Ever thought about exploring the European capital on a weekend? Looking for the best things to do there in 24 or 48h? I got you covered! As most of the other capitals in Europe, although main of them all, Brussels is quite a tiny city. Therefore, it’s the perfect destination for a weekend, or even one single day, and perfectly doable by foot mostly. This Brussels itinerary will take you to all the places to see in the optimal order so that you save a lot of time! Just follow the guide!
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If you have only 24h in Brussels, the Day 1 itinerary below will perfectly work as a whole! It sums up the best things to do, all arranged geographically and in terms of timing. One day can be enough to explore the main sights of the city! Also, if you travel on a budget, please note that almost all the places listed below are completely free. Simply follow the steps and I promise you will get the best experience!
Morning in the center
To start this Day 1, head directly to the very center. This morning stroll will take you between 2-3 hours maximum, pictures and breakfast included. If you begin around 7 or 8am for instance, you will be done by 10am.
Start your day at the Grand Place
You probably came to Brussels essentially for this place, so let’s not postpone it unnecessarily. The super famous Grand Place (or Grote Markt in Dutch) is indeed the most significant landmark in town. It is also designated as one of the, if not THE, most beautiful squares in Europe, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998. Which is why it gets incredibly crowded with tourists most of the time!
Therefore and as always, nothing better to avoid the crowds than coming at sunrise. You might have the chance to have the square for yourself, especially in summer when sunrise is earlier. The photo below was taken at 7am, and as you can see, I was completely alone! Avoid Sunday morning if you can though, unless you don’t mind the alcohol smell & the beer cans left over everywhere from the party night before. Just a friendly advice 😉
The central square of Brussels has one of the greatest architecture display you will see. It is surrounded by opulent gold ornate guildhalls and two larger edifices, the city’s Town Hall and the King’s House or Breadhouse (Maison du Roi in French, Broodhuis in Dutch). This last building also contains the Brussels City Museum in case you’re interested. Moreover, if you want to check the other celebrity of the city, know that you will find the Manneken-Pis only 300 meters away. Just exit the square on the Charles Buls street (on the left when you face the Town Hall) and walk straight during 3 minutes.
A great starting point
If you are not sleeping in the city the night before, and can’t make it for sunrise, then still come as early as you can in the morning. It is a great start point for the rest of this Brussels itinerary as well! And I’m sure you want it to check it off of the list as soon as possible anyway! To get there, take the metro or tram to either Grand Place station, Bourse or De Brouckère (this last one is better). If you arrive directly by train to the Gare Centrale, you will also be only 5 minutes away by foot.
Depending on your own timing, you can also have breakfast in La Brouette restaurant, which is ideally placed on the square – photo above. Another option for that would be the stunning Drug Opera, 2 minutes away from there in a street behind – photo below. Both tested and approved!
Carry on with the Galeries royales Saint Hubert
Barely 100 meters away from the Grand Place, in the tiny historical quarter named “l’Îlot Sacré“, you will find another architectural gem: the Royal Saint-Hubert Galleries (Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert in French). Counted among the oldest galleries in Europe, this ensemble of glazed shopping arcades is absolutely beautiful.
In total, there are three passages, covered over their entire length by arched glazing. The arched glass-paned roof in question is what make them totally unique. The most visited of all 3 is the Galerie de la Reine, between the streets rue du Marché aux Herbes to the rue des Bouchers, as it is the one you will find when coming from the Grand Place.
All along this long narrow street-like courtyard, that is pedestrian of course, you will find some very renowned boutiques and venues. Among them is the utterly famous chocolate factory Nehaus, since 1857. It is there that, in 1910, Jean Neuhaus and his wife invented filled chocolate, and named it “praline“. When continuing further towards the Galerie du Roi, you can also see the Royal Theater and other chocolate shops, as Leonidas or La Belgique Gourmande for instance. The Galeries des Princes on the left near the end is smaller.
