48 hours in Brussels? See the best of the Belgian capital
Brussels has plenty to boast about. It’s where the praline was invented, it’s the home to some of the world’s finest art and best of all, this city’s iconic symbol is a small boy peeing. But where would you go if you have only had 48 hours in Brussels? Do you start by admiring the Atomium? Or following in the footsteps of Tintin? Do you devote your time to Art Nouveau architecture, the majesty of the Grand Place or the treasures of the many state-of-the-art museums? With so much on offer, it’s difficult to know where to begin. This guide will help you make the most of artistic Brussels in two days.
Fine art makes a fine start
Beginning your tour at Brussels Central Station, you’ll find yourself on the doorstep of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. Each museum is home to a series of wonderful delights. However, if you fancy a brush with true genius, look no further than the Oldmasters Museum and its exploration of the works of European painters from the 15th-18th centuries. Greats like Hieronymus Bosch, Hans Memling, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens all vie for your attention.
For those with a penchant for the surreal, there’s also the Magritte Museum. Devoted to René Magritte, the Belgian surrealist who turned green apples and bowler hats into artistic mainstays, the gallery is a walk through the fantastic world of one of Belgium’s premiere artists.
If you’re feeling like it’s time to change the tune, the world-renowned, 7,000-piece collection at the MIM Music Instrument Museum is sure to strike a chord. You’ll find everything from a glass harmonica to a hurdy-gurdy: one of the highlights is the 19th-century componium, a fascinating instrument capable of producing an endless variety of music without repeating itself.
An afternoon at the Atomium
Your next destination is most easily reached by travelling on the metro. Keep an eye out for the tilework on the walls of the different stations: there are plenty of incredible artistic pieces to catch your eye.
Arriving at the Heysel Metro, you’ll find yourself at the foot of the vast, shiny and monolithic Atomium. Over 330 feet (102 metres) tall, the nine spheres and their connections represent the unit cell of an iron crystal – except they’ve been magnified 165 billion times. As well as the longest escalators in Europe, the Atomium is home to different artistic installations, a restaurant and a spectacular view of Brussels.
Add some art to your evening
Finish the day with a walking tour of the Art Nouveau architecture in Elsene. Leaving the Metro at Horta Station, you’ll possibly want to include the Horta Museum and the Avenue Louise on your route, although it’s also rewarding to wander about with nothing but the majesty of the buildings guiding you. If you don’t feel like walking, there’s no reason not to sit down with a coffee to admire the architecture at Café Metropole. Alternatively, Comme Chez Soi combines haute cuisine with a memorable Art Nouveau dining room and an equally memorable wine cellar. It’s also a lovely way to round off your first day in artistic Brussels.
The art of politics
There’s nothing quite like an early – or late – morning stroll, especially not when it takes you through the Parc du Cinquantenaire. Nonetheless, you may want to forego the many statues and monuments, for a visit to the AutoWorld vintage car museum. Its incredible collection includes a Bugatti, a Bentley and several limousines that once belonged to the Belgian royal family.
While you’re in the neighbourhood, make sure you drop by the Parlementarium. This museum, devoted to examining the history, functioning and workings of the European Union, is likely to surprise you in more ways than one. The story is brought to life with clever variety of exhibits and multimedia tools to deliver a surprisingly enjoyable, dynamic and interactive journey.
The best way to top this is a visit to Maison Antoine. Since opening in 1948, the little restaurant has become incredibly popular for its skills in cooking our unique Belgian delicacy: crispy, golden fries.
An eclectic artistic experience
You’ll be left speechless once you’ve made your way to the iconic Grand Place. This square is bordered with pure architectural splendour. The intricate use of gold and decorative sculptures helps the already opulent guildhalls to sparkle in the sunlight, while the lace-like façade of the Brussels City Museum creates a striking contrast. The Town Hall, with its monumental tower, dominates the square. The stories behind the asymmetric layout of this building – they range from unexpected extensions during construction to an error that resulted in the architect leaping from the tower – simply add to the wonder of the Grand Place and the myths permeating Belgium and the Belgian identity.
If you’re a little thirsty – or just hell-bent on something incredibly different – head around the corner to Le Cercueil, a cocktail bar decorated with skeleton figures, skull-shaped cups, coffin-tables and, oddly enough, speed-dating.
Manneken Pis, pink elephants, royalty and comic book characters
Move on down the street, past the wall mural depicting comic book character Tintin, and on to the corner where Manneken Pis holds his vigil. The most recognisable symbol of Brussels, this doll-sized bronze statue is dressed up in appropriate outfits to help celebrate important dates. As famous as he is, no one is actually sure of the true story behind the bronze boy ... Did he urinate to extinguish a fire? Was his target the leader of enemy forces? Or is the truth to be found in one of the many other legends?
A short walk will bring you along the restaurant-filled Rue des Bouchers to Jeanneke Pis, the female counterpart to Manneken Pis. Do you feel like a beer or two? What about 3,162 of them? The Delirium Café has been recognised by the Guinness Book of Records for serving the most varieties of commercially available beer. It’s a great place to enjoy a Delirium Tremens beer. It’s been voted as one of the best in the world despite the myth that drinking it will leave you seeing pink elephants.
Not even a 48-hour holiday is complete without a little pampering. Why not go shopping like a member of the royal family in the stunning Galeries Royales de Saint-Hubert? The architecturally spectacular thoroughfares are lined with shops, cafés and best of all, chocolatiers – including Neuhaus, the chocolatier who invented the Belgian praline.
Whether you’re a fan of Tintin, Asterix, the Smurfs, Lucky Luke or comic art in general, the Belgian Comic Strip Center is where you’ll experience the diversity and often unrealised depths of the ninth art as depicted by the pens and brushes of over 700 Belgian authors. It’s certainly not just for kids!
If you’re ready for a meal, why not make the most of it? Awarded two Michelin stars, Bon-Bon serves food full of personality and flavour. It’s a little out of the way, but it’s still our number-one recommendation for anyone who feels like a seven-course meal.
However, Place Saint Catherine is a must for everyone who enjoys fish, mussels or any other type of sea food. Menus at the restaurants here depend largely on the catch of the day, but expect fresh, flavoursome meals.
Wash it down with a beer at A La Mort Subite. Decorated in lovely Art Nouveau style, this café has become a favourite with tourists and locals alike. The café became the namesake of a variety of beers. Before you try them, we should probably inform you that ‘morte subite’ translates to ‘sudden death’.
If you’re still alive and kicking, there is one fantastic way to round off your evening and your 48-hour tour of Brussels: head to the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, a masterpiece of gothic architecture. The incredibly decorative exterior of the building will make an impression at any time. But at night? The white stone actually seems to glow. Prepare to be amazed!
You’ve now seen a slice of what the Belgian capital has to offer, but there’s always so much more to discover and enjoy. While 48 hours in Brussels isn’t enough time to see everything, it gives you a little taste of what makes this city so spectacular, memorable and deserving of a return visit.
Story created on November 28, 2017