Equal parts tough and adorable, Belgian comic book icon Tintin and his faithful hound Snowy, brought the sophistication, style, and exuberance of Brussels with them on their adventures—and focused the world’s attention on this cosmopolitan city. That’s just fine with locals, who are proud to show off why their city of a million people is not only the capital of Belgium, but also the entire European Union. That means immersing oneself in the some of the world’s best beer, chocolate, waffles, and fries—served “in German portions, but with French finesse,” as the Belgian saying goes—all the while discovering gorgeous Art Nouveau architecture, vintage markets, puppet shows, pop-up parties, and comic book art.
French and Flemish may be on the tips of local tongues, but Brussels is a true polyglot, making it hard to find a person who doesn’t speak English. Commuting into the city is just as easy as communicating, with six hourly trains running from the airport to Brussels Central Station, and taking just 18 minutes. From there, a vast network of subways, trams, and buses weave through the tightly-knit neighborhoods. In many cases, your foot-power will be enough, starting with the city’s most famous icon, the Grand Place, just five minutes walking time from the station. Like most of Brussels’ primary sights, hotels, and restaurants, the Grand Palace is found in the City Center, or in easy striking distance in the surrounding neighborhoods of Ixelles, Saint-Gilles, Anderlecht, Laekan, and Saint-Josse-ten-Noode. Tap into the pure spirit of Brussels at these ten sites:
Théâtre Royal de Toone
The actors who take the stage at this theatre may be wooden in composition but not in expression, thanks to nearly two hundred years of history, starting in 1830, when Antoine (Toone) Genty founded this marionette theater. With more than 1,300 hand-carved figures in the inventory (each with its own tailored costume), there’s a huge cast of characters to draw from for spoofed-up classics, like Romeo & Juliet, Cyrano de Bergerac, and The Three Musketeers. The stage itself is nestled under angled eaves upstairs, but don’t leave without seeing the charming downstairs café and bar filled with vintage puppets, posters and an impressive menu of Belgian beer.
BELvue Museum and Coudenberg Castle
After fire engulfed the castle of Coudenberg in 1731, the 700-year-old residence of central Brussels soon disappeared from existence altogether, buried from view under the Place Royale and surrounding neighborhoods. It wasn’t until the 1980s that serious excavation commenced, and today, several parts of the ancient castle are open to the public, including stairs, passages, cellars, a chapel, warehouse, and the former Rue Isabelle. Flesh out the history above the ruins at the BELvue Museum, where two floors of striking exhibitions present the history of Belgium in a bright, modern way, with many interactive elements, including cartoons, making it fun even for those who generally hate museums.
Enjoy a sip of Brussels’ revered lambics, gueuze, and kriek beers, especially those concocted at this legendary brewery, the last of its kind in in the city. Opened in 1900, it is truly Old School, utilizing the original 19th-century equipment to produce the world’s original style of beer. Guided tours run every 30 minutes, taking visitors through the production floor, where antique belt-driven machines continue today, milling, mashing, boiling, and cooling the brew. Inhale deeply in the aging room, as the fruity, woody aroma of beer brewing in chestnut wine casks perfumes the air. Abundant spider webs don’t prosper from neglect, but rather are encouraged to keep the brewery naturally bug-free. The Brewery’s admission fee includes one glass of Cantillon’s coveted stock, but few visitors stop at just one glass.
Belgian Chocolate Workshop at Zaabär
Although you can’t actually dive into a vat of Belgian chocolate, it’s still possible to get up close and personal with it at this chocolate factory in the center of Brussels. Every Saturday afternoon (plus Wednesdays during school holidays), one-hour workshops facilitated by the chocolate maker instruct up to 30 guests in the fine art of making truffles, bars, and traditional “mendicants,” named after the four mendicant or monastic orders. There is plenty to taste, too, and your delicious creations are yours to take home…if you make it that far. Be sure to snap your selfies before slipping off your compulsory hairnet, apron, and gloves.