Here again, it is better to come as early as possible if you want to take pictures. The fact that it is a shopping place, and very narrow on top of it, obviously makes it packed during the day. However, to enjoy the shopping atmosphere and/or buy from the stores, it’s better to come after 9am of course.
Walk from square to square
When exiting the Galleries on the other side, take a left to head towards the Place de la monnaie. On your way, you might find the Jeanneke-Pis, the female equivalent of the Manneken-Pis! Many people don’t know it, but I like the fact that there is a feminine version too. After that, continue on the left for a few meters until you reach la Monnaie square.
Located in front of the metro station De Brouckère, La Monnaie (De Munt in Dutch) is the National Opera of Belgium. Its name, abbreviation for Royal Theatre of La Monnaie, refers both to the building and the opera company. It is a very frequented area ; particularly because the most important shopping street of the city, the pedestrian Rue neuve, starts from there.
From la Monnaie, stick to the loop and walk to the Place de la Bourse this time. Yes, as you might notice, the money lexical field is clear. Indeed, monnaie means coins (or “mint” from its official translation) and bourse means stock exchange. The Palais de la Bourse, or only Bourse as it’s commonly called, is a richly decorated neo-Palladian building, housing the Brussels Stock Exchange and framed by lion statues.
Depending on what time it is after this morning walk, you might want to have a quick lunch in that area. You can’t come to Brussels without trying the legendary belgian fries and Fritland is the perfect place to do so! Located on the side of the Bourse, it is probably the most famous chip shop of Brussels. Approved by both locals and tourists, it still stayed very authentic since its opening as a modest fries shack.
Bonus: Explore the Belgian Comic Strip Route
If it’s not lunch time yet, or if you really want to see them anyway, you can push the walk a bit forward to see some famous comic strip murals. Home to many world-renowned comic artists, Brussels is indeed often designated as the capital of comics. Hence launched in 1991, the Comic Strip Route both embellishes the city and provides a great insight into this important part of Belgium culture!
Most of the murals are a bit everywhere along this morning itinerary actually: in the streets around the Manneken Pis, in front of La Monnaie, a few streets behind the Bourse… Pay attention while you wander and you will definitely see many of them. They are all referenced on Google Maps as well if needed, just type “mur BD”. You can also find some of their exact addresses in this article and this one.
If you are even more interested, take some time to visit the Belgian Comic Strip Center, located 3 streets behind the place de la Monnaie. You can easily incorporate it in this Brussels itinerary without losing time as it’s nearby too!
Afternoon in the European & Royal Districts
The second part of this Brussels itinerary, the afternoon, includes many steps and is very detailed, but it is actually not so long! It should take you 3-4h approximately, from 1 to 4/5pm for instance.
However, careful: I ended up including quite a lot of bonuses along the itinerary as reference but it’s obviously not possible to do them all in a day, especially with the museums. The most important areas are always highlighted with bold characters.
Take a stroll in the European District
The afternoon is slowly coming, and it’s time to head towards another neighbourhood, outside the center: the European district! On the east side of Brussels, this originally residential area now comprises the headquarters of the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers and the European Commission, along with many embassies too. If you are a bit curious about the European Union, you might want to get a glimpse of where the activity mostly happens. Its emblematic architecture is also worth a sight!
However, to balance the buildings and business vibes, this side of the city is also where you will find all the main parks. Starting with the biggest one, the Parc du Cinquantenaire. It is the perfect quiet place to have a walk after your lunch, or even to take a quick nap if you feel like it. When the sun shines, you’ll often see many locals and employees having their snack or some drinks here.
To explore it properly, make sure to arrive on the farthest side of the park, where the famous Cinquantenaire’s Arch is. From the station De Brouckère, where you were before, take the tram line 1 or 5 to Mérode. It will take you around 15 minutes. It is also possible to walk between both, but it might hurt the timing, as it is a solid 50-minutes stroll.
Once under the Arch, just walk down in the park until its very end, at the Robert Schuman monument. Go straight again, and you will soon be on the Robert Schuman roundabout, with the Berlaymont on your right.
