Last updated October 2018A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in Brussels for a business trip and with some time to spare, I was looking for things to do in my spare time.
I had just over 48 hours in the city and most of those would be spent a) at a conference and b) sleeping so any sight seeing would need to be quick!
By nature, I’m a slow traveller, preferring to take my time to explore and absorb. However, if the opportunity for travel and adventure presents itself, even for for a short trip, I jump on it and I think I’m pretty good at maximising the time I do have.
This was my first time visiting Brussels and I only had one day, so I was determined to spend my time well and see as many of the main sight and attractions as I could.
It was early on a cold, sunny morning in February when I boarded the Eurostar at St Pancras station and set off for Belgium. The train was super quick, taking only a couple of hours. In fact, it took less time than it took for me to get to London from my home in the North West of England.
How To Spend a Day in Brussels (Things To See, Do & Eat)
The Grand Place
First stop was just around the corner from my hotel. The Grand Place is a square containing the Town Hall and Guild Halls (plus numerous restaurants, pubs and chocolate shops) and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
By day or by night, the buildings are absolutely beautiful and you can see why tourists flock to explore and take pictures.
TOP TIP: As if it couldn’t get any prettier, every two years, in August, they lay down a carpet of colourful flowers and from what I’ve seen, it looks AMAZING. Definitely worth timing your trip accordingly to see it!
Frites and Waffles
Wandering around Brussels, it’s impossible to avoid the lure of carbs and your willpower is tested at every turn.
I’d not been well before I headed to Belgium and had barely eaten for two days (this is VERY out of character – I can eat – a lot). However the sickly sweet smell of frites and waffles began to draw me in and my appetite started to return.
There were plenty of places selling frites, but strolling back towards the Grand Place, I spotted people queueing for some food. Now I have a rule of thumb when I’m in a place I know little about. If there’s a queue of locals waiting for food, then that’s where I’m going. The place was Fritland.
I ordered plain frites with ketchup and mayonaise on the side. I’d tried to order my frites in a cone, but ended up with a tray thanks to my embarrasing attempt at French.
It’s a long-standing argument between the French and the Belgians over who invented ‘French Fries’ or chips as we call them in the UK. They tasted good and that’s all I care about!
I also grabbed myself a waffle with rich chocolate sauce and fluffy cream. Yum!
TOP TIP: Warning! Do not attempt Brussels whilst on a diet. It ain’t happening folks! And if you like spice, I hear the Fritland spicy sauce is pretty special, I think I missed out!
Remember the cartoon The Adventures of Tin Tin? Well, Tin Tin is from Belgium and you can learn all about the young comic book reporter, at the Musée Hergé!
Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to go, but I saw tons of Tin Tin street art all around the city for free, so keep your eyes peeled!
TOP TIP: Belgium is a hot bed for comic strip artists. In fact it has more artists per square kilometre than any country in the world. So if you have time, you could also take a trip to the Belgian Comic Strip Centre!
After lining my stomach, I was now ready for a nice cool beverage. I’m not a massive beer drinker to be honest, but “When in Brussels…”, it would be rude not to. The Belgians make GREAT beer!
Sticking around the Grand Place, I headed for Le Roy d’Espagne (The King of Spain), that I had been told was quite nice, if a little touristy – but hey, I was a tourist! I ordered a small glass of Stella Artois which came with a side of peanuts (my, what a healthy diet I was eating today) and watched the world go by.
TOP TOP: Later that evening I also tried Leffe Blonde and much preferred it! As beers go, they’re both pretty tasty!
You cannot come to Belgium without trying the chocolate. Belgian chocolate shops, like frites and waffle houses are everywhere. I came across this little beauty around the Grand Place.
However, for all its prettiness, I never actually went inside, choosing to spend my money in the shop next door, Leonidas – which had been recommended by a friend.
I bought a bag of pick n’ mix chocolate. There were so many to choose from, so after picking a few that stood out, I asked the kind lady behind the counter for her recommendations. I was pleasantly surprised when I asked the price of my bag and she said 3 Euros or so and I promptly began selecting a few more.
The chocolates were due to be a present for my husband, however, later that night, returning to my room, peckish after a few beers, I did a Forrest Gump. I ate some. Then a few more. They were soooo good. Melt in your mouth loveliness. All different flavours… white chocolate, dark chocolate, milk chocolate, raspberry, lemon, hazelnut… see what I mean about the diet?
I did take some home to the Mr, but the bag was around a quarter full from where it started. Oops. Oh well.
Was it the best chocolate in Belgium? I didn’t try enough to say. However, since my return, I have also been recommended Laurent Gerbaud and Pierre Marcolini. The shops are a little bit further away from the Grand Place, but by the sounds of it, the trip will be worth it!
TOP TIP: I didn’t manage to go, but I was also recommended by friends to try Godiva on the Grand Place. Apparently the hot chocolate is the best around! Next time…
Galeries Royales St Hubert
It was time for a walk now, so I headed across the Grand Place and down one of the little side streets, towards the Galeries Royales St Hubert. A gorgeous shopping arcade in the middle of Brussels, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped back in time.
You can pretend to be grand as you take a turn about the arcade, browsing the little boutiques and cafes that line the indoor space. With the glass, roof, it’s also a great place for sipping a Belgian hot chocolate or beer if you want an outdoor feel inside.
Outside the arcade, is this sculpture called ‘The Cycliste’… apparently it cost the city 100,000 Euros. I would have done it for 50k. You know where I am Brussels!
Manneken Pis (and Jeanneke Pis)
“Is that it?”
