The Newbie's Guide to Brussels
While its more glamorous neighbor France often hogs the limelight, Belgium promises a host of sights, sounds, and tastes that are all its own. This is especially true of Belgium’s beating heart, Brussels. Known as the capital of the European Union and the comic capital of the world, Brussels is a comic-loving gourmet’s paradise. With chocolate shops and waffle stands on nearly every corner of the city center, it may be difficult to know where to start. For those new to this land of waffles, beer and chocolate, here are some tips on what to see and do to take full advantage of all it has to offer.
Take stock of your surroundings
Before starting your whirlwind tour of Brussels, consider stopping by the main tourist office located by the Hôtel de Ville in Central Brussels. It is open from 9am-6pm. There, you can gather all the brochures, free maps, and postcards you could ever want.
Central Brussels is split into Lower Town and Upper Town. In Lower Town, most of the notable cultural sites are gathered around the Grand Place, Brussels’ much-loved central square. Upper Town hosts Brussel’s different state buildings, such as the Royal Palace and the Palais de Justice.
Moving out from Central Brussels, you’ll find the hip districts of Ixelles (which contains the multicultural Matonge sub-district) and Chatelain. As Brussels has two official languages, French and Flemish, street signs in Brussels are typically written in both French and Flemish.
Play art (and comic) connoisseur
Brussels has more than a few museums. While you might visit the Musee des Beaux Arts or the Rene Magritte Museum (a museum on Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte in his former house), try to visit some of Brussels’ other, more unique and eclectic museums. These include the MIM (Museum of Musical Instruments), Belgian Comic Strip Center (a museum on the evolution of comics with a feature on Belgium’s hometown hero and Tintin creator, Hergé), and Train World (a railway museum that hold 22 locomotives, from the pre-modern to the futuristic).
Take in Brussels' breathtaking architecture
Rain or shine, Brussels’ Grand Place is worth a visit. An official UNESCO World Heritage Site, the highly ornate city square welcomes tens of thousands of tourists each year. During the year, it also hosts various festivals and the bi-annual Flower Carpet.
A short 15-minute walk away, the Royal Palace also boasts an impressive facade of cheerful gardens. The large green space of the Parc de Brussels is right across from the palace.
Hunt for streetside marvels
One of Brussels’ most-talked about landmarks is Manneken Pis. This rather plain statue of a cherubic boy peeing into a fountain is easy to miss as it stands only about one foot tall. In fact, it’s easier to find the crowd of picture-taking tourists.
The real hunt is for the many comic-based street murals that litter the walls of the buildings near the Grand Place. These murals feature characters like Tintin and Spirou, among others. You’ll need a map to find them but they are worth a treasure hunting trip around Brussels.
Indulge your inner gourmet
Brussels overflows with little corner shops selling all varieties of Belgian waffles. From toppings like nutella, whipped cream and chocolate to more extravagant options like caramel and speculoos spread. The toppings can be mixed and matched to taste, and many shops feature artificial models of popular combinations in their windows.
Chocolate shops are similarly not in short supply. There's the ubiquitous Leonidas or more pedestrian options like Lindt or Godiva. Per the 'Locals' Guide to Brussels' (a free map provided by the Brussels tourism office), the best place to buy Belgian chocolates is also the simplest: the grocery store where you can find brands like Cote d'Or.
Just a short walk away from the Royal Palace, Brussels' multicultural sub-district, Matonge, boasts many different African restaurants. There you can grab a bite without breaking the bank as places offer meals for under 12 euro.
Take a day trip to Ghent
Once you’ve feasted your eyes on wall art, visited all the museums, and otherwise enjoyed the wonders of Brussels, it might be time to venture outside the city. While Brussels is delightful in its own right, it is also a great base from which to explore Belgium’s other eclectic cities. For your introductory day-trip, there’s no better place than ‘Europe’s best-kept secret,’ the wonderful city of Ghent. Located in Flanders (Dutch-speaking Belgium), Ghent has all the canals, cathedrals, and quaint Flemish architecture of the much-famed Brugges with much fewer tourists. With the publicly accessible, Middle-Age castle Gravensteen (entry: €10 for 26+ and €6 for 19-26) and the charming, graffiti alley of Werregarensteeg, it also has some more unique attractions.
Explore Flanders, Wallonia, Amsterdam or Luxembourg
If you’re not yet content to stay in place, you might also think to wander over to the Flemish cities of Antwerp and Brugges or even into Wallonia (French-speaking Belgium) and check out Liege (the origin city of Belgium’s delicious waffles). If you’re looking to go farther afield, you might also visit Amsterdam or Luxembourg City in the neighboring countries of the Netherlands and Luxembourg. For the cave-loving explorer with car access, you could also visit the caves of Han-sur-Lesse.