Hidden gems to see while visiting 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 hold with the city: You either fall in love, or absolutely hate it. For the latter, often times the traffic and the lack of knowledge about what one can actually do it the city are the main culprits. So let’s make you fall into the first category and get to know some hidden gems in Brussels that you might want to add to your list of places to see while visiting Brussels.
Brussels is the capital of the little Kingdom of Belgium. The city is located smack in the middle of the country 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.
If you are spending a weekend in Brussels, you will most likely hit the major tourist sites – Grand Place, Manneken Pis, Atomium – and I would highly recommend to indulge in a Belgian Waffle, or two!
When visiting Brussels you might want to consider investing in the Brussels Card which offers discounts to various tourist sights and covers the entrance to 44 museums for a period of 24, 48 or 72 hours. Additionally it might not be a bad idea to download the public www.stib-mivb.be/app so you can easily navigate your way around the city by hopping on metro/tram/busses.
Now those major sights have been checked off the list time to see some hidden gems in Brussels.
Lesser known sites to check out while visiting Brussels
Museum of the Far East Brussels
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 on the orders of King Leopold II who was particularly impressed by the ‘Tour du Monde’ exhibit at the World Expo of Paris that was held in 1900. 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 who is the currently still the owner of the buildings and has granted them the status of protected monuments in 2019.
Sadly this hidden gem in Brussels is closed for renovation, for an undetermined amount of time. The park housing the Chinese pavilion is open and you can take a (small) stroll around the buildings free of charge. The garden holding the Japanese Tower was not accessible at the time of writing.
Practical details for your visit
Entrance: The park has a few entrances, be sure not to miss the intricately decorated main gate which is directly opposite the Japanese Tower
Getting There: Avenue Van Praet 1020 Laeken
From the Brussels Central Station walk to the Place de la Bourse and catch the tramline take the tramline line 3 to espalanda and get off at Acuaria c.a. 12 stops or 21 minutes
The royal greenhouses in Brussels
When visiting Brussels, many people will go to see the working palace (administrative residency) of the king in the centre of town.
The actual palace where the monarchy lives is located in Laeken and it holds one of the most spectacular Art Nouveau greenhouses in the world which can be visited in a small window of time during 3 weeks a year truly making it a hidden gem in Brussels for even most of the locals.
The Royal Greenhouses of Laeken are part of the Royal Gardens which date back the beginning of the 19th century. The Greenhouses were designed by Alphonse Balat, who was the mentor of the world renowned founder of Art Nouveau, Victor Horta. In total there are 7 greenhouses which took a whopping 31 years to complete. Aside from the architectural delight you will treated to a dazzling array of exotic plants and flowers the greenhouses carefully cultivated inside. You will also get a beautiful view of the aforementioned Japanese Pagoda.
Practical details for your visit
Entrance: The main gate of the Royal Palace
Entrance Fee: €2,5 and €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’.
When to go: The gardens open for three weeks during spring. The exact dates differ each year to keep a close eye on the official website.
Opening hours: Usually between 09.30 – 17.00, however depending on the functions held at the palace the hours can differ. A few nocturnes are organised, where you can visit between 20.00-23.00
Good to know: This is a very popular activity with the older generation of Belgians, expect to see hordes of busses piling in 15 minutes before the opening. Get there 30 minutes before opening to be at the front of the cue, it will give you the best chance to enjoy at a leisurely pace.
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 modernise 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 neighbourhood chat.
Discover the Art Nouveau architecture
The Art Nouveau movement was born in Brussels. It’s 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. Every Saturday of the year, you can take a free Art Nouveau Walking Tour which lasts approximately 2 hours and takes you to the main Art Nouveau buildings in the city. If however you are only spending a short weekend in Brussels and are short on time you can stick to the 4 main Art Nouveau mansions created by Viktor Horta and recognised by UNESCO as pioneering works of architecture: Hotel Solvay, Tassel Hotel , Hotel van Eetvelde, and the residence of Viktor Horta which is now a museum.
Aside from the Viktor Horta museum, the other three Art Nouveau masterpieces are not generally open to the public. There are select days where these hidden gems in Brussels are open to be visited with a guide. Be sure to check out which buildings are open when visiting Brussels.
Practical Details Viktor Horta Museum:
Entrance Fee: €10 for adults, discounts available for children, students and senior citizens.
Opening Hours: Tue-Sun 14:00-17:30
Getting There: Rue Américaine 27 Saint-Gilles
Tram: Place Janson, lines 81, 91, 92 and 97.
Bus: Place Janson, line 54.
Good to Know: Photography is prohibited inside the museum
The Musical Instrument Museum and their iconic terrace
Speaking of Art Nouveau, the Musical Instrument Museum 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 it’s 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 are spending a weekend in Brussels and time is of the essence, you can skip the museum and head straight for the restaurant/bar on the top floor of the museum, free of charge.
This hidden gem in Brussels offers one of the best views over the city and is an excellent spot to catch the sunset over the city. At the time of writing the restaurant was closed for renovations for an undetermined period of time.
Practical details for visiting the Mim
Entrance Fee: €10 for adults – included in the Brussels Card
Opening Hours: Tuesday to Sunday: 09.30 – 17.00; Sunday and Saturday opening at 10.00
Getting there: Within walking distance from the grand place and central station
Montagne De La Cour/ Hofbergstraat 2
Check out the Brussels metro art & quirky architecture
If you are spending a long weekend in Brussels, chances are high you will be taking the metro at some point. Make sure to keep your eyes open when you do, because the Brussels metro is 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 70 metro stations that contain some form of artwork. To avoid spending a full day of metro hopping while visiting Brussels (although frankly that sounds like fun too) pick and choose which artworks you would like to visit. The Brussels Capital Region worked closely together with the STIB (the operator of the metro in Brussels) to create an overview of the artwork (in French) Alternatively, you can check out some English articles on the subject to help you out.
Although not part of the Metro Art Project, the metro station het Pannenhuis on line 6 is also worth checking out if you have some extra time. The quirky architecture is something straight out of movie with deep orange and cream hues and futuristic lighting it is the most random piece of architecture in the Brussels metro.
Jeu de Balle/ Vossenplein 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 365 days a year and the 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! If you have the time while visiting Brussels, the market really is an added value to visit!
Practical details for visiting the market:
Opening hours market: Monday to Friday: 06.00 – 14.00; Weekends 06.00 – 15.00
Best days to go for serious shopping: Thursday and Friday
Best days to go for the atmosphere: Saturday and Sunday
Good to know: There are plenty of typical Brussels cafés and hip eateries around the market ) spoken in the streets.
Go for pizza in the countries undisputed best pizzeria
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.
Where to stay in Brussels
When visiting Brussels, the choice of your hotel is important. You will be walking a lot therefore perhaps you want a hotel that is a bit more centrally located. The hotels recommended below have a great location and have a strong sustainability policy.
- Qbic Hotel Brussels: Located in the hip neighbourhood of Ixelles. This trendy 4-star hotel is colorful, has a private Karaoke and Cinema on site and boasts a 67% lesser CO2 emission versus hotels the same size.
- NH Brussels Bloom: This 4-star hotel is part of the NH hotel group and is perfect if you are traveling with a family. The beautiful rooms are tastefully decorated with plenty of splashes of color and patterns. Make sure to check out their on-site restaurant when you go!
- Stanhope Hotel by Thon Hotel: One of the best luxury hotels in Brussels. Stanhope Hotel Brussels is a 5 star hotel situated conveniently between the European quarter and the Royal Palace
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