48 HOURS IN BRUSSELS: CITY GUIDE
One of the most frequent questions I get from friends and readers is which are the must-see spots for a weekend in Brussels. And it’s a tricky one as I find it hard to narrow down my selection to just a few great places that reflect the true charm of my city. Brussels is one of those places that you have to live in for a while to fully appreciate. I guess this is true of any destination but even more so with the EU capital which is often overlooked and misunderstood for being just a grey and boring place.
I’ve already talked about some of the things I really love about Brussels, like how truly multinational and affordable it is compared to other European capitals, but along the years I have also come to appreciate other aspects, like small distances. It may sound trivial but makes everyday life so much easier and stress-free. This is good news when you’re visiting too as you will be able to get from one site to another on foot or by bike without bothering too much with public transport.
Having said all that (I seem to get carried away whenever I start talking about Brussels as you may have noticed!), it’s time to take you around the best spots in the city broken down in a two-day itinerary.
Our tour starts from one of the most famous and beautiful sights in Brussels: the Grand Place / Grote Markt, a Unesco World Heritage sight. The square is surrounded by 17th century guild houses, the Town Hall and the Maison du Roi / Broodhuis where the Museum of the City of Brussels is located. The Grand Place hosts several events, like the Beer Festival, the Ommegang pageant in July and the Flower Carpet every two years in August whereby the whole square is filled with a colorful sea of blooms.
A short walk away from the square you’ll find another landmark of Brussels, albeit a bit smaller than you may think! As the name suggests, the Manneken Pis is a sculpture of a little boy peeing. Weird, right? Well, there are many theories behind the identity of the boy, the most famous being that it depicts Julianske who saved the city from burning down by urinating on a fire. The original sculpture has been repeatedly stolen and can be found nowadays in the Maison du Roi, so what you’ll see is a replica. Despite its small size, Manneken Pis has a whole wardrobe of different costumes and gets dressed up regularly.
There are countless shops and cafes around the Grand Place area but my favourite is the Maison Dandoy where you can stock up on speculoos or try a waffle. If you’re more of a coffee aficionado, pop by Aksum Coffee House, a little Ethiopian cafe serving some of the best coffee in Brussels. For lunch head first to Noordzee – La Mer du Nord, a popular spot for both visitors and locals in Place Sainte Catherine and then to Charli bakery for coffee and delicious pastries. If you’re rather looking for a sit-down meal, Les Filles Plaisirs Culinaires is a great option for a homey well-cooked meal.
Next stop, the beautiful Galeries Royales Saint Hubert where you’ll find some of the most famous Belgian chocolatiers, delicious pastries from Meert and Tropismes Libraires, a really special bookstore. Fun fact: it is argued that Galeries Royales Saint Hubert are the oldest shopping arcades in Europe!
Not too far from the Galeries Royales there’s the Cathedral of St Micheal and St Gudula, a beautiful church where ceremonies like royal marriages and State funerals take place. From there walk towards the gorgeous Galerie Bortier and the Mont des Arts / Kunstberg, one of the most iconic spots in Brussels. The beautiful gardens were envisioned by King Leopold II and is nowadays one of the best spots to watch the sunset. Within a walking distance you’ll find some of the most well-known museums of the city, such as the Musical Instruments Museum (which has a great rooftop terrace), the Magritte Museum, the Coudenberg, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts and the BOZAR.
Stretch your feet at Parc Royal and admire the Royal Palace of Brussels which opens to the public for a few weeks every summer. Now we’re off to the EU quarter of Brussels, where you’ll be able to see up close the buildings of the European institutions. Don’t worry, it’s not a total concrete jungle! Only a few meters away from the Schuman square you’ll find the Cinquantenaire park, a green oasis where you can relax, take a walk, visit Autoworld or the Royal Museum of Armed Forces and Military History (and get 360 views of Brussels for free!).
For dinner there are many great options in Brussels depending on your preferences (check our my restaurants page) but I would suggest Vismet for great seafood, In ‘t Spinnekopke for moules-frites or Belga Queen for a really special dinner. Finish the night with drinks at one of the bars in Saint-Gery, jazz music at L’Archiduc or great cocktails at Hortense in Sablon.
Our second day starts with a visit to Atomium, the symbol of Brussels. Constructed for the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958 (Expo 58), the Atomium operates as a museum and has a restaurant in the upper sphere with great views over Brussels. The best way to get there is by metro (line 6, station Heysel) and it takes around 25 minutes from the city centre. You can combine your visit with a walk around the Royal Palace of Laeken which also opens its gorgeous greenhouses to the public every summer and the Museums of the Far East.
Back to the city centre, make sure to visit the Marolles / Marollen area which is famous for its open-air antique market in Place du Jeu de Balle/Vossenplein. The market is full of second-hand items ranging from clothes to ornaments and other curiosities, so roll up your sleeves and get ready for some serious treasure-hunting! The neighbourhood has also some cool vintage shops and hosts a few frescoes from the Comic Strip Route.
If you’re up for a break, Pin Pon and L’Arriere Pays have two of Brussels’ best terraces – so does L’Atelier en Ville. For lunch, head to Sablon where there are many different options: Le Perroquet for a quick meal in beautiful Art Nouveau surroundings, Pistolet Original for a gourmet Belgian sandwich, Skievelat for an affordable and filling meal or Pei & Mei for Belgian food with a modern twist. If you haven’t bought any chocolate yet, you’re in the right place! Around the Grand Sablon you’ll find all the famous chocolate houses, such as Pierre Marcolini, Godiva, Neuhaus, Leonidas and Frederic Blondeel as well as the Ladurée boutique. Another favourite chocolatier of mine, Laurent Gerbaud is just off the Mont des Arts. Just a bit further up there’s the Petit Sablon, a lovely little garden you should not miss.
Our walk continues in Place Poelaert, a square next to the monumental Palace of Justice with a balcony overlooking Brussels – a great spot to watch the sunset too. Ready for some window shopping? Keep walking along the Avenue Louise / Louizalaan, one of the most prestigious streets for shopping in town.
Our final stop is Flagey, an area brimming with life. While there are many great restaurants and cafes in this neighbourhood, including Cafe Belga (probably the most popular cafe in Brussels), most visitors come here for the frites. No trip to Brussels would be complete without trying a cone of the famous Belgians crispy chips, which are a true calorie bomb as they’re fried twice in beef fat but taste really good and are indeed cheap as chips (pun intended!). There are a lot of different opinions as to which is the best fritkot in Brussels but my preferred one is Frit Flagey (sorry, Maison Antoine fans!). Brave the long queues, get your cone and enjoy your frites by the beautiful Etangs d’Ixelles.