The largest municipality in Belgium, Brussels has a reputation as more of a place to go for work than leisure. Before visiting, I had been told that it was boring. But there’s actually a ton of fantastic restaurants, bars, shopping and interesting cultural attractions in a city that, in my opinion, people have unfairly called lame for far too long.
As the administrative center of the European Union, Brussels, which is positioned halfway between France and Germany, exudes quite an international feel. In comparison to other cities in Belgium such as Antwerp and Ghent, you’ll hear far more French (and, from my personal experience, English) spoken than Dutch. Plus, it’s full of excellent food from all around the world, beautiful architecture and museums that outclass many major metropolitan areas across the continent.
So whether you’re planning on a standalone city break, tacking on a few days at the end of a broader Belgium itinerary or have a weekday conference and want to extend through the weekend, Brussels really does have the capacity to charm if given the chance.
How to Get There
Brussels is centrally located and accessible via train from all over Western Europe (for reference, it’s only 1 hour and 22 minutes from Paris), which makes it an ideal weekend destination. It’s also home to the largest airport in Belgium, with many direct international flights from the United States.
Where to Stay in Brussels
Most visitors come to Brussels for business — or, at least, the hotel scene gives that impression with big-name chains dominating. However, folks venturing to the city for leisure or those on a corporate trip who would rather stay somewhere a bit more boutique do have a few really nice choices.
Guests who expect five-star everything tend to favor Hotel Amigo, an elegant Rocco Forte property that’s just steps from the Grand-Place. The polished rooms and suites, upscale ambiance and stellar service earn it the distinction of the most luxurious lodging in the city. Bar A is a glamorous yet relaxed spot for a Belgian beer break between sightseeing or a barrel-aged Negroni nightcap.
The words intimate, charming and stylish define Juliana Hotel Brussels. A sojourn at this jewel tone-draped member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World in Place des Martyrs means savoring Belgian delicacies, unwinding in character-rich accommodations and taking a dip in the turquoise pool.
Located a five-minute walk from Brussels Central Station. The Dominican is a smart four-star hotel built on the site of a 15th-century abbey. With warm rooms, a stylish bar, a show-stopping restaurant that puts out a plentiful breakfast buffet every morning and meeting spaces, it’s an excellent choice for both business and leisure travelers.
How to Spend a Perfect Holiday Weekend in DüsseldorfThis German city has a snowstorm of festive markets, a traditional Japanese food scene and the longest bar in the world
What to Do in Brussels
The grandeur of the architecture and cultural institutions in Brussels really impress. Some of the most striking landmark buildings surround the Grand-Place (Grote Markt in Dutch). Built in the Brabantine Gothic style, Town Hall shines as the crown jewel of the central square. Visitors can do guided tours of the interior and marvel at the many sparkling chandeliers. Maison des Ducs de Brabant appears to be a single neoclassical facade. But in reality, it’s an ensemble of seven houses. Finished in 1536 and remodeled in 1873, the ornate Maison du Roi contains the Museum of the City of Brussels.
On the topic of world-class museums, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium is a must for art lovers. The internationally renowned Musical Instruments Museum shows off a collection of over 8,000 instruments. The regal Royal Palace of Brussels opens to visitors in July and August. During the warmer months, the botanical garden turned urban park also attracts locals and out-of-towners with its winding paths, lawns and manicured flower beds. It’s lovely from April to June when some 40 varietals of iris bloom.
It’s nice to break up the museum hopping and sightseeing by hitting some of the many fashionable stores in Brussels. High-end designers line Boulevard de Waterloo. If you’re looking to splurge on an investment piece from Chanel, Prada or Cartier, this is the place to do it. The trendy Dansaert distract buzzes with indie boutiques and European ready-to-wear brands. Browse artisan-made jewelry at NOJ. Pop into La Fabrika for magazine-worthy home goods. Admire the timeless lace robes, slips and kimonos that have earned Carine Gilson the status of Belgium’s premier luxury lingerie atelier. One of the oldest and prettiest covered shopping arcades in Europe, the Royal Gallery of Saint Hubert harbors retailers selling high-end jewelry, handbags and apparel. Unurprisingly, you’ll also find some exceptional chocolate makers.
Where to Eat and Drink in Brussels
Brussels is well regarded for having a robust culinary scene with delicious Belgian food and a wide variety of international eats. Set inside an old house, Nüetnigenough serves traditional dishes like hearty beef stew and an incredibly impressive selection of Belgian beers. I can’t say enough good things about Nénu, a stylish Saigon-inspired eatery near Boulevard de Waterloo. The menu focuses on shared plates. Don’t leave without trying crispy duck tongue with red chilis. The casual, easy-going feel and flavorful Middle Eastern street food make Pois Chiche the perfect spot for lunch. Can’t decide between the myriad cuisines to devour? Head to Wolf, a modern food hall with stalls cooking up everything from Indian to Syrian, two bars and communal tables.
Chocolate ranks among Belgian’s most beloved exports, and the sheer volume of quality sweet shops in Brussels astounds. Famed chocolatier Pierre Marcolini has multiple outposts across the city and internationally. Passion Chocolat is a smaller, artisanal operation with a few locations that makes 70 different types of pralines, ganaches and truffles. Atelier Sainte Catherine specializes in decadent cocoa treats and pâtisserie. Waffles are obviously a big thing. You can get tasty versions basically everywhere. Folks who are vegan or gluten-free will have a harder time. That’s why I was so elated to find Veganwaf’ in a little arcade with otherwise unimpressive shops just off the Grand-Place. Even if toppings are “for tourists,” the combination of chocolate sauce and strawberries deserves consideration.
The coffee shop culture alone is reason enough to visit Brussels. With so many worthwhile java joints, it’s hard to resist the urge to hit them all and basically just buzz around the city for a few days (at least, that’s the issue that plagued our trip). In addition to lattes and flat whites, Kafei Korner Sablon has barista’s choice omakase coffee and fluffy Japanese-style pancakes. It’s hard to decide between the tempting baked goods and energy balls at Bouche. I thoroughly enjoyed starting the day with soft scrambled eggs and an oat flat white at Café Boudin. Another personal favorite, Lucifer Lives is a vegan café that’s all about great coffee, really interesting seasonal specialty drinks, homemade sweets and savory lunch specials such as white sausages with homemade mashed potatoes and gravy.
Nightshop radiates a bar-meets-bistro vibe in the afternoon and turns into a restaurant during dinner service with a menu of seasonal plates, cheese and dessert that complement the inspired assortment of vin by the glass and bottle. Fans of natural wine should also check out Rebel and La Flaque. Sometimes you just walk into a place and it gives off such good energy. That’s the plant-accented appeal of Life Is Beautiful. The craft cocktails are amazing and it’s just a really nice setting to spend a laid-back night with friends. From À La Mort Subite, which first opened in 1928, to the original Moeder Lambic and its larger Fontainas venue to the record-holding Delirium Café to the kitschy charm Poechenellekelder, the list of worthwhile spots to sip beer never seems to end in Brussels.
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