Brussels does not really compare overall with grand European capitals such as Rome or Paris but it still offers some interesting sights to the discerning traveler.
Grand Place ♥♥♥ (in French), or Grote Markt (in Flemish), is a fantastic central town square, surrounded on all sides by 17-century architectural gems. Hotel de Ville is positively magnificent, but other buildings each hold their own. As architecturally-stunning grand public squares go, Grand Place is definitely up there with Piazza San Marco in Venice or Piazza del Campo in Siena. There are a couple of museums in the square buildings, none of superior interest.
The rest of the Lower City ♥ is made up largely of aesthetically-pleasing narrow streets and small squares, providing an enjoyable walking environment. Larger squares have many attractive buildings. Place de Brouckere ♥, which we only glanced at for a few minutes, bears ambient resemblance to Puerta del Sol in Madrid.
Manneken-Pis (the Peeing Boy) is probably the most disappointing famous sight in the world – a small sculpture/fountain at an otherwise unremarkable corner. In truth, it is too famous to be consciously avoided. And, after all, it is only a couple of blocks away from Grand Place.
Cathedrale Sts Michel et Gudule ♥ bears an uncanny resemblance to Notre Dame de Paris. Its most remarkable interior feature is the brilliant stained-glass windows, fully restored as recently as the 1990s.
Eglise St-Nicolas ♥ is one other church that I stepped into. The impressive Gothic-style exterior hides no less impressive interior, especially the beautiful gilded gates leading to the choir.
Parc du Bruxelles ♥ is an amiable green space in between blocks of monumental architecture. There is a children’s playground and a small performance stage within its confines.
Brussels was home to one of the titans of Art Nouveau, Victor Horta. A few of his buildings are inscribed together on the UNESCO World Heritage list, although only one of those is nowadays accessible as a museum. Musée Horta ♥ is the family house built in 1901, with splendid living space and arresting accents. Maison d’Autrique ♥ is a house Horta designed for a wealthy patron in the 1890s, which displays some of the attributes of late 19th-century living, in addition to the Art Nouveau design (it is surprisingly not part of the UNESCO property). You can see several other Horta buildings from the outside in various parts of town, and there is actually an informal Art Nouveau walking circuit in central Brussels that includes dozens more eye-catching buildings.
The Atomium ♥ is the gigantic model of the atom, consisting of nine metallic squares connected by stairs and escalators. Some spheres contain expositions of limited interest, while the topmost one provides panoramic views over the city. The Atomium is located some distance from the city center but is easily reachable by public transport.
Mini-Europe ♥♥♥, located in Bruparck near the Automium, covers a couple of acres of land with 1:25 scale models of European Union members’ landmarks. The entrance fee is not insignificant, but the place is altogether fascinating. Children absolutely love recognizing the places that they have been to. Many exhibits have moving components that are operated by pressing buttons – another favorite of the kids; for instance, the model of Mt Vesuvius imitates its eruption, the model of Finnish Baths has people plunging into frigid waters, etc. There are several interesting interactive activities in the pavilion that concludes the route.
Calling the Toy Museum ♥ a museum is a bit of a stretch. It is a three-story house, chock-full of different types of toys from all over the world. Toy soldiers, dolls and doll carriages, model cars, ships and trains, puppets, et cetera, et cetera… Adults will feel as if they are transported back in time, kids will simply enjoy playing around (yes, you can touch and even play with a lot of stuff).
The Comic Strip Museum (Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinee) is devoted to the medium of which Belgium is considered the world leader. Obviously, enthusiasts of comic strip art will enjoy this place much more than laymen. Back in 2007, while there were some English signs and even sporadic English-language exhibits, the majority of displays were in French, which further diminished the enjoyment.
Other places worth considering for a future visit: Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts (boasting one of the best collections of Flemish masters in the world), Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate, and Museum of Beer.
As you walk around town, sample Belgian waffles ♥ from any of the “holes in the wall” that vend them – this is a quintessential experience beyond simply having food.
Brussels’ metro and tram system is quite convenient for travel around the city and to most attractions. The efficiency varies, as trains run every few minutes even late at night, whereas trams often have long gaps between them. Metro stations mostly resemble underground pedestrian passages with various shops – not quite attractive, but never overcrowded. Some underground stations are integrated between the Metro and the trams.
Tickets need to be stamped upon entering the tram car or the Metro station. It is largely an honor system – we have not encountered a single ticket check while making over two dozen trips. A group day ticket (for up to 5 people) allowed unlimited trips for the cost of about 5 individual journeys – an unbeatable value.
Accommodation-wise, any location within R20 “ring” will put you within walking distance of most of the points of interest. The extensive transport options make staying somewhere outside of the city center workable as well.
As far as eating out is concerned, Ilot Sacré (“sacred islet”) – which consists of several blocks along and around Rue des Bouchers – is a culinary heaven. Every door is a restaurant, each one offering traditional local dishes with some other regional slant (Italian, Moroccan, Provencal, etc.). Seafood dominates but meats are widely available. The menus and prices are very similar in all establishments, regardless of what they call themselves, and, as far as we can tell, the quality is about the same everywhere. A la carte selections are rather expensive, but prix-fixe 3-course menus are priced affordably. Door boosters may be projecting a veritable “tourist trap” vibe, but do not be deceived by them. Among the choices are: Le Marrakech (Rue de la Fourche); Le Mouton d’Or (Petite Rue des Bouchers); Le Vieux Bruxelles (Rue des Bouchers).
Three other Belgian cities will probably feature higher on a traveler’s wish list than Brussels: most certainly Bruges, very probably Ghent, and quite possibly Antwerp as well. All of them are covered in the Belgian Gems article.