There is quite a lot you can see in Brussels in half a day, if you come prepared. The city centre is walkable, and the main touristic sights are located not far from each other. You need to know where to go, what to see and most importantly what to eat. But I know that sometimes we just postpone this preparation until the last moment and then find ourselves in the city with no clue where to go. I speak from experience, this situation happened to me more than… well, many times. Whether you are a super-busy person, a tired parent or just lazy and unorganized traveller, I actually have it fully covered for you this time. This post gives you a detailed plan for your half a day in Brussels.
I have some mixed feelings towards Brussels. I definitely like it as a city to visit. I find it vibrant, multicultural and just the right size for me. I am even fine with the weather, which on most days can only be defined as ‘shitty’. What spoiled the charm of Brussels for me at some point was a constant threat of having to move there because of my at-that-time European job. There are some cities and towns in Europe I have gladly moved to. There are also some I would gladly consider moving to. There are some, where I have no wish to live at the moment, and Brussels is one of them.
I used to visit Brussels sometime while living in Strasbourg, but it was mostly for work, and I then never got a chance to explore it properly as a tourist. But this time it was different. True, I was going there for work again, but this time I had my half-day off, and I was all ready to be a proper tourist. To walk around, check once again all the must-sees (except for the Atomium, too far away), take a lot of pictures, eat waffles – well, you get the point. And although the forecast promised rain and rain and some more rain, that particular couple of hours were sunny and warm.
1. Place Sainte-Catherine and Marché aux Poissons
My local friend from Brussels refered to this place as “the essence of Brussels” and I fully agree. We will start our walk in the area around Place Sainte-Catherine, because it is important to set the tone for your whole Brussels experience. And for me if you want to feel it properly, you cannot start exploring it with the crowds around the Manneken Pis or the Grande Place.
The Church of Sainte-Catherine was built in 1854, but is currently in not in its best state, awaiting proper renovations. This slightly shabby look gives it even more charm in my eyes, because I can then forget about all the modern European capital business and imagine Brussels the way it might have been before.
The square next to it is called Marché aux Poissons meaning Fish Market, which used to operate here until 1950s. The market and the fish separated, but still are the key words for the area. In the winter you can come here to enjoyed some mulled wine and Belgian specialties at the Christmas Market, while during the rest of the year feel free to explore the best fish restaurants in town.
If you want to spend more time here and are hungry for culture, the area around Place Sainte-Catherine also has a lot to offer. Check for example La Bellone. It is an interesting building in itself, which also acts as an artistic centre, which hosts theatre, dance and other performances. Or the contemporary arts centre La Centrale, which is now occupying the building of Brussels’ first powerhouse.
2. Brussels Opera La Monnaie
On your walk remember to pass the Opera building. In the 18th century Brussels opera was once of the most famous in Europe, and still hosts numerous performances, which you can check on their website. If you are not into opera, but rather architecture, check the building itself, as there are open guided tours on Saturdays, which you can join.
In front of the Opera you will see the Place de la Monnaie.
3. Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert
Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert is a glass-covered shopping arcade, similar to the one in Milan. It consists of two 100 metres long passages named the King’s Gallery and the Queen’s Gallery as well as a shorter passage ‘of Princes’. Brussels is known for its rains and winds, so this gallery is a perfect solution for having a little coffee outside – but at the same time sheltered from the bad weather.
The motto of the Galeries Royales is ‘Omnibus Omnia’, which can be roughly translated as ‘Chocolate for Rich People’. Ok, not entirely. It means ‘Everything for Everybody’, and the Galerie is also home to several museum, theatres and a cinema. But there are also very many very amazing and very expensive Belgian chocolate shops and cafes. Here is a more extensive list for you.
4. Grand Place
This is one of the main sights, so you absolutely should not miss it. And just as gorgeous as it is in real life, it is completely impossible to photograph, especially in the first part of the day, as the sun comes up just above the roof of the palace.
Grand Place is definitely the heart of Brussels. Not surprisingly it begins its history as a market place as early as 13th century. It looked completely different then of course, although I have no pictures of that for you. A century later the Town Hall is built in this location and the history of Grand Place being the official centre begins.
The history is not so smooth though. In the 17th century the square (and Brussels in general) is bombarded by (who would have thought) a French army. Interestingly, the Town Hall survives, while the rest of the Grand Place is wiped out. The square is later rebuilt by the city’s guilds, and you can see the result today. Although the style of the guildhalls are different, they somehow look harmonious together today.
