Best Things To Do in Brussels
Tourists can visit the historic Palais Royal, once home to the Belgian royal family, before climbing to the top of the Palais de Justice. Discover your inner child at the Belgian Comic Strip Museum, take a whirlwind tour of the continent at Mini-Europe or tickle your taste buds at a chocolate shop. Just don't forget to pay a visit to Brussels' favorite little fountain, the Manneken Pis, to see what fashion the little statue is sporting.
Updated August 19, 2016
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This little boy has put Brussels on the tourist map; people travel to this city from all over the world just to catch a glimpse of him urinating. The legend behind the Manneken Pis (which translates to little peeing man in Dutch) varies widely depending on who you ask. One popular story is of a little boy relieving himself on a witch's doorstep. Catching the boy in the act, the witch wished to punish him by turning him into stone, forcing him into that compromising position for eternity. A local, who witnessed the entire incident, ran to the boy and replaced him with a statue in the nick of time, making the boy miss the curse entirely. Another very popular story is that of a little boy stopping Brussels from meeting its demise. Enemy forces, intent on destroying Brussels, lit a small fire with the hopes it would spread and burn the city to the ground. A wandering little boy, who apparently really needed to go to the bathroom, saw the fire and put it out with his natural resources, thus saving the city.
While the statue itself is of a child in the nude, he has been the recipient of about 800 different costumes, a tradition that began when Maximilian II Emanuel gave him a soldier's uniform in 1698. Since then Manneken Pis has been many things, including Santa and Elvis. Those interested in learning more about Manneken Pis should take a trip to the Museum of the City of Brussels, where more than 100 of his outfits are on display. The museum also has a digital archive of every single outfit that Manneken Pis has worn for visitors to view.
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Whether you're just passing through Brussels or here for a week, you can't miss the Grand-Place. This square marks the heart of Brussels' Lower Town district. Flanked by ornate Gothic and Baroque-style buildings, the Grand-Place is probably the best place to begin your tour of historic Brussels; it is within walking distance of many of the city's main attractions, including the St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral and the beloved Manneken Pis. This is also a great location to grab a cup of coffee or a beer and watch the world go by.
No matter when you're in town, you can count on something going on at the Grand-Place, from street performances and flower shows to the nightly light shows in summer. But if you can, try to plan your trip around the Ommegang Pageant (the first week in July). This centuries-old festival recreates the celebration held when Emperor Charles V first entered the city in the 16th century. Another good time to visit is around Christmastime, when the entire square is illuminated by a massive Christmas tree.
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It's less ornate than other Gothic churches, but most agree the St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral's no-frills design is a refreshing quality. St. Michael and St. Gudula has been known throughout history — particularly by French writer Victor Hugo — as "the purest flowering of the Gothic style." The Belgian royals thought so, too, as it has served as the site for royal weddings and funerals. Constructed in the 13th century, with its clean stone exterior and intricate stained-glass windows, this cathedral makes for an impressive sight.
Recent visitors appreciated the architecture of the church, with some noting the beauty of the stained-glass windows in particular. Some travelers recommended paying the extra fee to visit the archeological site, saying it gave them greater insight into the church's history.
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If you love music, then place the Musée des Instruments de Musique (the Musical Instruments Museum) at the top of your Brussels to-do list. This facility has 1,200 mechanical and electrical instruments from around the globe, including a 19th-century orchestra, Scottish bagpipes, African slit drums and a collection of traditional Tibetan instruments. The museum gives visitors the unique opportunity to hear what these instruments sound like thanks to special headphones located in some of the exhibits. The museum also has a concert hall that hosts dozens of events throughout the year.
Recent visitors enjoyed their experience at the Musical Instruments Museum. Many were impressed with the museum's extensive collection, with some noting seeing instruments they didn't even know existed. Others really loved that they had the opportunity to listen to the instruments through the headphones available at the exhibits, saying it was the best part of their experience. Travelers also recommended taking a trip to the cafe, which provides great views of Brussels.
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Art lovers should not pass up the chance to see where Victor Horta — the father of the Art Nouveau movement — lived and worked. Inspired by 20th century changes to the way art was being created, Horta developed an entirely new architectural scheme, using metals like iron and steel to create fluid structures and reveal structural elements that had never been seen or used before. Horta's home (now a museum) is a perfect example. As you walk through, keep your eyes open for Horta's influences, from the wing-like skylights to the winding banisters to the overhead lights stemming down from the ceiling like vines. Bring along a dictionary; much of the information provided is in French, although guided tours in English are available by request. You can't take pictures inside, but you can buy books and posters in the museum's shop.
You can visit the Horta Museum, located in the Ixelles district, Tuesday through Sunday from 2 to 5:30 p.m. Admission is about €8 EUR for adults. For more information, check out the museum's website.
