Brussels can be a bit tricky to navigate, swerving around tourist traps in the historical city center is a true art form. The traveler who comes prepared will however be privy to all that is on offer, including the multitude of hidden gems in Brussels.
“Bruxelles, ma belle!” a slogan sometimes heard as locals endearingly refer to their city. It loosely translates into “Brussels, my pretty city” and is a testament to the relationship many of us Belgians hold with the city: You either fall in love or absolutely hate it.
For the latter, oftentimes the traffic and the lack of knowledge about what one can actually do in the city are the main culprits. So let’s make you fall into the first category and get to know some lesser-known places in Brussels that you might want to add to your list of places to see while visiting Brussels.
More Brussels Guides: You might also be interested in reading a weekend in Brussels or one day in Brussels. Alternatively, head out and explore more of Belgium with these 31 day trips from Brussels. Or dive into the very best brunch places in Brussels or 10 mouthwatering vegetarian & vegan restaurants in Brussels.
Brussels is relatively small and easy to navigate on foot (weather permitting). That being said, the various places in Brussels to visit are sprawled out across the 19 neighborhoods of the city, finding them is not unlike a treasure hunt. Here are some tools to use for your scavenger hunt.
- Getting from Brussels Airport to Brussel city center: Flying into Brussels and getting to the city center is very easy. Simply take the direct train and stop at Brussel Centraal. From there a 5-minute walk will take you to the Grand Place (Main Square) Book your tickets in advance online.
- Public Transportation: Tram, Bus, Metro, and Train are all readily available. Google Maps does an awesome job of telling you exactly which type of transportation to take from point A to point B! The Brussels inner-city public transport uses one single ticket across the various bus, metro & trams systems and gets you all across Brussels and the suburbs. Book any tickets for public transportation online.
- Brussels Card: Super useful Card that gives you tons of discounts on tourist attractions, all tickets to public transportation, and free entrance to 41 museums. Get your Brussels Card
- Hop-on Hop-off Bus: Wizz around Brussels in a 100% electrical hop on hop off bus. Really worth it for people visiting Brussels for the first time to get a good feel of the city! Tickets are valid for 24 or 48 hours, and for the kids, there is a dedicated audio guide available.
As a local, there are 10 areas in Brussels I would recommend for different types of travelers. From bustling squares to relaxed suburban neighborhoods. Find out which part is best suited for you!
Map of Hidden Gems in Brussels
This treasure map covers the various spots we touch upon in the below guide to help you maximize your treasure hunt. Explorers looking to get a closer look can simply click on the interactive Google Map.
10 Brussels Hidden Gems to explore
Time to delve deep into the folds of Brussels and check out what secrets she has been hiding for the unprepared traveler. Truth be told, even as a local many of these places were previously unknown to me. This little city of mine tends to guard its secrets well.
1. Museum of the Far East (Laeken)
You might not think you are visiting Brussels when stepping into the Museum of the Far East. In fact, as someone who has lived in China for a few years, I can attest to the accuracy with which the Chinese pavilion was created. The museum of the Far East is a complex of three buildings: Chinese Pavilion, the Japanese Tower, and the museum of Japanese art.
The buildings were created at the turn of the 20th century. The materials were sourced directly from China and Japan, to preserve the authenticity of the buildings. Once the King died, the buildings were donated to the Belgian state is currently still the owner of the buildings and has granted them the status of protected monuments in 2019.
Note: The Museum is currently closed for renovation for the foreseeable future.
Address: Avenue Van Praet 1020 Laeken
Getting there: From the Brussels Central Station walk to the Place de la Bourse and catch the tramline take the tramline line 3 to Esplanade and get off at Acuaria c.a. 12 stops or 21 minutes
2. Rue de la Cigogne/ Ooievaarstraat
The city of Brussels has a long history of affordable housing problems. Workers & craftsmen traditionally lived in mews – dead-end streets which usually bore the name of one of the inhabitants or the traditional occupations that were carried out here.
Many of these little streets have disappeared as the city continues to expand and modernize its infrastructure. This myriad of little dead-end streets forms the beating heart of Brussels and is often overlooked by tourists visiting Brussels. Rue de la Cigogne/ Ooievaarstraat is a quintessential hidden gem of Brussels.
Take a walk through the street and find the very picturesque 18th-century porch. If you happen to go during a sunny, summer day chances are high you will find locals sitting outside their door enjoying the weather and a friendly neighborhood chat.
Sustainable Travel Tip: If the weather is nice, why not support a local and take a very affordable bike tour around this neighborhood. Learn all about this hidden gem and more before sitting down at a terrace for a much-deserved drink. Check availability & rates
3. Discover Art Nouveau in Brussels
The Art Nouveau movement was born in Brussels. Its life was very short-lived but the impact on the Brussels architectural landscape was profound. Brussels has no less than 500 Art Nouveau buildings dotted across the city many of them in the Ixelles and Uccle neighborhood.
