61 Best Sights in Brussels, Belgium

Atomium

Laeken Fodor's choice

Like a giant, shiny child's toy rising up out of a forest, the Atomium was created in 1958 as part of the World's Fair of Brussels. It's shaped like an atom, with an elevator taking you up the central axis where walkways link to the protruding spheres by escalators. One sphere contains a permanent exhibition about the building's history; the others are set aside for temporary displays on design and architecture. Audio guides in English are available and there are great views from the top sphere, known as the Panorama. 

Buy Tickets Now

Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée

Lower Town Fodor's choice
Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée
Chad Bontrager / Shutterstock

It fell to the land of Tintin to create the world's first museum dedicated to the ninth art—comic strips. While comics have often struggled for artistic recognition, they have been taken seriously in Belgium for decades. In the Belgian Comic Strip Center, they are wedded to another strongly Belgian art form: Art Nouveau. Based in an elegant 1903 Victor Horta–designed building, the museum is long on the history of the genre, if a little short on kid-friendly interaction. In addition to Tintin, the collection includes more than 400 original plates and 25,000 cartoon works. A library and brasserie are added incentives, but best of all is the bookshop, which sells a comprehensive collection of graphic novels and comic books, albeit largely in French or Dutch. Keep an eye out for the comic-strip murals that dot the city; walking maps showing the location of each one can be found at the tourist information office.

Coudenberg/Musée BELvue

Upper Town Fodor's choice

Under the place Royale lie the remains of the palace of Charles V. Known as Coudenberg, it was first constructed in the 11th century and upgraded over hundreds of years in line with the power and prestige of Brussels's successive rulers. However, it was destroyed by a great fire in 1731 and was never rebuilt. Parts of it, and one or two of the streets that surrounded the original building, have since been excavated. Access is through the Musée BELvue, which is worth seeing in its own right and unpicks Belgium’s history of democracy and its royal family.

Recommended Fodor's Video

Grand Place

Lower Town Fodor's choice
Grand Place
skyfish / Shutterstock

This jewelry box of a square is arguably Europe's most ornate and theatrical. It's also a vital part of the city—everyone passes through at some point. At night, the burnished facades of the guild houses look especially dramatic. Try to make it here for the Ommegang, a historical pageant re-creating Emperor Charles V's reception in the city in 1549 (in June and July), or for the famed Carpet of Flowers, which fills the square with color for four days in mid-August on even-numbered years. Dominating the square is the magnificent Gothic-era Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall). Work began on it in 1402, and it's nearly 300 years older than the surrounding guild houses. The belfry is topped by a bronze statue of St. Michael crushing the devil beneath his feet. 

Kasteel van Beersel

Fodor's choice

Beersel Castle floats on the waters of its moat like some medieval bath toy. It's a wonderful sight, and one of the country's best-preserved châteaux. It was built around 1420, though fell foul of the 1489 rebellion against the rule of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and was subsequently rebuilt. Its moat, drawbridge, and battlements couldn't be more medieval in appearance if they tried. It's been undergoing renovations since the early 2000s and now visitors can explore freely. 

Lotsestraat 65, Beersel, 1650, Belgium
02-359--1636
Sights Details
Rate Includes: €4, Closed Mon. and Dec.--Feb.

Kasteel van Gaasbeek

Fodor's choice

Originally built in 1240, Gaasbeek has had numerous makeovers, though its current Romantic look hails from its last remodeling by the Marchioness Arconati Visconti in the 19th century. She refurbished the castle as a museum to stash her vast art collection before gifting it all to the state in 1921. From its terrace is a fine panoramic view of Pajottenland. You'll have to wait until April 2023 to see it, as the interior of the castle is undergoing a major restoration. That said, the grounds are a fair consolation and the park remains open to visitors and picnickers year-round. The gardens only open in summer. Look out especially for the early Baroque walled French garden, which has a staircase affording fine views of the castle

Les Marolles

Lower Town Fodor's choice

If the Grand Place stands for old money, the Marolles neighborhood stands for old—and current—poverty. Times are changing, but the area still has some raffish charm. This was once home to the poor workers who produced the luxury goods for which Brussels was famous. As that industry faded, immigrants, mostly from North Africa and Turkey, made homes here. The hugely popular daily Vieux Marché (flea market) at the place du Jeu de Balle sells clothing, bric-a-brac, plain junk, and the occasional gem. Trendy shops are found on the surrounding rue Haute and rue Blaes. 

Keep in mind, that despite improvements, this area can be pretty sketchy at night.

