I heard mixed things about visiting Brussels, the capital of the multicultural country of Belgium, and even more about visiting Brussels in winter. People either seemed to have a love or hate relationship with the administrative home of the European Union, and as somewhere I had been meaning to go for a long time but always, well, found other places to go instead, I was actually excited at the prospect of finding out what to do in Brussels, and what Belgium is like as a whole.
Belgium is known for being a melting-pot of sorts. From the mixture of different languages spoken in a small country to the historic grand architecture and medieval towns melding with modern designs across the country. However, there are many things that Belgium is distinctly known for, in particular, it’s comfort food of waffles, chocolate, beer, frites, and mussels.
Coming from outside of Europe, I’ve never really heard people speak about visiting Belgium as a bucket list destination. Instead, it’s normally an add-on to a wider European adventure. Maybe with the exception of Bruges, thanks mostly to the film “In Bruges”, of course. However, after having visited, I think that Belgium and Brussels deserve far more credit than they are given as destinations in their own right.
While visiting Belgium in summer and enjoying the delights of boating and outdoor cafes along the canals of the medieval towns might seem highly appealing, visiting Belgium in winter is another story. Average daily temperatures in winter are at 3 degrees celcius, so although not freezing, it makes for a rather chilly time to visit. However, a recent trip to Brussels in winter convinced me that it’s well worth the trip, and actually, a great time to visit Belgium.
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Things to do in Brussels in winter
Yes, I am listing the first thing to do in Brussels as eat… but in all seriousness, the food is one of the best things about visiting Brussels! The smell of freshly cooked waffles and melted chocolate hangs in the air, and you won’t be able to stop your mouth watering until you try something.
When it comes to waffles, there are two types – the Brussels waffle and the Liege waffle. The former is made into a large square and tastes very light, with a slight crunch. The later is much sweeter and more doughy, with pearl sugar included in the batter that caramelises on the outside and melts on the inside. Both can be eaten with a variety of toppings including cream and fresh fruit, and of course, melted chocolate. They’re traditionally a breakfast or dessert food, but I’d suggest them at any time of day!
Chocolate is another delicious specialty in Belgium and is mostly famous due to the invention of the praline, which is a chocolate shell around a soft centre that is often a mixture of ground nuts, sugar, and creme. Belgian chocolate is also often higher in cocoa than say, Swiss chocolate. There are specialty chocolate shops all over Belgium and plenty in Brussels. Step inside to get out of the cold in Brussels in winter, and get a hot chocolate for as little as €1.You can buy pre-packaged chocolate or choose your own from a huge array usually found at shops counters. Prices will vary greatly, but we found a place that had 15 specialty chocolates for €6, which was pretty good!
Mussels and frites (fries) are another Belgian specialty. In New Zealand and Australia, there are Belgian restaurants that serve huge pots of mussels in a variety of flavours paired with a cone of chips and mayonnaise. I was so excited to try the real thing in Brussels! The only thing is, European mussels are much smaller than the New Zealand variety, so although the dish was tasty, it wasn’t the best mussels and frites I’ve ever had.
However, for people who don’t like mussels or who just aren’t quite sure, the smaller mussels are actually a better introduction. They are often paired with a broth of whatever flavour you’d like to try. Pick something like bacon and cheese which is a fairly powerful taste by itself if you’re not convinced! Also, the fries are pretty good, but the mayonnaise is what makes it. I don’t even like mayonnaise, and I love it in Belgium. Go figure.
Aside from food, Belgium’s other great love is beer. Brussels is full of great pubs and bars where you can sample the wide variety of Belgian beer on offer. We visited Delirium, which I wouldn’t say is the most amazing bar but it is a popular choice due to its offering of over 2000 beers, live music, and plenty of seating. It made a great escape from the cold of Brussels in winter and we enjoyed an afternoon spent trying beers.
I actually loved that one of the best things to do in Brussels is just find somewhere to soak up the atmosphere and have some drinks, rather than feeling like we had to constantly be on the move and visiting a ton of places. I’d highly recommend the cherry beer, but be careful, at 8% you can’t have too many!
Visit Grand Place
The Grand Place is the central square of Brussels, and where you can view some of the best architecture, including the city hall and historic guilded houses. You can’t see the square until you’re right in it, and there are so many small streets surrounding it it’s like a rabbit warren in places, but a wonderful place to explore. It’s worth a visit during the day and at night, to see it illuminated. There’s a flower market held on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and in August, a huge flower carpet transforms the cobblestones into a work of art.
In winter, for a month from the end of November, the Grand Place becomes one of the best Christmas markets in Europe, with a huge Christmas tree and hundreds of chalets selling Christmas wares and delicious food. One of the highlights of visiting Brussels in winter!
Enjoy the Atomium
Constructed for the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, the Atomium has become a landmark building in the city, built to resemble an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. It’s a little out of the city centre, but if you venture there you’ll be able to go up inside of it, visit the museum, and stop in at Mini-Europe next door, where the most famous sites in Europe have been recreated in miniature.
