Brussels, the capital of Belgium and the heart of Europe, is a medieval masterpiece. It offers a bustling atmosphere and multicultural spirit against a backdrop of majestic architecture, cobbled streets, enchanting squares and stepped-gable merchant houses. This selection of exciting things to do in Brussels includes all the highlights while offering several insider tips. Spend one day in Brussels and you’ll be captivated by its unique vibe. While the setting may be similar to that of other Belgian gems such as Ghent and Bruges, Brussels is more dynamic and cosmopolitan thanks to the European Institutions and international headquarters that are based there. Thanks to its central location, many interesting cities European cities can be visited on a day trip from Brussels.
I personally live in Ghent but have worked in the Brussels city centre for about 10 years, in both hotel and high-profile event management. And even though I no longer work in Brussels now, I still visit the city on a very regular basis. It’s where I jaunt, where I play, where I shop, where I meet up with friends… and where I eat more Brussels waffles than I care to admit. So, let’s dive in because I can’t wait to share this one-day Brussels itinerary with you. It includes all the Brussels must-sees, must-do’s and must-eats.
You’ll find a map at the end of this article, indicating all the essential highlights to explore in Brussels in a day.
Brussels in a day: Essential tourist attractions in the Belgian capital
– Grand Place
No better starting point than the heart of Brussels, the ever-enchanting Grand Market, where you’re literally surrounded by history. The eye-catcher is the gothic City Hall, which dates back to the first half of the 15th century. The majestic building, crowned with a glimmering St Michael’s statue, managed to stay mostly intact after the French bombings of 1695. Many of the other elegant buildings that frame this UNESCO World Heritage Site, such as the Bread Hall or Royal House and the Brewers’ House, are the result of intensive restorations in the 19th century. Look closely and take in the detailing on the gorgeous guild houses.
When facing the City Hall, you’ll notice a popular statue at the entrance of the street on the left side. It represents a dying man called Everard ’t Serclaes, who once reconquered the city from a count. Legend goes that making a wish while rubbing the statue’s arm and hand would make it come true. The statue is actually a replica, the original can be admired (not touched) inside City Hall.
In French: Grand Place – In Flemish: Grote Markt.
– Brussels Stock Exchange
Bordering the Anspach Boulevard pedestrian zone, is this austere 19th century building that’s adorned with many fine details, some of which are from the hand of Auguste Rodin. Ever since its function of Brussels Stock Exchange became redundant several decades ago, the building served as venue for temporary exhibitions. It will soon be renovated to house an interactive experience dedicated to Belgium’s beer history.
In French: La Bourse – In Flemish: Beurs.
– TinTin Mural
Comic strips have been part of Belgium’s identity for decades. Lucky Luke, The Smurfs, TinTin and many more characters became big names in the world of the so-called ninth art. The city of Brussels proudly pays tribute to this comic book heritage by displaying dozens of comic strip scenes in the form of murals. The Comic Book Route is a self-guided walk allowing visitors to discover the most colorful artistic highlights, one of which can be found at the Rue de l’Étuve near the Grand Place. There’s even a museum in Brussels city center dedicated to this art form: the Belgian Comic Strip Center.
In French: TinTin – In Flemish: Kuifje.
Time to meet Brussels’ most famous resident: cheeky Manneken-Pis, the Little Pee Boy. The small bronze statue is a water fountain that provided drinking water to the residents from 15th century onwards. It’s a most probably a Greco-Roman representation of Cupid. A lack of further historic background on this unusual fountain character resulted in many legends. What is certain, is that Manneken-Pis survived the 1695 Brussels bombings, won the hearts of the locals and became part of Brussels’ heritage. So much so, that ever since the 18th century, he’s dressed up for special occasions… as often as 130 times a year. Any fashionista envies the size of his wardrobe consisting of more than 1000 costumes. Discover them here.
In imitation of this popular little boy, more peeing statues were introduced in the city in a more recent history: There’s a girl called Jeanneke-Pis and a dog called Zinneke-Pis.
– Place du Grand Sablon
Head from downtown Brussels to the uptown Place du Grand Sablon, home to a thriving arts and antiques scene. During the weekend, the Grand Sablon is home to an antique market where you’ll find jewellery, ceramics, porcelain, glassware, drawings and silverware.
There’s plenty of sweetness to be found here too: The renowned chocolate boutiques that dot the streets display their own little artworks. Pierre Marcolini is by far my favorite stop here. If you’re only spending one day in Brussels, you better make the most of it. That includes sampling as many Belgian chocolates as you can. Yep, blogger’s advice.
Another important tourist attraction at the Grand Sablon square is the Jewish Museum of Belgium.
In French: Grand Sablon – In Flemish: Grote Zavel.
– Petit Sablon
There’s an intimate little park, often overlooked by tourists, right across from the Sablon church. Enter the majestic cast-iron gate and admire the 48 bronze statues that symbolize the artisan activities of Brussels as well as the elegant fountain.
In French: Petit Sablon – In Flemish: Kleine Zavel.
