Brussels, Belgium: A Complete Travel Guide to Belgium's Capital
Updated: Sep 17, 2022
Located in the heart of Belgium, Brussels is the capital and largest city in the country. Not only is it an administrative, commercial, and financial hub, it is also considered the “capital of Europe”. This is because the headquarters of the European Union can be found here. The city itself is bilingual, which means that both Flemish and French are widely spoken. And although Brussels may not have the star tourist attractions of other Belgian towns, the capital has many things to do to keep travelers occupied for a couple of days. From world-class museums and art galleries to wonderful remnants of old architecture. In this article, we highlight how to get to Brussels, everything you need to know before going, where to eat and drink, where to stay, and the best things to do.
Check out our video about Brussels to get a sense of what it's like there!
How to get to Brussels
Brussels' central location makes it easy to travel here from Belgian and European cities by train. There is a high-speed rail infrastructure which connects major international cities to Brussels, such as London (2h by Eurostar), Amsterdam (2h by NS, Thalys, SNCB), Paris (1h30 by Thalys), or Cologne (1h45 by Deutsche Bahn, Thalys). There are 35 train stations in the Brussels-Capital Region, 8 of which bear the name Brussels. However, the one closest to the tourist attractions and city center is called Brussels-Centra(a)l.
If you're traveling from further away, you can also fly to Brussels. The Brussels Airport is located in Zaventem, just outside the city. Flights into Brussels arrive mainly from the UK (London), Germany (Frankfurt, Munich and Berlin) and other European cities. Direct flights from the U.S., Africa, and Middle-East are also available. From the airport, it usually takes around 20 minutes to travel the 7 miles (11 km) to Brussels Central by train.
Finally, you can also fly to Brussels-Charleroi Airport, which is the hub for low-cost carriers (many Ryanair flights operate from here). However, we don't recommend it as Charleroi is actually quite far from Brussels (55km/34mi to the south). There is a shuttle bus service named Flibco that connects Charleroi Airport and Brussels, leaving the airport every 30 minutes. The journey takes one hour and the bus stops in Bruxelles-Midi (Brussels-South railway station).
Use our map below to get directions to everything we discuss in this article.
Important things to know before you go to Brussels
The best time to visit Brussels is between May and October. This time is generally warmer and there are many activities and events in the city. The weather, however, is very unpredictable and it rains quite often, so be prepared! Another great time to visit is December. It will be cold, but the city will be decorated for Christmas and there is an amazing Christmas market during that month.
The city is bilingual: Dutch (Flemish) and French are the main languages spoken in Brussels. However, sometimes it will feel like French is more common. Most people also speak English.
Brussels is generally safe, especially in the city center and during the day. However, there are areas outside the center that are better to avoid (Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, Schaerbeek, Anderlecht, Marollen, Saint-Josse-ten-Noode, and Anneessens). Make sure to check the area before booking an AirBnB somewhere outside the city center.
Most attractions in Brussels are located in the city center within walking distance. Hence, it's best to explore on foot. There is also a metro and bus system in place if you want to get to the Atomium or Flagey (Ixelles). 2 to 3 days are enough to explore the city, but add at least 1 or 2 days to visit other interesting cities such as Bruges or Ghent!
Where to stay in Brussels
Find our recommendations for places to stay in Brussels below. These places are in the downtown area (at a safe location) as well as have good reviews:
Latroupe Grand Place (great hostel for the budget traveler!)
La Vieille Lanterne (small family-run hotel near Manneken Pis - great value!)
NH Brussels Grand Place Arenberg (very near the central train station - bit more pricey)
Hotel Hubert Grand Place (near the central train station - bit more pricey)
Where to eat and drink in Brussels
Over the years, we've eaten and drank our way through Brussels! These are some personal recommendations:
Amadeus (they have ribs to die for!)
Ballekes (traditional Belgian meatballs)
Beiruti (amazing Lebanese street food)
Celtica (fun Irish bar)
Delirium (they have a wide selection of beers)
Ellis Gourmet Burger (great quality burgers)
Frit Flagey (great fries as well!)
Kokob (amazing Ethiopian food)
La Piola Pizza (widely known as the best pizza in Brussels)
L'écuyer (local student bar)
Madame Moustache (fun bar with good atmosphere)
Maison Antoine (the best fries and sauce in Brussels!)
