Visiting Europe’s Capital City of Brussels {Belgium}

Our day in Brussels began as everyday should with hot and crisp Belgian waffles covered in chocolate and strawberries. When it comes to food Belgium is right in line with some of my favorite things- waffles, fries, and chocolate. We enjoyed the first of many of these treats at Gaufre De Bruxelles, right off the city center. Definitely the best waffles I’ve ever eaten.

Just down the street was the Galeries Royales St Hubert, the beautiful shopping arcade filled with luxury goods, restaurants, and theaters. There are three different galleries of the arcade- the king’s gallery, the queen’s gallery, and the princess’s gallery.

Galeries Royales St Hubert Shopping Arcade

It made for a lovely walk down through the arcade with the glass roof above and the different shops full of artisan chocolates and intricate lace items made by hand.

Brussels has beautiful streets to walk down with winding cobblestone roads and an interesting mix of architectural styles on all the different buildings. You can see some gothic, art nouveau, and neoclassical all coming together to create a unique style around the city.

Another thing that you will see all throughout the city is comics painted on buildings and other structures. During WWII American comics were banned in the German occupied Belgium and France. With the end of the war and the removal of the ban, comic artists began a great wave of comic artistry to spread some much needed joy to the people.

Smurfs on the ceiling

One of the most popular comics to come from this time was the Smurfs. First created by Belgian comic artist Peyo under the pen name Pierre Culliford in 1958. The popularity of the Smurfs would come to the US a few years later. Brussels now is home to the Comics Museum honoring all the fun filled comic strips that for so long were not allowed.

For being such a relatively new country, it is interesting that Belgium was chosen to be the main center of the European Union. It is considered the capital of Europe and this is where so much international discussion and agreements are made. The sign on the entrance says in four languages that they are celebrating 70 years of European democracy in action.

We saw the Cinquantenaire Arch (in French: Arc du Cinquantenaire, Dutch: Triomfboog van het Jubelpark). At first, the commission of the arch by the Belgian Government was supported by King Leopold II. It was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Belgian Revolution. But then disagreements began between the government and the king over the cost of the project. While started in 1880 it would not be completed until 1905 just in time for the 75th anniversary of Belgium’s independence. The sculpture on top is a woman charioteer holding the national flag, a personified form of the original province that would become Brussels.

Cinquantenaire Arch

Another icon of the city is the imposing Cathedral of Saint Michael and Saint Gudula. This cathedral is one of the great examples of Gothic architecture. While the origins of the church are rather obscure, historians believe that there has been a church on this site since the 9th century where it was at the center of two major trade routes between France, Germany, and the Netherlands. The entire church as it is seen today took about 300 years of additions and constructions and finally was complete in 1519.

cathedral of Saint Michael and Saint Gudula

Of all the iconic spots in this city, probably the most universally known is that of Manneken Pis. A statue fountain of a small boy peeing into the basin below, Manneken Pis has been a landmark of the area since 1618. Manneken Pis has over 1,000 costumes from around the world and his clothing changes a few times a day. While we were there, he was supporting Haiti and there was a large group of Haitians singing and celebrating in the street in front of the statue. The statue has been repeatedly stolen or damaged, so the original bronze statue can now be found in the Brussels City Museum while a replica stands in at the fountain.

Manneken Pis in his costume from Haiti

We made our way a little outside of the city center to visit another icon of Brussels at The Atomium. This larger than life structure stands at 335 feet tall making it one of the tallest structures in the country. It was built as a centerpiece to the 1958 Brussels World Fair as a tribute to scientific progress and engineering skills.

The Atomium

We purchased our tickets and then joined the que to enter the first sphere. The Atomium is set up as part museum and part art exhibit. The first sphere was dedicated to the construction and history and then a series of escalators takes you up to the next set of spheres where you are greeted by an exhibition of colorful lights.

It was a weird feeling looking up the long staircases or the escalators of the arms of the structure and then to step out into the middle of the sphere. It really is an incredible and innovative structure, especially for the time that it was built. A very clever way of combining futuristic ideas with artistic creativity.

After visiting the lower spheres you return to the bottom and wait for your turn to take the elevator all the way up to the very top of the structure in the highest sphere. The elevator was heralded as the fastest of the time, getting visitors to the top within 30 seconds. From the top you can look out on all of Brussels.

view from the top sphere of The Atomium

We had saved the best for last in Brussels. We got up really early the next day so we could visit La Grand- Place. The square was surprisingly clear of people at the start of the day and so we had uninhibited views of the stunning architecture of the buildings. These opulent Baroque style buildings were the former guildhalls of the city. This has always served as the central point of the area and is still the place for cultural events. In 1998 this square joined the UNESCO World Heritage Site list and is considered one of the world’s most beautiful squares.

La Grand-Place buildings

To see the square with the first light of the day, with so few people around, was a perfect moment to end our visit to Brussels. Brussels is somewhere that has combined the influence of their Dutch and French heritage to create something of their own. While they celebrate their past and preserve the beautiful structures from days gone by, the city also has a real sense of looking forward to the future. It is such an blend of heritage and progression to create this interesting city.