European Union symbols
The Berlaymont building houses the headquarters of the European Commission, the EU executive branch. You might have seen in on the news many times. Indeed, its unique architecture became an emblematic symbol of the Union, and even the official emblem of the Commission.
Apart from this one, you will need to make a left to see more historical or political premises, as the Parliament for instance. The area can be quite lively during the week, particularly the Place du Luxembourg. This square is the place to be on Thursday nights, when all the foreigners living in Brussels and Belgians gather to blow off some steam. Otherwise, as said before it is mostly a residential and political district, so there is no need to spend hours in it.
If you don’t want to see more than the park and the Berlaymont, just go straight on the rue de la Loi after the roundabout. A 20 minutes walk on this same street will take you right to the next step: the Royal Quarter!
Admire the Royal Quarter
From Brussels’ Park to the Royal Palace
The Royal District (Quartier Royal in French, Koninklijke Wijk or Koningswijk in Dutch) is, as its name indicates, where the Royal Palace of Brussels is located. In front of it stands the Brussels’ Park, in which you will arrive from the rue de la Loi. Just walk through it, and look at its pretty sculptures, fountains and ponds, for instance in the part named the Cercle Royal Gaulois (pictures below).
This park has seen all the historical events of Brussels since the 18th century. Indeed, it is very central and offers views on some of the most important places in town: the Place du Trône/Troonplein, the Palace of Justice (further away), and, of course, the Royal Palace right in front.
Even though this last is the official palace of the King and Queen, it is actually not used as a royal residence on a daily basis. The king and his family live in another one on the outskirts of Brussels (see Day 2 itinerary). Nowadays, the Royal Palace is “where His Majesty exercises his prerogatives as Head of State, grants audiences and deals with affairs of state“, as described by the Belgian Monarchy website. But the main interest here is really the beautiful outside architecture anyway!
The inside opens to visitors during summer only, from late July until the beginning of September, every day except Mondays. However, when it does open, the visit is free! So if you want to enter in the Palace, pick your date carefully ; August will be the safe choice.
After your contemplation, go a few meters to the right. You will pass in front of the Coudenbergpaleis (palace of Coudenberg), which used to be the seat of governance for about 700 years under countless kings, dukes, and monarchs of the Middle Ages. Charles V for instance, and many others of the most powerful rulers in Europe, treated it as home between the 12th and 18th centuries, until it was consumed in 1731 by a very destructive fire. Every trace of this prestigious palace simply disappeared underground, buried under even more by the construction of the Royal Palace. But, some recent excavations of the foundations have been made, and today, these ruins became an archeological site and a museum. Find all the information here.
The Place Royale, its church and museums
On this same Coudenberg hill (which gave its name to the palace) was also built the Place Royale (Koningsplein in Dutch, means Royal Square/King’s Square). This iconic square came to replace the ruins mentioned above, and is almost an exact replica of another Place Royale, the one of Reims, in France. The principal building on it is the beautiful Church of St. James on Coudenberg. Make sure to go inside, it offers a quick but super interesting tour, full of information about the royal family and the country’s history.
Apart from the church, you will mostly find museums on the Place Royale ; particularly the main building of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, and next to it, the Magritte Museum. This itinerary doesn’t include a moment inside, but feel free to adapt if you want to visit them. However, if you keep on walking, leaving the square behind you, there is another museum that you can’t miss! And by “can’t”, I mean literally. When taking the street that goes down, in front of the Place Royale, you will inevitably notice the breathtaking facade of the Musical Instrument Museum.
Located in the former Old England department store since 2000, the MIM exterior is absolutely remarkable, built out of girded steel and glass in the Art Nouveau style. The inside is said to be just as beautiful, and you can also get a panoramic view on Brussels from the terrace restaurant on the rooftop. Once again, if you have time, that’s another bonus you can incorporate in this Brussels itinerary!
