Quietly, charmingly, Brussels draws you in. Unlike other European capitals, which are ostentatious in their colour and light, the city waits calmly for you to fall in love with its quaint corner cafes and its gold-plated architectural detailing. Brussels doesn’t ambush your senses with car horns, street performers or roaring traffic; its Northern-European sense of order means that even the markets – like the Sablon Antiques Market – are dainty and refined. But it isn’t all subtle sophistication: by night, the city’s heart begins to beat, its young, party-going population spilling into the narrow streets, drink in hand. A short wander into the European Quarter will strike you in its eerily quiet, almost dystopian charm; a stark contrast from the regal, ancient buildings found only blocks away.
From its most famous monuments and buildings to the bars and restaurants favoured by locals, this guide will tell you everything you need to know about a long weekend spent in the Belgian capital, inspired by my wonderful friend and resident Brussels expert, Lauren.
Getting there & getting around
From the UK, Brussels is actually more accessible than most people think. When booked in advance, the Eurostar direct from St Pancras can actually cost as little as €30 for a return ticket. With the train arriving into Brussels Midi/Zuid station, only a short metro ride from the city centre, this option is quick, comfortable and convenient.
For anyone flying into the city, be warned: there are two airports in Brussels, and one of them is a 2-hour journey away. This airport is Brussels Charleroi, and operates solely with low-cost airlines such as Ryanair and Wizz Air, flying to and from other European locations. If you’re travelling on a budget, then this airport could be your answer!
Most people will ideally arrive in Brussels International Airport, which is home to Brussels Airlines. From there, the number 12 bus takes you through some of the city’s main points, with stops also in the heart of the European Quarter. A ticket for this bus costs only €4.50, and can be more straightforward than getting the train, depending on the area you’re staying in.
Although Brussels is by no means a small city, with roughly 1.1 million inhabitants, the centre is fairly compact. To get to grips with any city, you need to wander around on foot; and Brussels is no exception! For further-afield destinations, such as the Atomium, then individual metro tickets can be purchased in all stations.
Where to stay
Along with seemingly-endless options from my beloved Airbnb, Brussels is jam-packed with hotels and hostels. Often referred to as the “heart of Europe”, Brussels received over 3.9 million tourists in 2018 alone; it almost goes without saying that the accommodation industry is plentiful.
Here are my top picks for hotels and hostels in the city, whatever your budget.
Warwick Brussels Grand Place
While this 5-star luxury hotel boasts sleek, elegant-yet-modern décor and a selection of beautifully-adorned rooms and suites, its real selling point is the location. A short stroll through the grand streets surrounding the Sablon Zavel area will lead you to the Parc de Bruxelles, while a three-minute walk in the opposite direction will drop you into the centre of the world-famous Grand Place. Make sure to spend an evening up on the hotel’s swanky rooftop bar, sipping an artfully-crafted cocktail as you admire the glittering cityscape below.
Prices for a classic room start at roughly €230 per night.
Hotel Saint Nicolas
Clean-cut and modern, yet a cosy “home away from home”, this centrally-located hotel is perfect for anyone looking for a comfortable stay. With its aptly chocolate-toned rooms and modest pricing, they offer a range of rooms starting from roughly €110 per night.
Meininger Hotel Bruxelles City Centre
Sitting along the bank of the river, on the Quai du Hainaut, is the Meininger hostel: one of the city’s top-rated hostels. Adorned with playful comic-book décor and exposed brickwork, this hostel is a hotspot for passing tourists from all over the world, and a perfect place to socialise with like-minded travellers. Its ample bar and leisure area, games zone and outdoor terrace are only a few of the many amenities on offer at this hostel – and, being only a 15-minute walk from the city centre, it’s the perfect place for explorers and partygoers alike. Spaces in their dorm rooms start from only €24 per night, making it one of the most affordable places to stay in the city!
DAY 1 | FRIDAY
Grab lunch and coffee @ Living Room
Place Jean Rey 8, 1040 Bruxelles, Belgium
The first thing on everyone’s mind after a journey is coffee; and there’s no better place to start than Living Room. A popular hangout for young professionals, this coffee house finds itself in the heart of the city’s business district, facing one of the most striking squares that Brussels has to offer. Its spacious atmosphere, all light wood and high ceilings, make this café bright and homely. Settle yourself into one of their squashy sofas with a book selected from the ample bookshelf, or (weather permitting) pull up a chair in their outdoor seating area and watch the shooting fountains.
