One Day in Brussels
The Most Iconic Landmarks in Brussels Plus Map
Brussels Quick Facts
Brussels (Bruxelles) is the capital city of Belgium. Often referred as the Heart of Europe, Brussels is the de facto capital of the European Union, hosting the European Parliament and NATO headquarters. This gastronomic city is also known for Belgian waffles, chocolate, fries - often mislabeled as French fries - and beer. Brussels is a cultural Mecca for all the comic book buffs. Architecturally, Brussels is the capital of Art Nouveau.
As if all of the above is not impressive enough, Brussels fascinates me with its diverse culture. While the city is located inside the Flemish region, 90% of its residents dominantly speak French. The French and Flemish communities are somewhat “segregated” by two separate cultural and education systems. This has created tension between the two communities even today. Contrary to the common belief, not many residents are bilingual although the city adopted both the French and Dutch languages to please both communities. Interesting, isn’t it?
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Brussels Itinerary 1 Day
Is it really possible to see Brussels in one day? Absolutely not. But Brussels is small enough one can explore highlights in a day. Perhaps that is why some travelers consider Brussels as a layover city or day trip destination from Western Europe.
I have to warn you, though. Once you visit Brussels, you will want to return to this charming city or extend your stay. If you have the flexibility, go for it. If not, here’s a compact itinerary for one perfect day in Brussels.
Breakfast: Belgian Waffle
Start your day with the world-famous Belgian waffle. Actually, you might find it shocking that Belgians do not eat waffles for breakfast. In Belgium, the waffle is a treat - because it is that good! - eaten on the streets. But, hey, if there is such thing as all-day breakfast, why not all-day treats?
For authentic Belgian waffles, stop by Maison Dandoy. There are many locations in town; however, make sure to go to their tearoom right behind the Town Hall as it is the only location with waffles.
Grand-Place of Brussels (Grote Markt)
The Grand Place or Grote Markt (map) is the most iconic landmark in Brussels. Many consider it as one of the most beautiful squares in Europe despite the different architecture styles of Gothic, Baroque and Louis XIV each building in the square features.
The Town Hall takes place in the center of the Grand Place. This 15th-century Gothic building is asymmetrical, which is a big faux pas in Gothic style. If you look closely, you might notice that the bell tower stands skewed towards the right. The legend has it, the architect was ashamed of his mistake and commit suicide by jumping off the tower only to land in the exact midpoint where the tower should have been placed. Ironically, this architecturally “imperfect” building is the only one in the square survived massive bombings - once by the French and the other by German Nazi.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is beautiful in the morning, during the day and in the evening. My favorite time is actually after the dark when the buildings are lit. Thanks to its central location, you will have the opportunity to swing by later. For now, take photos of yourself at the Grand Place with beautiful buildings as background because it will soon get very crowded.
Walk the Gay District
On your way to Manneken Pis, you can pass through the gay district. In my opinion, the gay district in Brussels is pretty subtle. You will see some rainbow flags at gay bars and the famous mural of Brousaille, which has become a symbol of LGBT acceptance in the city.
Quick Photo of Manneken Pis
Manneken Pis (map) is located in the corner somewhere near the Gay District. This iconic statue is disappointedly small and unnoticeable if not the huge crowd in front of and around it. Although it has continuously been voted the most disappointing tourist attractions in the world, this pee boy is the pride of Brussels residents.
Some people believe the statue was built to commemorate a brave boy who urinated to put out the fire and save the entire city from burning down. Doesn’t this story remind you of Hans, the boy who saved the Netherlands from flooding by putting his hand into a hole in the bank? Anyway, there are many other legends you can google for the reading pleasure.
Manneken Pis changes his outfit several times a week. His wardrobe, many of which celebrates diverse cultures and holidays, consists of more than 1,000 costumes. This collection is on exhibit at the Museum of the City of Brussels (Maison du Roi) in the Grand Place. Very impressive!
The Stock Exchange Building
The Brussels Stock Exchange building (map) used to house the stock exchange Brussels before the function was merged with other European countries. Thanks to its historical importance and beautifully ornate Neo-renaissance architecture, it still attracts many tourists and locals today.
