August 02, 2017

Travel Guide to Brussels, Europe’s Most Underrated City

Words + Photos : Leslie Carvitto

What do you know about Brussels? You’re probably aware that it’s the capital of both Belgium and the European Union. I’m sure you’ve heard about the city’s famous foods, including frites, waffles, and chocolate. But beyond these facts, it’s an international city rich in history and culture, famous Art Nouveau architecture, museums with fine art, and acres of green space.

While most zip through Brussels on their way to France or Amsterdam, I argue that Brussels is worth a 2-3 day stopover.  Here are a few ideas that take you deeper into the city’s must visit attractions.

Brussels Architecture 2

La Grand Place

A good place to start, La Grand Place is the Central Square of Brussels and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. An eclectic blend of architectural styles ranging from Baroque to Gothic and Neo-Gothic, it’s a gathering place for tourists and locals alike. The square is surrounded by guild houses, city hall, and the Brussels City Museum. The tourist information center is also located in the square and you’ll find friendly locals to help fill your schedule and point you in the right direction.

Brussels Grandplace
Brussels Grandplace2
Brussels Guild Homes

Mannequin Pis

Near the Grand Palace, at the corner between the Rue de l’Étuv and the Rue du Chêne, you’ll see the famous Mannequin Pis, a bronze fountain of a little boy peeing.  Yes, you read that correctly. There are many stories surrounding his origins but the fountain is a city mascot that attracts a lot of attention. The fountain itself is easy to overlook (he is only 24 inches tall), but you definitely won’t miss the crowds surrounding him.  It’s a tradition to dress him during special occasions, so, if you’re lucky, he’ll be sporting something fun! His wardrobe contains more than 800 costumes, which are on display at Brussels City Museum.

Brussels Manequin Pis

Waffles!

Before leaving Grand Place, stop at a waffle stand to try one of Belgium’s famous street waffles.  For only 1 euro, you can get a plain, yet delicious waffle. Have a sweet tooth? You can include everything from chocolate sauce and kiwi slices, to sprinkles, banana, and whipped cream!

Brussels Waffles2
Brussels Waffle

Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert

A quick 5 minute walk from La Grand Place along the Rue de la Colline leads you to Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. Opened in 1847, this is Europe’s oldest shopping arcade. Inside, you’ll find mostly luxury brands and chocolate shops. Even if shopping and sweets don’t interest you, it’s worth strolling through to snap a photo of the glass ceiling and unique architecture.

Brussels Royales Saint Hubert1
Brussels Royales Saint Hubert

Place du Jeu de Balle Flea Market

If you’re looking for a more authentic Brussels shopping experience, head to Place du Jeu de Balle Flea Market. Open everyday from 6am-1pm, you’ll find a diverse mix of antiques, furniture, art, books, and home decor. It’s a great place to find one-of-a-kind souvenirs, but be prepared to rummage through an odd mix of weird and wonderful.

Brussels Flea Market

Green Space

When you’ve had enough city life, relax in one of Belgium's many green spaces.  Here are my top 3 park suggestions.

  • Bois de la Cambre: Great for runners, walkers, picnics and people watching.

  • Parc du Cinquantenaire: Spread over 90 acres, this is both a park and national landmark located in the European Quarter neighborhood. At the south eastern point is the grand entrance and includes a beautiful giant arch and fountain.

  • Parc Royal: Surrounded by imposing buildings like the Royal Palace, the Belgian Parliament, and the US embassy, Parc Royal is the largest public park in the centre of Brussels. Pick a bench around lunch time, and you’ll be hanging out with locals on break from work.

Brussels Parc Royal

Art Museums

For art and culture, you’ll have a plethora of museums to choose from:

  • Musical Instrument Museum: Part of the Royal Museums for Art and History, MIM’s collection of instruments is over 8,000!

  • Royal Museums of Fine Arts Belgium: Founded two centuries ago, this group of museums (there are 7 of them) hold twenty thousand paintings, drawing and sculptures. If you are an art enthusiast, this museum can’t be missed.

  • Horta Museum: The home and studio of famous Belgian Art Nouveau architect
    Victor Horta is now a museum dedicated to his life and work.

  • The Stock Exchange of Brussels ( La Bourse de Bruxelles) hosts rotating exhibitions. The photography exhibit, “The World of Steve McCurry” was open while I was there and displayed 200 of the photographers best images in large format. It was the biggest and most complete retrospective dedicated to the American photographer.

Brussels Mont De Arts2
Brussels Mont De Arts
Brussels Steve Mccurry

Good Eats

Last but not least, I know I said that Brussels is more than it’s well-known food, but in between all the exploring, you need to eat! Try Belgium's famous frites, fresh potatoes fried twice to golden crisp. It’s typical to eat them with a side of mayonnaise, but most frite stands will offer 10 or more sauces to choose from. (My favorite was the curry ketchup).

Belgium is a chocoholic’s dream—after you’ve carb loaded on frites, satisfy your sweet tooth with a few pieces of true Belgian chocolate. A small mix-and-match box will allow you to try experimental flavors like lavender, spicy chili or mint, but you can’t go wrong with the traditional smooth and creamy chocolate praline.

Brussels Chocolate

So have I convinced you that Brussels is more than just a convenient location to grab a train to Paris or London? A few days will be enough time to explore the art and culture of the city, and ensure you leave before overloading on their famous carb treats and chocolate sweets!

Brussels Architecture1
Brussels Nightlife

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