The thing about Brussels is that people would often say that it is ‘underwhelming’… but you know what? When I actually saw and experience this metropolis for myself, I experienced the exact opposite! (Things to Do in Brussels)
Brussels can be such an exciting cultural and artistic scene, especially when you know where to go. Plus, it’s really NOT all about the Manneken Pis — but such can already be a good start as a distinct way of showing someone the quirky side of this multicultural city. Then again, I believe that more than that, Brussels simply and truly holds a lot of historical beauty and importance.
Besides, other than being the center of Belgium, did you know that it is also the heart and capital of Europe? It holds the European Commission, the European Parliament, the headquarters of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and all the other important EU institutions — it is even the de facto capital of the European Union!
TRIVIA: By the way, most of the people here speak French which was weird for me because there were so many times that I almost felt like I was in France! Anyhow, they speak Flemish too (a local dialect of Dutch used by most Belgians) but people in Brussels prefer to speak in French. This makes the city officially bilingual and you will see that most road signs, street names, etc. are always in both French and Flemish.
I’d love to indulge you with more interesting facts, but it’s better that you go to the link below if you want to learn more about Belgium and/or Brussels.
Going back on topic, whenever you are in Brussels for a trip, a getaway, or a vacation, please let me save you the trouble of figuring out your itinerary because I can list out the most important spots that you should go to — in fact, to better cater to those who are on a tight traveling budget, below are the top free things to do in Brussels!
TOP 1- FREE THINGS TO DO IN BRUSSELS
#1 – Visit the Grand Place (Grote Markt)
Photo by Wouter Hagens / CC
The beauty and architecture of this square is so amazing… I can still remember the wonderful feeling that I felt when I turned a corner in a narrow street and finding it unexpectedly in front of me! It was a really nice surprise — a picturesque memory that I will forever cherish.
TIP: Other than visiting this place during the day, try to visit it at night too because the way they lit this place up can be a magical feast for your eyes!
Some facts about it:
- It’s the central square of Brussels. It used to be the central market of the city until 1959 and you will see how the neighboring streets reflect this history since they are named after sellers of cheese, butter, etc.
- Europe’s most beautiful square. Measuring at 68 x 110 meters, it is declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, and even declared as Europe’s most beautiful square in 2010.
- Incredible surrounding architecture. The most prominent structure is the towering (315 feet) City Hall (French: Hôtel de Ville or Dutch: Stadhuis) built back in the Middle Ages that somehow looks like a Gothic church. There are surrounding medieval guildhalls too with their individual decorative roofs and statues, and then opposite the City Hall is the Breadhouse (French: Maison du Roi or Dutch: Broodhuis) that contains the Museum of the City of Brussels.
- Flower carpet. Every two years in August, the square is filled with a huge flower carpet that stays up for a few days. It is composed of colorful begonias arranged in distinct decorative patterns.
TRIVIA: Near this square at Charles Buls you will find a statue of Everard ‘t Serclaes. It is a monument that commemorates Everard, a citizen of Brussels who recovered the city from the Flemish. What’s interesting about this is that other than its history, locals have said that rubbing or touching the statue (particularly on the arm) brings luck and grants the wishes of all those who touch it! …Well, it doesn’t hurt to try, right?
#2 – Witness the famous Manneken Pis (Look out for Jeanneke and Zinneke too!)
Located near the Grand Place just between Rue de l’Étuve/Stoofstraat and Rue du Chêne/Eikstraat is one of Belgium’s most famous landmarks, the Manneken Pis — a cute and funny 61cm bronze sculpture of a naked little boy urinating into a fountain!
This was put in place in 1618 or 1619 and a lot of legends revolve around its origins that if you ask locals about it, you will surely get different answers. Some would say that it signifies a young lord in 1142 that urinated on troops that were trying to occupy Brussels (the enemy troops eventually lost) and this thereby illustrates the attitude of Belgians towards people who try to oppress them. Meanwhile, others would explain that in the 14th century while the city was under attack, a boy named Julianske saw the enemy forces setting up an explosive and he quickly urinated on the burning fuse to save the city. Another legend states that a boy woke up to see a starting fire by the king’s castle and he put it out by urinating on it.