The location of the building is interesting. It stands as a landmark to divide the touristy area and local community. I noticed more locals as I walked away from the front side of the building.
Lunch at Mer du Nord
It’s about time you are feeling peckish. How about a casual lunch outside of the touristy area?
I enjoyed a casual lunch at this local seafood shop, Mer du Nord. Don’t worry if you are not sure what to order. The friendly servers can help you choose from a variety of daily fresh seafood and how you like it cooked. Wait until they holler your name. Enjoy your meal on the standing table across the street.
The popular dishes here from my observation are snails in chili broth, razor clams, scampi and fried fish. I wish I could’ve sampled all, but had to choose two - ah, the downside of solo travel (for the day).
Tip: While the surrounding area is full of restaurants and shops, I also noticed gypsies and homeless lying on some patches of streets on the way to Mer du Nord. I think it’s safe to walk alone during the day with many people on the road. But I wondered if that's the case at night.
If you are interested in checking out Zinneke Pis (map), the urinating dog statue inspired by Manneken Pis is close to Mer du Nord. You gotta love the humor of Belgians, right?
Wander through the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert
The Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert (Royal Gallery of Saint Hubert) is a historical, luxurious shopping complex built in 1847. It is one of the first shopping malls in Europe. Its stunning architecture with an arched glass roof has inspired the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan.
This passage shopping arcade is only two-hundred meters long; however, it houses high-end specialty boutiques, artisan chocolate shops, and two theaters.
In the past, visitors needed to pay to access this upscale shopping center. Luckily now, you don’t have to pay. So even if you have no interest in shopping, check it out to see its glamours.
While you are awed by the stunning architecture, why not go chocolate tasting in the Gallery? This is a great place to sample Belgian pralines and see which one of the famous names you like the best. For self-guided Belgian chocolate tasting, check out the four most notable Belgian chocolatiers in the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert.
Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula
You know how every historical town of Europe has the church. The Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula (map) is just that. Locals don’t bother to say the full name; instead, refer to it as the cathedral. This Gothic church hosts royal weddings and funerals. And this is where the Belgian Royal Family attend the mass to celebrate the National Day every year.
The church is located on the hilltop, looking down the city center. If you look up the front facade, you can’t imagine its size and scale. But once you go around the building, you might be surprised how large it is. It took about 300 years to build the entire church.
The inside of the church is open to the public. It is free to enter, and photography is allowed. However, please be respectful and keep quiet.
The Royal Square
The Royal Square (Place Royale) is a historic place that houses the Royal Palace of Brussels, the Church of Saint Jacques-sur-Coudenberg, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium and the statue of Godfrey of Bouillon.
Behind this beautifully developed square, there is a sad history. When King Leopold II ordered the development of the city of Brussels including the Royal Square, he financed the massive renovation and expansion project with his private equity. Interestingly, now independent African country of Congo was the King’s private property - “Congo Free State” - before becoming a colony of Belgium later. Without even setting a foot into the country, the King made a fortune out of the rubber produced by the Congo Free State through the inhumane exploitation of its indigenous people as the rubber had become a highly profitable commodity with the growing automobile industry.
I don’t mean to be the Debbie Downer. But it’s also meaningful to take a moment to think about the dark history while enjoying this gorgeous place. If you are interested in the full story, check out this article.
The Royal Palace of Brussels (Palais Royal de Bruxelles) is one of the buildings located in the Royal Square you might want to take a closer look. Touring inside the palace is only available during the limited time of the year. I was lucky enough to take a peek inside. Check out the photo gallery here.
Explore What Interests You, Or Save for Another Day
Next, I want to make three suggestions for you. Following my itinerary for one day above, I expect it’s about late afternoon. If you have only one day in Brussels, you can pick one of three options suggested below, depending on your interests. For those lucky ones staying longer than a day in Brussels, you can put the rest on your list of what to do in Brussels in 2 days.
Option 1 for Art Enthusiasts: Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
If you are an art enthusiast, head to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique) conveniently located in the Royal Square. It is a museum complex of six art museums, exhibiting more than 20,000 paintings, sculptures, and other artworks. The majority of collections here highlights Belgian artists, including Peter Paul Rubens.