Les Apéros Urbaines
When the mercury rises high enough on the thermostat, Brussels’ denizens love to get outside and celebrate the warm weather together, and some have converted this rite into an art. One citizen’s attempt to get a few friends together for drinks transformed into Les Apéros Urbaines, a festival of large scale “apéros” on Friday nights throughout the spring and summer. Enormously popular, each event attracts hundreds of locals to chat, drink, dance, and meet friends old and new. The pop-up parties travel throughout the city, and are found in parks, squares, rooftops, and forests during the season—always with the doctrine of “Simplicity, Happiness, Originality, Friendliness.”
Belgian Comic Strip Center
Belgium claims more comic strip artists per square kilometer than any other country, and the evidence is overwhelming — if not in your childhood memories of Tintin and the Smurfs, then in Brussels’ numerous venues for comic book art. The most important is the Belgian Comic Strip Center, where the rich history and production of the “ninth art” pack several floors of permanent and temporary exhibitions. The Grand Poohbah of comics and creator of Tintin, Hergé (aka Georges Remi) are featured in a dedicated area. The Center’s Art Nouveau home, a former textile warehouse built by Victor Horta, is a work of art itself, and the iron-and-glass ceiling bathes the contents in defused light. Outside the center, enjoy more of Belgium’s comic culture along the “Comic Book Route:” a path through the city marked by dozens of large-scale, comic-style murals painted on buildings.
Brussels Vintage Market
Fashionistas visiting Brussels should aim for the first Sunday of each month when the vaunted vintage clothing market opens its doors to nearly 2500 shoppers in need of retail therapy. The remedy is in ample supply, with 40 or more second-hand vendors, and more than 20 designers, filling the charming space in Halles Saint-Géry, a neo-Renaissance brick-and-wrought-iron former meat market. A central obelisk is the point from which all distances in Belgium are measured. Shopping for vintage clothes, furniture, tableware, and accessories, however, is only part of the fun. Meeting friends, snacking on delicious cakes, and possibly shaking your hips to the live music provide the rest — all with a retro flavor.
Royal Greenhouses of Laeken
Brussels’ passion for flowers culminates every two years, when one million artistically arranged begonias fill the Grand-Place with a “Flower Carpet,” stretching 250 feet. Equally coveted by budding botanists and stop-and-smell-the-flowers guests, is the annual opening of the sumptuous greenhouses on the grounds of the royal palace in Laeken, which lasts only three weeks every spring. Established in 1895 by King Léopold, the complex of art nouveau pavilions, cupolas, and arcades is capped by the massive, domed “Winter Garden,” filled with rare and valuable plants, many belonging to King Leopold II’s original collection. The gathering of camellias (over 100 species) is especially prized, as the largest and oldest of its kind in a greenhouse. Afterwards, head to Hallerbos Forest, located 10 miles southwest of Brussels. Here, an astonishing carpet of bluebells covers the forest floor every spring, as if from Arthurian fantasy.
The “father of art nouveau”—Victor Horta—lived and worked in Brussels, endowing the city with many of its most beautiful buildings, including his private home and studio. Inside the tall and slender house are many exquisite examples of the style, including tile mosaics, stained glass, wrought iron fixtures, a spiral staircase, and furniture designed by Horta himself. Horta believed material and design should harmonize like a beautiful piece of music, and no one doubts he achieved harmony here. UNESCO called it a work of “human creative genius.”
Bois de la Cambre
On the eve of Waterloo, three miles to the south, British soldiers played a cricket match on the grounds of this park before marching to hand Napoleon his final defeat. The playing field, La Pelouse des Anglais, now makes up but one part of this 300-acre park at the edge of the Sonian Forest. One of Brussels’ favorite escapes, the Bois de la Cambre offers tons of green space, playgrounds, walking and bike paths, a theater, roller-skating rink, row boats, and even its own island, home to one of Brussels’ swankiest restaurants, Chalet Robinson, reachable by ferry only. Make your visit even sweeter – enjoy a Belgian waffle from one of the numerous food trucks.
Getting there – nonstop service from Dulles International Airport (IAD) to Brussels Airport (BRU) is available on Brussels Airlines (5 times per week) and United Airlines (daily).