Brussels: Attractions

September 26, 2020

Paul Kay

Brussels offers plenty of things to see and do. Whether it's history, art or architecture, there's something for everyone. In this post I talk about the attractions we visited while in Brussels.

Charles of Lorraine Statue, Grand-Place, Brussels, Belgium

One can say that Brussels is the center of Europe. Brussels is considered to be the de facto capital of the European Union (EU), even though the EU states it has no official capital. Brussels hosts the European Commission, Council of the European Union and European Council. It’s also the seat of the European Parliament.

Our base, the Brussels Marriott Hotel Grand Place was very in the heart of the city and close to the Grand-Place, which was a great introduction to the city. We spent a lot of time in the Grand-Place and took a bus tour of Brussels. Here are reviews of those and other attractions we enjoyed.

Note: We also took a few tours outside the city. See Ghent, Bruges and Dinant for our reviews of these places.

Grand-Place de Bruxelles


Light Show, Grand-Place, Brussels, Belgium

The Grand-Place de Bruxelles is the central square of Brussels. All around the world, it is known for its decorative and aesthetic wealth. The Grand-Place is surrounded by the guild houses, City Hall and the Maison du Roi.

Many consider the Grand-Place one of the most beautiful places in the world. In 1998, it was registered on the World Heritage Centre of UNESCO.

Some of the history is not so pleasant. In 1523, Protestant martyrs were burned at the stake by decree of the catholic bishop. The martyrs were Augustinian monks from Antwerp, who publicly professed Lutheran doctrine. In 1568, the counts of Egmont and Hoorn were beheaded in the Grand-Place. And in 1695, most of the houses were destroyed by the French. The wood houses were rebuilt with stone, adding to the square’s beauty.

Night View, Hotel de Ville de Bruxelles, Grand-Place, Brussels, Belgium

The Hotel de Ville de Bruxelles (city hall), with a large bell tower, is the most famous landmark of the Grand-Place. It was built in the 15th century and rebuilt in the 19th century. Facing it, the King’s House is similarly impressive. Both landmarks are gothic in design.

King's House Now City Museum, Grand-Place, Brussels, Belgium

The King’s House has served as the city museum for many years. On both sides of these monuments are buildings occupied by powerful businesses of the period. They represent the baroque architecture of the late 17th century and feature gables and fretted decorations. Each house has accents of gold, reminiscent of the status of its occupants.

One of the first things we noticed was there was no church. This plaza was a mercantile and administrative square. We felt the best time to visit the square is early morning. It is very quiet and the revelers from the prior evening haven’t risen yet.

Dusk, Hotel de Ville de Bruxelles, Grand-Place, Brussels, Belgium

At night, people bring food and drink and sit down on the cobblestones and enjoy the atmosphere. The square has a light show, and frequently there are musicians nearby who provide a musical interlude.

This might be one of the most gorgeous squares for we’ve seen. We easily see why it is a UNESCO heritage site.

Hop On Hop Off Bus

We saw the Hop On Hop Off Bus at many busy intersections and at nearly every rail station in Brussels. We saw it again when we validated our Eurail passes at the Brussels rail station. The tours offer two different routes, but they are both in a package. The bus has headphones, and you can dial in your language. It was a great first-day trip to orient ourselves to the city.

The Hop On Hop Off Bus offers a red line and a blue line. There are two different busses, but you can pick them up at the same spot. The blue line is called Atomium because it stops at that famous architectural landmark in Brussels.

Blue Line

The Atomium line stops at follow places:

Brussels Central Station

Brussels Central Station, Belgium

The Brussels Central Station is both a railway and metro station. It is where you will find the Hop On Hop Off Bus. The station ranks as the second busiest rail station in Brussels.

Place Charles Rogier

Place Charles Rogier, Brussels, Belgium

The Place Charles Rogier presents some architecturally interesting buildings along with hotels. It’s named for a Belgian liberal during the Belgian Revolution of 1830. He later became the prime minister of Belgium.

