You may think that two days in Brussels won’t be enough time to fully explore this major European city. But surprisingly, despite its size, many of the highlights in Brussels can be seen in two (busy) days. You just need to plan a bit in advance and know where and how you want to spend your time to get the most out of your visit.
A good place to start your visit in Brussels is in the Grand-Place, or central square. The square is often called one of the most beautiful places in the world. UNESCO even added it to their World Heritage list in 1998. This square isn’t perfectly square-shaped, however – it’s more like a rectangle with one wonky side.
The earliest written references to the Grand-Place date from the 12th Century. Three indoor markets selling bread, meat and cloth appeared on the north side of the square in the 13th Century, and additional marketplaces opened around the square in later years.
The Town Hall (Hotel de Ville)
The Brussels Town Hall dominates the Grand-Place square. Built in stages between between 1401 and 1455, it’s a gorgeous example of Brabantian Gothic architecture. Unfortunately, in 1695, Louis XIV’s troops swept through Brussels, destroying many of the buildings, including those in the Grand-Place. The French army used cannons and mortars against the city. Once the bombardment was over three days later, only a few buildings and the facade of the town hall remained standing.
Brussels was quick to rebuild the square, with the local guilds only taking four years to repair and reconstruct the surrounding buildings, including the town hall. The hall was rebuilt using numerous architectural styles, including Baroque, Gothic and Louis XIV styles.
Unfortunately in the 18th Century, the square was attacked again, this time by Brabant revolutionaries. They destroyed statues and art depicting nobility or symbols of Christianity. The buildings fell into disrepair for a while, but eventually they were restored back to their former glory once again.
You can book a guided tour of the town hall here.
Address: Grand Place 1, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
The Museum of the City of Brussels
Directly across from the town hall stands the Museum of the City of Brussels. The building itself is known as the Maison du Roi, or the King’s House. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V owned the building in the 16th century. The mansion stands on the site of the old indoor bread market, so you may also hear it referred to as het Broodhuis, or “the bread house.”
This lovely museum showcases the history and material culture of Brussels. The museum opened in 1887, and houses tapestries, sculptures, paintings and more. A visit to the museum is a great starting place to appreciating Brussels and its turbulent past.
There’s another reason this museum is worth your time – which I will mention in a minute.
Address: Grand Place, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
For Beer Lovers
Other attractions in the Grand-Place include the Beer Museum and Beer Tasting Experience. Personally, we didn’t find the Beer Museum particularly riveting, but they obviously benefit from their central location. So if you only have time to do one, I would recommend the Beer Tasting Experience, as this is a 60 minute guided tour which includes 5 beer tastings. You can also pay a bit extra and combine the tour with a pub crawl. The Beer Tasting Experience tours start outside the tourism information office, and require booking in advance.
Manneken Pis Statue
Of course, while you’re in Brussels, it would be weird not to see the infamous Manneken Pis statue, right? Luckily its’s just a short 5-minute walk from the Grand-Place.
So….I’m just going to come right out and say it – this statue is really over-hyped. You know how some works of art just gain fame over time and you’re not really sure why or how it happened? That’s where I’m at with the Manneken Pis statue. You sort of just follow the hoard of people and eventually come across the fountain the statue graces. And…it’s sort of underwhelming.
By the way, this isn’t even the original statue – it’s a 1965 copy. The original is in the Museum of the City of Brussels, in the Grand-Place, which I mentioned earlier.
So why is this little two-foot bronze statue so famous?
Mentions of Manneke Pis (the statue’s real name) go back in the records as far as the mid-1400s. The fountain in which he stands provided drinking water to Brussels’ residents, which was crucial for the growing city. The original statue was replaced in 1619-1630 with a bronze statue, the one now housed in the city’s museum. The statue survived the 1695 bombardment of the city, and eventually became a symbol for the people of Brussels.
Manneken Pis was also stolen several times over the years, once even being broken into eleven pieces and later restored. The numerous abductions and damage suffered by the little peeing boy statue prompted the creation of the identical copy. Today, a non-profit group called “The Friends of Manneken-Pis” often dress the statue in various costumes, depending on the holiday or celebration. Yes, it’s kind of over-hyped. But while you’re here, you may as well take a few minutes out of your day to see him for yourself. Not to mention all the other homages to him in the vicinity:
This area is also jam-packed with chocolate shops. And Belgian chocolate is pretty incredible, so I would highly recommend treating yourself (and get a box for me!)
