With many Western European capitals within just 1,000 km, Brussels is truly the crossroads for much of Europe. Being so strategically located, this once unassuming city has grown to become the official seat for such prestigious world organizations as the European Union and NATO. Today, many people casually refer to Brussels as “Europe’s Capital City.”
While Brussels may be more recently known for its business and diplomacy, visitors will be equally impressed with its rich history and complex culture. Echoes of the country’s native French and Flemish heritage still endure and thrive in the midst of a modern, urban atmosphere.
Visiting Grand Place tops the list of attractions for most tourists – and rightfully so – as it is considered one of the most ornate and dramatic medieval squares of its time. Each day, the square fills with the fragrance of the fresh flower market. The vibrant colors and scents culminate every two years in August, when the ground is carpeted with floral accents for Brussels’ famous Florialentime Flower Festival.
The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium has an extensive collection; plan to get plenty of exercise if you want to see it all. Creating a list of must-see exhibits will help you stay on track when faced with nearly endless rooms and objects. Those seeking a more novel museum experience should check out the Belgian Comic Strip Center, where you can learn about the development of such European comics as Tintin and the Smurfs.
Brussels helped cultivate the transitional Art Nouveau movement that took hold of European designers in the 19th century. Artistic devotees have the opportunity to study two of Art Nouveau’s more exemplary artists, Belgium’s own Victor Horta and Brussels born Gustave Stauven.
Both artists’ iconic architectural work can be viewed throughout the city, including at the Tassel House, the Hotel Solvey and the Maison Saint-Cyr house. And if you still can’t get enough Art Nouveau style, you can visit Victor Horta’s house that has been turned into a public museum in St-Gilles.
For those looking to entertain children, a short trek to Heysel, Brussels, will give you a day’s worth of adventure. Tour the Atomium Bruxelles, both a feat of science and architecture. Created in 1958 for the Brussels World Fair, it is a replica of an iron atom scaled to exactly 165 billion times its natural size. It also houses a restaurant and children’s education center.
Heysel also provides a chance to tour the rest of Europe in a matter of hours instead of days or weeks. Mini-Europe is located within Bruparck, just down the road from the Atomium and includes more than 350 miniature models of monuments and scenes from across Europe. You’ll be amazed at how accurate the models can be down to the smallest details.
Finding a good place to enjoy a pint after a long day is not difficult, given Belgium has a whole style of beer named after its brewing tradition. But the real foodie culture of Brussels comes alive within the walls of its cozy cafés and fine restaurants. Yes, Belgian waffles are on the menu for many tourists. But, you also can savor a local favorite of mussels with frites or finish your meal with the country’s other world-famous export: Belgian chocolates.
Brussels’ many parks and green spaces provide ample opportunity to work off decadent meals or just escape the hustle and bustle of the city. Notably, the Sonian Forest is Brussels’s own forested wildlife area that gives natives and visitors alike a direct outlet to Mother Nature. Take in the foliage during warmer seasons and wild snowscapes during the winter on foot, bicycle or horseback. The park has designated paths for each type of transportation, and they can be followed for both short and long distance treks.
With its international importance, many attractions and diverse culture, Brussels is an ideal day trip for people working their way through Western Europe. Antwerp and Ghent are just 45 minutes away by car, and Amsterdam is slightly more than two hours.