of Brussels, please visit the Belgian Tourism Office Website, visitbelgium.com.