See the view at Mont des Arts
Brussels is home to many museums, and you can visit several around the Mont des Arts, including the Museum of Musical Instruments and the Magritte Museum. However, it’s also a great spot to take in the view of Brussels, if a little chilly in winter!
Venture to the Tintin Museum
Brussels is a great place for Tintin fans, given it’s where he was first seen in a Brussels newspaper called Le Petit Vingtième. His creator, Georges Remi, drawing under the name Hergé, is regarded as a great artist in Belgium, and you can visit Musée Hergé, a shuttle bus or one-hour train ride away. However, keep an eye out around Brussels for large-scale Tintin murals too!
Sift through the Vintage Markets and Stores
Brussels has an impressive collection of vintage shops and markets. Visit the Place du Grand Sablon with beautiful antique shops or Rue Haute, Rue Blaes and the morning market at Place du Jeu de Balle.
Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert
This 19th-century pedestrian shopping arcade is a lovely place to wander through when you’re walking around Brussels in winter. For one, you’ll be out of the cold a little, and you’ll be able to marvel at the shop windows with everything from dazzling jewellery to macarons and chocolate.
You can’t talk about visiting Brussels and not mention Manneken Pis, a small bronze statue of a boy peeing in a fountain. It’s probably one of the most random attractions I’ve ever sought out, and honestly, I’m still confused, but it’s said he embodies the sense of humour and rebellious spirit of Brussels. On any given day he could be dressed in one of over 900 specially crafted costumes. There is also a Jeanneke Pis, the female equivalent, located near Delirium, and Het Zinneke, a dog version…
Day trips from Brussels
Belgium is a small country with a fantastic train network, both within the country and to other European destinations. If you’re looking for day trips from Brussels, I’d recommend seeing a different side of Belgium in the following medieval towns.
Antwerp is the second largest city in Belgium, but it retains it’s medieval look in the centre of the city. It’s well-known as a fashion destination and for its hip bars and cafes.
The border guard at the airport and our taxi driver both asked if we would be visiting Bruges while we were in Belgium, and while we initially didn’t think so, we ended up doing so and I’m so glad! It’s just over one hour from Brussels to Bruges, and an easy day trip to make due to frequent trains. The town is, of course, famous for “In Bruges” a black comedy crime film starring Colin Farrell. While I have to admit I’ve never seen it, the cobblestone streets of Bruges did delight me. However, even Bruges in winter was crowded, so I can’t imagine how it is in summer!
Read more: What to Do in One Day in Bruges
Ghent, between Brussels and Bruges, is a popular place to stay to discover Belgium. It too retains it’s medieval heart, with historic buildings running along canals, but it’s also home to a vibrant music scene.
Packing for Brussels in winter
Choosing what to pack for Brussels in winter is all about layers. You’ll want to have a warm coat, hat, gloves, and scarf, but given you’ll likely be going to restaurants and shops where it’s very warm, layers underneath are key! It doesn’t often snow in Brussels, but waterproof and warm footwear is a must! Make sure they’re comfortable because you’ll be walking the streets a lot too.
How to get to Brussels
Brussels airport is located close to the city. There is a train from Brussels Zaventem Airport to Brussels Central Station 7 days a week that takes around 20 minutes and costs about €13. Depending on the location of your accommodation, you may need to get a cab or bus from there. A cab from the airport to the city centre is around €50, also depending on your final destination.
As mentioned, Brussels is well connected to the rest of Europe. The Eurostar goes from London to Brussels several times a day and only takes about 2 hours, making it a conceivable day trip from the UK! Similarly, the train between Amsterdam and Brussels is also about 2 hours, and from Brussels to Cologne as well. Between Brussels and Paris is only 1.5 hours. Basically, you could make an easy day trip from many places in Europe, or add it to your itinerary easily.
Where to stay
I would recommend staying in the centre of Brussels, as you’ll then find everything within walking distance, and be close to the train station to venture further. We stayed at the Hotel Novotel Brussels City Centre, one of 3 Novotel’s in the city. It was basic but affordable, and in a great location that allowed us to wander to the Grand Place within 5-10 minutes or to the vibrant Sainte Catherine area which had plenty of restaurants, and wasn’t so populated by tourists. I’ve also heard good things about the Ixelles area, a diverse area with lots of fantastic places to eat.
When I told people I was visiting Brussels, many people told me they weren’t big fans of the city. After having visited, I’d have to disagree but I can see why some people feel like the best of Belgium might be found elsewhere. For a large city, the most beautiful parts of Brussels are fairly limited to the centre, unless you really like modern architecture. There isn’t a ton of stuff to do unless you like museums.
But I guess what I really liked about Brussels was the energy in the air as I saw people enjoying themselves all over the city. It was a fantastic place to people watch, and to eat and drink to your heart’s content. I wouldn’t rush back because there are plenty of other places in Belgium I’d love to see, but if someone was asking for somewhere to go for an affordable weekend away that has great food and places to go out, I’d certainly recommend it!
- 6 Incredible Places You Have to See in Belgium
- What to Do in One Day in Bruges + Map
- Expat Stories: Moving to Belgium for Love
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