City Guide to Belgium, Part 5: Sightseeing in Brussels
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This is part five of a multiple part series on our City Guide to Belgium, where we visit Bruges, Antwerp, Ghent and Brussels. Don't miss part one through four!
- City Guide to Belgium, Part 1: Trains, Public Transportation and Lodging
- City Guide to Belgium, Part 2: Sightseeing in Bruges
- City Guide to Belgium, Part 3: Sightseeing in Ghent
- City Guide to Belgium, Part 4: Sightseeing in Antwerp
Sightseeing in Belgium: A City Guide
Our home base, if you will, was in Brussels, Belgium. From there we took three, one-day-trips to cities outside of Brussels and then spent two days sightseeing in Brussels. All of the cities (Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp) were small enough that upon our arrival we didn’t need to take public transportation, although it was available if needed. Before arriving in Belgium, we did our homework and put together a personalized sightseeing itinerary. We started out by finding as much as possible on what there’s to do in each place and then narrowed it down to the must-see attractions, per our travel style and opinions. We take everything we want to see and put it on a Google map, adding layers for each city we'd visit in Belgium. We added hours, prices, and general notes on each attraction. We can pull this map up on our phone, allowing us to easily, and logically map out our itinerary for the day. We can also pull up walking directions and even public transportation directions as needed.
So, to possibly make your research on sightseeing in Belgium (and other destinations) easier, we’ve kept our maps with all of the information we gathered (accurate at the time of our sightseeing). Finding hours, prices, and general information can sometimes be challenging, so we’ve tried to include these details on our maps and provide appropriate links below. And finally, not every attraction is suitable for every visitor, but the copywriters and marketing departments for the destinations sure make it sound like it. How many times have you read “Great for kids and adults alike” and shown up at the venue to wonder why anyone over 20 years-old without kids would go out of their way to be there? Below we’ve included our itinerary with tips, impressions, and our takeaways on each place that, when combined with the official attraction information and website, may help you decide if it’s a destination for your travel adventure or not.
NOTE: We used this sightseeing map for our personal sightseeing adventures, because of that some notes may not make perfect sense, and some information could be outdated. Information on this map was valid at the time of creation. All prices are shown in US dollars but are actually Euros (local currency). That being said, feel free to save it to your Google account and use it as a starting point (or modify it accordingly) for planning out your personalized itinerary in Belgium.
Sightseeing in Brussels
Most of Brussels sights can be seen by walking. However, a few places further out require public transportation, a vehicle, or a bike. To streamline things we decided to do the further out attractions all on the same day, which for us, was day two of our itinerary for Brussels.
Brussels, Day 1
Royal palace of Brussels
We like to start the day out bright and early and with the things on our sightseeing list that can be most crowded later in the day. For this reason, our first destination in Brussels was the Royal Palace. It’s located in city center and is the official home of the King and Queen of the Belgians. The palace is open to visitors each summer starting on July 21st and going through September. Before visiting, be sure to check the most recent information on their website. When we arrived, the palace was unfortunately not open to visitors. However, we enjoyed the exterior of the palace and a nice walk through the park in front of the palace.
Royal Square and Mont des Arts
For great views of the city, head west on Place des Palais (the street in front of the palace) and make a left on Rue Royale. After just a block, you’ll find yourself in Royal Square, which is surrounded by the Royal Palace, Royal Museums and the Royal Library. Exit the square by turning west onto Rue Montagne de la Cour and you’ll start to see a view that’s worth a few pictures. As you walk down the road, the vista will open up as you continue on the pedestrian path straight ahead. Just before going down the stairs to the left or right, you’ll have an incredible view. Behind you, the palace can be seen atop the hill, and in front of you, the city beckons. The garden below, Mont des Arts Garden, to be honest, is from afar a beautiful garden, but unfortunately up close the graffiti and trash take away from its beauty. The garden is part of Mon de Arts, literally meaning ‘hill/mount of the arts’, an area that has become a local hotspot and city square.
St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral
Head north to visit St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral. The cathedral was built between 1226 and 1276, but not given a cathedral status until 1962. This cathedral is the national church of Belgium and is where royal weddings and funerals are held. Information on the church can be found on their website.