The museum has a terrace cafe open for lunch and coffee. You will have a beautiful view overlooking the Mont des Arts over coffee.
Option 2 for Comic Book Buff: Comic Strip Trails & Comic Book Museum
As the birthplace of Tintin, The Smurfs, and Asterix, Brussels is the Mecca for comic book buff. For one, the buildings of the city are decorated with murals paying tributes to famous cartoon characters. The City of Brussels has the dedicated Comic Book Route for those who are eager to hunt down all street arts. Even if you are not, you are destined to see more than a few around the city center. Check out the full list of the comic book walls and its location here.
Are you a fan of the Smurfs? To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Smurfs, you can visit the life-sized Smurf village. It is a special exhibit only available until January 27, 2019. Click for more information on The Smurf Experience.
If you are a fan of the little blue people but can’t make it to the special exhibit, don’t be disappointed yet. You will be happy to learn that there is a dedicated museum for the Smurfs: MOOF Museum
For more serious comic strip enthusiasts, Brussels offers the Belgian Comic Strip Center (map). Inside the Victor Horta’s Art Nouveau warehouse, the museum highlights the history of comic strips with the exhibits dedicated to newspaper cartoons and the Smurfs, as well as temporary exhibits. Before you go, understand the Comic Strip Museum takes more academic and historical approach to comics than leisure.
Option 3 for Architecture Lovers: Art Nouveau Tour
Art Nouveau is a style appeared in the interior, architecture and decorative arts in the late 19th-century Europe. The “new artists” initiated the Art Nouveau movement with the desire to abandon the mass-produced goods prevalent during the industrialization. Art Nouveau artists pursued architecture and interiors featuring good craftsmanship and intricate designs. The distinguishing characteristics of Art Nouveau include the use of industrial materials like steel and glass, the spiral staircases, and ornaments featuring flowers and vine tendrils.
Victor Horta is the most renowned Art Nouveau architect in Belgium. The four townhouses by Victor Horta are UNESCO World Heritage sites: Hotel Tassel, Hotel Solvay, Hotel van Eetvelde and Maison Horta. Most notably, his house (Maison Horta) is now the Horta Museum (map) and open to the public.
The legacy of Art Nouveau lives on in the streets of Ixelles and Saint-Gilles quarters in Brussels. If you have more time to explore, also check out Musical Instruments Museum (“Old England building”), Maison Saint-Cyr, Maison Cauchie, and Hotel Ciamberlani.
Dinner: Belgian Mussels & Fries
Now it’s time to enjoy Belgium’s national dish - Belgian Mussels & Fries (Moules-Frites). It’s super easy to find moules-frites every corner of Brussels. Feel free to venture into any restaurant of your choice. In the city center, try Le Cirio (map) or Chez Leon (map).
If you chose the Art Nouveau tour in option 3 above, you might be away from the city center. Go with your theme and swing by La Quincallerie (map, photo above) - French bistro sits in the beautiful Art Nouveau architecture in the Ixelles neighborhood.
Sip Belgian Beer at Delirium Cafe
You just had a pretty intense walking day. Give yourself a pat on the back. If you still got the energy, go on your own Belgian beer tasting tour and let your hair down.
There is no shortage of nice beer bars in Brussels. But the most famous one is the Delirium Cafe (map). This beer house holds the Guinness World Record for the most beers offered. Today you can find almost 2,500 beers around the world here. If you need more pointers for bar hopping before returning to the hotel, check out the best bars for a beer tasting in Brussels.
While at Delirium Cafe, consider checking out Jeanneke-Pis, the final of three urinating statue series. This peeing girl is deemed to be the sister of Manneken Pis. This equally unnoticeable sibling sits inside a cage at the end of the alley of Delirium Cafe. Although I do not understand the direct connection, it is said the statue was created to increase the awareness of breast cancer.
Wow, that’s a lot to do in a day! As you can tell by the tight schedule, 24 hours in Brussels might not be enough. I tried my best to show you the best of Brussels in this one-day itinerary. But don’t feel pressured to check everything off the list. Take your time to enjoy the city. If you can’t do it all, that's a good excuse to come back.
Do you agree that Brussels is a charming city with so many fun and unique things to do? Leave comments and let me know what you think.
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