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For those of you interested in military history, this museum makes for a great afternoon. Located in the Cinquantenaire district, the Royal Museum of the Army and Military History (Musée Royal de l'Armée et d' Histoire Militaire) traces the world's violent past back to the Middle Ages, displaying weaponry, uniforms, documents and technology from various points in time. You should spend a fair amount of time in the airplane hangar, which features 80 different aircraft. The museum also hosts educational activities for all ages, making it a great place for children and adults to explore.
Recent travelers said they were impressed by the extensive collection of military memorabilia present at the museum. Many enjoyed being able to get up close and personal with the aircraft featured in the aviation area. One complaint travelers had was that there were little placards in English.
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When it comes down to it, a trip to Brussels isn't complete unless you've sampled the beer. In order to knock that off your list, head to the Musée Bruxellois de la Gueuze, known simply as the Cantillon Brewery. Cantillon has been brewing traditional Lambic beers since 1900, and today, is the only remaining Lambic brewery in Brussels. During your tour you'll learn about the brewing process and, if you plan ahead, you can even attend a public brewing session to see the action first-hand.
Recent visitors loved their experience at the Cantillon Brewery. Many were fascinated by the history of the brewery and appreciated the opportunity to see everything up close, with some noting that other breweries they had visited in the past would only give guests limited access to the behind-the-scenes action. Some travelers even recommended scheduling a visit if you aren't a big beer fan, as the history lesson itself is worth it.
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As you might've guessed, the Palais de Justice houses the city's law courts and is considered to be Belgium's supreme court of law. This building was one of the largest construction projects of its time during the 19th century. Larger than St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, the building sits atop Gallows Hill, providing panoramic views of the city.
Travelers are split on their thoughts of the Palais de Justice. Many admire how grand the structure is, but are disappointed by the lack of TLC given to the building's upkeep, with some visitors reporting graffiti, trash, holes, cracks and a mysterious black dust on many areas of building's exterior. Although the building needs work, some travelers say it's worth a trip to see the views it provides of the city, and recommend going at sunset with some Belgian cuisine in tow.
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In reality, Europe is a very big place, and unless you have years to dedicate, there's no hope of seeing everything. For those with time-sensitive itineraries, there is Mini-Europe. The theme park is north of central Brussels and features scale models of Europe's biggest and best, from the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Seville's renowned bullfighting ring to London's Big Ben and many of Paris' biggest landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower and Sacre-Coeur. In just a day, you can see more than 300 of this continent's best sights. Be sure to bring your kids: many of the park's mini-attractions are interactive, such as Naples' Mount Vesuvius and the Berlin Wall.
Many visitors agree that this is a great place to bring children. Some older travelers recall being impressed with the detail of the smaller structures, but say if you don't have little ones in tow, you can probably find better ways to spend your time in Brussels.
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If you only have time to hit one art museum, the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts (Royal Museums of Fine Arts) should be it. The museum houses 20,000 works of art from the 15th to the 21st centuries, and it's organized into six smaller museums, including the Old Masters Museum and the Modern Museum. Walking through the halls, travelers will be able to see works from Rubens, Brueghel, Van Dyck, Magritte and many, many more.
Recent travelers report being impressed with the museum's vast collection of art. Considering the size of the collection, many suggest allotting four or more hours to not just see the works of art but to appreciate and enjoy them. Some travelers even visited twice. Others, however, found the museum to be a bit boring, cautioning future visitors not to go unless they are really into art.
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Considered to be a symbol of Brussels and Belgium, this molecule-shaped stainless steel structure was originally built for the 1958 World's Fair, but due to its popularity, ended up sticking around and now houses multiple exhibition spaces dedicated to different aspects of Belgian culture, from science to the arts. Travel experts and recent visitors agree that this is a great place to bring the kids; they can play in the Kids' Sphere and even spend the night at this attraction. But if there's one reason to head north to the Atomium, it's the spectacular views of the city.
Some travelers, however, say the Atomium isn't worth the price of admission or the wait time to enter the attraction. Travelers also advise others to visit only if it's a sunny day, as anything less provides lackluster views from the top.
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A couple of hours at the Belgian Comic Strip Center, or the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinee, are a treat for kids and the young-at-heart. After all, Brussels is home to the legendary explorer, Tintin, who is just one of the many characters represented here. The museum's collection is made up of 7,000 original plates and drawings, including 100 smurf drawings currently on display in the Peyo Exhibition. You can also find sculptures of characters including Porco Rosso, Gaston and Lucky Luke spread throughout the museum. If you didn't see what you were looking for on display, check in the extensive library.
Recent visitors enjoyed their experience at the Belgian Comic Strip Center and especially liked learning about how comics are created, while others reported feeling nostalgic getting to see and learn so much about comics they grew up with. Travelers were also impressed with the beauty of the building and suggested those not interested in comics should still stop by just to see the architecture. Though keep in mind, the building is constructed out of a lot of glass — some visitors cautioned it can get really hot on summer days and recommended wearing light clothing and bringing water.
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