If you check the photos of the Grand Place online, you might see it with a huge carpet of flowers covering the whole square. Be warned that it is not what it looks normally. This carpet is set up every two years in August, so if this is how you want to see the Grand Place, you have to plan your trip accordingly.
5. Manneken Pis or The Peeing Boy
If you continue walking down from the Grand Place, you arrive to another most famous sight of Brussels: Manneken Pis or the Peeing Boy. The statue itself is as disappointingly little, as the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, but at least you do not need to cycle in the rain in the middle of nowhere to get to it. But you will easily spot the Manneken Pis thanks to the crowd of people taking the pictures with it. The one below I took on Monday morning. You would think this is the least touristy time of the week, but here you are.
There are actually many legends about the Manneken Pis and why his statue is erected in the centre of Brussels. I will not re-tell them, but there are basically two lines, with several variations to them:
- Heroic: The boy pees on some kind of danger. It can be a fire threatening the city of Brussels, a fuse of some explosives from the enemies, etc.
- Realistic: The boy gets lost and the parents (sometimes the king, sometimes someone of a lower rank) go crazy looking for the boy, until they find him happily urinating somewhere.
The statue is hugely popular. You cam buy souvenirs (including chocolate ones) in the shape of it. It has also a kind of fan-club, who call themselves ‘Friends of the Peeing Boy’ and sew all kinds of costumes for the boy. But somehow whenever I see him, he is all the time naked.
Brussels locals or the tourists coming to Brussels must be especially facinating with the process of peeing, because there are two more sculptures, dedicated to it in the city: the peeing girl and the peeing dog. If you have some more time, you can also see them.
6. Kunstberg or Mont des Arts
Although it is called a mountain, do not let this scare you. The climb will be not that steep and the view you will see from the top is worth it. From the hill you will see the geometrical garden of the Kunstberg, the tower of Brussels Town Hall. Also to your sides you can admire (or hate, depending on your architectural preferences) the Royal Library of Belgium and the Congress Palace. I personally hated one and love the other – guess which is which?
And after you are done gazing over the city, continue your walk further. Very soon you will reach one of the most facinating buildings of Brussels – the Musical Instrument Museum (or MIM – such a cute abbreviation!). To me this museum looks like some musical instrument in itself. Maybe something from Alice in Wonderland – touch it, and it will start producing all possible strange sounds.
Oh, and one more thing. Truly, this particular location in Brussels is the congregation of awesomeness. There is Rene Magritte museum here as well. If you have some extra time, do not miss it out!
7. Royal Palace
After the small curiosities of the Kunstberg, the Royal Palace of Brussels will look as magnificent as it is boring. Unless you really are into royal palaces, this one looks similar to the Buckingham Palace in London and (although definitely more magnificent) Royal Palace in Copenhagen. But it has a flag of Belgium on top, so you cannot confuse it with any other palace.
When you are done admiring the palace, check out Brussels Park right next to it. If you like jogging, you will almost certainly meet some like-minded runners there. And if not, it is a beautiful place in any season, with gazebos, fountains, playgrounds and peaceful alleys.
8. Porte de Namur
Historically the Gate of Namur was one of the gates in the city walls of Brussels. Now the walls are of course gone, and this area became a lively shopping, office and restaurant area. This is our final stop. I included it because it is my personal tour of the city after all, and Port de Namur area is the one I enjoy so much more than palaces. For me this is this bubbling life vs. still history, and I always chose the former.
From this point the area called Matonge also starts. The name of Matonge comes from the area of Kinshasa, the capital of Congo. In the 1960s many African students came to study in Belgium, and a hostel for them was opened in the area. The area grew since and became a meeting place for the African community of Brussels. The most interesting part for me was that many of the people, who you see here during the day do not actually live in the area. They would come here during the day, and leave in the evening, so Matonge becomes a kind of meeting point.
But what do I do with the other half of the day?
Well, it depends on how much of an Duracell-bunny you are. If this half a day Brussels tour was not enough and you still are fresh, and want to continue exploring, here is a little list of ideas for you:
The Luxury of Avenue Louise
The above-mentioned peeing statues
Explore Ixelles (and a meal in Cafe Belga)
A hike in the green lungs of Brussels: Promenade Verte
And for now, I hope you have enjoyed this tour and caught a glimpse of Brussels yourself.