…Ultimately, no one can really tell you the true and only meaning behind it, but the legends are interesting enough to hear in order to put some reason on why this naked little boy became one of the most popular statues in the country! Anyhow, what we are truly sure about is that:
- The Manneken Pis has been stolen a lot of times that eventually, the original restored version is now being kept at the Breadhouse in Grand Place.
- He is dressed up in a LOT of different costumes and this is done several times each week (you can see its schedule on the railings around the fountain). Sometimes, he would even be ‘peeing’ wine or beer!
- Though this Manneken Pis in Brussels is the best-known, there are actually other existing ones found in some Belgian towns like in Geraardsbergen (with ongoing disputes whether the one located here is older than the one in Brussels), Koksijde, Hasselt, Ghent, Bruges, and more. There is even a Manneken Pis in Tokushima, Japan which was a present given by the Belgian Embassy.
- TIP: Try to see the girl version, Jeanneke Pis, that is located in Impasse de la Fidélité (a narrow cul-de-sac in Rue des Bouchers). Erected in 1987, it is currently surrounded by iron bars in order to protect it from vandalism. Aside from Jeanneke, if you have the time, see the dog version too, the Zinneke Pis, that was put up in 1998 and found in Rue des Chartreux and Rue du Vieux-Marché.
Rightmost photo by John Williams / CC
#3 – Window-shop at Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert
A must-see! I fell in love at first sight with the architecture in this shopping arcade, and I especially liked its beautifully vaulted glass ceilings. Apparently, this is Europe’s first covered shopping gallery since it was built in 1847 — with this fact, it clearly precedes the other famous 19th-century shopping arcades such as the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan and The Passage in St Petersburg.
Housing over 54 luxury shops, this gallery has two major sections — the Galerie du Roi (King’s Gallery) and the Galerie de la Reine (Queen’s Gallery) — with a smaller side gallery called as the Galerie des Princes (Gallery of the Princes). Personally, I simply enjoyed walking through this place and I would often ogle at a well-known Belgian chocolatier brand’s
store because of their mouth-watering displays!
TIP: The King’s Gallery and Queen’s Gallery are separated by a ‘bend’, and in this section, you will see the Rue des Bouchers, a famous, colorful, and photogenic pedestrian street that is jam-packed with restaurants. If you pass by, a lot of the shop attendants will try to lure you in to their establishment; however, I advise that you refrain from dining here since it is a big ‘tourist trap’. It’s better for you to spend your money elsewhere on food.
#4 – Take the Comic Strip Trail
…by creating your own personalized comic walk! To do this, see these maps:    which shows the complete list and locations of famous comic strip murals that you can see around Brussels. You don’t need to do all though, feel free to just pick out the spots that you really want to see in order to save time (especially if you are short of it).
Now I bet you are wondering why you should do this and my answer is this: if you really want to know more about Brussels’ culture, comic history is one of things that you should immerse yourself in!
Besides, did you know that the homeland of the popular comic series ‘The Adventures of Tintin” is Brussels? The Smurfs, Spirou, Lucky Luke and the Daltons, Corentin, Black and Mortimer are also some of the many famous comics that have been born here!
TIP: To learn more about the comic culture in Belgium, stop by the museum: Belgian Comic Strip Center (Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée – CBBD).
#5 – Enjoy the FREE museums!
(L) Musical Instruments Museum (R) Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium via Brussels.info
Yes, FREE! There are a LOT of museums in Brussels that have no entrance fees! For example, if you are interested in the history of combat and military for ten centuries, feel free to explore the impressive Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and of Military History. Otherwise, if you want a fun and hands-on experience of the European Parliament, head to the Parlamentarium!