Mont des Arts
Once the Musical Instrument Museum passed on your right, you are now entering the part called Mont des Arts. Translatable to “Hill/Mount of the Arts” in English, this urban cultural complex offers one of Brussels’ finest views. Indeed, it descends the slope from the royal hill back to the center thanks to a monumental staircase and some cascading fountains and terraces. Its main geometric public garden is amazingly pretty, and surrounded by the Royal Library of Belgium, the National Archives and some conference centers.
Wandering here is super nice, especially as there is always someone playing live music or groups of students performing any form of art. It is also a very great place for pictures in the afternoon light. Go down the stairs, pass the equestrian statue of the king Albert I, and you will find yourself back in the lively center streets.
Cathédrale des Sts Michel et Gudule
This afternoon stroll from the Cinquantenaire to Mont des Arts comes to its end, but there is still one place you need to visit before taking a well-deserved break. The Cathédrale des Sts Michel et Gudule (St Michael & St Gudula Cathedral) is only 5 minutes away on your left, near the Gare Centrale. Truly an iconic landmark, it is the main Catholic church of Belgium.
In fact, this co-cathederal is made of two twin Roman Catholic cathedrals, co-existing under the Archdiocese of Mechelen- Brussels. The edifice is built in Gothic style and took 300 years to complete. Made up of stone quarry, the outside looks astonishing. But the interior is equally stunning, with many marble alabaster altarpieces and baroque style pulpits. The stained glass windows dates back to the 1500s and the church’s organ counts over 4000 pipes.
The cathedral closes at 6pm every day of the week, apart from Saturdays, when it closes at 3.30pm. If you are precisely following this one-day itinerary on a Saturday, you might not arrive on time, depending how fast you visit the other places above. In that case, try to visit it in the morning instead, at the end of the center loop. It is only located 10 minutes away from Bourse too on the other side.
Evening views, drinks & local food
After this last step, your day is probably starting to feel pretty full! You deserved a break, and as it is most likely around 4.30/5pm now, nothing better than a sweet treat, right? It’s time to relax and enjoy some local food, starting with the famous Belgian waffles!
Taste the local waffles
When leaving the cathedral, make a left on the Boulevard de l’Impératrice to go back towards Mont des Arts location. Within 5 minutes, you should arrive in front of the Ste Marie Madeleine church. Pass it, and you will soon see the Tea Room Gaufre de Bruxelles on your right.
Selecting THE right place to have waffles in Brussels is quite an impossible mission. You will find plenty of options everywhere, fancy ones with sitting areas, street-stalls others where you take it to go, and for all prices. I have tried a lot of them in the area, and this tea salon ended up to be one of my favorites. It is quite touristy, but ideally located, especially at the end of this whole itinerary. In the afternoon, this neighborhood from Mont des Arts to the center is super lively and nice, making it the perfect break spot! You can sit either on the terrace to enjoy the streets sounds and music, or inside on the cozy first floor, from where you can look at the street through big windows.
Another great tearoom, not far from there, is the Maison Dandoy. Mostly knowned for their speculoos, they also offer delicious classic waffles, designated as “a must” by the website Vivre à Bruxelles (“live in Brussels”). In both tearooms, count around 5/6€ minimum for either a gaufre de Bruxelles (the rectangular waffles, most famous type internationally) or a gaufre de Liège (the round ones with sugar pearls inside, which are heavier).
Otherwise, you passed many others during the morning stroll, like Mokafé Taverne in the Galerie du Roi, Vitalgaufre near De Brouckère, or le Funambule near Bourse. Those 2 last are only street stalls, hence cheaper than the others, but still good. You will find tons of street corners like these selling waffles, often with the most appealing presentations. Whatever you choose, enjoy!
Gaze at the sunset from a rooftop
Once your waffle(s) devoured and your legs rested, sunset time should not be much further. And what better way to admire it than from a rooftop?! In the parallel street, near the church passed before, you will find the Secret rooftop by Warwick. Located on top of the Warwick Hotel, in the heart of the city, this “secret location” has an incredible view on Brussels.