A phrase I heard numerous people say whilst stood beneath the Manneken Pis, a tiny bronze statue of a small boy, who has been a peeing fountain since the early 17th century. All over Brussels, shops sell replicas in the form of statues, chocolates, fridge magnets… you name it, they have it.
There are lots of legends behind the Mannekin Pis, but the original was created in 1619, but having been stolen many times, the latest version only dates back to 1965.
Possibly the strangest anti-climax of a tourist attraction I’ve ever seen, but kind of funny none the same.
When in Brussels, you’ll also find the Jeanneke Pis – the girl version. She is squatting, actually squatting. Way funnier than the boy version. Find her at Impasse de la Fidélité 10-12.
And also the Zinneke Pis – a peeing dog fountain. Find this one at the corner of rue des Chartreux and rue du Vieux-Marché.
TOP TIP: The Manneken Pis statue is often dressed up in costume. He’s been known to dress up as Elvis, Dracula, Santa Claus, to name but a few. His costume schedule is up on the railings in front of the fountain, but if like me, you only have one day, then it will be a surprise! I was treated to his birthday suit.
Everard ‘t Serclaes Monument
Heading towards the Manneken Pis from the Grand Place, you will pass the Everard ‘t Serclaes monument. Everard was a Brussels hero, who saved Brussels in 1356, but was later murdered by the Lord of Gaasbeek.
TOP TIP: Give the statue a rub on the arm and make a wish. Apparently it will bring you luck and make your dreams come true. And we can all do with some of that! Just maybe take some hand sanitizer to put on afterwards.
Dinner at Chez Leon
For dinner, I met some friends from home who now live just outside of the city. Earlier that day when I’d Instagrammed the picture of myself en route to Brussels, one of my Instagram followers had asked if I wanted any tips as he’d lived there previously. With food always on my mind (have I mentioned food much?) I asked where I should go for dinner. He recommended Chez Leon on the Rue de Bouchers.
As my friends and I wandered along the cosy, atmospheric back streets behind the Grand Place, touts called to “Come in, nice menu here, good food” but we continued on to Chez Leon and when we arrived, the place was packed. Always a good sign.
“Table for 5 please!” We were told to wait a moment whilst the maître d checked. Then a party turned up behind us. Of 50 people. Yes 5-0! On a Wednesday night. And they’d already booked.
As all 50 people filed past us, the likelihood of us getting in to the already packed and lively restaurant seemed slim. Where were they going to fit? But, to my surprise, they kept on going, and disappeared off through an archway and into another room.
Unbelievably, they managed to seat us in less than 10 minutes. Turns out, the restaurant is huge, but due to there being lots of different rooms on different levels, it still gives the impression of cosy restaurant. Perfect!
They serve a huge menu of largely Belgian food. My friends ordered Moules Frites (mussels and fries). Mussels in Brussels – not to be confused with the Muscles from Brussels, Jean-Claude Van Damme – ha ha – oh God, did I just laugh at my own joke?
I don’t like mussels, so I ordered lasagne. Judge me all you want, I don’t care – it was actually a really good lasagne.
TOP TIP: Always ask a local where to eat! Or, follow the queues. It’s usually worth the wait!
Drinks at Bonnefooi
After dinner, it would have been rude not to check out a little of the Brussels nightlife. We headed to a bar called Bonnefooi, just a few minutes walk away from the Grand Place.
The bar was buzzing and the music was eclectic and just loud enough to create an atmosphere, but quiet enough so that you could hear your friends speak! People danced near the door and friends sat around tables chatting. After ordering a big glass of Leffe, we found a table upstairs on the balcony with a great view of the street and the dancers below. The place was edgy, but with no pretenSion. The dress code was relaxed and there wasn’t a hint of the attitude of similar bars in England. My kind of place.
TOP TIP: It’s a train or taxi ride away from the Grand Place, but I have it on good authority from a local friend, that the place to go on a Thursday night is Place du Luxembourg (known locally as Plux). Every Thursday, the square is packed with after work drinkers who like to party!
Fed, watered and exhausted I headed back to my hotel for a good sleep before the conference the next day. So there you have it! What to do with only a day in Brussels! Enjoy the food, beer and laid back atmosphere.
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Plan Your Trip to Brussels
Getting There (Plane): I always search for flights on Skyscanner. The nearest airport to the city is Brussels Airport, which is around 25 minutes drive from the Grand Place. There is also Brussels South Charleroi Airport which tends to have the cheaper flights (Ryanair), but it is an hour away.
Getting There (Train): You can do a fly and train option which you can book via Skyscanner (it will show airport code ZYR but this is actually Brussels Midi/Zuid Train Station). You can also get the Eurostar the whole way like I did!
Where To Stay: I stayed at the Floris Arlequin, which was less than 5 minutes walk from the Grand Place. The hotel itself is pretty nothing special, but the location is excellent. A taxi from Brussels Midi/Zuid to the hotel was approx. 12 €. If you are looking for a stylish and reasonably priced hotel, try The Pantone Hotel or the FunKey Hotel which are a bit further out but really cool. If you want to treat yourself, I’d highly recommend the Art de Sejour, the Hotel Odette en Ville or the Hotel Amigo (often named as the best hotel in Brussels).
Resources: I’m a big fan of Lonely Planet guidebooks and usually travel with one wherever I go.
Tours: A nice idea might be to take one of the many tours on offer in the city.
I really enjoyed my short time in Brussels and I hope you will too! If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments below and I will happily answer (if I can)!
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