One of the great first things to see in Brussels is the city’s ornate and dignified historic heart: the Grand Place. Lined with elaborately rendered Gothic facades and soaring, copper-topped spires, the architectural finery looks even more resplendent lit up at night. Goings-on within the square match the surrounding fairy-tale eye candy: a flower market, classical concerts and historical pageants. At year’s end, it’s the heart of the city’s Christmas spirit, with the nativity scene one of the season’s unmissable attractions in Brussels.
If you’re a lover of grand Gothic architecture, put a visit to the Saints-Michel-et-Gudule Cathedral near the top of your list of things to do in Brussels. Looming over the Treurenberg district, this 13th century twin-towered church, with glorious 16th century stained-glass windows donated by the Habsburg King Charles V, has been called the “purest flowering of the Gothic style”. One of the most striking things to see in Brussels is its interior, which includes an elaborately carved wooden pulpit depicting Adam and Eve’s eviction from Eden.
The 102m-high Atomium is one of Brussels’ landmark buildings. This enormous monument, encapsulating the 1950s faith in the wonders of science, definitely makes for one of the quirkiest attractions in Brussels. Built in the shape of the atomic structure of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times, it features nine interconnected silver spheres. Many of these are open to visitors for exhibitions, with the highest operating as a restaurant with exceptional views.
If you’re looking for something out of the ordinary to do in Brussels, you can visit the Espace Léopold, home to the European Union parliament building. Here guided tours are available and you listen to a debate in the huge semicircular chamber of this famed democratic institution.
The Marolles Flea Market is the most famous of its kind in Brussels and is open 365 days a year. It’s a great place to scour old bric-a-brac for gifts and treasures and chat and haggle with vendors. It’s also worth visiting the surrounding district where some locals still speak the old Brussels dialect, mingling Flemish, French and Spanish. Here you’ll find intriguing vintage shops and independent boutiques around rue Haute and rue Blaes.
Wedged between EU institution highrises on one side and the posh shops of Avenue Louise on the other, Matonge is another immigrant quarter to which the city’s bobo (bourgeois bohemian) young people flock. No wonder: its affordable African restaurants, nightclubs and late-night markets create a vibrant, easygoing mix.
No guide on what to do in Brussels would be complete without Manneken-Pis, roughly translated in English as ‘Little Man Pee’. This tiny bronze statue of a little boy urinating into a fountain neatly sums up Bruxellois’ humorous take on life. It’s one of the most essential things to see in Brussels for many visitors, so you may want to come as early as possible in the day to avoid the crowds.