There are many reasons why at times, I wish I didn’t live in London. Proximity to the Eurostar is not one of them. I bloody love the Eurostar, and not just because of the access it gives me to new places to explore. I also love the Eurostar because it is so much fun to ride. Like a bullet through the sea, it’s easy to board (unlike planes), comfortable to travel in (unlike planes) and it had this mystique to people like me who watched it being built.
I digress. Having been to Brussels several times for work and enjoyed what I’d seen, I wanted to explore it as a tourist. With the short journey times and fairly compact city I grabbed my Mum and we set about exploring the Belgian capital in one day.
Brussels is just a hop, skip and a jump away from London via Eurostar. I paid £75 return about 2 months in advance for my ticket, which is mind blowing when you think I’ve paid far more than that just to get to Birmingham. If you aren’t in close proximity to London then of course there are plenty of budget flight options too.
Additionally, if you are holidaying in France, Northern Germany or even elsewhere in Belgium, you can totally hop on a train easily and cheaply for the day if you fancy a change of scene.
Once you are there, they have a fantastic metro system, but if you are just visiting for a day, you definitely won’t need it. We spent the day walking around (in the snow I might add) and even though we clocked up a hefty 18,000 steps for the day, the city is very easy to see on foot.
What To Do
As Brussels is a fairly compact city, you can get a good idea of the places of interest fairly quickly. We spent the morning touring the main sites by foot and the afternoon exploring the shops and markets leaving us more than enough time to guzzle down the chocolate, waffles and beer!
To give you an idea of timescales, we arrived at Brussels Midi station at 10.05am and departed at 19.52pm giving us lots of opportunity to fit everything in. We did everything listed here by foot.
The centre of Brussels and absolutely the place you want to start any day off in. The buildings on the square mainly date back to the 17th Century, and are some of the most beautiful (and opulent) I have seen in Europe. Mostly covered in gold gilt (and one of the buildings was a home to Victor Hugo for a while), the square also houses the beautiful City Hall and the incredibly gothic King’s House opposite and in the summer you can sit outside with a beer and watch the world go by.
La Grand-Place is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so it will always be preserved for generations to come.
Consistently voted as one of the most disappointing tourist attractions in the world, The Manneken Pis (translated literally as Little Man Pee) is a 61cm high statute of…a little boy pissing. Located at the junction of Rue de l’Étuve/Stoofstraat and Rue du Chêne/Eikstraat just off Grand-Place it is often swarmed with tourists so you won’t miss it.
This little boy also has a range of clothes made for him – in fact he has worn over 900 outfits! A museum houses all of these called the GardeRobe where you can get a look at them. Come back on Christmas Day and you may be lucky enough to see him in a Santa outfit!
Slightly more inexplicable is the Jeanneke Pis, which is, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now a statue of a little girl having a wee. Oh the Belgians do have a sense of humour! Found South of the Grand-Place, it was commissioned in order to form a counterpoint to the Mannekin Pis. Girl power (I think?)
It’s much newer than the original statue, having only been erected in 1985. That’s pretty much all I can say on the matter, but I don’t think you can see one without the other!
(Apparently there is a 3rd statue – Zinneke Pis, which is a dog. The legend goes that Manneken and Jeanneke trained their dog the only way they had also be taught. To find a public place and do a little wee. I have no words to this, really).
Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula
If you think this looks familiar, you’d be kinda right. The gothic architecture is similar to many other churches and cathedrals in Europe, and I think it looks a bit like St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague. Except the reason why this building is so beautiful (IMHO) is the beautiful pale coloured stone. It really talk my breath away as we walked up the hill to reach it.
You can visit inside too, but on a day trip we just didn’t have time.
Royal Palace of Brussels
Although stunningly beautiful, this palace is not used as a royal residence, as the king and his family live in the Royal Palace of Laeken on the outskirts of Brussels. So what is the palace used for? Well, it’s more of a political building, in that this is where the King deals with affairs of state. Sounds a bit old school right?
You can pay a visit inside, and you can also take a wander round the beautiful Brussels Park (preferably not when it is snowing like us eh?) which is situated right next door. To give you a sense of how big and impressive this building is, it has a facade 50% longer than that of Buckingham Palace. That’s pretty big!
Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert
This is a glazed shopping arcade in the centre of Brussels, and boy is it gorgeous! Split into two major sections, each more than 100m in length, not only is it beautiful to wander through, it is also full of excellent shopping opportunity. Leather, jewellery, chocolates, macrons, designer clothing – it’s worth it even if you are only in the business of window shopping!
Comic Strip Murals
Brussels/Belgium has a unique history with the comic book scene, what with it being the birthplace of Tin Tin and all. And Brussels has seriously embraced that. The city actually has a whole route of full length wall murals across the city that you can follow, and see if you can find all 42 of them.
You’ll find them off the beaten track, so definitely go exploring – I’ll will 100% be making a visit in warmer weather to find them all!
What To Eat + Drink
Brussels and Belgium as a whole is probably best known for its beer, but chocolate, waffles and frites score pretty highly on the must do Belgium foodie trail. In just a day it was difficult to sample every bit of foodie delight Brussels has to offer, but boy did we try!
What I would stay straight up is to try and plan in advance what you will eat for meals – it’s super easy to get sucked into the tourist trap restaurants, and if I can give you one piece of foodie advice, avoid the Rue des Bouchers. The quality of food here is often poor and it really is a smash and grab on tourist wallets (but definitely have a wander through to soak up the atmosphere!
Oh Brussels. You cannot visit without sampling and bringing home some wonderful chocolate goodies. Belgium is known for it’s Chocolatiers and you’ll find both good and bad in the heart of Brussels. After doing some research online and asking around, we discovered that Mary and Pierre Marcolini are among the best in terms of quality. But it isn’t cheap.
We opted for Pierre Marcolini chocolates as we loved the modern flavours, and it was worth every penny. Mary’s is definitely more traditional, but it is just a matter of taste.
Continuing the search of foods to satisfy our sweet tooth, you can’t come to Brussels without sampling a waffle or two. Sure, you can seek out proper, authentic waffles in Brussels, but we wanted to stand on the street and wolf down our 1 euro waffles with pride. Cheap, cheerful, messy and super good.
As I think I said in my Prague city guide, I’m not a huge lover of beer. At least, not the stuff that is sold in pubs in the UK. But proper, mirco-brewed beer? Sure, hit me. It wouldn’t be a day trip to Brussels without finding some decent beer, so we headed straight to Moeder Lambic to try some.
Moeder Lambic is a gorgeous craft beer bar (in fact, there are two of them), with a huge range on offer, a cosy environment and some awesome beer snacks. My Mum and I holed ourselves up for a couple of hours on bar stools whilst the staff helped us choose (this is a great touch) and we tucked into a cheese platter. Heaven.
I just want to put out there that I have found many craft beer establishments in the UK to be not that welcoming or comfortable for women (when not accompanied by a man – shock horror). This could not be more different, and I’d even suggest solo female trips here would be a-ok!
I’d heard mixed views about visiting Brussels as a tourist – many suggested I’d need more than a day, and many felt that I was wasting my time altogether. Whilst there is certainly more to see in Brussels, visiting for just one day gave me a great taste of this city and the relatively inexpensive cost makes for an excellent day trip or overnight break.
Next time I’d like to come for a little longer – to visit the antiques markets of Le Sablon, to sample more awesome beer and to hop on the train to Bruge and Ghent. But for now, I consider myself totally satisfied with my quick jaunt around the Belgian capital.
Give Brussels a go – you may be pleasant surprised!