The Belgian capital is a city of contrasts. Lavish buildings from the era of Belgian colonialism stand next to shabby seventies blocks and modern high rises. The areas of the city are characterized by stark inconsistencies when it comes to wealth, architecture and style.
Brussels has always been an important city, serving as a stronghold for Dutch royals before Belgium’s independence and as an important trade hub between France and Germany. After the Belgian revolution, Brussels became the capital of the Belgian Colonial Empire and acquired huge amounts of wealth from Africa and other parts of the world. Brussels is today one of the three capitals of the European Union and a cultural and academic hub in the region.
Brussels’ economic importance is contrasted by the high crime rates and gentrification problems in some of its areas, which have become genuinely dangerous places, where several major terror attacks that were carried out in Europe in the last few years, were planned.
Brussels is nonetheless a city which has a lot of cultural sights to offer and its food and nightlife culture is world renowned. Here are some suggestions on how to spend 48 hours in the Belgian capital.
Day 1: Learn more about Brussels’ colonial past and its long history and dive deeper into Belgium’s beer and fries culture
Start your day with a history lesson in the Royal Museum for Central Africa (Leuvensesteenweg 13), located a bit outside of the city’s main core in the Tervuren area. This historical palace contains various exhibitions on Belgium’s colonial empire and especially the might of this small nation in Central Africa, notably in Congo. Colonialism is a dark episode of the 19th and 20th centuries and Belgium definitely played its part. The museum is a great way to obtain an introduction about Belgian history before visiting the teeming and touristy centre around the Grande Place.
The afternoon is a perfect place for a stroll around the centrally located Old Town which contains the Grande Place, one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. The buildings lining the square are a marvellous feat of Gothic architecture and were named Unesco world heritage in 1998. The Square is moreover home to the city’s town hall which contains the Museum of the City of Brussels (Maison du roi), an excellent place to learn more about the city’s complex past and its significance for the Belgian Crown.
Try to find the Manneken Pis, an extremely well known but also extremely unspectacular little boy statue which is peeing and gets dressed up for several occasions. The statue is hidden somewhere in the maze around Grande Place but can be easily spotted as tourists gather around it literally 24/7.
Did it ever occur to you that French Fries are actually a Belgian speciality? That’s right, someone got the name terribly wrong although an ongoing dispute between France and Belgium about the fries’ origins precludes absolute certainty. The popular food is one of Belgium’s main culinary references and according to popular opinion, the best fries in the world are made in Brussels.
Belgium is furthermore well known for its beer, the breweries constitute a symbol of national pride and the act of brewing is seen as an art which only few master according to Belgian standards.
In this context, a visit to the Belgian capital is incomplete without a stop at the renowned Delirium bar (Impasse de la Fidélité 4), which holds the Guinness world record for the largest beer assortment. You can in fact choose between over 2000 different Belgian and international beers in the Delirium, which allows you to decide between strong Belgian abbey beers and lighter lagers. Due to the Delirium’s international acclaim, the bar is quite touristy but still well worth a visit.
Day 2: Check out some of Brussels’ beautiful galleries and one of its most spectacular structures.
Wake up in the design boutique hotel with the unspectacular name The Hotel and benefit from their stylish rooms and their mouthwatering breakfast buffet.
Brussels is well known for its lavishly decorated galleries and the Galeries royales Saint Hubert are probably the most tempting. The shopping arcade features a large number of well known international brands and some Belgian institutions. Even if you are not in the mood for shopping, these galleries are an absolute must, much like the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan, be it just for their architectural flair and their historical charm.
Visit one of Brussels most famous structures, the Atomium (Square de l’Atomium), a 100m tall building that was originally constructed for the 1958 Brussels World Fair and consists of stainless steel spheres that are connected to resemble the shape of a unit cell. The building moreover contains a panoramic restaurant boasting one of Brussels’ best observation decks and the fact that CNN named the Atomium ‘Europe’s most bizarre building‘ in 2013 certainly adds to its flair.
Enjoy a night out at the Place Flagey, one of the more off the beaten path nightlife spots which is frequented mostly by locals. The square and the surrounding area offer numerous trendy bars catering for different tastes and preferences. The bar this guide recommends is the Black Sheep (Chaussée de Boondael 8), a laid back pub which turns into a festive location with the occasional live bands as the night goes on.