The Belgian capital has for many years been one of our favourite places in the world to visit. We lovingly refer to it as “our Paris”, a smaller, lesser discovered and different version of its French counterpart. It’s got buckets of charm, sensational food and that continental capital city vibe without the extortionate price-tag that Paris dictates.
If you want a low-key, walkable, cultural city with fantastic food, beautiful cafés and stunning art, architecture and sights, Brussels is your ticket. Devastatingly, the terrorist attacks of March 2016, as well as various extremist activities in small pockets of the city, have put a dark cloud over this fantastic city of late. We’re not discouraged from going back, and we hope with our top 10 tips you will find zero excuse not to explore the fantastic Belgian capital.
Manekin Pis & Het Zinneke
Let’s get the touristy stuff out of the way first. While there are museums and stunning buildings throughout the city, on perhaps a quick weekend trip, you want to spot the most iconic sights while on your whistle-stop visit. The Manekin Pis fountain is one of the most popular attractions in Brussels. It is just a tiny statue of a kid having a piss, but thousands flock to it as it’s a symbol of the national humour – Bruxellois don’t take themselves too seriously! It’s above ground at a height, so it’s completely possible to walk past and miss it.
For dog lovers, you just have to check out Het Zinneke (Zinneke Pis), which is a dog having a wee against a pole on the other side of the main thoroughfare of Bourse close to the fashion district. Annoyingly, he’s been tarnished with graffiti a few times but it’s nice to see, and is in an area of great vintage stores and independent coffee shops, including AM Sweet.
If you’re looking to perhaps kill a few hours and explore an attraction, the Atomium is a must, which is a tram journey outside the city centre to Heysel.
Constructed for the 1958 World’s Fair – the last of its kind – this has become one of the most recognisable symbols of Brussels. Now it is a museum split between the 6 of the 9 spheres, connected with escalators and internal staircases. As you travel between them all, you explore are a mix of permanent exhibitions including the history of the structure itself, of Expo ’58 and temporary ones, which in the past have included Belgium architecture and modern art. A fine dining restaurant is also available in the top sphere where you can enjoy a meal overlooking the city.
Fish & Chips at Bia Mara
It does feel a tad weird to suggest going to a fish & chip shop when you’ve left the UK or Ireland in search of a new experience, but that is just what Bia Mara is. Run by two Irish friends of ours, Barry and Simon, they’ve brought a humble supper to new levels by using the freshest fish available and coating it in flavours that compliment it perfectly. Served alongside sea-salted chips, washed down with Belgian and craft beers, it’s one of our top recommendations for anyone on a visit to the Belgian capital – and pretty much everyone we’ve told about this place has dutifully checked it out on their first trip. You can read our full post on Bia Mara here.
Spoonfuls of Speculoos
Speculoos biscuits, most notably sold ’round the world under the Biscoff brand, are the perfect accompaniment to a hot cup of coffee or chocolat chaud (hot chocolate). You’ll know this familiar taste from having these biscuits on airlines or with a hot drink at hair salons – it’s a brown sugar/caramel-flavoured biscuit and there’s lots of slightly different variations across Benelux and Germany.
Since 2007, however, they’ve taken the biscuit one step further and created one of the most amazing spreads known to man, using crushed up cookies and vegetable oils. So, it’s like a caramel peanut butter.
Try it on a slice of toast or a gently warmed crumpet. Or just get a spoon and eat it from the jar. This stuff is addictive and you will find yourself making room in your checked baggage in order to bring a jar back home!
Get with the Gaufres
It would be sacrilegious to go to Brussels and not have a Belgian waffle, or a gaufre as they’re locally known!
You have no excuse as Gaufreries are scattered all around the city. Don’t go seeking a sugar-free version, this is a real treat that is sweet, indulgent, delicious and VERY necessary. We adore going to Los Churros [Rue du Marché aux Herbes] for ours, right just behind Bourse and around the corner from Grand Place… at any time of the day, but especially after a few drinks in central.
The Best Frites In The World
They may be known as “French Fries”, but it’s widely held that it was in fact Belgium who invented our deep-fried finger-licking friends.
‘Frites’ are taken very seriously in Belgium, and there are hundreds of friteries (known as Fritkot locally) to satisfy your cravings, specialising in one thing only – the perfect potato snack. Each fritkot is unique and there’s variety in the types of oil they cook their fries in, whilst some also create sauces which are signature to their individual branch.
Our number one choice is Maison Antoine, located near the EU quarter at Place Jordan. Here the fries are cooked in beef dripping, and are among the crispiest yet fluffiest chips you’ll ever eat. There will ALWAYS be a queue of at least 30-45 minutes as this place is very popular. But believe us, it’s worth the wait. You can enjoy your cornet de frites in quite a number of the bars dotted around the square, by the way – as long as you buy a drink.