City Wall Ruins
If you love archaeology and history, remnants of the old city fortifications still remain in various locations around Brussels. The first fortifications were built in the 13th Century. The Anneessens Tower is one of the best preserved sections of the original wall still standing. It’s about an 8-minute walk from the Manneken Pis statue.
François Anneessens (1660 – 1719) was head of the trade guild for stone carvers, masons and chair makers. In 1717 he was accused of fueling riots during Austrian rule. He was executed in the Grand-Place in 1719. Legend claims he was imprisoned here in the watchtower before his execution, but he was actually held at Steenpoort. Regardless, the remains of the fortification tower now bear his name.
In the evening, stop off at a local pub for a beer. Belgium has an incredible array of beers to satisfy any palate (approximately 120 varieties). If you’ve never tried a Trappist beer, this is the ideal location to give one a go.
The Atomium is one of the more unusual structures to see in Brussels. It’s an architectural marvel, and quite a futuristic-looking one at that. The structure consists of nine huge stainless steel-covered spheres interconnected by long, narrow tubes.
The Atomium was constructed in 1958 as the main pavilion for the World Fair (aka Expo ’58). It’s 102 meters high and represents an elementary iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. It was never actually intended to be a permanent structure, but its popularity won out and it remains standing to this day.
André Waterkeyn, an engineer came up with the concept for the Atomium. But architects André and Jean Polak designed the actual spheres. If you’re into weird and wacky facts, there’s a great plaque stating statistics and numbers regarding the 1958 World Fair:
The spheres are 18 meters each in diameter and are large enough to walk around in. Some of the spheres house various exhibits. The permanent exhibit is Atomium: From symbol to icon, while the other spheres hold temporary exhibits on various themes such as the environment, society, art, design, etc.
But the exhibits pale in comparison to the structure itself, especially the escalators that run inside the tubes:
The tunnels are a little bit claustrophobic though! The light show inside one of the tubes added an unexpected futuristic touch. It definitely gave me a bit of a “Battlestar: Galactica” vibe:
The Atomium also has an elevator in the central vertical tube. It’s often referred to as the fastest elevator in all of Europe. While this is a pretty steep claim, it could very well be the fastest elevator in Belgium, at least.
Not all of the spheres are accessible to the public though. Three of the top spheres lack vertical support so they aren’t safe for the public to access.
The windows inside the spheres offer fabulous views of the city, including Mini Europe, which is just next door.
Which brings me to the attraction right next to the Atomium:
Just next door to the Atomium is a fun little amusement park called Mini Europe. My husband and I were a little “iffy” about taking it in, but the fact that you can purchase a combination ticket that covers both the Atomium and Mini Europe helped to make up our minds.
It turns out, Mini Europe isn’t just a kid-friendly attraction. This miniature homage to some of Europe’s best-known landmarks is fun for all ages. Even the local ducks seemed impressed by this replica of Stockholm’s City Hall:
The Mini Europe project began in 1987, with a group of art historians who selected over one hundred European buildings to recreate. Prince Philip of Belgium inaugurated the park in 1989. The number of buildings represented has grown to over 350, covering 80 European cities, and the number grows a little each year.
The buildings are at 1/25 scale to the originals, and follow a meticulous reproduction process to ensure as much detailed accuracy as possible. For example, it took 24,000 man hours to complete the Cathedral of Saint Jacques de Compostela miniature alone! As you can imagine, this level of craftsmanship, not to mention ongoing maintenance, costs money. Thus, European countries or regions financed many of the miniatures here.
I particularly liked the miniatures set in a water feature, such as the Castle of Hoensbroek in the Netherlands:
This is Olavinlinna Castle from Finland. The original castle dates from 1475.
Here is a replica of the Exchange building in Copenhagen, built in the 17th Century in the Renaissance style.
The park isn’t all just about static replicas either. Several electrically powered components help bring this little world alive. For example, Mount Vesuvius actually erupts, windmills spin, church bells chime, trains chug along their tracks, and so on. You can even pretend to be a Roman Gladiator or Buckingham Palace guard if you feel like getting in on the “action”.
This was probably my favourite miniature – a cheeky little mini-advertisement for themselves!