To go up, you need to pay 10€ in advance at the hotel reception, but that same ticket value can be used on top to pay for a drink or food. It is totally worth it if you take alcohol beverages, but a bit pricey of course if you intend on taking non-alcohol ones. Depending on when you visit, it can be very crowded to not crowded at all. The place being quite small, I recommend to go around 1h prior to sunset time (especially in summer when sun sets later). Then, you will be able to save a table and enjoy their good cocktails while contemplating the view at golden hour. If you are lucky, the experience could even be topped up by some live acoustic music! I entirely recommend this place for its chill but fancy atmosphere.
Have dinner in Sainte Catherine
The sun has now set, or almost, the evening is here, and it’s time for dinner! Once again, you will find many restaurants everywhere, but in order to combine the pleasant and the useful, I recommend you to head towards Sainte-Catherine square. On the other side of the center, this area is lovely, and pretty lively too! From the Secret Rooftop, it will only take you 10 mins by foot, on a straight line crossing the center. Best way to rediscover it by night and to soak up the vibes!
A tiny bit less touristy, but perfect for nightlife, Sainte-Catherine is really appreciated by both locals and visitors. To continue on the culinary specialties tour, head to Le Pré Salé and have some traditional moules-frites (mussels with fries). You will love the atypical decoration and the warm welcome in this no frills restaurant. With its tiled floor and wooden tables, it looks straight out of the 50s, and offers an authentic “brasserie” cuisine without fuss. Far from the impersonal tourists traps you could find near the Grand Place!
For a calmer and more discreet evening, I can also recommend the Vistro. The staff in this small restaurant is absolutely adorable, and the food is good too. It is ideally located on Sainte-Catherine esplanade.
Bonus: enjoy the nightlife a bit longer
After dinner, if you are in the mood for some drinks, make sure to go to the Bar des amis. Appreciated by the locals once again, this place has the most interesting & cool flea market decor. The atmosphere is always really nice, and the staff is both friendly and very dynamic. If you like beer, you obviously have to drink some typical Belgian ones, and this bar offers a great choice!
You can also continue the night in the Brasserie le Corbeau, where the atmosphere gets crazy past a certain hour. From around 11pm, it’s usually a tradition to dance on the tables there! If you like to party, you absolutely have to go to this legendary spot. Tested and approved!
Then you can just crawl back to where you stay for a long befitting night.
Considering how full the previous day was, you might want to rest a bit on your second morning. There’s no need to wake up too early for Day 2 anyway, it won’t be as busy! Once again, with Day 1 of this Brussels itinerary you saw all the main attractions already, and the few places below are just nice bonuses you can add up. Also, the fact that they are all outside the center explains why they are less easy to access, hence less visited. However, they are next to each other, which creates a perfect tour for an additional day in the Belgian capital! Read below if you have more than one day in Brussels!
The first place to visit when you venture out and away from the city center is the Atomium. This landmark building, originally built for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair (Expo 58), has a truly unique design. As you can see below, its structure depicts nine molecular atoms assembled together, hence the name Atomium. This was chosen at the time to embody the great faith in scientific progress in the 50s.
To reach this site from the center, take the metro line 1 or 5 from De Brouckère to Beekkant. There, change for the line 6 until Heysel station.
Each sphere has a diameter of 18 meters and the building is 102 meters high in total. As for the tubes connecting the spheres, they are 3 meters in diameter. They also enclose stairs, escalators and a lift (in the central vertical tube) to reach the six accessible spheres, which contain exhibit halls and other public spaces. Indeed, after the 1958 Expo took place, the Atomium was converted into a museum.
Here is what you will find inside:
- In the bottom sphere, the permanent exhibition is dedicated to the 1950s, the 1958 World Expo, and of course, the construction of the Atomium;
- The second sphere (on the side) hosts temporary exhibitions – the one we saw was really cool and interactive (images below);
- Both the third (on the other side) and central spheres have a versatile vocation and are usually utilized for the organisation of various events, films, concerts, parties or conferences;
- Last but not least, the top sphere holds a restaurant offering a panoramic view on Brussels.