Visiting the Art Nouveau in Brussels can be a bit tricky as many of the UNESCO classified buildings (Hotel Solvay, Tassel Hotel, Hotel van Eetvelde) are only open on very select dates. Quintessential hidden gems of Brussels, even for the locals.
What can be visited freely is the atelier and home of one of the founding fathers of the Belgian Art Nouveau movement. The Victor Horta Museum is open Tuesday to Sunday in the afternoon (from 14.00 PM), tickets can be purchased online.
For those looking to delve a little deeper into the Art Nouveau scene of Brussels, there are various options available.
Free: Every Saturday of the year, you can take a free Art Nouveau Walking Tour (2hours)
$: 3-hour guided tour with a local who loves Art Nouveau. Walk around the Bailli neighborhood and find Art Nouveau in the most unusual places (doorknobs, façades of buildings, window frames). Finish off at the Hort Museum. Check prices and availability.
$$: A fully personalized guided tour that takes you across various neighborhoods of the city and includes a guided tour of the Victor Horta Museum. Check prices and availability.
Good to know: Check out the official Brussels Art Nouveau and Art Deco association for dates of guided tours of locations that are usually closed to the public.
4. Grab a drink (or brunch) at the Musical Instrument Museum
Speaking of Art Nouveau, the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) is one of those buildings you do not want to miss when visiting Brussels. Conveniently located at the top of Mont des Art/ Kunstberg it stands out from the surrounding buildings thanks to its intricate girded steel and glass façade.
The museum itself is part of the Royal Museum of Art and History and houses a vast array of rare musical instruments. If you only have a little time in Brussels and time is skip the museum and head straight for the restaurant/bar on the top floor of the museum, free of charge. The views over the city are truly spectacular, especially around sunset.
Address: Montagne De La Cour/ Hofbergstraat 2 1000 Brussels
Entrance Fee: Free for drinks, museum visit €10 ($12) included in the Brussels Card
Getting there: Within walking distance from the grand place and central station
5. Peruse a local flea market
The Jeu de Balle Flea Market is one of the most famous flea markets in Brussels. The market is located in the heart of the lively Marolles district, a traditionally working-class part of the city where you can still hear the nearly extinct local dialect (brusseleer) spoken in the streets.
This hidden gem in Brussels is held 365 days a year and the true embodiment of the expression one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. You can find just about anything on this little market – if you are willing to delve in head first, oh and don’t forget to haggle over the price because that is part of the fun!
Address: Vossenplein / Place du Jeu de Balles 1000 Brussels
Opening hours market: Monday to Friday: 06.00 AM – 14.00 PM; Weekend 06.00 AM – 15.00 PM
Best days to go for the atmosphere: Saturday and Sunday
6. Hunt down the coolest metro stations in Brussels
Knowing the Belgian weather, chances are you might be ducking in and out of the Brussels metro to get around the city. The silver lining is the Brussels metro is in fact
a veritable underground museum.
More than 80 artworks grace the platforms, tracks, and corridors transforming a usually very drab underground system into a pretty cool space filled with sculptures, photographs, and interesting murals.
In total there are 70 metro stations that contain some form of artwork. One could quite literally spend a full day metro hopping to find all the hidden treasures, though that might not be exactly how you envisioned spending a weekend in Brussels.
Here are a few of my favorites to keep an eye out for:
- HET PANNENHUIS (line 6): The quirky architecture is something straight out of a movie with deep orange and cream hues and futuristic lighting it is the most random piece of architecture in the Brussels metro.
- STOCKEL (end station of line 1): A 135-meter-long wall filled with over 140 life-size depictions of Tintin. The mural was designed by the creator of Tintin, Hergé, right before his death.
- PORTE DE NAMUR (lines 2 and 6): Four large reliefs called Le Stade de la Vie by local artist Octave Landuyt depict the birth, adulthood, love, and death or the four stages of life.
Walking through the streets of Brussels, you will not fail to notice the very large swathes of walls that rise high into the sky, adorned with colorful murals. The city has a lot of street art to admire, and a lot of it is actually commissioned work by the city itself.
Tintin and the smurfs feature heavily in the Comic Strip inspired murals, while other street art serves as a homage to the great painters of old (Flight to Egypt by Piotr Szlachta pays respect to Pieter Brugel) and yet a third kind simply serves the purpose of letting creativity flow (Parc des Etanges Anderlecht).
How to explore the street art in Brussels
Free: Head out to the Parc des Etangs in Anderlecht and explore the 150 columns underneath the ring that have been transformed into an open-air art gallery.
$: Comic Strip Walk- Pick up the €2.5 brochure at the local tourism office and walk around the city to find the coolest comic strip murals.