Manneken Pis

Lower Town Fodor's choice

Despite drawing sightseers for centuries, the minuscule statue of the peeing boy may leave you underwhelmed. The first mention of the Manneken dates from 1377, and he's said to symbolize what Belgians think of the authorities. The "original" version was commissioned from noted sculptor Jerome Duquesnoy in 1619 to replace the old stone one, though what is on display now is a copy. The original was once seized by French soldiers, and to quell local unrest, King Louis XV of France presented the Manneken Pis with a gold-embroidered suit, thus starting a bizarre trend. The statue now has more than 1,000 costumes (the safe-sex outfit is truly remarkable!) for ceremonial occasions, and even has his own personal dresser. 

You can see a selection of the statue's many outfits at the GardeRobe Manneken Pis museum at nearby 19 rue du Chêne.

Buy Tickets Now

Musée des Instruments de Musique (MIM)

Upper Town Fodor's choice

This four-story building is almost as impressive as the museum it houses. Built in 1899, architect Paul Saintenoy didn't hold back. Its elaborate facade twists its glass and iron into a symphony of Art Nouveau. Inside, it's no less fascinating. If you've ever wanted to know what a gamelan or Tibetan temple bell sounds like, here's your chance. In addition to seeing more than 2,000 instruments, you can listen to most of them via headphones. Head to the rooftop café for fantastic views of the city; also look out for MIM's regular lunchtime concerts—some are even free.

Musée Fin-de-Siècle

Upper Town Fodor's choice

The collection focuses on an era (1868–1914) when European art stopped gazing all moist-eyed at history and instead turned its attention to the world around it. The museum charts this changing of the guard, beginning with the rebellion against academic tradition and the dominant themes of Romanticism that gave rise to the birth of Realism, through to the freer style of the Impressionists, and all the way up to World War I. Belgian painters featured include Guillaume Vogel and the powerful imagery of Symbolist Léon Spillaert, who runs the gamut from Impressionist-style beaches to brooding self-portraits and Gothic-infused horror. Elsewhere, work by masters such as Paul Gauguin, Auguste Rodin, and Emile Galle place the collection and the art scene of the period at the center of a burgeoning international movement. A powerful reminder of a time when Brussels was one of the great creative capitals.

Musée Horta

Fodor's choice

The house where Victor Horta (1861–1947), one of the major forces in Art Nouveau design, lived and worked until 1919 is the best place to see how he thought. Inspired by the direction of the turn-of-the-20th-century British Arts and Crafts movement, he amplified its designs into an entire architectural scheme, shaping iron and steel into fluid, organic curves. Horta had a hand in every aspect of his design, from the door hinges to the wall treatments. 

Buy Tickets Now

Musée Magritte

Upper Town Fodor's choice

After years of sharing display space in the neighboring museum complex on rue de la Régence, Surrealist genius René Magritte (1898–1967) finally got his own, much-deserved space. The collection starts on level three, tracing Magritte's life and work chronologically. The artist's mother committed suicide when he was 13; certainly, her profession as a milliner is difficult to separate from his later obsession with hats. The museum expands key moments through letters, sculptures, films, and, of course, some 200 paintings, including the haunting The Domain of Arnheim.

Buy Tickets Now
Entrance at pl. Royale 1; buy tickets at rue de la Régence 3, Brussels, B1000, Belgium
02-508–3211
Sights Details
Rate Includes: €10, combo ticket €15 (includes entry to Oldmasters and Fin-de-Siècle museums), Closed Mon.

Musée Royal de l'Armée et d'Histoire Militaire

Fodor's choice

The history of Belgium is one of invasion, and Cinquantenaire Park itself has even played its role. In the dying days of World War II, it was the scene of skirmishes between the Belgian resistance and the German army. Exhibits include uniforms, weaponry, and even Leopold I's camp bed, with items dating from the Middles Ages up until the wars of the 20th century, though English translation can be sporadic. More compelling are the later sections, when suddenly you find yourself (without warning) in a vast hangar of some 50 fighter planes, gliders, cargo craft, and tanks that appear out of nowhere, or reading about the first Belgian expedition in the Antarctic. 

Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale

Fodor's choice

Any visit to Brussels should include a visit here, if only to understand Belgium's difficult relationship with its own past. While much of its collection is invaluable from a scholarly point of view, it came at an incalculable cost, rooted in Leopold II’s brutal colonial rule. Even the building itself, built for Leopold II's 1897 Exposition trumpeting his violent success in the Congo Free State (1885–1908), commemorated the names of those Belgians who died there, etched into its very walls; nothing on the 10 million Congolese estimated to have died under Belgian rule. It reopened in 2018 with less emphasis on explorers and stuffed wildlife (though there is still some). The new version focuses more on Congolese voices and accurately reflecting the horrific consequences of Belgium’s colonial rule (1908–62) of a country 76 times its own size. 

