Belgium is a vibrant country with a cosmopolitan culture reflected in scores of splendid museums, amazing architecture, art and world-class restaurants. Dotted with medieval cities and sprinkled with abbeys where monks run their own breweries, Belgium has more than 60 UNESCO designated World Cultural Sites, each meriting a visit on its own. And then, of course, there are the Belgian chocolates — simply divine and more exquisitely varied than you would find anywhere else on the planet.
Belgium is a country of two distinct halves. Dutch-speaking Flanders (northern Belgium) has a flat, often monotonous landscape, but it is interspersed with fabulous historic cities. These lie close together and are conveniently interconnected by regular trains, making travel by public transport seamless. In French-speaking Wallonia (southern Belgium), however, most attractions are contrastingly rural: caves, castles, bucolic valleys and outdoor activities. Here are some of the places you can visit in and around Brussels.
Brussels: the fascinating capital of Belgium and Europe, which is historic yet hip, bureaucratic yet bizarre, self-confident yet unpretentious and multi-cultural to its core. From its historic center marked by the famous Grand Place with its Gothic town hall, baroque guild halls and the Manneken Pis, the iconic Brussel's statue sculpted by Jerome Duquesnoy in 1619, Brussels is juxtaposed with medieval and modern art and architecture.
La Grand-Place, the Royale Palais, the Saint Michael and Gudula cathedral, the Herge and Magritte museums and the subterranean Coudenberg experience are just some of the places that underpin the city’s medieval architectural and artistic heritage. On the other hand, proving the city’s credentials as the hub of European and international negotiations and its modern architecture are the impressive glass façades of the European Parliament and the European Commission, as well as the futuristic Liege-Guillemins station.
La Grand-Place: Built as a merchants market in the 13th century, La Grand-Place serves as the city center and a great place to enjoy Belgian hospitality at one of the many terrace cafes. A remarkably homogeneous body of public and private buildings dating mainly from the late 17th century, the architecture of La Grand Place provides a vivid illustration of the level of social and cultural life in Brussels, during that period.
The Grand-Place testifies in particular to Brussels’ determination to rebuild after the terrible bombardment by the French troops of Louis XIV in 1695. The rebuilding campaign was spectacular not only for the speed of its implementation, but also by its ornamental wealth and architectural coherence. The Grand-Place is an outstanding example of the eclectic and highly successful blending of architectural and artistic styles that characterizes the culture and society of this region.
Palais Royal: The official home of the Belgian king, you will always know if he is in the country when you see the Belgian flag flying on top of the building. The building is a highlight of Neo-Classical architecture and overlooks Brussels Park. The Royal Palace is open to the public during the summer months.
Manneken Pis: This famous statue of a little boy peeing in a fountain is a perfect representative of the irreverent Belgian humor. The unique Brussels icon has been amusing visitors since 1619. Over time it has become a tradition for visiting heads of state to donate miniature versions of their national costume for the little naked boy. The wardrobe of Mannekin Pis can be seen at the Brussels museum and includes over 760 outfits – even an authentic Elvis jumpsuit.
Coudenberg: An underground trail to discover the remains of King Charles the Fifth's palace, this fascinating walk under the Place Royale leads to the discovery of the remains of the Coudenberg Palace, one of the main residences of Charles V. The former Hoogstraeten house, and its magnificent and entirely renovated gothic gallery, houses the Museum of the Coudenberg. Here, you will be able to admire the most beautiful archaeological discoveries of the last 25 years of the Coudenberg excavations history.
Galeries St Hubert: This gorgeous, glass roofed arcade in the center of town, lined with cafes, theaters and luxury stores has the distinction of being the first shopping arcade in Europe. Built in 1847 and recently renovated, the Royal Galleries (Galerie de la Reine, du Roi and du Prince) are one of the most astonishing places to visit in Brussels.
Atomium: Built for the 1958 World Fair, the Atomium represents a molecule's nine atoms – magnified 165 billion times. Something of a symbol of the city, it provides a panoramic view of Brussels and its surroundings and hosts a museum as well as a venue for special events. The nine spheres that make up the Atomium are linked by escalators. In summer one can take part in a unique activity — the Death-Ride, a breathtaking descent of more than 100 meters from the top sphere of the Atomium.
Train World: Opening in Brussels this fall and rounding out the capital's vast collection of museums is the Train World. As the name implies, this museum is entirely dedicated to trains and their special place in Belgian history. Trains have been a part of Belgians lives since 1835, when the first railway line in continental Europe connected Mechelen to Brussels. From commuters to world travelers, Brussels has been a domestic and international hub for train travel ever since.
Waterloo: In June 2015 the town celebrated the 200th anniversary of the epic Battle of Waterloo, when the army of the French emperor Napoleon faced off against a coalition of British, Dutch and German forces in a bucolic countryside about 20km outside Brussels. A series of commemorative events marked the bicentenary of the Battle, with the biggest draw being a two-day battle re-enactment. More than 5,000 re-enactors with 100 cannons and 300 horses took part in the event.
Another major attraction at the battlefield is the Butte du Lion, or Lion Mound, an artificial hill rising 40 meters above the surrounding countryside, topped with a massive bronze statue of a lion. Commemorating Prince William of Orange, the Dutch crown prince who was wounded in the fight, the mound has 226 steps leading up to the top, which gives a panoramic view of the battle site.
Belgian chocolate: Like fashion, wine and finance, chocolate has become a complex cultural phenomenon. There is basic chocolate for the masses, artisanal chocolate for purists and avant-garde creations for connoisseurs. In Brussels, a polyglot city at the geographic and cultural crossroads of Europe, you get it all.
The capital of Belgium may be known as the Capital of Europe, but it is also, at least as far as most chocolate aficionados are concerned, the World Capital of Chocolate. Ever since the Brussels chocolatier Jean Neuhaus invented the praline 100 years ago, the city has been at the forefront of the chocolate business. There are a million residents and some 500 chocolatiers, about one chocolatier for every 2,000 people. The average Belgian consumes over 15 pounds of chocolate each year, one of the highest rates in the world.