Support the local economy: Skip the brochure at the tourist office and get a local guide to show you the coolest comic strip murals and other more authentic street art with a very affordable tour.
Check rates and availabilities
8. The Royal Greenhouses of Laeken
When visiting Brussels, many people will go to see the working palace (administrative residency) of the king in the center of town. The actual palace where the monarchy lives are located in Laeken and houses one of the most spectacular Art Nouveau greenhouses.
The Royal Greenhouses of Laeken are part of the Royal Gardens which date back to the beginning of the 19th century. The Greenhouses were designed by Alphonse Balat. In total there are 7 greenhouses which took a whopping 31 years to complete. Aside from the architectural delight, you will be treated to a dazzling array of exotic plants and flowers the greenhouses carefully cultivate inside.
Note: The greenhouses are only open for 3 weeks a year, as such, they are a hidden gem in Brussels even many locals have not visited. Visiting the greenhouses is wildly popular, with long lines of curious spectators cueing to get in. Be there 45 minutes before opening time
When to go: Spring. The exact dates differ each year so keep a close eye on the official website. Tour busses usually start coming in 15 to 20 minutes before opening and people start cueing to get in. If you want to have the luxury of walking through the gardens at your own pace (vs. stuck behind hoards of visitors) I would suggest to get there 30 minutes before the gates open.
Address: Avenue du Park Royal, 1020 Laeken (Brussels)
Entrance Fee: €2,5 ($3) and €1 ($1) for an additional informational leaflet (optional)
Getting There: Take bus 230, 231 or 232 from De Lijn, or bus 53 from STIB and get off at the bus stop ‘Serres Royales/Koninklijke Serres’.
9. Get unique views over the Grand Place
The Grand Place in Brussels is anything but a hidden spot in Brussels, in fact, it is the polar opposite, the most visited place in the whole city. It is not hard to see why, those iconic gabled houses dripping with gold are pretty impressive. I have traversed the main square hundreds of times and yet still it never ceases to amaze me.
There are two ways to make the Grand Place a bit more unique though, and I am very surprised not more people know about them.
OPTION ONE: Take a guided tour of the city hall
First up is by taking a guided tour of the city hall, the large imposing building with the spire towering over the square. Learn about the history of the building and climb to the top of the tower to get the best views over the square. Tours are held every Wednesday and Saturday and tickets need to be booked online.
OPTION TWO: Spend the night in a tiny house overlooking the main square
Cocoon boutique hotel is a locally run boutique hotel, located right on the main square. The hotel has just two rooms, both of which have spectacular views over the square. My partner and I had a romantic stay in the Tiny House and absolutely loved sharing our morning coffee in bed, peaking out of the curtains at the Grand Place (yes from the comfort of my very own bed!).
At €190 a night, rooms are anything but cheap. The locally sourced breakfast, and of course – the view – might make the splurge worth it. Check rates and availability.
10. Walk past the birthplace of Audrey Hepburn
Time to get off the beaten path in Brussels and into the very heart of the city. Few people know this, but the famous actress Audrey Hepburn was born in Brussels and spent the first few years of her life right in the very city.
Although the house itself is rather unassuming – there is a golden plaque on the house stating this was the house Audrey Hepburn was born in – the Ixelles neighborhood where the house can be found is a great neighborhood to walk around.
Address: Rue Keyenveld 48, 1050 Ixelles (Brussels)
You might be surprised to read this, but while visiting Brussels pizza should be on the menu. The city holds the largest Italian population of the country and thus some of the best pizzerias you will find outside of Italy.
It’s not just my opinion, according to 50 Top Pizza Brussels has 2 of the best pizzerias in Europe (excluding Italy). Check at where you can find these delicious pizzas and get transported to Italy after the first bite.
What language is spoken in Brussels
The city is located smack in the middle of Belgium and – in the true spirit of compromise the country is known for – is part of both the Flemish and the French Community of Belgium. While technically a bilingual city, the main language in Brussels that is spoken is French – Although as a tourist you will get by more than fine with English.
Is Brussels safe?
Yes, the city is as safe as any major city in Europe. A good rule of thumb is to always keep a close eye on your belongings and to double-check with your hotel/ hosts which areas to avoid. There are a few spots around the Brussels Midi (South) and Brussels North train station that get dodgy as well as certain streets in Saint Gilles and Sint-Jans-Molenbeek.
MORE TRAVEL RESOURCES FOR VISITING BELGIUM & SURROUNDINGS
Belgium: A local guide to 2-days in Brussels
Belgium: Get the most out of one day in Brussels
Belgium: 16 Castles hotels in Belgium for a romantic weekend
Belgium: 24 Beautiful places in Belgium you need to visit
Belgium: Spend a weekend in quaint Mechelen
Belgium: 2-day guide to Antwerpen
Netherlands: Places to visit near Amsterdam by train