Evening drinks @ Le Grand Central
Rue Belliard 190, 1040 Bruxelles, Belgium
A short hop, skip and jump across the Place Jean Rey will land you in Le Grand Central. This bright, open-plan bar, with its heated outdoor terrace, is ideal for any time of year. The building itself is an architect’s dream, with sharp, asymmetrical edges and coloured panels which catch the changing light at any time of day. Choose from their generous cocktail menu and gather around one of their large wooden tables as you watch the sky grow dusky and the fairy-lights flicker to life around you.
Try some Belgian frites in Place Jourdan
Framed by traditional cafes and punctuated by stands selling hot cones of frites, the Place Jourdan is one of Brussels’ most well-visited squares outside the city centre. Each bar proudly declares itself to be frites-friendly, so make like a local and buy your chips from a nearby stall, bringing it back to your table to be washed down with a Chouffe beer. Maison Antoine is the place to beat, often dubbed the ‘original’ home of Belgian frites – a fair assessment, given that it’s been going since 1948. Make sure to try their infamous tartare maison sauce before testing out one of the other options from their wonderously long menu.
DAY 2 | SATURDAY
Wander through the Parc de Bruxelles
Reminiscent of Paris’ well-trodden Tuileries Gardens, the Parc de Bruxelles is smaller, but no less exquisite. Its manicured lawns and tree-lined gravel paths lead you from the business district towards the centre, with bars and cafes hidden in the shade of the trees. Expect to stumble across ivy-clad statues and grand, spurting fountains.
Often, at the weekend, you can find events hosted around the gardens, such as the unique Balloon’s Day Parade: a collection of giant cartoon characters brought to life in the air, to celebrate Brussels’ widely-appreciated range of comics and cartoons.
Fill up on pancakes @ Crème
Rue de Rollebeek 30, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
Nestled onto one of the delicate, cobbled streets of the Sablon Zavel area, Instagram-worthy Crème is all dangling plants, pale pink tiles, and floral detailing, with a sun-trapped outside space to make you drool. Whether you’re a sweet tooth or a savoury-lover, this cute little brunch spot has got you covered. Try their Chilli beans on toast, and “go loco” with extra avocado, for €16.50; alternatively, if your heart sings for dessert, then opt for their Belgian pancakes, coated in all things Speculoos, for €12.50.
Go vintage shopping @ Melting Pot Kilo
Rue Haute 154, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
Just a short walk from Crème is Melting Pot Kilo: a superbly disorganised vintage clothing store that is bursting with colour. Take some time to rummage through their overflowing buckets and flip through their hangers. With everything from shoes and belts to hats and sweatshirts, Melting Pot Kilo is the perfect place to fill up your suitcase.
Take in the elegance of the Grand Place
Brussels’ most iconic square, the Grand Place has earned its title for good reason. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998, the square has a long and turbulent history, having been set alight in 1695 and consequently rebuilt. Today, the square is a marvel, its ornate architecture highlighted with shimmering gold detailing; two of its most noteworthy buildings are the Town Hall, with its iconic skeletal tower, and the King’s House. Being totally pedestrianised, the square is often used for events and live music, and was actually a market up until the mid-20th century.
Go shopping @ Appart N.17
Rue des Grands Carmes 17, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
One of the city’s many concept stores, Appart N.17 stands out for a number of reasons. Its fashionable yet minimalistic décor changes monthly, with a selection of locally-designed clothes and hand-crafted homeware items. Appart N.17 manages to turn the weird and wacky into a sought-after staple, with everything from mouse-shaped table lamps to deer head wall hangings.
Stop for an evening aperitif @ Zebra
Place Saint-Géry 33, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
One of the city’s most lively areas by night, Saint-Géry begins to stir as the sun goes down, when weary travellers take to the cobbled streets in search of an evening tipple. Zebra bar sits on a street corner in the heart of this area, its shaded tables the ideal place to settle back with a glass of €3 rose and enjoy the hum of conversation that cloaks you.
