Most Belgians we met told us not to bother with Brussels.
“Sure, go see it. But then get out and explore our smaller gems, like Antwerp and Ghent.”
We heeded their advice and scheduled only 24 hours in Belgium’s capital city. We were happy with this plan; we had a starry-eyed weekend getaway awaiting us in Bruges—and only five days to discover all of Belgium’s other attractions.
But that’s not to say that we weren’t pleasantly surprised by our brief encounter with Brussels. The city has a grungy edginess to it, in a sort of young and fun-spirited way. For being the center of EU bureaucracy, there was an unexpected raw energy pervading through the streets. It was an energy we loved.
So I guess what we’re trying to say is that if you have the vacation time, give Brussels more of your Belgian itinerary than just one day. But if you’re working with a limited timeframe, utilize this 24-hour guide to get the most out of your Brussels visit—you won’t be disappointed.
Atomium is to Brussels what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. Originally constructed for the 1958 Brussels World Expo, the unique cell-like building was never supposed to remain standing into the 21st century. Some Belgians love it, others find it hideous, but most admire the bizarre architectural feat. A visit to Atomum is a must if only to ride the escalators through the tubes to arrive at the panoramic view of Brussels from the top sphere. Along the way visitors also learn about the construction of Atomium and the sensitive political air during Expo ’58.
Wander Around Sablon
Place du Grand Sablon is a lovely square in historic upper town. The neighborhood is full of chic boutique shops, trendy restaurants and beautiful architecture; wandering around its cobblestone roads is an attraction in itself. But perhaps the best reason to stop at Place du Grand Sablon is for easy access to some of Belgium’s most famous chocolatiers, including Wittamer, Neuhaus, and our favorite, Pierre Marcolini.
Stop at any of the cute bistros in Sablon for a quick bite to eat. If you time your visit to Brussels on a Saturday or Sunday, be sure to try out The Wine Bar, a favorite with locals and tourists alike.
Comic Book Route
Comics are considered to be an integral part of Belgian culture, so it only makes sense that one of the city’s more whimsical attractions would include the Comic Book Route. The path takes visitors past more than 50 oversized comic strip murals, featuring famous Tintin and Broussaille. Following the route is a good way to explore Brussels, both its historic center and some of its less-frequented neighborhoods. Even if you don’t follow the trail purposefully, keep your eyes out for a mural or two—you’re bound to stumble upon one.
It’s hard not to smile when you stumble upon this cheeky small bronze sculpture depicting a naked little boy urinating into a fountain base. The statue is said to symbolize the rebellious nature of the city. Mannekin Piss is dressed in costumes periodically throughout the year; the little boy actually has more clothes than I do, his wardrobe consisting of several hundreds of outfits.
Brussels most popular tourist destination and UNESCO World Heritage Site, it doesn’t take long to see why this square is considered to be one of the most beautiful in all of Europe. Ornately decorated medieval buildings date back primarily to the late 17th century; famous buildings include the city’s Town Hall and the Breadhouse. Time your visit just before dusk so you can take in the beauty as the square begins to twinkle.
To purchase one of these photos visit the photo shop.
Rue des Bouchers
It’s a bit of a tourist trap, but it’s a fun one at that. Rue des Buchers is known for its back-to-back seafood restaurants and lively atmosphere. Take a seat outside at any of the bistros (Chez Vincent and Aux Armes Bruxelles are arguably two of the better restaurants) for prime people-watching opportunities while you feast on three of Brussels’ most famous specialties: beer, mussels and frites (French fries).
It’s crowded and rowdy and attracts a certain college clientele. But what it lacks in charm it makes up for with over 3,000 beer selections—giving it the Guinness Book of World Records for longest beer list commercially available. You’ll find beers from around the world, of course including a hefty number of local brews. Delirium stays incredibly crowded during prime bar-going hours, so don’t expect anyone to hold your hand through the beer-choosing process. Choose one at random and let the long night begin.
If you have extra time, try:
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the EU, this free visitor’s center might be worth a stop.
The large public park is an enjoyable place to walk or cycle while taking in the museums galore on either side of the main road, many good examples of the art nouveau movement.
Visit Rooftop Café inside the Musical Instruments Museum for reportedly great panoramic views of Brussels. After visiting Atomium we didn’t feel the need to also stop by the café, but we’ve only heard good things.
Where to sleep:
Whether you have one night or ten, we recommend laying your head at Taptoe Bed and Breakfast. Its prime location in the center of the historic zone (just a couple hundred meters from Mannekin Pis) makes it an ideal place to base yourself for exploring the city via foot. The seven rooms are spread across three nearly adjoining properties, each incredibly spacious and modern. All rooms have TV (flat screen, cable), free wifi connection, a radio-alarm-iPhone dock and a large private bathroom. There is also a common living area and kitchen for guests to use, with a complimentary spread of breads, jams and cold cuts each morning.
But while the guesthouse boasted all the necessary amenities, perhaps what we loved most about this B&B was the unique travel inspiration behind it. Before opening up the B&B, owners Daniel and Catherine took the trip of a lifetime—one I know many fellow travelers would be envious of. They sold their belongings, packed up their lives and headed out on a three-year sailing trip from France to Australia.
It’s this trip that has inspired the design of the second floor of their intimate guesthouse. Guests will find nautical colors, boating photos, and snippets from the couple’s epic journey around the world, along with a smattering of travel books and inspiration if you feel the itch to plan further adventures of your own.
Taptoe is a fantastic value option, with rooms starting at $110 a night. Considering its amenities, lovely owners, and prime location, it seems almost like a steal.
Extra Tip: Don’t miss owner Catherine’s art gallery adjacent to the B&B for a preview of her brilliantly whimsical sculptures.
Have you been to Brussels? What would you put on a 24 hour itinerary?
We were guests of Taptoe during our stay. All thoughts and opinions are, as always, our own.