If you enjoyed this visit to Brussels, you may be interested in these other places with Dutch influenced architecture:

Wilemstad, Curaçao

Holland, Michigan

Thanks for coming along on this visit to Brussels. May your waffles be warm and your chocolate be sweet.

28 responses to “Visiting Europe’s Capital City of Brussels {Belgium}”

  1. You hit all the high points in beautiful Brussels, Meg. You have a lovely collection of photos including the one of your daughter enjoying her waffles; yum! There’s some really interesting history too; I didn’t realize the Smurfs were created by a Belgian artist; now I know! I’m so glad this trip finally came together and that you had such a great time. Thanks for sharing!

    • Thank you for your kind comments. I was amazed to learn that the Smurfs were Belgian- when we got home I had to introduce my daughter to the show so she could enjoy it. 🙂

  2. I was hungry by the end of the first paragraph! I suppose to have energy to see all those sights, one must also consume lots of delicious food!

  3. We found Grand Place a beautiful square, really living up to the word “grand” in the English sense. It’s an interesting city to explore but probably not one of Europe’s most spectacular. Neither Michaela nor I have much of a sweet tooth, so to us those waffles looked terrible and not in the tiniest bit tempting! Enjoyed reading this post, brought back memories of our weekend in the city.

    • I always wish I didn’t have a sweet tooth, it would make my life much easier. I loved the Grand Place and the stunning architecture there-hand down my favorite part of the city. Brussels was interesting, but I don’t think it’s somewhere I would feel driven to return to again and again.

  4. Lovely post Meg – we didn’t love Brussels (save for the Grand Place), but there’s loads to do there. I smiled at Manekin Pis’s Haitian outfit, that’s a new one for me 🙂 And so great you got to go up Atomium, it was closed when we were there last.

    • The Haitian Mannekin Pis was pretty fun, especially with the large singing and dancing group of Haitians that were around him. 🙂 I absolutely loved the Grand Place, but the rest of the city, though interesting, is not somewhere I think I would go back to. It was for us that one and done kind of place.

  5. Although I visited Belgium recently we only changed trains in Brussels. I did visit the capital many years ago but need to return to refresh my memory. Your blog post has tempted me back Meg.

    • Marion, you’re always so kind. 🙂 Brussels was such an interesting mix- it is definitely a working city but then it also has the stunning architecture of the Grand Place.

  6. I love how you started your day in Brussels with Belgian waffles! Seems fitting! Looks like you had fabulous weather for wandering around. The architecture looks so charming.

    • I just think every day should start that way! The weather was just perfect for a day in this interesting city. Oh but the architecture- I could look at that all day 🙂

  7. I grew up watching the Smurfs, but it would be decades later before I learned of the Belgian origins. In fact, we call the eldest member of our Belgian family friends “Papa Smurf.” 🙂 It’s been a few years since I’ve been back in Belgium, so I really enjoyed this walk down memory lane. Glad you got to go there as part of your trip.

    • Thank you! I think the Smurfs and the Gummy Bears were my go to cartoons when I was a kid. When we got home I had to do some looking so I could introduce my daughter to them. Happy to say that she loved them and kept saying that they were just like what we saw in Belgium. 🙂

  8. Spectacular Meg, Brussels looks such a fantastic place to visit. It’s one of those cities I’ve never seen but I would like to go one day. Your photos are amazing and thanks for all the interesting history.

  9. Well Meg, you certainly packed it in. It has been a lot of fun seeing Brussels through your eyes and seeing how it looks these days, nearly fifteen years after I left. Waffles… they are a right of passage, I’m glad your cafe of choice didn’t disappoint. I’m also pleased that you got to see Mannekin on a good outfit day, that always brought me a smile. You made a very wise decision re an early rise for the Grand Place. It’s the only way of capturing such excellent photos, I used to dread heading through the square in the afternoon or evening, especially in the summer. Wonderful shot from the Sphere, something I never managed to tick off…

    • Yay- Leighton is back!!! 🙂 My whole day just got made seeing a comment from you. Brussels was kind of mixed bag for us. While we loved the Atomium’s views, the Grand Place in the early morning, and of course the waffles- we found the city as a whole though to be a little underwhelming. It feels like a working city. My favorite part though was trying to explain to Tessa why there was a statue of a little boy peeing in the street and her simple response of ‘that’s weird’. 🙂

  10. your daughter must have loved all the waffles and chocolates:) Smurfs were popular as I was growing up, even my kids watch it occasionally. I liked the Atomium too and the Grand place but felt a bit disappointed with the city as itself

    • that’s how I felt, loved the Grand Place and Atomium but the rest of Brussels was kind of one and done type of place. She did love the waffles and chocolates. When we got home we introduced her to the Smurfs and we all had a great time watching it together 🙂

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