While there, see if you can find the Falcons nest on the dome! Falcons had almost disappeared in Belgium and most of Europe, before conservation efforts brought them back. That makes the Peregrine Falcons nest that was found at the top of the cathedral in 2004, that much more special. The Falcons for Everyone project was started and now there are pictures and a live webcam of the nest.
Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert
If you want to shop in luxury, take in the ornate and beautiful architecture, and sit at a café where famous painters and writers of their time gathered, then Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert should be on your list of places to see. Construction of this magnificent shopping arcade was completed in 1847 and includes two sections, each over 100 yards in length. On a sunny day with blue skies, the glass and cast iron ceiling is a vision to be seen!
A short walk from Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hurbert is the Le Grand-Palace, a cobbled market square. This UNESCO Heritage Site is a set of remarkable buildings: Hotel De Ville (City Hall, recognized by the bell tower), the King’s House (now the City Museum), and homes of public authorities. It’s worth noting that the mercantile, commercial, and governmental nature of this square was especially strong, as there are no churches or places of worship here. Additionally, you may notice the streets surrounding the square are named after foods. The particularly ornate building fronts make this square a spot to take pictures and enjoy your surroundings.
Museum van Cacao En Chocolade
Hopefully you haven’t filled up yet on the delicious treats Brussels has to offer, because the next stop is Museum van Cacao En Chocolade. This museum is easy to miss, as the front blends into the surrounding storefronts, and their signage is lacking. The museum is privately owned and was established in 1998. There unfortunately isn’t much history or chocolate artifacts here. However, there’s a chocolate experience that’s very interesting (read delicious!). The chocolatier who presented the demonstration during our visit, knew several languages, including English, and gave a very interactive and engaging presentation on making pralines. Upon our arrival, we waited just a few minutes before the next presentation began. While we waited, there were several chocolate samples to enjoy, including white chocolate, cocoa butter, 100% cocoa and a range of milk to dark chocolates. There’s also a fountain of chocolate to dip cookies in, as if there wasn’t already enough chocolate! The presentation lasted about 10 minutes and at the end, everyone was invited to try samples of the pralines.
Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon
Make your way back up the hill to visit Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon (Église Notre-Dame du Sablon). The stained glass, murals, and pillars make this Gothic church from the 15th century a sight to see.
Jardin du Petit Sablon
Across the street and slightly uphill, is Jardin du Petit Sablon. In spring, the garden is full of flowers in addition to the year around green trees and hedges. In 1890, this garden replaced the Saint John Hospital’s cemetery. Ten statues of intellectuals, artists, and political figures form a semicircle around the center fountain of Counts Edgmont and Horne, symbols of the resistance against former Spanish tyranny. Each pillar of the wrought iron fence that encloses the garden is unique and topped with statues representing historical professions.
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
Founded in 1845 by a royal Decree, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium houses works of art by Belgian Artists. The 20,000 drawings, sculptures, and paintings date back from the 15th century to the present. In addition to the ‘Rubens Room’, which displays more than 20 paintings by Rubens, the museum displays Flemish paintings. Beyond the artwork, the interior architecture may be appreciated from the ground floor and the balcony of the building. The official museum website offers information on the museum, including exhibit details and practical information on opening hours and ticket prices.
Note: You may choose to start your day with the Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon, the Jardin du Petit Sablon and the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belium. Putting these before the Royal Palace will lesson the overall walking distance of the day. However, we enjoy seeing the more popular sights first thing in the morning, when the crowds are thinner. We felt these two sights were better placed at the end of our day, so we could see the palace and the city from the popular viewpoints at Mont des Arts first.
Brussels, Day 2
Parc du Cinquantenaire
A great place to start the day is at Parc du Cinquantenaire. This iconic archway and gate is often compared to Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. King Leopold II commissioned the park to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Belgium’s independence. It’s a 30 hectare, symmetrical garden situated between Avenue des Nerviens, Tervueren and Avenue de la Renaissance. The sun rises to shine on the front of the arch, making for great pictures of the front of the gate. However, plan your visit accordingly because if the sun is shining brightly, it will cast a glare that makes it challenging to get a picture of the back of the arch.
Extending from the sides of the arch are three museums: Autoworld, the Cinquantenair Museum, and the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History. Even if you don’t plan on visiting the museum, the Armed Forces and Military History museum has a free entry to the top of the arches.
