Over the years, I have grown to truly appreciate Brussels the “Capital of Europe.” Visitors are spoiled by a cosmopolitan city with top rate cultural activities, shopping, and dining. I discovered Brussels as a weekend getaway from France during a short study abroad program in 1998. Locals thought it was crazy that international travelers would decide to spend a weekend in Brussels while France was hosting (and winning) the soccer World Cup. As the European Union has grown, so too has Brussels place on the global travel scene. Here are my Top 10 things to do in Brussels:
1) WATCH THE WORLD GO BY AT GRAND PLACE
Every trip to Brussels should begin with some quality time in Grand Place. The UNESCO designated World Heritage Site is a quintessential European square where you can linger in outdoor cafés and people watch. Grand Place is also home to the famous flower carpet, which takes place for 3-4 days every other summer. It takes two years to select a theme, develop a design, and secure the hundreds of thousands of flowers required to create the carpet which fills up the square. As a flower lover, it’s been on my bucket list since I missed the 1998 display by a few weeks. The timing finally worked out to view the 2oth carpet this year – which was a beautiful ode to diplomatic relations with Japan.
2) CREATE YOUR OWN CHOCOLATE BARS
Chocolate fans everywhere know that Belgian chocolate is among the best in the world. But did you know that truffles were invented in Belgium and several top chocolatiers offer hands-on workshops to make truffles and your own signature chocolate bars? My friends and I took the 1 hour workshop at Zaabar for 25 Euros. We had a blast and plenty of chocolate to take home (not counting the consumption that occurred during the “design” phase!).
3) ADMIRE THE ARCHITECTURE
Brussels is renowned for its Gothic and Art Nouveau architecture. Exploring the city’s cathedrals, museums, and parks will make you feel less guilty about your chocolate indulgence. The Maison du Roi or City Museum in Grand Place is a good place to start. It has beautiful stained glass windows and medieval tapestries. The balcony is a great location for a bird’s-eye view of the flower carpet with much shorter lines than City Hall. Of course you must also view the iconic Manneken-Pis statue.
4) EAT MOULES-FRITES
Although the origins of the French fry is hotly debated (with the French and Belgians both claiming credit), a trip to Brussels would not be complete without trying some mussels and fries. Chez Leon has been serving moules-frites since 1893 and the menu includes at least a dozen different variations of the signature national dish. If you have been in Europe for a while and are craving more spice, try a Thai spin at Buddhasia.
5) CHECK OUT THE WORLD’S LARGEST BEER SELECTION
Head to Delirium Cafe (or the pink elephant as my friend likes to call it) to wash down the moules-frites. Delirium Cafe holds the world record for the number of beers on its menu – over 3,000. In Belgium, different types of beers are served in uniquely designed glasses to accentuate the flavor. Try some of the popular cherry-flavored Kriek.
6) SHOP AT THE SPECIALTY MARKETS
For antique hunters, the weekend Sablon Market is a must stop. You can find everything from fine art and antique jewelry to vintage prints and furniture. The Christmas markets are among the best in Europe for beautiful ornaments or savouring hot chocolate and mulled wine. Gourmands should head to the Royal Galleries, while Avenue Louise is the destination for designer and high-street labels.
7) DISCOVER YOUR FAVORITE WAFFLE TOPPING
Belgian waffles need no introductions, but have you contemplated what your favorite toppings are? I thought I was a simple cinnamon and brown sugar girl until I tried the extravagant waffles with speculoos flavored ice cream, hot chocolate sauce, and whipped cream at the Roy du Spain in Grand Place. The city centre is full of street vendors and waffle trucks for a waffle to go.
8) JOIN TINTIN MANIA
From the moment you land in Brussels airport, the popular comic book character is hard to miss. Who wouldn’t want to take a trip on Brussels Airline’s commemorative Tintin plane? If you need to walk off all of the waffle and chocolate induced-calories, hit the comic strip walk. There is even a dedicated Tintin Boutique in the city centre.
9) STOCK UP ON SPECULOOS AND OTHER SWEET TREATS
It was love at first bite with speculoos, a short bread biscuit with spices such as cinnamon, cardamom and ginger baked in. Brussels truly spoils you with an incredible variety of sweet treats and lots of great gift options. I regretted not taking a checked bag on my last trip! It took some work to carry on the speculoos and chocolate tool box for my nephew!
With multiple shops in Brussels, La Belgique Gourmande and Pierre Marcolini are two of the best brands for purchasing a variety of sweet treats beyond chocolates. The sales consultant at Pierre Marcolini boasted that its macaroons were better than Laduree and I have to say that was the case for the seasonal fruit flavors. It’s also the most photogenic chocolate shop around!
10) TAKE A DAY TRIP
Brussels’ central location and transport links also make it a great hub to explore the rest of Belgium. Tour operators such as Viator offer lots of easy options with hotel pick-ups. We took the combo day trip to Bruges and Ghent on my last trip, but I prefer a leisurely full day trip to the Flemish city of Bruges by train.
We hope that this post has inspired you to add Brussels to your bucketlist, and if you have already visited please share your own tips in the comments with our readers.
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