Welcome to Brussels, the most boring capital in Europe! At least, that seems to be the reputation Brussels has earned over the years. I’m ashamed to say that I let this influence my decision to only spend 24 hours in Brussels during a Netherlands to Belgium trip. I regretted this decision as soon as I set foot in the capital on my first night. The city had a lively atmosphere and was full of people enjoying their evening outside. Based on reviews and blogs online I had expected the city to be completely dead at night. In total I only spent 24 hours in Brussels but tried my best to make the most of it and hope to return to the city one day. Until then, I hope you’ll find the below first-time visit guide to things to do in Brussels useful if you only have 24 hours in the city!
Travel to BRUSSELS
Confusingly, Brussels is served by two airports; Brussels Airport – Zaventem and Brussels South Charleroi Airport. Watch out for this if you fly with budget airlines such as Ryanair as they fly into Charleroi airport. Charleroi lies 46 km south of the city as opposed to Brussels Airport that’s only 12 km to the north east. Train is one of your best options for travel between the city and Brussels Airport – Zaventem. A single trip will cost you about 8.80 euro and takes just under 20 minutes to Brussels Central Station. You can buy tickets at the station.
Also be aware that Brussels has three main train stations; Brussels Central Station, Brussels Midi/Zuid Station and Brussels Noord. Make sure you find out what’s closest to your hotel. If you are travelling to Brussels by intercity train from e.g. Amsterdam you’ll most likely travel into Brussels Midi station. I find the trainline.eu website pretty useful for train times.
Where to Stay in Brussels
I stayed at Dansaert Hotel which is located about 400 metres from Grand Place, one of the main tourist attractions in Brussels. This hotel came with nicely decorated rooms of a decent enough size. The location is the main draw though, with a busy stretch of bars and restaurants just outside the front door. This was perfect if you just want an evening drink before bedtime or a nice dinner. The proximity to Grand Place also reduced the need for public transport, which leaves more money for those famous Belgian chocolates.
24 Hours in Brussels
First things first, Grand Place and Manneken Pis are probably the most famous landmarks in Brussels (can you really call a tiny weeing statue a landmark?) and the first things to do in Brussels. To beat the crowds and get that nice morning light I suggest you head there early. Grand Place is surrounded by ornate guildhalls, the town hall and the Museum of the City of Brussels. I’ve read comments that people find the square underwhelming. Personally I thought it had some amazing buildings and definitely deserved a look. I wish I could go back in August when they cover the square in intricate flower patterns, which happens every two years. Check out the website for more info.
Within walking distance of Grand Place you’ll find Manneken Pis, the statue of a boy peeing. Manneken Pis seems to consistently underwhelm people as a tourist attraction (it’s up there with the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen). I’m not sure what people expect, it’s a tiny weeing boy. I found him pretty funny and wish he would have worn one of the many costumes he occasionally sports. Take a selfie so it looks like he’s weeing on you (cause where else will you ever do that) and then continue to the next stop on the itinerary.
Right, so you’ve only got 24 hours to spend and want to see as much as possible of Brussels. Dare I whisper the words hop on hop off bus? I know, I know. It screams tourist but personally I’m quite a fan. I appreciate the audio guides as an introduction to a new city or a city I only have limited time in. The CitySightseeing Hop On Hop Off Buses cover a big part of the city, which was the reason I picked them. A 24 hour ticket costs 25 euro if purchased on the day and 23 euro online. You can then use the ticket across two separate lines that cover everything from Atomium to the European Parliament. A bit pricey but you get to see a lot of the city.
I suggest that you combine the bus tour with a stop at Atomium and Mini-Europe, which was one of my favourite fun activities in Brussels. Atomium is a magnified structure of an iron crystal and looks like a work of art. It also offers the opportunity to travel up to a viewing platform for a great view of the city. Entrance to the panorama view and exhibitions is 12 euro but you can also buy a combi ticket including Mini-Europe for 24.70 euro.
Once you’ve admired the view (I wasn’t overly keen on the exhibitions) travel down again and walk over to Mini-Europe. Mini-Europe is a park with miniature versions of famous monuments from every European Union member state. The whole attraction is outside so bear this in mind if the weather is poor. Parts of the attraction are interactive, such as ferries you can steer and erupting volcanoes. It’s perfect for children and adults (that are like big children) alike!
Once you’ve had a play around at Mini-Europe, jump on the bus again and head back to Brussels Central train station where you can transfer to the second line. The second line takes you past the European Parliament and the audio guides provide plenty of interesting information about the European Union. For both bus lines, keep an eye open for street art. During my tour I saw some highly inappropriate but amusing street art and you never know what you’ll see.
You’ll probably be pretty shattered by this point so take it easy for the rest of the evening. Find a chocolatier and buy some famous Belgian chocolate. I went to Godiva, which was a rubbish decision. Don’t waste your money and try a different place, there are plenty of chocolatiers around. I have since my trip read about a place called Chocopolis on the Practical Wanderlust blog that sounds amazing. It’s part of a chocolate and beer tour, if that’s more up your street than Atomium and Mini-Europe. I wouldn’t judge anyone that picks chocolate over views.
Also go for an evening stroll and see if you can spot some of the comics street art. Belgium is world famous for comics and artworks are dotted around the city. Tintin is probably the most famous out of the lot. Or, simply go for a relaxed evening meal to round off your 24 hours in Brussels. I recommend finding a place around Rue du Pont de la Carpe. The evening atmosphere is buzzing and you’ll be close to your hotel if you’re staying at Dansaert.
Brussels – Far From Boring
I often find that spending 24 hours in a place gives you a pretty good indication as to whether you want to return. I was so pleasantly surprised by Brussels and really want to go back one day for a longer visit. The bus tour went past several places and neighbourhoods that I wish I had the time to visit. The main disadvantage with Brussels is that it’s on the pricier side, especially if you want to do touristy things such as Atomium. If you’re bound for Belgium you should dedicate at least a few days to Brussels and also make a day trip to Bruges (or Ghent). If you want to turn your trip into an European adventure, you can also take the train to The Hague and Amsterdam in The Netherlands.