For many Brussels conjures up few images besides Belgian waffles, the EU and childhood comic book hero Tintin. When planning a weekend trip there, though, I was eager to discover what (other) food and hidden gems this quaint, French-speaking capital had to offer. No one thing can sum up a culture, and I wanted to explore as much of Brussels as possible.
To my surprise, Belgium’s biggest city is intensely charming and incredibly easy to navigate. Its relatively small size means no hassles with subways or inconvenient tram fares as well as a large concentration of sights and activities all within walking distance. With a guidebook in hand and a comfortable hostel located about 12-minutes’ walk from the city centre, I discovered a variety of ways to soak up Belgian culture and to get the most out of my short time there.
Upon arriving at the Brussels Charleroi airport, head outside to look for the Brussels City Shuttle. You can avoid both waiting in line at the ticket desk and the small handling fee it charges by ordering your tickets online.
An hour’s ride will place you at the Bruxelles-Midi train station. Make sure to have euros on hand, as many of the cabs that wait outside the train station do not take debit or credit cards and only speak varying levels of English.
After settling in at your hostel (or hotel, in which case I thoroughly envy you), walk along the cobblestone streets and charming architecture towards the Place de la Bourse, the bustling intersection facing the beautiful Greek temple-style Brussels Stock Exchange.
Just one block north-west will take you to 9 et Voisins, a popular Belgian restaurant. My friend and I ended up here thanks to a local’s recommendation. Besides being a practical choice for those arriving late into the city (they serve dinner until midnight), the brick walls and dining-hall feel make for a pleasantly low-key vibe. Though it tends to be busy at weekends, skip the reservation and spend your time waiting at the tiny bar in the back where you can chat with your friends or the friendly bar staff over a Ciney Blonde (or the Westmalle Tripel if you’re looking for a stronger buzz – as per another recommendation from a local).
Right around the corner lies Le Roi Des Belges, a solid choice for those looking for post-dinner entertainment in the form of live music and a variety of drink options housed in an old-style setting of wood panelling and mirrored walls. Order an Eddy Merckx, their house drink, and head upstairs for a change of scenery: to the right of their main seating area you’ll discover a room with about a dozen red swings suspended from the ceiling in place of traditional chairs or benches. Not only is it an entertaining photo op, but nothing says fun like sipping a cocktail whilst swinging along.
Before ending your evening, make sure to stop by one of the many late night street-side waffle shops on your way back to your room. While the waffles are cheap and marketed entirely to tourists, it’s an inarguably delicious way to kick off your weekend in Brussels, and it’s important to eat as many waffles as possible in the city.
After a breakfast at your hotel or hostel, begin your day at Brussels Park. Entering at the northern end and strolling south will lead you directly to the Royal Palace. The path there is lined with Greek statues and surrounded by beautiful scenery. My decision to visit in February meant the usual lush greenery and working fountain were barren; that said, it’s still worth a visit no matter the time of year.
Though we were unable to tour the Royal Palace beyond its summertime visiting season, the beautiful façade and topiaries out front make for a beautiful sight seeing spot.
Continue into the Museum Quarter directly adjacent and you’ll find yourself surrounded by a wonderful selection of artistic, musical and historical museums. Student tickets are generally quite cheap, and many museums offer access for only €2.
History enthusiasts will find interest in the underground Coudenberg, which offers a glimpse into the 15th century ruins of the former Bruxellois palace by the same name. Others more artistically inclined will appreciate the Royal Museum of Fine Art with its vast collection of Flemish paintings. Among the many options is the Magritte Museum, a permanent exhibit of some of Belgium’s most famous artist’s most renowned work.
For lunch, head South to Brasserie Ploegmans, a phenomenal pub with a good reputation and authentic Belgian cuisine. Tucked away on a side street outside of the main thoroughfare, its vintage décor and locals-vibe make for a cosy setting.
Make your way next to Brussels’ most iconic (and most amusing) landmark: Manneken Pis. A throng of tourists constantly encircles this statue of a tiny peeing boy.
From there, you can leisurely chocolate shop-hop on your walk to the Grand Place. Stop in city favourites like high-end chocolatier Mary, which offers endless options to choose from.
You can continue your chocolate hunt through the Galeries Saint-Hubert, a glamorous 19th century shopping arcade frequented by Victor Hugo. Towards the end of the arcade you’ll discover Mokafe, supposedly one of the few genuine places that offers classic Bruxellois waffles. Take a break from walking and sit outside on their terrace over a cup of coffee and decadent Mikado waffle, laden with ice cream and chocolate sauce.
Afterwards, wrap up your late afternoon explorations with a stop at the massive painted mural one block northeast of the Grand Place. Painted by urban artist Denis Meyers, this mural was made in tribute to the Worldwide Association Against AIDS.
Around the corner from there sits La Boutique Tintin, an essential stop for anyone who grew up with the beloved cartoon reporter.
For an inexpensive dinner and an authentic dining and drinking experience, start your evening at À la Mort Subite, which means ‘sudden death’ in English. This brasserie has been around since the early 1900s, and its bright, bustling atmosphere and original 1920s décor provide an energetic setting for sampling one of their Croque Madames and custom selection of house beers.
‘Unique’ hardly begins to cover your next stop, Delirium Village, whose trademark pink elephant marks its entrance and adorns its custom glasses. This notorious bar is divided between two levels and boasts the Guinness World Record for the most variety of beers, clocking in at over 3,100 options. Order a round of €2 tasting glasses for the full experience, and sample varieties of their often colourful beers like Floris Cactus and Pink Killer. Make sure to include their house beer Delirium Nocturnum for a dark ale with hints of chocolate and coffee.
Before you’ve indulged too heavily in the local beers the city has to offer, take time to walk through the Grand Place at night. Though the intricate architecture and gold accents of the city square’s elaborate buildings are more visible during the day, the lights that adorn them create a dazzling spectacle once the sun sets. If you were unlucky enough to have been rained on earlier, all the better—the lights gleam off the wet cobblestones like a scene out of a classic film.
Before bidding adieu, end your trip on an unbeatable high note at the Maison Dandoy tearoom. Get there before their 10:30 am Sunday opening time to avoid lines, and take time to bask in the ambrosia known as their Liège waffles. If ever there is a time to skimp on toppings, this is it—the caramelised crust is delicious enough to tide you over until your next visit to Brussels.