Otomat (Belgian pizza chain with very innovative pizza's)
Waffle Factory (Though, the best waffles are often just found in the train station at a little stand!)
Wolf sharing food market (lots of different food options - affordable)
There are so many other great places to eat in Brussels so we can't list them all! Definitely try these typical Belgian dishes when you're there:
Stoofvlees (Belgian beef stew)
Vol-au-vent (Creamy chicken)
Fries with a typical snack (e.g. mitraillette, bitterballen, boulet, frikandel, kipcorn)
Kaas- & garnaalkroket (Cheese- and shrimpcroquettes - typically served as an appetizer in a restaurant)
Moules-frites (mussels with fries)
Steak tartare (raw meat with an egg - it's actually delicious!)
Filet américain (this is a raw meat spread - you can eat it on a sandwich called "martino")
Best things to do in Brussels
Brussels has many amazing things to do! We'll now break down the top 10 things to do in Brussels for you.
10. Admire the Grand Place (Grote Markt)
Located right in the heart of Brussels near the Central Train Station, the main plaza, known as the Grand Place, is probably the first place you’ll visit. The square is one of the best preserved in all of Europe, with unique architecture and rich gold decorations. Most buildings date back to the end of the 17th century and were former “guild halls”. Guild halls are medieval building used to store goods and as places for celebratory events. When not required for guild members' events, the hall often became a place where townspeople could hold entertainments.
Today, the square is also home to several restaurants and cafés as well as the beautiful city hall. Combine a visit to the square with the nearby Royal Galleries, where you can find chocolate shops and cafés, covered by a spectacular glass roof.
9. Find Brussels’ icon: Manneken Pis
Manneken Pis might be one of the most famous landmarks in Brussels. The fountain sculpture of the little boy urinating can be traced back to the 15th century. However, little is known about its origins. It is 55.5 cm (21.9 in) tall, which is a lot smaller than most people expect! During celebrations, events, and festivals, the statue is dressed up in a costume. A collection of the costumes can be seen at the Garderobe Manneken Pis museum just down the road. What most people don’t know is that there is also a female and dog version of this statue, hidden around the city: named Jeanneke Pis & Zinneke Pis.
8. Visit the Royal Palace & Brussels Park
The Royal Palace is located in the Royal Quarter, and known as the workplace of the Belgian King. The palace interior can only be visited from the end of July until the end of August. However, it’s beautiful from the outside as well and makes for a great photo-op. A ceremonial changing of the guards takes place here every day at about 2:30 pm. But besides the palace, you can also visit the Brussels Park or the Coudenberg Palace Archaeological Site right next to it. The Coudenberg Palace shows the cellars and tunnels of the former Palace of Brussels, as well as forgotten streets that had been buried beneath the city for centuries.
7. Try Brussels waffles & delicacies
Belgium is the land of fries, chocolate, and waffles. But in Brussels specifically, you should try the Brussels waffle, which is a crispy waffle sprinkled with icing sugar and often dressed with various toppings. There is actually no such thing as a Belgian waffle, because there are two distinctive types: the Brussels and the Liège waffle. However, you can find both types all around the city. Besides waffles, you should also try fries in Brussels. There are many great fries shops (friteries) around, but we recommend Frit Flagey or Maison Antoine.
6. Go on a day trip to Bruges & Ghent
If Brussels is the only place you visit in Belgium, we highly recommend going on a day trip to Bruges and Ghent from there. Located an hour or more to the north-west of Brussels, these are Belgium’s most beautiful cities in our opinion. You can book a day tour that combines both cities, which includes a professional guide and transportation. But if you’d rather visit at your own pace, that’s also possible. Both cities can easily be reached via train from Brussels. We have seperate videos about Bruges and Ghent, so you can learn more about each city and the things to do there.
5. Relax at Cinquantenaire Park & see the Triumphal Arch
Another thing you can’t miss in Brussels is the Cinquantenaire Park and the Triumphal Arch. This Park was established in 1880 to commemorate Belgium’s 50th anniversary. At its center is the beautiful Triumphal Arch, which connects two of Brussels' most interesting museums: the Royal Art and History Museum & the Belgian Army Museum. But even if you’re not interested in visiting the museums, it’s still worth coming here on a sunny day to relax in the park.