Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Brussels isn’t your obvious choice for a European destination. The vacation you’ve long imagined probably features the Eiffel Tower, double-decker buses, Oktoberfest, Greek islands, and Roman ruins. So why go to Brussels?
Consider this: Waffles. Fries. Chocolate. Bread. Beer. To travel is to EAT. Furthermore, the city has an entire plaza that towers over you with its gilded, gothic buildings, humbling iron-and-glass atriums, a fresh-food movement to counter all those sinful treats you’re eating along the way, plus world-class hospitality.
And you’re not just visiting Brussels. You’re visiting Flanders. (If you’ve heard someone speaking the Dutch dialect, Flemish, it’s from this region). Flanders is the northern half of Belgium, and it contains Brussels (which is sometimes deemed its own region, like a city state). Flanders has a dozen cities and towns worth your visit, but a few like the cultural capital Antwerp, the university town Ghent, the “Venice of the North”, Bruges, as well as the seaside Ostend, are going to highlight your stay—they’re all a short train ride away from Brussels.
Perhaps like you, I wasn’t sure if I would love Brussels—ditto for Flanders. But I can’t wait to go back, namely for the food, the headspace, and the company, because the locals invest in these things. They choose not to rely on tourist-trap monuments, having long banned selfies with the most unique one. And they have a cheeky sense of humor about their most notorious statues, as you’ll learn below.
So, don’t cast the city alongside London, Paris, or Rome. Put it in its own category—one where you savor every day, never stress, and are always satiated. It’s the best way to end a long trip to Europe, to break between the “obvious” cities, or to take a romantic retreat. To me, that much is obvious now.
Where to Stay in Brussels
Since Brussels is a stately city, I think you need a hotel to match. It’s not like Copenhagen in that it demands clean design or like Berlin in that it needs to be scene-y and unaffected. Here you need grounded luxury—the type that charms you sans gimmicks, from the front desk to the décor to the amenities. And you should decide which you want more: to stay directly in the center, with lots of foot traffic, or just outside the center, where it’s slightly easier to mobilize.
Hotel Amigo: If you stay in the bustling city center, pick Hotel Amigo. It’s housed in a 16th-century building the Rocco Forte Hotels Group renovated to recall the grandeur of the era—especially since it’s a minute walk to the spectacular Grand Place. The hotel gets its name from an odd history. It was once a prison. (Fun fact! Spanish soldiers mistook “vrunt”, the Dutch word for “prison”, to be “vriend”, which is Dutch for “friend”. They called the building “amigo”, which is their word for “friend”.) The building’s been a hotel since Brussels hosted the World’s Fair in 1958, and was converted in 2000 to the Hotel Amigo you see today. What I love most about it for a proper Brussels weekend is that it has design details that honor the culture—18th century Flemish tapestries, Magritte artwork, and the original stone lobby floors as old as the building itself. Despite the high-end design, it’s the least bit stuffy: Rocco Forte is the best luxury hotel chain for families with children (welcome treats for kids, child robes, 50 percent off adjoining suites for kids). Might I also suggest you upgrade to a suite for an enormous breakfast buffet, 4p.m. checkout, complimentary packing and unpacking, and a clothing press upon arrival. It’s not just the little things, it’s all the little things that make Amigo a prime spot to stay—not to mention that location.
Steigenberger Wiltcher’s: Truth be told, it’s very touristy in the center, so if you want to be just slightly removed from the bustle (but still close to everything), choose Steigenberger Wiltcher’s. It’s just off a main thoroughfare southeast of the center—Avenue Louise. The Steigenberger’s group refurbished the century-old hotel and reopened it in 2015; the hotel is now as regal as the city it inhabits. Have a midday respite with their afternoon tea, hit the gym to wear off those fries and waffles, cozy up for evening jazz sessions, or hit the Davidoff D LOUNGE cigar room to unwind. While I dare you to rent the 320-square-meter suite (the largest in Brussels), I have to say the entry-level option—45-square-meter superior rooms—are among the most spacious, top-shelf spaces I’ve seen for “baseline”. I suggest the 65-square-meter junior suites, though, if you’re on business. There’s a separate room with a workspace, plus complimentary buffet breakfast and evening turndown service.
What to Do and See in Brussels
Grand Place: Be sure your jaw is firmly lodged into place, less it hits the ground when you first stumble into this elaborate plaza. Neo Gothic architecture surrounds you. Among the best detours in Grand Place are Brussels Town Hall (have a quick look) and the Museum of the City of Brussels, which exhibits regional artwork throughout the ages. There’s free admission on Sundays.
Statues That Pee: Brussels is legitimately known for its statues of peeing children. (Something to do with their crooked sense of humor and individuality.) The most famous one is Manneken Pis (pictured above), which means small pissing man. He’s some 400 years young. The original is inside the Museum of the City of Brussels, but the replacement is still on display outdoors. They dress him up throughout the year, too. When I visited, he donned a Belgian World Cup jersey. His counterparts are Jeanneke Pis, a small squatting girl installed in 1987, and Het Zinneke, a dog peeing on a post, which was installed in 1918.
Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert: This iron-and-glass arched shopping center houses cafes, hotels, gift shops, and more. It’s breathtaking even if just for a stroll, and is right off the city center.
Cinquantenaire: With its Triumphal Arch centerpiece, this 30-hectare park is perfect for a picnic or an aimless wander. Relax pondside, visit the military, history, and art museums, as well as the car emporium AutoWorld, or pay respects at the city mosque.