Palais Royal

Upper Town Fodor's choice
The Belgium Royal Family vacations in the Chateau de Laeken, so it's become a tradition during the summer months (late July--early September) to open up the official residence, otherwise known as the Palais Royal, to visitors. The palace was erected on the site of the former Palace of the Dukes of Brabant (aka Coudenburg), which was burned down in 1731, and the underground excavation of which you can still tour. The existing building was begun in 1820, but redesigned in the early 19th century by the extravagant Leopold II to fit a more glamorous Louis XII style. Today, it holds a remarkable collection of tapestries, art, and antiques from all over the world; pay special attention to the Congo-inspired mirror room, the ceiling of which is encrusted with more than a million jewel beetle carapaces. And best of all, it's free.

Palais Royale

Laeken Fodor's choice

The Belgium Royal Family lives in the Château de Laeken these days, and it's become a tradition to open up their inner-city residence to visitors during summer. The building was erected on the site of the former Palace of the Dukes of Brabant (aka Coudenburg), which burned down in 1731—you can still tour its underground excavation next door. Work on the existing palace was begun in 1820 but redesigned in a more garish neoclassical style in the early 19th century by Leopold II. Today, it holds a remarkable collection of tapestries, art, and antiques from all over the world. 

Parc du Cinquantenaire

Cinquantenaire Fodor's choice

The most picturesque park in the city is a joy in summer when its shaded grassy lawns and paths fill with joggers, picnickers, dance troupes, and even climbers practicing on its walls. It is home to a number of museums as well as the capital's take on the Arc de Triomphe: the Arcade du Cinquantenaire. Pay special attention to the park's northwest corner where you'll find the Great Mosque. This was originally built as an Arabic-style folly for a national exhibition in 1880 but was gifted to King Faisal ibn Abd al-Aziz of Saudi Arabia to use as a place of worship in 1967, and has remained a mosque ever since. 

Plantentuin Meise

Fodor's choice

Belgium's national botanic garden is a sprawling site that takes up most of the southern fringes of Meise. It wraps the old estate of Kasteel van Bouchou, which, despite being utterly destroyed during the French Revolution, was later rebuilt and now houses a museum all about the grounds. Beyond its moat lies an English-style garden filled with exotic plants from around the world, but the pièce de résistance here is the Plant Palace, the largest greenhouse in Belgium and one of the biggest in Europe. It is a vast biome of 35 hothouses filled with huge water-lily pads and tropical wonders. Other sights, such as the much smaller, mid-19th-century Balat Greenhouse, which was originally intended for a zoo, are just as fascinating for those interested. In addition, you'll find medieval, medicinal, and rose gardens, rhododendron woods, trails, art, an apiary, and some 18,000 plant species. Visit any time, though spring is naturally the most colorful season.  

Sint-Pieterskerk

Fodor's choice

This magnificent Gothic church was originally built in AD 986, though the current version dates to the 15th century. It has survived countless wars, most notably in 1914 when fire collapsed its roof, and then again in 1944 when the northern transept was bombed. Inside, the church is filled with art of the late medieval era. Among the finest pieces is the 15th-century Last Supper triptych by Leuven-based Flemish Primitive artist Dirk Bouts, still hanging in its original place in the chapel. 

Grote Markt 1, Leuven, 3000, Belgium
016-272--959-tour
Sights Details
Rate Includes: €12 HoloLens tour; €5 tablet tour, Closed Wed. Oct.–Mar.

Stadhuis

Fodor's choice

There is no grander Town Hall in Belgium than Leuven's 15th-century folly. Built to dazzle, the profits from its cloth trade were sunk into letting everyone know just how wealthy its merchants were. Some 235 individually carved stone figures decorate the outside, cut into small alcoves and giving the building a strange texture from afar. These figures were added after 1850, and each tells a different folk tale, bible parable, or story of the city; you'll also find grotesques of local nobles and dignitaries. 

Théâtre Royal de Toone

Lower Town Fodor's choice

This marionette theater troupe has been going for eight generations, performing plays in the old Brusseleir dialect with hefty doses of local humor and innuendo. It's suitable for kids, though, and even if your French isn't up to scratch, there's fun to be had just looking around. Plays last two hours (including intermission) and are held on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (twice). These range from "puppet" Hamlet and Faust to The Passion, with tickets sold just before each show. Alternatively, many people come just for the quirky downstairs bar, Toone (Tuesday–Sunday, noon–midnight), which is locally famous in its own right and is scattered with marionettes and memorabilia.