Before continuing this one-day Brussels itinerary, enjoy a well-earned break in one of Brussels’ most enchanting parks. Egmont Park is tucked away behind stately residences and located next to the Egmont Palace, where the Belgian King tends to welcome foreign Heads of State and other prominent figures. The tree-fringed wide, green lawn is perfect for a relaxing escape in the heart of the bustling city.
In French: Parc d’Egmont – In Flemish: Egmont Park.
Royal Quarter Art District
Several neoclassical buildings border this spacious square, many of which house museums such as the Museum of Fine Arts, the Old Masters Museum, the Magritte Museum and the underground Coudenberg Palace of Charles V. All buildings are arranged around an equestrian statue of crusader Godfrey of Bouillon. Another noteworthy museum is the Musical Instruments Museum (MIM), part of which is housed in one of the most gorgeous art nouveau buildings in the city.
In French: Place Royale – In Flemish: Koningsplein.
The Brussels Royal Palace that’s located in the heart of Brussels is the work palace of both the King and Queen. Every summer, this Palace opens its doors to the public. It looks out over the Warandepark (Parc de Bruxelles). Other notable buildings that border this park are the official residence of the Belgian Prime Minister, the seat of the Federal Parliament of Belgium and the American Embassy. Next to the Embassy is the Flemish Society called De Warande, where I used to work as a conference and event organizer.
The residential Royal Palace is located in Laken, near the Atomium.
In French: Palais Royale – In Flemish: Koninklijk Paleis.
Brussels Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula
In the 13th century, this cathedral in Gothic Brabançon style was constructed on the remains of an 11th century Romanesque church. It wasn’t completed until 3 centuries later. Inside, you’ll find colorful stained-glass windows, a maze of corridors and galleries dotted with back doors and hidden corners. For an amazing view over Brussels, you can join a guided tour to the towers during the spring and summer months. Unfortunately, this tour is only available in Flemish and French.
In French: Cathédrale St Michel et Gudule – In Flemish: Sint-Michiels en Sint-Goedele kathedraal.
Mont des Arts Gardens
Next on this Brussels day trip itinerary is the best view over the city, which can be found right behind the Royal Quarter. From the top of the Mont des Arts, you can clearly see the topographical difference between the posh uptown and the more common downtown of Brussels. Right in the center of that view is the spire of Brussels’ City Hall. A corridor of trees on either side of the gardens complete the picture.
The atmosphere in the park is light and fun. There’s always music in the air too, either from the performing street artists near the stairway or from the picturesque carillon at the arcade of the Dynasty Palace. This pretty work of art depicts 12 historic Brussels characters that turn when the bells chime. On top of the arcade, you’ll find a bronze figure striking the hour.
In French: Mont des Arts – In Flemish: Kunstberg.
A must-see when you’re spending a day in Brussels are the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. It’s a collection of three covered passages: the King’s Gallery, the Queen’s Gallery and the Princes’ Gallery. This monumental glass-topped gem houses several chocolate shops, art galleries, high-end fashion boutiques, two theatres and the prettiest bookstore in Brussels called Tropismes which is definitely worth a visit. It’s an iconic highlight in Brussels that has been around since the mid-19th century, well before other famous galleries such as for example the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan.
In between the different galleries, there’s the Rue des Bouchers. What was once a convivial street with dozens of restaurants and terraces, has become a rather unattractive tourist trap in recent years. But there are plans to restore it to its former glory.
In French: Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert – In Flemish: Koninklijke Sint-Hubertusgalerijen.
Our list of the top things to see in Brussels in one day is coming to an end. So, you’ve earned yourself a treat. And what better way to get a taste of Brussels than by savoring a sumptuous Belgian waffle? You’ll find waffles at just about every street corner. Most of those, however, are Liège waffles and not Brussels waffles. Our next article is all about finding those deliciously light Brussels waffles. Stay tuned!
Let’s end this Brussels day trip where you started it, at the jaw-dropping Grand Place. Here, you’ll find plenty of chocolate shops at your finger tips. No better souvenir to buy than a chique box of chocolates – or two – or three.
Practical tips when visiting Brussels on a day trip
– Best time to visit Brussels
Any time is a good time to give this one-day Brussels itinerary a go. Do know that Belgian weather is unpredictable so carrying an umbrella is pretty much a necessity. When you play your cards right, you could let your Brussels itinerary coincide with one of the city’s popular events:
- Flower Carpet: This is one of the city’s most popular events, organised every other year. The place to be is the picturesque Grand Place, which is transformed from a cobblestone square to a colorful sea of flowers in less than 8 hours. The next edition takes place this year, from 13th to 16th August 2020. Find out more here.
- Brussels Christmas Market: Christmas in Brussels is an amazing experience. The sound and light show at the Grand Place is quite the spectacle and the ferris wheel at the Fish Market offers the most awesome festive views. We’ll be publishing an article about our experience by the end of summer. The 2020 Brussels festivities will take place from 27th November 2020 to 3rd januari 2021.