Royal Greenhouses of Laeken

Royal Greenhouses of Laeken, Brussels, Belgium

We didn’t go into the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken. This impressive site splendidly shows off its architecture designed in 1873. The French coined the term Orangerie because many estates put their fruit trees and other delicate flowering plants inside a protected glass building in which they could still receive sunlight and warmth.


Atomium, Brussels, Belgium

We saw this iconic sculpture, Atomium, during our taxi ride from the airport to our hotel. It was constructed for the first post-war universal world exhibition, EXPO 58. The nine spheres represent an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. They embody the faith in science and in nuclear power.

Stairs, Atomium, Brussels, Belgium

If you hop off here, make your way to viewing areas inside the spheres. They’ll treat you to a 360-degree view of Brussels. There is a gift shop for souvenirs, but you can find Atomium souvenirs all over Brussels.

Rene Magritte Museum

Anonymous Businessman with Bowler Hat, Rene Magritte

I’ve always been a fan of the famous Belgian surrealist artist, Rene Magritte. When I saw some of his works at the Art Institute of Chicago for the first time, I broke out laughing. He had a knack for creating art with objects and people juxtaposed in unusual ways. Who would think of creating a character with a bowler hat and no face? We didn’t have time for the Rene Magritte Museum, but I’m sure it is worth a look while you are in Brussels.

National Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Koekelberg

National Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Koekelberg, Brussels, Belgium

An impressive building, the National Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Koekelberg ranks as the fifth largest temple in the world. While it looks hundreds of years old, it opened in 1970. The first commemorative stone was laid in 1905 to honor the 75th anniversary of King Leopold II. The First and Second World Wars delayed construction and funding. From the street, it’s an amazingly beautiful building.

Tour & Taxis

In the early 16th century, the family of Thurn und Taxis bought a 45-hectare parcel of land in Brussels. They were postmasters and they needed to create a post office. Once constructed, the road that connected it was converted into French and it became Tour et Taxis, which is now Tour & Taxis. It had a long history of mail, customs and package sorting. Then it sat unused until it was reinvented in 2001 into an eco-friendly district. It’s worth a look.

Mima Museum

Founded in 2016, the Mima Museum collects contemporary art. We didn’t visit or take pictures. But the pride of the locals in their museum makes it worth a look.

Brussels Stock Exchange and Fish Market

Brussels Stock Exchange, Brussels, Belgium

Another impressive building, the Brussels Stock Exchange resides in the same neighborhood as the Fish Market. The fresh fish are harvested daily, and you’ll see lots of early morning shopping by restauranteurs and locals.

The Marolles

The Marolles flea market is open every day. In addition to the usual collection of vintage goods, like furniture, vinyl records and books, the surrounding neighborhood offers plenty of bars and antique shops. When we passed by this market, we saw plenty of people looking for unique items and souvenirs.

Manneken Pis

Gaufrerie with Statue of Manneken Pis, Grand-Place, Brussels, Belgium

The humorous and irreverent Manneken Pis draws millions of visitors every year. This statue represents a little boy peeing into a fountain. So popular is the little guy, you’ll find replicas all over Brussels, including in an ice cream and waffle shop! I cover Manneken Pis in more detail below.

Brussels Central Station

And then the bus returns you to where you got on.

Red Line

We decided to take the second tour, the Red Line. It’s also known as the Europe route.

Brussels Central Station

This is where you get on and off the bus.

Place Royale

Place Royale, Brussels, Belgium

The Place Royale area is home to the Palace of Brussels. Built between 1775 and 1782, the Place Royale replaced the Palace of Coudenberg, which was destroyed by fire. The principal building on the square is the Church of St. James on Coudenberg, which was built in 1787.