Universiteitsbibliotheek

Fodor's choice

The original Flemish-Renaissance library was set up in the old Cloth Hall on Naamsestraat in 1636. But after the university was disbanded during the French Revolutionary Wars, its collection was ushered away to Paris. Though destroyed in 1940 by British-German artillery fire, postwar it was rebuilt to the same design and today, visitors can climb the 300 steps to the top of the tower where a carillon of 63 bells, weighing 35 tons, rings out across the square. 

Monseigneur Ladeuzeplein 21, Leuven, 3000, Belgium
Sights Details
Rate Includes: €7 tower and audio guide, Reservations required

Autoworld

Cinquantenaire

A vast collection of vintage automobiles sits in what was originally planned (in the early 1900s) to be a grand exhibition hall. As time rolled on, hosting such fairs proved impractical due to how built-up the area became. These days, the hall makes the perfect showcase, its curved steel-and-glass roof giving the impression of a huge Art Deco garage. Exhibits range from Model T Fords to '50s Americana vehicles. 

Parc du Cinquantenaire, Brussels, 1000, Belgium
02-736--4165
Sights Details
Rate Includes: €15

Cathédrale St-Michel et Ste-Gudula

Upper Town
Cathédrale St-Michel et Ste-Gudula
Niradj | Dreamstime.com

All royal weddings take place in this fine cathedral, with its twin Gothic towers and stained-glass windows. One namesake, St-Michel, is recognized as the patron saint of Brussels, typically pictured slaying a dragon (Satan) but mention Ste-Gudule and most people will draw a blank. Very little is known about this daughter of a 7th-century Carolingian nobleman, but her relics have been preserved here for the past 1,000 years. Construction of the cathedral began in 1226 and continued through the 15th century; chapels were added in the 16th and 17th centuries. 

Pl. Sainte-Gudule, Brussels, 1000, Belgium
02-229--2490
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Crypt: €3; archaeological site: €1, Treasury closed Sun., Mon., and Fri., Booking required for tours

Charlier Museum

Schaerbeek

This museum was originally an artist’s home. Sculptor Guillaume Charlier and his friend Henri Van Cutsem were avid art collectors and asked Victor Horta to convert two houses into one to contain their treasures. It’s an eclectic mix, with piles of decorative objects from the 18th to 20th centuries, an impressive collection of Belgian art, and Charlier’s own realistic works vying for attention.

European Union Quarter

Upper Town

The European Union was born in the embers of World War II, as an antidote to the nationalism that had swept Europe and caused such chaos. Its parliament shifts monthly between Strasbourg (France) and Brussels, where it occupies the Paul-Henri Spaak building (rue Wiertz 43). Hour-long audio-guide tours of Parliament and the Hemicycle, the debating chamber where plenary sessions are held, are available on weekdays (book online).  The nearby Parliamentarium visitor center is more accessible and attempts to break down just how the EU works.

Greenhouses of Laeken

Laeken

Laeken is where you'll find the Royal Greenhouses, a glorious mid-19th-century mesh of steel and glass set within the grounds of the summer palace, where the Belgian royal family spends most of their time. It's only open to visitors for three weeks every spring (between April and May), but it's worth catching. The height of its winter garden, designed by Alphonse Balat, made it possible to plant palm trees for the first time in Belgium; the originals still stand here

Groot Begijnhof

Beguinages were where unmarried women could dedicate themselves to God without taking the orders of a nun (poverty, chastity). This is one of the larger examples in the country, home to some 700 beguines at its peak. Its foundation dates back to 1232, but most of its 72 redbrick houses were built in the 17th century. The last beguine left here in the 1980s; by then, it had already been bought by the university, who set about restoring its houses. 

Groot Begijnhof, Leuven, 3000, Belgium
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Free

Grote Markt

At the bustling center of the city is the triangular wedge of the Grote Markt, home to the magnificent St. Peter's Church and Town Hall. On one side are the old guild houses, now café-bars. Gaze up to the tips of their gabled roofs and you'll spy elaborate decorations, from dancing girls to sailing ships, that lend a clue to their former masters. On the other side is the Tafelrond, formerly a theater that was destroyed in 1817. This was rebuilt in the Gothic style as a bank; now it's a very expensive (€400 a night) boutique stay. 

Hallerbos Forest

About 8 km (5 miles) south of Beersel, you'll encounter the wilderness area of Hallerbos. It's known locally as "the blue forest" for good reason: come mid-April and early May, the ground underneath becomes a dazzling carpet of blue-violet flowers, as bluebells cover every inch. It's a small window of opportunity, though it's a pleasant spot to wander at any time of year. To get there, take the train from Beersel to Halle, then either hire a bike at the station (www.blue-bike.be) and cycle or take the No. 155 bus.  

Hallerbos, Beersel, 1500, Belgium
Sights Details
Rate Includes: Free