Other favourites include Frit Flagey at the newly regenerated Place Flagey (get the Samourai sauce) and Friterie Tabora, which is right beside Los Churros near Grand Place and where you simply must get the warm Carbonnade Sauce. Read more about our Top Places for Frites in Brussels.
Bargain hunt at Place du Jeu de Balle in the Marolles
Often you hear of flea markets and when you go along to them you realise it’s about five or six stalls and you leave feeling a bit peed off and that a pilgrimage has been wasted. If you’re tempted by antiques, props, old crockery, kitchenware, paintings and various other bric-à-brac, this is the spot to go to – located at Place du Jeu de Balle, easily accessed by metro and bus.
The market takes place every day in a vast square and you could walk it for hours there is so much to see. The traders have little english (so be prepared to haggle in French) and much of the good stuff goes early in the morning, so be an early bird. Friday and Saturday mornings are best (with the premium loot!), but it’s always busy.
Take the scenic route on Tram 44
Who knew a tram ride would be something to recommend? But it is.
We’re massive fans of the trams and metro in Brussels. Until recently the metro had a beautiful noise that was made before the station announcements, which sounded like panpipes. They, annoyingly, got rid of it and modernised it. But there is something to love about winding through the streets in a tram. Route 44 leaves from a quite dark dingy station (Montgomery) and literally goes out to the countryside through the forest and is a wonderful half hour journey. There’s nothing to see on the other side, so just hop on the next departing tram back to the city and enjoy the views once more!
Street Food at Noordzee/Mer Du Nord
This is an absolute Brussels institution and you must experience it. It’s glorious in the warmer weather. Don’t take this snippet as our word for it, read our full post on Mer Du Nord here.
When in Brussels, drink Belgian beer
Brussels is known for several things – great chocolate, amazing frites, comic books, art nouveau and BEER. The Belgians love their beer and you’ll find something to suit your tastebuds in pretty much every bar. Some of our favourite places to drink include Café Maison du Peuple, Bar du Matin and 13 Degrees.
Go for an olde worlde drink in Le Cirio, where they’ll serve you a teency platter of nuts with your drinks, and beer emporiums like Moeder Lambic and À La Mort Subite. If you’re totally into beer, keep reading by clicking through to our post on the 8 Best Bars in Brussels.
Visit the stunning Galeries Saint-Hubert
Built in 1847, this is the perfect example of a real European piece of architecture – a grand shopping arcade complete with arched glass ceiling, rolling marble floors and intricate detailing. There are several wings but it’s a small, walkable shopping centre that’s particularly well-served by a number of celebrated chocolatiers and praline confectioners – Godiva, Leonidas, Neuhaus – and cafes including Mokafe, apparently serving one of the best hot chocolates in the city but we’ve always found the service is dreadful.
Walk off lunch or spend a leisurely late afternoon window shopping here before dinner and drinks.
Picture perfect views at Parking 58
One of the best views and photo opportunities in Brussels sits at the top floor of a busy car park. No, seriously! Parking 58 is where it’s at. Simply head in as if you’re going to collect your car on the top floor and when you walk out you’ll find lots of people taking pictures. It’s a secret-but-no-so-secret place, you see.
The view is sensational and pretty unique, ensure you walk the entire perimeter of the level so you can catch a glimpse of the different elements of the view. We suggest going at sunset (just check the exact time on your weather app or on the internet each day) to catch the gloriously glowing sky as it wraps the city in darkness.
Lose hours & lighten your wallet at Dille & Kamille
As the caption above says, we come back to Brussels just to visit this shop. An interior lovers’ dream and a kitchen fiend’s kryptonite, it has every imaginable thing to improve your home from gorgeous tableware to spices, planting accoutrements to cookbooks – you’ll leave lighter by pocket but heavier in weight carrying your haul all the way home. They’ve got a number of branches across Benelux.
Watch below at your peril.
Café culture and good coffee
We love a good coffee and though Brussels isn’t well known or heralded for its coffee shops, we’ve found a couple of sensational ones. Our favourite is Parlor – which we’ve written about already – and we’ve just discovered a new place a few seconds away called Hinterland.
Workshop is also amazing as is Cafe du Sablon, EXKI is a reliable chain that will satisfy if you find yourself on a high street without any independent cafes and OR coffee roasters (and their espresso bars) come highly recommended.
Brussels is an incredibly easy city to get to, as it really is the centre of Europe. From across the UK and Ireland, flights are frequent from most airports into Brussels International (Zavantem) Airport as well as Charleroi, on the outskirts. From International, trains go straight to the city cente in under 30 minutes, while you’ll require a bus which takes about an hour to get from Charleroi into the city. If you’re travelling from London, you’d be silly not to travel on the Eurostar. The journey takes just under 2.5 hours, and it brings you directly to the city centre, terminating at Bruxelles Midi.