Brussels is one of the great treasures of Europe. Magnificent architecture, supreme collections of art and incredible beer (and chocolate) are all within easy walking distance in the compact, character-drenched downtown district. It’s a big city – as both the capital of Belgium and the de facto capital of the EU – yet it oozes inescapable small town charm. Here’s a go to guide to get a feel for what to do, see and eat in Brussels.
The number one attraction in Brussels is the Grand Place. Six narrow side alleys lead to one impressive culmination: this stunning cobbled square lined by impeccable 17th century architecture. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s one of the greatest squares in all of Europe. The spired 15th-century city hall takes centre stage, but each of these ornate baroque and gothic buildings – mostly constructed between 1697 and 1705 – beams a magnificent story of its own. Buzzing cafes make it a hive of activity by day; by night, it takes on whole new life.
For something truly unique and for panoramic views of Brussels, escape the city confines for the space-age-inspired Atomium, which was built for the 1958 World Fair in Brussels. Looming 102 metres above a slice of surburbia, it is made up of nine house-sized metallic balls that represent atoms, they are each connected by tube columns containing escalators and lifts. The highest sphere also contains a restaurant (bookings required) and from the top, the 360-degree views are the best in town.
Many travellers are surprised to learn that Brussels has one of the highest densities of Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe. So delightful dining is never far off. But when it comes to authentic Belgian fare, Fin de Siecle is widely regarded as the go-to for all those hearty flavours and classic favourites. A restaurant that doesn’t take bookings – it doesn’t need to. There’s often a line of eager diners waiting outside. Enjoy everything from rabbit in cherry beer sauce to grilled lamb with porto sauce.
Prefer some of those famous Belgian truffles? Head to La Truffe Noire, a Michelin starred restaurant dishing up a more refined slant on the local cuisine. As the name suggests, the focus remains intent on crafting gastronomic masterpieces incorporating those famed white and black truffles. Their sister restaurant, Atelier de la Truffe Noire, also impresses with a more low-key offering.
Do it your way. Europe Tailor Made - Unique, Boutique and Easy
An imperial capital. A Go To Guide: Vienna
Explore en route. Alternative Stopovers En Route to Europe
Brussels is a wonderful place to pull up a stool and indulge in a cold bevvy or two. Even the cafes double as drinking holes. From Estaminet Toone (an 1830s bar put that hosts a daily show of marionettes) to The Good Old Days (a quaint bar that’s over 300 years old with an ancient Gothic church interior) there’s a different style of bar – or cafe – on every corner.
Our pick for drinks is La Becasse – or, ‘The Lark’. Why? Because it’s famous for its ‘jeune lumbic blanche’, a refreshing white beer served in a stone jug. There's also a selection of house barrel beers. Channelling 19th century Belgium, this character-laden bar is conveniently hidden down a narrow passage just a five minute stroll from the Grand Place.
Brussels boasts many sensational flea markets, but the Marolles Flea Market on Place du Jeu de Balle takes out the number one spot. Also coined the ‘Old Market’ or 'La Vieux Marche' there are over 450 stalls, atmosphere is never in short supply and better yet, it’s open 365 days a year. Rummage for all kinds of treasures, from antiques to random bric a brac.
Another great market takes over Place du Petit Sablon (Petit Sablon Square) every weekend, when a flurry of burgundy and green tent stalls roll out hoards of fine antiques, artworks and other beautiful creations.
One of the incredible things about Brussels is that many of Belgium’s chief highlights lie within a mere hour’s train ride of the capital. In 30 minutes you could find yourself standing in the centre of Antwerp - a hidden gem of medieval streets, Flemish renaissance architecture and monuments. It’s also incredible for its art and mostly famously, for its spic and span diamonds.
Make the journey 40 minutes in a different direction and spend the day in Ghent. The pearl between Brussels and Bruges, this medieval city is home to some of Belgium’s most fascinating museums, beautiful architecture that clings to the banks of meandering canals and the grand Gravensteen Castle.
Keep going and an hour from Brussels step off in cosy but vibrant Bruges, a frequently visited medieval gem that looks as though it belongs in a fairytale. Picturesque cobbled lanes, historic churches and jaw-dropping architecture are easy to take in on foot. Tranquil canals make it all the more scenic. Remarkably, Bruges was left untouched by the bombs of two World Wars.
For the latest deals on travel, browse our great range of offers online, visit your local Escape Travel or call 1300 556 855.