Our crash course in what to do with 24 hours in Brussels will make sure you get the most out of your limited time in Belgium’s capital.
With so many incredible destinations to visit in Europe, sometimes your time in a place is limited to just a day. But sometimes a day is just enough to see the best parts of a capital city.
A happy semi-accident brought us to Brussels on our way south from Sweden. We were planning on visiting Belgium while we were staying with friends in Rotterdam.
Plans quickly changed though when we discovered a strange loophole in travel costs from getting from Stockholm to the Netherlands:
It was cheaper to fly from Sweden all the way to Brussels, stay the night and get the train back north to Rotterdam in the morning!
Bizarre as it sounds that’s what happened. And instead of catching that (very) early train the next day, Mrs Romance and I decided to stay another night and enjoy the heartland of Belgium.
Brussels – a hidden gem
For a capital city, Brussels is a bit of a western European anomaly.
In spite of its history, culture, architectural beauty and national status, Brussels is often overlooked by visitors to the Continent.
Check out these tourism figures from 2015:
Foreign visitors in 2015 (in millions):
London, England: 18.8m
Paris, France: 16m
Rome, Italy: 9.4m
Brussels on the other hand only had 3.4 million visitors that year. And Brussels isn’t really that small a city. Or that hard to get to.
In fact, in a fascinating 2015 study of European city tourism shows Brussels as one of the most accessible cities in Europe to get to.
And as for things to do, see, eat and enjoy, there’s certainly more than a day’s worth. But here are the highlights.
What to do with 24 hours in Brussels, Belgium
Brussels is a vibrant, young city that lives amongst its striking neo-gothic, neo-renaissance buildings.
The people of Brussels – like most Belgians – value good food and drink, and the atmosphere on the busy little streets of this city show that with gusto.
In fact, many of the streets around Brussels old town have names referring to food and the food you’d be able to buy here back when the city was little more than a market town.
Perhaps it’s because this city isn’t overrun with tourists and has a healthy 11-million+ population, there’s a great local vibe to the place.
Where to stay
Apartments Residence Grand Place
We found this serviced apartment on Booking.com last minute just as we were leaving Sweden. It’s a walk-up in a 17th Century building on the Rue au Beurre (‘Butter Road’!).
This place is on Grand-Place/Grote Markt – the main historic square of the city. You can’t get much more central than that. And because we were only in town for a couple of nights, we wanted somewhere in the middle of everything.
Click on our link to Booking.com here and you’ll get $30 credit to your booking from us! Then copy and paste ‘Apartments Residence Grand Place’ into the search bar.
Just so you know, the entrance to this medieval ‘apartment block’ is through a Belgian chocolate boutique. You’ve been warned!
Where to eat
Breakfast at Peck 47
We had an excellent breakfast at Peck 47 on Rue Marche aux Poulets (literally ‘Chicken Market Road’), and there’s also Peck 50 on Rue Jourdan, if you’re looking for a traditional breakfast or brunch.
These guys do eggs all different ways and every way delicious. They’re also open for lunch and dinner, and have a great wine and beer list too.
However, if you’re looking for a good flat white or latte, don’t waste your time in Belgium or the Netherlands. For some reason the milk they use for coffee tastes like UHT long life milk. Even a great venue like Peck didn’t get right in our opinion.
You’re better off sticking with a long black or an espresso, which they can do well.
Lunch at Chez Jacques
Chez Jacques on Quai aux Briques is about as Brussels as you can get. A beautiful little family-run brasserie with great streetside seating, Chez Jacque is the perfect lunch venue.
The menu here is fish focused as it’s near the old fish market square. There are so many things to choose from here but we went straight for the moules-frites/mosselen-friet.
This classic Brussels dish of mussels in white wine and cream sauce with fries is so delicious and very filling. It should also be on your must-eat list while you’re here.
It was also the cheapest thing on the menu, which surprised us.
We found Chez Jacques purely by accident while we were wandering around the city. Such a lucky find.