TIP: To see a complete list of FREE Brussels’ Museums, go here.
Other famous museums such as the Musical Instruments Museum (MIM), Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, and Museum of Natural Sciences (perfect for kids!) are also free to the public but only on the first Wednesday of each month. Therefore if you can time your visit well, you can definitely enjoy these cultural experiences to your heart’s content!
TIP: To see a complete list of FREE museums on certain days, go here. And if you ever drop by MIM, make sure to visit its rooftop terrace for a brilliant view of the capital!
#6 – Relax in the city gardens and parks
Brussels may be a bustling city but it is also full of large green spaces! My favorite ones are:
- Mont des Arts. Previously a densely-populated district, it is now an elevated park that offers breathtaking view of the city. From here, you can visibly see the Grand Place and the City Hall. (Nearby are the Musical Instrument Museum, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, and the Royal Palace).
- Parc de Bruxelles. The largest urban public park in the center of the city. It is a rectangular area that is at 13.1 hectares with surrounding structures like the Royal Palace and Belgian Parliament.
- Place du Petit Sablon. A small yet charming garden ringed by 48 bronze statues that depict medieval professions. This was built as a dedication to Counts Egmont and Hornes who were executed during the Spanish invasion because of their resistance.
- Parc du Cinquantenaire. This was created by King Leopold II to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the independence of Belgium (1880). Sized at about 30 hectares, it includes various spacious gardens, an arched centerpiece, and 3 museums (Cinquantenaire Museum, Autoworld [vintage car museum], and the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and of Military History).
- Serres Royales De Laeken. (Royal Greenhouses) – Apart from the plants, the architecture of these greenhouses are fantastic and every spring, it is open to the public for 3 weeks so I advise that you take advantage of it!
- Bois de la Cambre. A part of the huge Forêt de Soignes (Sonian Forest), head over to this park if you want some serious time away from the city.
TIP: To see a complete list of parks and gardens in Brussels, see here.
(If you want a taste of the east, head to the Chinese Pavilion and Japanese Tower at Laeken)
#7 – Catch sight of Europe & Belgium’s important political institutions
As I have previously mentioned, Brussels has been called as the heart of Europe because it houses most of the European Union’s vital organizations which are particularly found in the European Quarter of Brussels — the unofficial name of the area corresponding to the approximate triangle between Parc de Bruxelles, Parc du Cinquantenaire, and Leopold Park. In here, some of the most notable ones you will see are the:
- European Commission. The executive of the European Union (EU), it is located in an office building near Parc du Cinquantenaire in Rue de La Loi that’s called as Berlaymont.
- Council of the European Union. Its headquarters is found in Justus Lipsius Building next to the Schuman roundabout that is opposite the Berlaymont building.
- European Parliament. Located to the south between Leopold Park and Luxembourg Square.
Photo by: Martin Mycielski / CC
Meanwhile, you will find Belgium’s main political buildings in Parc de Bruxelles (Park of Brussels) with each structure on opposite sides of the park and facing one another to symbolize Belgium’s government system which is a constitutional monarchy:
- Royal Palace of Brussels. The official palace of the King and Queen of Belgium; however, this is not their royal residence since the king and his family live in Royal Palace of Laeken. (It is typically closed but it is open to the public during summer).
TRIVIA: You will know if the king is inside the country when you see the Belgian flag on top of this building.
- Palace of the Nation. Where the Belgian Federal Parliament sits.
Other than these, you can also check out the Palace of Justice which is the most important Court building in Belgium. It is situated on Galgenberg hill and its dimensions make it bigger than the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome!
#8 – Discover the city’s stunning churches
Even though most of them require entrance fees, gaining the chance to glance at their intricately-designed facades is already a good opportunity that you should take! To name a few:
- Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. A Roman Catholic church that has St. Michael and St. Gudula as its patron saints (which is also the patron saints of Brussels). This cathedral is also often used for ceremonies that are of national interest (royal marriages, state funerals, etc.) and this is mainly due to its importance and location in the nation’s capital.