Atomium and Mini-Europe: The giant stainless steel Atomium was erected for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Consider it the city’s Eiffel Tower. The enormous model of an iron crystal cell now houses exhibitions and a restaurant, all accessible by elevators and escalators. (Not so fun fact: There’s a global commercial copyright on the building design, which might be why you’re not familiar with it. Until 2016 it couldn’t be included in promotional materials, much less selfies. Imagine if Paris did that for the Eiffel…) At its base is Mini Europe, a theme park with scaled-down models of the most popular attractions all across Europe. Gimmicky, but endearing enough to see if you’re already at Atomium.
Royal Palace and Brussels Park: Mostly, I just want you to appreciate the monarchy website with its profiles on the entire family. But you should also cruise by the Royal Palace in Brussels Park (you can tour inside between late July and the first week in September), plus make stops at the Laeken Castle, the royal crypt of all past sovereigns and spouses (check public openings), and the 19th-century royal greenhouse complex.
Mont des Arts: It’s an urban complex that houses the Royal Library and National Archives, but more relevant to you, it offers divine city views with a beautiful garden (pictured below) en route to the following three museums.
Museums: Check out the Magritte Museum, Musical Instrument Museum, and Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium; they’re clustered together at the base of Mont des Arts. (I suggest you Google René Magritte if you need to know about Belgium’s most famous painter. You’ll recognize his work.)
Belgian Comic Strip Center and Museum of Original Figurines (MOOF): If you love the fact that Belgium is home to both the Smurfs and Tin Tin, then you might appreciate these places, which celebrate comics and house numerous relics of the medium.
Where to Eat and Drink in Brussels
Comptoir des Galeries: Come for a memorable romantic dinner or a refreshing sunlit weekday lunch. This is fine Belgian dining inside the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert.
Cipiace: You’ll note a handful of restaurants in the hip, off-the-tourist-path Saint-Gilles neighborhood on this list. Italian restaurant Cipiace is one of the buzzier establishments on the charming promenade Parvis de Saint-Gilles, perfect for any occasion throughout the day, from breakfast to midday coffees, aperitifs to dinner.
Brasserie de L’Union: This Saint-Gilles pub is a staple for deliciously greasy dinners and late-night pints.
Cafe La Pompe: Also in Saint-Gilles, this is where the local crowd hangs out for post-work beers. And don’t forget that it’s foremost a café: The menu offers delicious sandwiches, salads, and cuts of beef.
Délirium Café: Home of the elephant-adorned brew, Délirium has nearly 2,500 beers available to try, and even holds the Guinness World Record for the most beers available for tasting.
Belga Queen: This bustling Belgian brasserie sits in a former bank, just north of city center. You’ll feel fancy staring up at the stained-glass windows as you shoot oysters.
Fin de Siècle: At the the city center’s perimeter, this Belgian restaurant’s name means “turn of the century,” though you’re going to stick to the classics and order anything that comes with stoemp. Stoemp is a regional dish consisting of potatoes and other vegetables, served alongside your main dish.
Beaucoup Fish: Get your sushi or tartar fix here, just north of the city center.
Le Clan des Belges: Fries, waffles, and fresh-baked buns—get them all at Le Clan des Belges in Matonge.
Gaston: Ice cream and waffles is so Belgian. Eating them at Gaston in Dansaert is so smart.
Friterie de la Barrière: You need to dive face-first into a pile of Belgian fries. This joint in Saint-Gilles is a frites favorite with locals. Get them in a cone, smothered in mayo.
Belgian Chocolate Village: You can’t come all this way and not indulge your sweet tooth. Here, you can stockpile for friends back home, too.
Markt van het Kasteleinsplein: This is technically a weekend guide, but if you find yourself in Brussels on a Wednesday, stop through this food market to sample sweets, cheeses, baked goods, produce, and more from Flanders’ top farmers and vendors.
Day Trips from Brussels
With all due respect to this world-class city, I think it’s necessary to spend one of your days outside Brussels. Make your way on the train to one of Flanders’ other magnificent cities and towns. You can go down and back easily in a day—just an hour or so on the train—and I’d even suggest doing this for two of your days, given the diversity of options.
Bruges: Founded in the ninth century by the Vikings, this water-webbed trading post makes for a picturesque, Venice-like afternoon. Come for an antidote to the Brussels bustle—it’s an underdog that out-charms the big city.
Antwerp: The Berlin to Brussels’ Munich. Antwerp is the nightlife, music, and fashion capital of Belgium, as well as one of Europe’s anchors for all three. And like Brussels, it’s a haven for foodies. Stay overnight Friday or Saturday if you want a hit of bohemian revelry.
Ghent: Cobblestone labyrinths, 12th-century castles, and picturesque canals create the framework of your visit to Ghent. But the food fills it in: Ghent is the unofficial food capital of Belgium (but don’t tell Brussels or Antwerp). Treat yourself to one of its many Michelin-star restaurants, like Horseele, OAK, or Vrijmoed.
Ostend: If you insist on getting to the coast, then Ostend is your final stop. It’s got five and a half miles of sandy beaches and you can cap your travels with a cool dip in the North Sea, plus fresh seafood prepared to Belgium and Flanders’ high standards.
Grab a bike: Flanders is one of the world’s best regarded cycling destinations, and a major attraction for biking enthusiasts, too. (It’s got 3,000 km of cycle paths, 1,200 of which are long-distance routes—just look for the green and white signs marked ‘LF’ that indicate your paths.) If you’re up for the challenge, check the cycling routes throughout Flanders, then rent a bike and hit the road. You could plan a future trip for cycling Flanders, if you dare tackle the 800-km “Tour de Flanders”; but for a day trip, you might consider the 86-km LF1 route along the coast, between De Panne and Knokke Heist.