- Ommegang: This folkloric procession commemorates the moment when Charles V arrived in Brussels to introduce his son, Philippe II, in 1549. Expect a parade with horses, flags and even giants. In 2020, this recreation of one of Brussels’ most important historic events takes place on Wednesday 1 July and Friday 3 July 2020 at the Warandepark.
- Bright Brussels: The city’s free light festival is a yearly event that takes place during winter. An enchanting and creative route takes visitors along different creative light installations.
- Dinner in the Sky: This is not a Belgian concept, rather one that takes place all over the world. Still, it’s such a wonderful experience. A spectacular dinner, prepared by a Michelin star chef and served at a table high in the sky. The Brussels’ edition usually takes place in June. More information can be found here. When we participated, the event was held at the Cinquantenaire park but the latest editions take place at the Atomium.
– Arriving in Brussels
From the airport to the center:
- From Brussels Airport (in Zaventem, on the Brussels periphery): There’s a direct train to Brussels Central station. Find more information here.
- From Brussels South Airport (in Charleroi, which is not actually Brussels): You’ll need to travel to Charleroi South station by bus and then take a train from there to Brussels Central station.
From the Eurostar or Thalys station to the center:
- You’ll be arriving in Brussels Midi station (south side of the city). That’s not where you want to be because it’s not the most attractive – and certainly not the safest – part of Brussels.
- Travel to Brussels Central station, which is just a 4-minute train ride away.
Just remember that you want to arrive in Brussels Central train station and not in Brussels Midi.
– Where to stay in Brussels
If you plan on spending just one day in Brussels, chances are you won’t be staying for the night. If you are, and Brussels is just a stop along your Europe itinerary, then here are our recommended places to stay in Brussels:
- As a former Front Office Manager for NH Hoteles, I can strongly recommend the NH Collection Brussels Centre. Insider tip: the rooftop bar offers the most amazing city views.
- Another hotel that I really love is the classy The Dominican, located in a former convent, right behind the Brussels Opera House called Munt Theatre.
- If you prefer more of a boutique experience, then the Hôtel des Galeries may be what you’re looking for. It’s wonderfully located, right in the Royal Saint-Hubert Galleries.
- The most luxurious of Brussels hotels can be found behind the Grand Place: Rocco Forte Hotel Amigo. It’s a very family-friendly place as well.
– Language(s) in Brussels
Belgium itself is a rather complicated country from a political perspective, mainly because it’s divided in 3 linguistic communities as well as 3 geographic regions.
- The Flemish Community is located in the north, the French Community in the south and a small German Community in the easternmost corner. Brussels is located in the Flemish community. Yet, Brussels is actually bilingual with French being more widely spoken than Flemish. You’ll notice that the streetsigns are bilingual as well. And thanks to its status as a European hub, English is spoken by just as well everyone.
- The Flanders Region, the Walloon Region (which is includes both French and German speakers) and the Brussels Capital Region.
Can you grasp that we actually have 6 different governments? Craaaazy, right? Being diplomatic is our second nature. 🙂
– Tipping in Brussels
Service charges are included in the bill so tipping is optional. But hey, since service workers are not the best-paid employees around: Show your good heart and reward them with a tip if you’re happy with their service.
Brussels is a capital and like all other big cities, there’s a certain crime rate. Pick-pockets are known to scout public transportation, bags get stolen from hotel lobbies and there are some neighbourhoods that should be excluded from your itinerary, especially at night. But Brussels is certainly not less safe than – say – Paris or London. Just keep an eye on your belongings as you would in any other city.
Map of this one-day Brussels itinerary
For your convenience, I’ve put together this map which indicates all of the highlights of Brussels as mentioned in this article as well as railway stations and recommended accommodation options. So basically, this is everything you need when exploring Brussels for a day.
Can’t get enough? Then why not spend 2 days in Brussels?
Spending one day in Brussels is good but spending two days in Brussels is better! There’s so much more worth discovering. From the convivial Dansaert district or the fancy Avenue Louise to the dazzling Atomium, the intriguing Lion’s Mound in Waterloo or the new Africa Museum, you’re missing out when you’re limiting yourself to just one day in Brussels. Besides, how many Belgian waffles can you eat in one day?
We’ll soon be publishing an ultimate list of places to see in Brussels to get you started on a 2-day Brussels itinerary. Stay tuned or subscribe to the mailing list.
Exciting day trips from Brussels
Plus, thanks to its central location, there’s a myriad of day trips from Brussels to choose from. You could stay local and visit Bruges or Ghent (why not both) or you could cross the border and explore Amsterdam, Paris, Düsseldorf or Luxemburg City.
Have a great time in Brussels!
Have you been to Brussels? If so, which of these Brussels attractions have you visited? Any others that you’re hoping to explore one day? And where did you sink your teeth in a heavenly Belgian waffle? Do you agree that one day in Brussels is not enough? And if you’re yet to discover this magnificent city, we look forward to reading all about your Brussels sightseeing trip.
I look forward to reading all about your Brussels experience in the comments!
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