Usually, I choose to visit more exotic, unknown or off the beaten path destinations. Although there are some towns in Belgium I am planning to visit, Brussels was somehow never on my list. However, while returning from the trip to the amazing Greek Islands, the stopover between the flights in Brussels was around 8 hours. Was there a point to stay that long at the airport? We decided to take a risk and catch a bus to the city - at least to kill time, even if, seemingly, there was no possibility to get around and see everything in such a short time. As it turned out, we managed to visit almost all attractions within the historical center as well the famous Atomium Monument.
If you're interested in visiting Brussels, you can browse and book air, rail and coach travel from start points across Europe on GoEuro.
Brussels - Impressions and Opinions
Brussels is a very important European City, it goes without saying - it's the capital of European Union after all. It boasts beautiful monuments and churches as well as futuristic constructions - like the Atomium. In spite of all this, Brussels wasn't one of my favorite cities. It's not because it's unattractive or there's nothing to see there. It's just my impression about it and it's a matter of my personal preferences rather than attractiveness of the city. I'm a person that likes a warm, lively vibe, colorful and chaotic southern/Eastern European towns full of honesty and authenticity. I'm not a big fan of the posh and perfectly maintained cities with cold and way too formal attitude of the locals - to the point that they seem boring and soulless.
I had similar experiences in Belgrade, London, Dublin and Paris - which was the most disappointing of all. The beige-brown-grey colors and monumental and "cold" buildings dominate those cities and I failed to enjoy them the way they are advertised in the media. How Paris became the city of love is a mystery for me - especially after visiting oriental towns in the south of Europe, Balkans and Caucasus.
I'll write about my disappointment with Paris in the future, now let's get back to Brussels. In all honesty, the Belgian capital was not as bad for me. But if you like cities like Paris, Vienna etc. you should also like Brussels. I prefer Brussels than those mentioned above destinations. The locals were friendlier than in Paris and warmer than in London (but no city can beat Dublin in friendliness!). The squares are stunningly beautiful and the streets - full of cafes and restaurants as well as pubs with excellent beers are also amazing. Even though it wouldn't be a destination in itself for me - visiting Brussels during the layover was the best choice we could have made! And if you're wondering if half a day is enough - it definitely is!
The guide below will also be useful if you're staying longer in Brussels - it basically contains all the most important landmarks.
What can you see in Brussels in half a day
We visited practically all of the most important things to see in Brussels during that short period of time. But if you are a slow traveler and have only a couple of hours - you can limit yourself to the main square area where you will experience the vibe of the city and you can spend more time in one of the cafes, bars or... tasting the famous Belgian chocolates. But are they really that good? Go to the last paragraph and read my review.
This is the detailed loop route we walked around the center and what we saw along the way:
Grand Place is the most important and impressive landmark of the historic part of Brussels. It's not far from the main bus or train station - around 15 min walk. The square dates back to the Middle Ages and boats elaborate, sophisticated buildings embellished with many decorative, golden details. You can find here the spectacular Town Hall and Museum of the City of Brussels. Nearby (Rue de l'Etuve), you can find the famous statue of Manneken Pis - the peeing boy fountain.
Besides the main square, within the historic center you can easily see other important buildings - all of them within a short walk from the Grand Palace. Not far from Maneken Pis fountain (go back till Rue du Lombard and turn left, walk until the junction with Rue de la Grande Ile and turn right) you'll reach the Halles de Saint Gery - 19th century market hall which is turned now into an exhibition center and a bar.
From Place Saint Gery, continue straight along Rue Jules and you'll end up at the Bourse - Brussels Stock Exchange, founded by decree of Napoleon in the beginning of the 19th century. The building itself was erected in the late 18th century. Now, together with other cities, the Bourse is a part of Euronext - European stock exchange.
From the Bourse, continue straight down Rue de la Burse, Rue Paul Devaux and Rue Sainte-Catherine until you reach St. Catherine's Church (Sint-Katelijnekerk). Original, 15th century building was destroyed and what you can see today dates back to the 19th century. The church has an impressive, white facade, however the rear part is all dark. It looks as if the front was carefully renovated while the back left untouched. Nevertheless, it's a beautiful monument.
Walk along the church, see the Zwarte toren on the way - medieval tower which is now incorporated into a modern building. At the end of Place Sainte-Catherine, keep going straight until you reach Rue de l'Eveque. Here, you'll see Parking 58. Yes, in Brussels, it's worth to visit a car park! Especially if you don't have too much time, the top floor of the car park offers nice views over Brussels (you can even spot the Atomium) from the city center for free.
Now, go back to Rue de l'Eveque and keep walking straight all the way until Sainte-Gudule Park unless you want to see the sister of Manneken Pis - Jeanneke Pis - the statue/fountain of a peeing girl (from Rue de l'Eveque, turn right into Rue de la Fourche then right into Rue des Bouchers and right again until you're in Impasse de la Fidelite where Jeanneke Pis is located). We were't aware about Jeanneke Pis statue so, unfortunately, we missed it.
You can continue straight either Rue de l'Eveque or Rue des Bouchers till the Sainte-Gudule Park with the beautiful Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. The construction process started in the 11th century and was fully completed in the 16th century. The church boasts two massive towers and is really impressive.
Now, go back to Rue des Bouchers and visit the 19th century, high class shopping arcade - The Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. The exit on the other side is situated literally by the Grand Place - main square. So you are where you started.
Quite far from the center lies the 5th biggest church in the world (unfortunately this was the only main attraction we didn't get a chance to see) - Basilica of the Sacred Heart (Koekelberg). If you have more time - it's definitely worth seeing. The entry fee is 5 EUR. You can get there by metro: lines 1A and 2.
The Atomium and Mini-Europe
The Atomium is without a doubt the most famous landmark of Brussels and one of the most famous modern landmarks of Europe. It's not located within the walking distance from the historic center, unfortunately. Nevertheless, it's very easy to reach the Atomium by metro (line 1 and 6): here you can find all the info about getting there. The Atomium is in the shape of a molecule and looks extremely futuristic. It's hard to believe that it was built in 1958 for Expo 58. The monument is over 100 m (330 ft.) high.
We didn't have time to go inside, but I'm wondering if it's worth it. Apart from the tubes and spheres, there's basically an exhibition, restaurant and a panoramic view to enjoy in the Atomium. For that, you must pay 11 EUR. I believe that's a bit of a rip-off. Check all the price options here. Be prepared for a long wait in the line!
You can combine a ticket to Atomium with the nearby Mini-Europe park containing miniatures of all of the most famous European attractions. But bear in mind that you'll have to pay around 25 EUR for an adult! I have no idea if it's worth it. Nevertheless, from outside, the Atomium looks great and is a must-see attraction in Brussels.
Is Belgian Chocolate the best in the world?
You can find Belgian chocolates literally everywhere. Are they the best? They are, for sure one of the most expensive ones - that goes without saying. I bought quite a few different varieties, was waiting for that wow factor, something out of this world and... it was good. Really good in quality. Smooth and silky. But it wasn't something extraordinary that I wouldn't have had before. And, I bet, if one replaced the content of the fancy little bag of Belgian delicacies with normal, decent chocolates, and handed it over to an ordinary, unaware of this trick person, claiming these are the best Belgian ones, I really doubt he or she would realize the chocolates are fake.
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