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Things to do in Brussels

Must-see Brussels sights

Wherever else you go in Belgium, allow time for Brussels, which is anything but the dull centre of EU bureaucracy some would have you believe. The city has become a thriving, cosmopolitan metropolis, with top-flight museums and architecture, a superb restaurant scene and an energetic nightlife. 

  1. Take your time at the Grand-Palace
  2. Make a museum pilgrimage
  3. Soak up the beer culture
  4. Get cultured with comics
  5. Pick your way through a flea market
  6. Seeing double at the Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula
  7. Get political at EU Parliament 

Moreover, most of the key attractions are crowded into a well-preserved late 17th-century centre that is small enough to be absorbed over a few days, its boundaries largely defined by a ring of boulevards – the “petit ring” or, less colloquially, the “petite ceinture”. 

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1. Take your time at the Grand-Place

The obvious place to begin any tour of Brussels is the Grand-Place, one of Europe’s most beautiful squares, which sits at the centre of the Lower Town. Each side of this UNESCO World Heritage Site - west, east, south and north - has plenty of historic buildings and maisons worth exploring, from old guild headquarters and towers to haberdasheries and exclusive restaurants.

Best for: Getting a taste of Brussels’ past. 

 While you’re there: The good-value Brussels Card provides free access to 39 of the city’s museums. 

2. Make a museum pilgrimage

If you’re looking for what to do in Brussels that will tell you more about the city’s vast history and culture, head to Musee Old Masters for early Flemish paintings; Musee Victor Horta for Art Nouveau; and Musee BELvue for an insight into Belgium and Belgian society.

Best for: Taking in art pieces by the greats. 

While you’re there: Musee Old Masters is housed in the Musees Royaux des Beaux Arts - it’s huge, so you should make a day of it here.

3. Soak up the beer culture

Brussels is renowned for its top-quality beer, which is produced in countless breweries across the city and further afield. The city boasts an enormous variety of bars: sumptuous Art Nouveau establishments, traditional joints with ceilings stained brown by a century’s worth of smoke, speciality beer bars with literally hundreds of different varieties of ale and, of course, more modern hangouts. Many of the more distinctive bars are handily located within a few minutes’ walk of the Grand-Place and also in Ixelles, but really you’ll be spoilt for choice. Belgians make little – or no – distinction between their bars and cafés: both serve alcohol, many stay open late (until 1am or even 2am), and most sell food as well. 

Best for: A slice of quintessential Belgian culture.

While you’re there: Brussels Beer Project is a microbrewery that mixes Belgiun beer-making with international influences. 

4. Get cultured with comics

The Belgians love their comics; it’s arguably what they’re famous for after chocolate. For cheap holidays to Brussels, spotting the comic artworks and street murals dotted throughout the city makes for a fun itinerary. Brusel is a well-known comic shop which stocks more than 8000 new issues and specializes in French underground editions – Association, Amok and Bill, to name but three. You’ll also find the complete works of Belgian comic-book artist Schuiten, most popularly known for his controversial comic Brüsel, which depicts the architectural destruction of a city (guess which one) in the 1960s. There’s a mega Tintin collection and a small English section too. 

Best for: One of the quirkier things to do in Brussels.

While you’re there: Head to the Belgian Comic Strip Centre, a museum dedicated to comics.

5. Pick your way through a flea market

At the heart of Quartier Marolles is Place du Jeu de Balle, the appropriately earthy location of the city’s most famous flea market (daily 6am–2pm). The sprawling flea market opens up every morning, but it’s at its biggest and best on the weekend - we recommend Sunday mornings - when an eccentric muddle of colonial spoils, quirky odds and ends, and domestic and ecclesiastical bric-a-brac give an impression of a century’s fads and fashions.

Best for: Getting stuck in with the hustle and bustle of the city.

While you’re there: People-watch at the flea market by pausing at Chaff cafe-bar. 

6. Seeing double at Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula

With plenty of things to do in Brussels, the Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula should definitely be on your list. In fact, this sleek Gothic cathedral doesn’t look too different to Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral, what with its twin-towered white stone facade. It’s well worth a visit, with free entry and free guided tours in English held every Saturday; highlights include the stained-glass windows, the Chapel and treasury, and - not for the squeamish - the skull of a Hungarian saint...

Best for: The very best of Gothic architecture.

While you’re there: Visit Brussels Cathedral for details, and Church and Tourism Brussels for tours.

7. Get political at EU Parliament

One of the best things to do in Brussels is visit the EU Parliament, an interesting insight in a flashy building. The Spaak building houses the debating chamber while the Spinelli building houses MEP’s offices and those of various political groupings. You can take free thirty-minute tours of the Spaak building, which tells you more about how the EU works. Otherwise, head over to the neighbouring Parlimentarium, which has a series of interactive displays, around which you’re guided by audio guide. It’s a slick presentation, and free (EU citizens have already paid for it, after all) and gives a crash course on the workings of the EU Parliament and its other institutions.

Best for: Getting to grips with EU politics.

While you’re there: Free Parliamentary chamber tours are available Mon–Thurs 9am, 10am, 11am, 2pm, 3pm & 4pm, Fri 9am, 10am & 11am; July & Aug extra tour at noon; report to the visitors’ entrance 15min in advance and be sure to take photo ID.

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