Snacks & drinks @ ViaVia
Quai aux Briques 74, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
Large, confusing, and full of fun, ViaVia is a must-visit of Brussels’ nightlife culture. Located in Place Sainte Catherine, a unique square encircling a set of fountains, the music pumping from this large bar will draw you in from the street, and have you dancing on the tables within seconds. With an extensive drink menu offering everything from craft beers to homemade ginger ale, entire evenings can fly by between its towering brick walls.
If you get a little peckish, or need more fuel for dancing, then grab a plate of their self-proclaimed “in-case-of-emergency finger food” from behind the bar.
Keep on dancin’ @ Madame Moustache
Quai au Bois à Brûler 5-7, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
If you’re still looking for a boogie, then jump across the square to Madame Moustache: a quirky, circus-themed nightclub with a range of events and concerts to tickle your fancy. Depending on the night, entry can range from being totally free to costing around €10. Once inside, you feel as if you’ve been launched back into the roaring 20s, with its vintage-style photobooth and glass-framed indoor smoking room, lined with velvet benches. At weekends, Madame Moustache is open until 4am, so make sure to pack your comfiest shoes!
DAY 3 | SUNDAY
Perk yourself up @ La Pizza è Bella
Rue Lebeau 75, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
Let’s face it: you probably didn’t wake up in time for breakfast. But that’s okay, because typical Italian pizzeria La Pizza è Bella have got your back! With a head chef who’s a real-life Neapolitan, you can guarantee that their pizzas are going to be light, fluffy, and loaded with toppings. If pizza isn’t your thing (although I’m not sure that’s even possible), then there are plenty of other options to choose from, such as their bruschetta dishes and their huge salads. The perfect pick-me-up after a lazy Sunday morning.
Gawp at the European Parliament Building
Rue de Trèves 3, 1050 Bruxelles, Belgium
The Place du Luxembourg is home to the European Parliament, and it wasn’t without a sense of nostalgic longing that I gazed up at the sleek, impressive home of the union we once belonged to – but I won’t get into that. Acting as a mirror – perhaps metaphorical, decidedly literal – to the older, more ornate buildings that are scattered across the city, this European village represents the modernity and forward-thinking-ness which Brussels is known for. The Parlamentarium, a parliamentary visitors’ centre, is open every day, and takes roughly 90 minutes to visit; bookings can be made here.
Stroll through Parc Léopold
With its futuristic and somewhat foreboding backdrop of modern skyscrapers, Parc Léopold is a haven of nature within the business-like European Quarter. In true Brussels fashion, the gardens are well-kept and manicured, with pebbled pathways guiding you through the greenery. The banks of its pond are an ideal spot to lay a blanket and have a picnic, easily whiling away an entire afternoon.
The park is home also to the House of European History: a museum which focuses, unsurprisingly, on the history of Europe, with both permanent and temporary exhibitions, exploring the highs and lows of the European Union. Entry is free of charge.
Continue your park-hopping tour at the Parc du Cinquantenaire
A trip to Brussels wouldn’t be complete without a glimpse of the grand, iconic Arcade du Cinquantenaire: a monumental arch settled in the centre of its eponymous park. Built in 1905, the arch was commissioned by Leopold II of Belgium in an attempt to add beauty to the city.
The park itself is composed of endless stretches of garden, and is popular year-round thanks to the many events it hosts, including firework displays, sporting events, and (as we discovered accidentally, and took part in much less accidentally) lively salsa-dancing lessons.
Hunt down a waffle @ Vitalgaufre
Rue Neuve 23-29, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
Before your return home, leap onto a metro and head towards Rue Neuve, Brussels’ main shopping stretch. But ignore the stores: you have a more important task at hand. You’re going to Vitalgaufre for a world-famous waffle. Although a Belgium-wide chain, this particular store is large and plentiful, with endless flavours to choose from. Branch out from the original vanilla waffle and sample one of their more innovative options, such as their apple-cinnamon waffle, or their raspberry and chocolate waffle. Grab your waffle to go, and head off towards the airport/train station. It’s illegal to leave Belgium without trying one. Kind of…