- National Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Inspired by the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur in Paris, this enormous building does not only hold Church celebrations but also holds conferences, exhibitions, a restaurant, a theatre, a Catholic radio station, and two museums.
- Church of Our Lady of Laeken. A beautiful neo-Gothic church that was originally built in memory of Queen Louise-Marie, wife of King Leopold I. Over the years, the crypt here holds tombs of the Belgian royal family including those of all the former Belgian kings.
TIP: To see a complete list of churches in Brussels, go here.
#9 – View the famous Atomium
Originally built for the Brussels World’s Fair (Expo) in 1958, the Atomium was only supposed to last for 6 months, but it became so popular that it wasn’t taken apart. From then on up to today, the Atomium became a major part of the Brussels landscape as a way to embody the ideas of the future and universality.
So what does this structure represent? The 9 atoms of a unit cell of an iron crystal. It was a reference to science — which was the theme of the Expo — and the use of the atom, which was in full development at the time.
Standing at 102 meters tall, you can explore the inside of these spheres (5 out of 9, with the top-most part offering visitors the chance to see a wonderful panoramic view of the city) — however, visiting the interior comes with an entrance fee. Still, viewing it from the outside is already a wonder of its own! If you have the time, I suggest that you lounge around by the surrounding Heysel Exhibition Park area, have a picnic, and enjoy the view of this peculiar yet fascinating construction.
TIP: Though not free, near the Atomium is the famous ‘Mini Europe‘ miniature park which makes for a fun trip and photo spree! TRIVIA: The miniature monuments that you will see here were chosen for the quality of their architecture or their European symbolism, and most of these models took a while to make (they also cost a LOT to make)!
#10 – Take advantage of FREE music and theatre shows
Photo by: iMAL.org / CC
Not only does Brussels have free museums but it has free performances too! The Museum of Musical Instruments, for instance, hosts regular free concerts, and there are even several bars across the city that hold free concerts from time to time to spice up everybody’s nightlife — surely one of the great things to do in Brussels!
TIP: To see a complete list of these free shows, click the links below for:
» How to Get to Brussels?
By Train. Thalys, Fyra, Eurostar, ICE, TGV, NMBS and SNCB all lead to Brussels. You can choose from 3 main train stations: Midi-Zuid (south of the city), Central-Centraal (right at the heart of the city), or Nord-Noord (north of city center).
By Plane. You can choose to land into the main airport Brussels Airport (BRU) or Brussels South Charleroi Airport (CRL) which is 60km south of the central station.
By Bus. Eurolines, Megabus, De Lijn, and TEC all cn travel to/from Brussels.
» If you want a more detailed transportation planner, try using Rome2Rio! I am in love with this platform since it gives you all the possible routes.
» Where to Stay in Brussels?
» Check by Booking.com for the best deals on other hotels, inns, and hostels in Brussels!
There are VARIOUS other things that you can still do in this diverse metropolitan area, but for now, these free activities should do! I guess I will just let it up to you to discover the other interesting (and paid) places in Brussels since ‘getting lost’ in a foreign city and discovering hidden gems are the fun part of travel that you should experience.
Though, if I may add one more tip to you, NEVER leave Belgium without trying its famous food and dishes! You can’t really get these for free of course, but it’s an indulgence that everyone should take up. So while you’re in Brussels, other than trying the country’s famous fries, chocolates, waffles, and beer, do also try the other Belgian fares as mentioned in the article below…
Anyhow, by now you can see that Brussels can be a magnificent wonder of its own, that you can already save tons of money without missing out on anything — since most of the primary spots are free to see and explore anyway! Now before I end this post, let me leave you with these last two important tips:
- Check the weather – Belgium is famous for having finicky weather; therefore, try to time your visit on a sunny day.
- Wear good walking shoes – Like any other European city, Brussels is best explored on foot and in order to do this, you have to ensure that you’re wearing your most comfortable footwear.