If you don’t think the Moules-frites will last you to dinner, there are snacks a-plenty here in Brussels that you have to eat. For cultural purposes of course.
– at least 1 waffle – check below in our ‘Things to do’ section for a great waffle tip
– frites everywhere – especially at Fritland. The humble French fry actually comes from Belgium – and it apparently didn’t use to be potato, but anyway… the way these guys make them will make you see chips in a different light (think holy) forever on.
– chocolates – there are chocolatiers literally everywhere in the old town. Walk into one and try not to max out your cards!
– Aux Merveilleux de Fred for the most extreme cakes, meringues and pastries.
And as for dinner, if you’re still hungry, there are pubs, restaurants and bars everywhere in Brussels.
We were actually too full, but we’d happily go back to Chez Jacques or Peck 47 for our evening meal. Or just frites. In fact, we’re giving you permission to have chips for dinner!
Where to drink
As with dinner options, there are bars and pubs everywhere in Brussels. Even the frites shops sell good Belgian beer from their fridges.
But here are our top tips for something a bit different:
Delirium Café – Impasse de la Fidélité 4
This place is in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most beers on tap. Make sure you go to the right one though. There are a couple of imitation places around.
Play Label Rooftop Bar – Boulevard de l’Empereur 36
One of only 2 rooftop bars in Brussels (the other one is the Musical Instruments Museum according to our favourite rooftop bar resource The Rooftop Guide) this place is pretty bloody cool. Get the lift up to the top and hope for service. The views down over this part of town (Stalingrad) are great.
Leffe Café – Place du Grand Sablon 46
A bit touristy but still worth a beer, this café is home to one of Belgium’s most famous beers. Classic European al fresco seating with views of the beautiful 15th Century Gothic church the Église Notre-Dame au Sablon.
250 Belgian Beers – 32 Rue au Beurre
If you want to try a few craft Belgian beers in the comfort of your own place or in one of Brussels’ beautiful parks on a picnic, 250 Belgian Beers stocks an amazing array of brews (not quite 250) and the staff here are really helpful too.
Where to go and what to see
Brussels is a fantastic walking city and you can easily get around town without using public transport.
Right at the heart of the city is one of the most spectacular medieval squares. Surrounded on all sides by 15th and 16th Century gothic and neo-renaissance architecture, this is the place to base yourself. All roads lead here.
Rue au Beurre
Perhaps because this was the road we were staying on, it’s our favourite. But then Butter Road does have all the good beer and chocolate shops on it.
Manneken Pis – Rue de l’Étuve/Stoofstraat
This famous little statue has been the subject of many thefts – both attempted and successful – over its 600-year lifespan (there are records of a Manneken Pis from around 1450).
It’s a bit grotesque but this little boy peeing into a pool was once the source of the town’s drinking water. Those funny ol’ Belgians.
Waffles – our pro tip
Down the road from the Manneken Pis, rows of waffle shops offer their delicious goods for as little as €1. Closer to the statue you’ll find queues of tourists all waiting for stale waffles piled high with cream, chocolate syrup and inappropriate fruit.
Avoid these ones, walk a bit further down the street to a waffle shop that you can see making fresh waffles. Only get the traditional topping of melted chocolate and avoid the sneers of the shop staff.
This is how a Belgian waffle is to be eaten. It’s amazing.
Palais de la Bourse – exhibitions
The very grand Palais de la Bourse is often home to some amazing art exhibits that are well worth looking out for. We were lucky enough to be in Brussels to see photographer Steve McCurry’s work.
Walk until your feet fall off
Brussels is a fascinating, compact city. There’s always a surprise around every corner and it’s rare if not impossible to be bored as you stroll her streets.
A great example of this is when we spotted two Japanese pole dancers practising their moves under the statue of Belgian Crusader knight Godefroid de Bouillon at the Place Royale.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this 24 hours in Brussels guide. It’s not the first time we’ve written a fast-track guide to a place. You might also like:
Have you ever been to Brussels? Do you have any tips for what to do or eat or see there? Tell us in the comments!