An Important Tip For Getting to the Atomium and Mini Europe
A few words of warning about getting to the Atomium and Mini Europe (and we speak from experience!). Although the Hop On Hop Off bus does stop at the Atomium, be mindful of its hours of operation. During high season (April, May, June – mid July, September, October) the latest bus runs until 6:00pm on Saturdays. On Sundays it only operates until 5:00pm, and Monday-Friday the bus stops running at 4:00pm.
When we went, it was a Monday in May, and we arrived at the Atomium around 3pm. After visiting the Atomium we went to Mini Europe, both of which took a few hours to explore. We planned to take the sightseeing bus back towards Central Station, which was within walking distance of our hotel.
Unfortunately, we realized their operating schedule too late. Although the Atomium and Mini Europe were open until 6:00pm, the Hop On Hop Off bus stopped running at 4:00pm. In short, we got stranded! So, with little idea as to how the public transportation worked, we hoofed it back to our hotel on foot, which was quite a long journey. So if you do plan on using the Hop On Hop Off bus as a means of transportation, be aware of their schedule!
Also, to be perfectly frank, this particular Hop On Hop Off bus tour was one of the dullest we’ve ever taken.
First of all, the Atomium bus route (or Blue Route) experiences a long gap where there’s very little to see of any historical or cultural significance. This is because the Atomium and neighbouring attraction, Mini Europe, are actually quite far out from central Brussels. In fact, they are the farthest attractions from central Brussels on the tour. But instead of filling this long drive with anecdotes or interesting facts about Brussels, long stretches of tinny elevator music bombarded our earbuds.
Jet lag and elevator music do not mix, and my husband and I both struggled to stay awake. I’d like to think that the Europe bus route (Red Route) was more engaging because it remained more central, but sadly, we only took the tour bus one way. If anyone has taken the Red Route, please let me know what your experience was! Anyway, if you plan to see the Atomium/Mini Europe by Hop On Hop Off bus, I recommend getting to them as your first stop in the morning. This gives you plenty of time to catch the bus back to central Brussels to see the next attractions. Or, use public transit, which is less expensive and has longer hours of operation.
There’s no shortage of museums in Brussels to get your culture on. Several museums and historic buildings surround the Mont des Arts Garden, shown below. These include the Royal Library of Belgium, and the National Archives of Belgium. The Musical Instrument Museum (MIM), the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, the Royal Palace, the Museum of Erotics and Mythology of Brussels, and the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula are all within a short walk.
Here is a list of museums in Brussels to whet your appetite: Brussels Museums List
Walk the Comic Book Route
Brussels has an incredible comic book culture, and it’s everywhere. Take a stroll along the “Comic Book Route” and check out some fun artwork.
Tintin is Belgium’s most famous comic strip character, so chances are, you’ll spot him in a few places around the city.
Location: Rue de l’Étuve, 1000 Brussels
This is Victor Sackville, a WWI-era spy. I love the details in this particular piece. Plus, it looks like he’s contemplating stopping off at this brasserie for a nice Belgian beer. You can’t really blame him, can you?
Location: Rue du Marché au Charbon 60, 1000 Brussels
This is Broussaille – very notable, as this is the very first comic strip mural that kicked off the comic art wall culture in 1991. The comic strip walk now boasts over 50 murals!
Location: Plattesteen, 1000 Brussels
This was one of our particular favourites. This is Passe moi l’ciel, which plays Saint Peter and Lucifer off of each other. It’s incredibly cheeky:
Location: Rue des Minimes 91, 1000 Brussels
Note: You can purchase a mini-map of comic art murals at the tourist information centers for a small fee.
Get a Waffle
No visit to Belgium is complete without eating at least one waffle. Maybe several. Belgian waffles use yeast-based batter, which gives them that light, rich, crispy texture. Just be aware that the pricing isn’t always fully transparent. We went to a few waffle shops on our trip, and the prices were really cheap. What the vendors didn’t always say was that toppings cost extra. A lot extra. So your €1 waffle can quickly get closer to €8 or more once you add your whipped cream, fresh fruit, chocolate sauce, sprinkles, shot of liqueur, etc.
But you know what? It’s still totally worth it. Just a point worth noting if you’re on a really tight budget. But you need to try one at least once before you leave Belgium!
This blog post is now available on GPSmyCity! Find it here: An Easy-to-Follow Guide for Two Jam-Packed Days in Brussels