Use public transportation or walk from Parc du Cinquantenaire to European Parliament. There are three separate locations of Parliament within Europe. The first, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg, is where the administrative offices are. Meetings of all of Parliament are held both in Strasbourg, France, and in Brussels, Belgium. Additionally, committee meetings are held in Brussels. When visiting, be on the lookout of the exterior of the building, for the words ‘European Parliament’ printed in each official language of the European Union. How many languages are you able to read and understand?
During the work week, tours are given nearly every hour to the Hemicycle. Be prepared to show your photo ID or passport when passing through security. It’s a free audio tour of the Hemicycle that's less than 30-minutes and takes place entirely in the Hemicycle.
Additional activities can be done at Parliament. We recommend visiting Parlamentarium for an interactive experience of the visitors center. It’s free of charge and can be experienced in all of the European Union’s 24 official languages. It’s a great way for visitors of all ages to learn about Parliament.
Next, make your way to Halle Gate (Porte de Hall), part of the second surrounding wall of Brussels. Inside this 14th century medieval gate is the Royal Museums of Art and History, a museum showcasing the medieval City of Brussels. Both the exterior and the interior will make you feel as if you’re stepping back in time. Visitor information can be found on the Brussels’ Museums website.
National Basilica of the Sacred Heart
You’ve probably seen this basilica off in the distance already. It’s just as much a sight to be seen up close as it’s from afar. Walking down the greens to the front of the basilica leaves quite an impression, as you’d expect. It’s one of the 10 largest Roman Catholic Churches in the world (by area) and the largest Art Deco style building in the world. To be fair, it’s a big building to decorate for sure, but don’t expect to see the ornate decorations like you may have seen in other churches throughout Belgium. It’s clean and more modern than most churches we’ve seen throughout Europe. To enter, follow the signs and go to the left (when facing the basilica) and around to the back of the Basilica. If you want, for a small fee, you can climb the dome for the Panorama, an iconic view of the city between the two towers. Visiting hours can be found on the basilica’s website.
Another iconic destination in Brussels is Atomium. Built for the Expo 58, the 1958 Brussels World Fair. It’s 102 meters tall and with tickets, visitors can take an elevator ride to levels 1 and 2 for the permanent exhibition (the story of the pavilion and Atomium), levels 3, 4, and 5 for the temporary exhibition, and to level 6 for the panoramic 360 view.
At a scale of 1:25, Mini-Europe is a miniature park with over 350 buildings representing around 80 cities. This isn’t just a park to walk through and admire, it’s interactive as well! This is a great place to stop if you have kids. Park information, including tickets can be found on the Mini-Europe website.
Botanical Garden of Brussels
Near the Northern Quarter financial district, the Botanical Garden of Brussels is free to visit. The garden is set in front of Le Botanique, a music venue and cultural complex. The garden is expansive and well worth the walk on the various paths that take you through trees, flowers, and a pond. We found that many locals and tourists were relaxing on the steps of the main building, Le Botanique, and on the grass near the pond. It’s a great place to have a picnic!
Royal Museum for Central Africa
The last stop in Brussels is the Royal museum for Central Africa, an ethnography and natural history museum. The museum closed for renovation in 2013 and is scheduled for reopening in June 2018. If it’s open during your visit to Brussels, we recommend visiting. Otherwise, it’s not worth a visit, since it’s a trek out of city center and the building is covered in scaffolding.
Optional Destinations in Brussels
All located in central Brussels, there’s a series of fountains that you may, or may not want to see while in the city. It all started with Manneken Pis. It’s a statue of a naked boy urinating into a fountain. It dates back to 1618 or 1619 (the date isn’t agreed upon) and has since become a well-known landmark in Brussels. Lesser known is Jeanneke Pis, a fountain of a little girl urinating. It was put in the Ilot Sacré neighborhood in 1987. Finally, there’s Zinneke Pis, the statue of the urinating dog. This one is a bit harder to find and isn’t a functioning statue.
Stay Tuned for More Sightseeing Adventures and Itineraries
This is only the fifth part of our City Guide to Belgium. Stay tuned for our next post with our experience tasting Belgium chocolate and waffles in Brussels!