Church of our Lady of Victories, Sablon, Brussels, Belgium
Side View, Church of our Lady of Victories, Sablon, Brussels, Belgium

Sablon is a neighborhood in Brussels, but we came to see the Church of our Lady of Victories. The church’s construction began in 1318, but it did not look anything like it does today. Most of the work occurred during the 14th and 15th centuries. An interesting sidenote: The Thurn und Taxis family had two chapels built inside. See Tour & Taxis from the Blue Line tour.

Palace of Justice

Palace of Justice, Brussels, Belgium

We didn’t want to go inside and attend a trial. But it is a nice photo opportunity.

Horta Museum

The Horta Museum was also a drive-by. The Horta Museum features the work of Belgian architect, Victor Horta. His former house and workshop serve as the museum’s building.


Flagey is a cultural center area that promotes classical music, jazz, pop and cinema. The name comes from a former mayor of Ixelle, Eugene Flagey.

Place de Luxembourg and European Parliament

We didn’t stop at the Place de Luxembourg. This square is dominated by the building hosting the European Parliament.

Leopold Park

Leopold Park is a 16-acre park within the European Quarter. A pretty stream runs through it that feeds a pond.


Arcades du Cinquantenaire, Brussels, Belgium

Cinquantenaire was an impressive site, even from the bus. The 74-acre Parc du Cinquantenaire (Park of the Fiftieth Anniversary) is close to Leopold Park. The most impressive site is the Cinquantenaire Arch.

Schuman Railway Station

Brussels Le Berlaymont houses headquarters of the executive branch of the European Union

This railway and metro station serves the European Quarter of Brussels. From the Schuman roundabout, you can see the executive branch of the European Union.

Royal Palace

Golden Gates, Royal Palace, Brussels, Belgium

We were not invited to the Royal Palace, so the closest we got was from outside the golden gates. The building construction started at the end of the 18th century. What we could see was built after 1900 for King Leopold II.

Brussels Central Station

And once again, we returned to the Brussels Central Station. Then we set off to find Manneken Pis.

Manneken Pis


Railing and Manneken Pis, Brussels, Belgium

I don’t know why this statue gets so much attention. The translation of the statue is peeing boy. The statue has become a legend. Nobody knows the story of the statue, but stories abound.

Manneken Pis Fountain, Brussels, Belgium
Closeup, Manneken Pis Fountain, Brussels, Belgium

Manneken Pis is the Brussels symbol. Like the Eiffel Tower is to Paris or the Statue of Liberty is to New York City, Manneken Pis is Brussels’ most precious possession. For the Brussels people, the status is a symbol of what they call Zwanze, which represents humor as a way of life. It’s a funny story that can be retold in endless ways.

One of the stories is that the boy saved the city from a horrible fire by urinating on the blaze. Another tells how the boy peed on a witch’s door, and then she turned him to stone. The first Manneken Pis statue was built in 1388 and was used as a drinking fountain. The [in]famous version displayed today dates to 1619.

In the 18th century, French soldiers stole the statue as a prank. King Louis XV was upset and told the soldiers to return it. He ordered that the statue be dressed in a golden outfit suitable for royalty. From that time on, French soldiers had to salute the statue every time they passed.

The Museum of Brussels displays the original statue. The City of Brussels dresses the boy in cute costumes several times a month. There is even a calendar showing off his wardrobes. He now boasts a closet with more than 1,000 outfits, and he adds more all the time.

The sister of the boy, Jeanneke Pis, stands next to the Delirium Village bar. And a dog, Zinneke Pis, urinates nearby on the Rue des Chartreux. Lots of tourists come to take photos with all three.

Waffle and Ice Cream Shop, Manneken Pis, Brussels, Belgium
Manneken Pis Restaurant, Brussels, Belgium

Replicas of Manneken Pis stand all over the streets of Brussels. Sometimes even in a waffle shop! And there’s a restaurant named for the famous little guy.

Very Important Brusselein, Manneken Pis, Brussels, Belgium

Who knew a fountain with a boy peeing could attract so many visitors?

Read More

Fun Facts About Belgium
Brussels: Staying There
Brussels: Restaurants

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