- The sixth sphere is reserved to kids. They can spend the night there within urban pedagogy workshops or other events.
However, we found it quite expensive for what it is – 15€/person. So if you travel on a budget, don’t bother going inside, it’s not a priority in Brussels. But if you can afford it and have enough time, it is still a nice place to check off of the bucketlist!
At the foot of the Atomium, you will also find a miniature park called Mini-Europe. It displays reproductions of many monuments in around 80 cities of the European Union. More information here.
The Laeken Castle and park
Right next to the Atomium, not even 5 minutes away by foot, starts the royal Park of Laeken. Created in the 19th century, under the reign of Leopold II, this public park covers more than 186 hectares. With its English-style landscape layout, featuring broad avenues, winding paths, vast lawns, flowerbeds and remarkable trees, it is the perfect place for a peaceful stroll.
Actually, many different green spaces were created inside this same enormous area. Laeken Park truly includes the Osseghem Park, the Colonial Garden, the Garden of the Japanese Tower and the Chinese Pavilion, the Florists’ Gardens, the Sobieski Park and the Square of July 21. All these parks are interconnected by what is called the Green Promenade (or Green Walk).
The Royal Domain
But as its name indicates, it is not only a public site. Indeed, this vast complex of land also hosts the Royal Domain, and specifically the Castle of Laeken, the official residence of the King and the royal family. Obviously, this part is separated from the rest by a wall and off-limits to the public.
The Royal Domain also contains the magnificent Royal Greenhouses of Laeken, a set of 30 monumental heated domes made of glass and steels, hosting the famous royal botanic collection. It opens to the public only a few days each year, during a two-week period in April–May, when most flowers are in full bloom. Other times, the greenhouses simply serve as private royal gardens, or welcome foreign heads of state during official visits.
Last but not least, you will also find the neogothic Church of Our Lady in the domain. Inside it the royal crypt, where the members of the royal family are buried, and behind it is the cemetery, known as the “Belgian Père Lachaise”.
The Basiliek Van Koekelberg
To reach the last spot of this second day from Laeken area, you will need to use public transportation again, unless you don’t mind walking 1 hour (but I must say the road is quite boring). Therefore, take the tram line 19 from Centenaire station to Collège Sacré-Coeur, which will take around 20 minutes. You will arrive right in front of the Basiliek Van Koekelberg (in Dutch). If you come from the center, take the metro lines 1 or 6 and get off at Simonis station.
Officially named Basilique Nationale du Sacré-Coeur in French, which means National Basilica of the Sacred Heart, it is yet popularly designated more simply, Koekelberg Basilica, beause of its location on Koekelberg Hill.
Inspired by the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur in Paris, this Roman Catholic Minor Basilica and parish church is then dedicated to the Sacred Heart. The construction started in 1905 but finished only in 1969, after being halted two times by the World Wars. Made of massive brick and concrete, it features two thin towers and a green copper dome. This dome rises 89 metres (292 ft) above the ground, dominating Brussels’ northwestern skyline. A museum can also be found inside.
End of the Brussels itinerary!
Once this place visited, you can officially say that you have seen all the essentials in Brussels! As you have seen above, all the symbols and highlights offered by the city can definitely be explored in one day, or two for a few bonuses. To be more comfortable and visit more attractions, you can of course plan additional time for in-depth exploration of the entire capital. There are many other spots to see and activities to do, even if all the top things are featured in this Brussels itinerary. I will soon release other posts about different topics, like the best brunches in Brussels for instance, so stay tuned!
Another option for your second day (or third/fourth..) in Brussels is to actually leave it. You can easily take a day-trip to Bruges or Gent for instance, both cities are only 1h to 1h30 away by car! More information about that is coming soon as well.
In the meantime, I hope you found this post helpful in planning your Brussels itinerary! Should you have any question left, please feel free to leave a comment below and remember that I’m always just a DM away on Instagram!
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