Perhaps I’ve told you, perhaps I haven’t: I spent about half of 2015 in Brussels, Belgium, and I miss it dearly. I drank a lot of coffee and spent a lot of time walking around the city. I lived in a flat with two roommates and no oven, which meant that my stress-baking tactics were put on hiatus. And was I ever stressed. Unlike the time I moved to New York, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. (Not that I really know what I’m doing now, but like… absolutely no idea what I was doing whatsoever.) I made a lot of mistakes, but I also made a lot of great finds. Here’s how to spend 48 hours in Brussels, Belgium, without spending huge chunks of time in your hotel room.
First thing to know about Brussels: it’s divided into 19 municipalities. Unlike a lot of cities that are “divided” this way, this is actually quite a prevalent point. For example, some of my favorite places aren’t within the municipality of Brussels.
That being said, where your adventure starts depends on where you’ve chosen to rest your head during your 48 hours in Brussels. There are lots of great areas, but no matter where you stay, you’ll probably be able to get around the whole city easily. It’s a walkable city, and the metro and bus system is easy to understand.
As I lived in an apartment during my 2500+ hours in Brussels, I don’t have much first-hand experience with the hotel scene. Best to find your hotel or Airbnb by location: Ixelles, Etterbeck and Châtelain are some great areas of town. Saint-Gilles is also fun and well-connected to the subway lines.
When you’ve set your bags down, you have several choices, depending on the time of year you visit and what time it is when you’re finally settled in.
Option 1: Gaufres.
Gaufres means waffles. As in delicious, wonderful Belgian waffles. You’ve got two varieties: Liège and Brussels. The Brussels gaufre is a more sit down–type situation; you really need a knife and fork for this one. They’re a perfect rectangle and they’re lighter than the Liège. These are usually the ones that come with toppings.
The Liège gaufres (seen above) are a little denser and can easily be eaten without a fork. They don’t often come with toppings (it’s a sweet batter and melted sugar abounds), but I made sure to get cinnamon on mine. There are stands pretty much all over the place–there’s a stand in the Gare Centrale and plenty of places to find them between the Grand Place and Bourse. My favorite spot, though, is Maison Dandoy. I’d pick either the Rue au Beurre location or the Tea Room–both are easy to get to downtown.
Note: these waffles are from Paris, but they are Brussels Gaufres.
Option 2: Frites.
Frites means fries. This is an incredibly important part of Belgian culture (or my culture, anyway). There are several great spots all over the city. Maison Antoine is famous, the Flagey Frites stand at Place Flagey and Fritland by Bourse. Go. Eat. Be merry. (You’ve probably noticed that I have no photos of the frites. I couldn’t ever photograph them in time…they were too yummy.)
Option 3: Bière.
Bière means beer. As a girl who doesn’t drink much beer, I’m not terribly helpful. I mostly attacked the wine list–in most cases, a glass of wine was cheaper than ordering water. Regardless, beer is a huge part of life in Brussels. Entire bars cater toward beer. Delirium is the most famous, but it’s not a place I would recommend going more than once. Being an amateur beer drinker, I needed a bartender’s help deciding on a beer. It is literally impossible to exchange more than four words with a bartender here–there are too many people.
Dinner (Dîner / Avondmaal)
Fin de Siècle is great for classic (read: hearty) Belgian food. Enjoy!
Bia Mara is an unexpectedly yummy place for fish and chips downtown.
Get up in the morning; have a waffle or a croissant. Do something touristy today!
If you get up early enough, you can make it to the Grand Place before it’s overrun with tourists. Even with all the people, it’s still a gorgeous view. There’s also the Manneken Pis, which isn’t far. (It’s meh. Take your pictures and leave.) There’s the Comic Strip Walk, which is insane. Brussels/Belgium has a long history intertwined with les bandes dessinées that’s a little too long for me to write out, but you can read about it here.
Now that you’ve had a touristy morning, it’s time to do one of the most important things you’ll do in Belgium: you’ve got to find your chocolate. There are a lot of specialty stores dedicated to Belgian chocolate. I’m still dreaming about a few of them.
Don’t even bother with Godiva; it’s probably sold where you live. Leonidas made me feel a little sick, so I don’t recommend it, usually. Mary is good. Neuhaus is fine. My favorite storefront is Frederic Blondeel by Place Sainte-Cathérine. Their pralines are delicious and their bars are to-die-for. If your 48 hours in Brussels fall in the summer, there’s also ice cream right next door! Pierre Marcolini will not steer you wrong.
If you find yourself at a gourmet grocery store (like I did when I decided to run to one in the suburbs, walk back with groceries and then call it exercise), you’ll find more brands of Belgian chocolate than you can count. Dolfin was a favorite.
Lunch (Déjeuner / Middagete)
Now it’s time for lunch (if you haven’t eaten too much chocolate)! Hopefully you took my advice and went straight to Frederic Blondeel, because the lunch options around Sainte-Cathérine are incredible. There’s Nordzee/Mer du Nord for seafood or great sandwiches, Café De Markten for coffee and salads/sweets (they have BOMB speculoos ice cream!), pastries at Charli (my favorite bakery in the WHOLE world), and plenty of other spots to try out in the shadow of the church.
From there, you can either stick around the Rue de Flandre and shop or head back toward the Anspachlaan walk toward Bourse for some more touristy stuff. If you’re still able to move, however, I would highly recommend taking this afternoon to head over to a park. The Parc Royale is beautiful, surrounded by museums, and within walking distance of areas like the Sablon and the Palais de Justice, which are all picturesque. On the other side of the Quartier Européen, there’s the Parc Léopold (right by OR Coffee and Maison Antoine!). Just beyond that, there’s the Parc du Cinquantenaire, which was my favorite. Farther south, there’s the Bois de la Cambre. Take your pick! Bring your food and a book if you like and take a second to breathe/people watch until dinnertime.
There’s one place in particular that I will recommend for dinner, but don’t go telling anyone else about it. It’s a tiny spot (literally, there are six tables) just off Cinquantenaire that I found on a long walk home one day. Canto 21 is my absolute favorite spot in Brussels for plenty of reasons. Don’t let the minimal FB page fool you–you’ll fall in love too.
Otherwise, you’ll find good times and yummy food in almost any cafe you find. They’ve all got their menus posted outside, but if you’re looking for something else, S Marks the Spots and Brussel’s Kitchen were my go-to blogs for finding a great meal in Brussels. (If it’s wintertime, find moules frites! If it’s not… find something else. Frites sans moules are a great fallback.)
So, day two already? Brussels has a surprisingly standout brunch scene. You can find what you want in pretty much any corner of the city. Au Pays des Merveilles has gr8 bagels, if you’re craving American fare. Café de la Presse was also bomb.
Make sure you hit the Atomium, one of Brussels’ most famous landmarks. On a sunny day, the monument and the surrounding park are perfect for a picnic. There’s usually a waffle stand there, too, so… go crazy while you’re in Belgium. (I never bothered going inside the Atomium. The view from below is much more fun.)
During your last few hours in Brussels, go shopping in the Galeries Royales Saint Huberts and make sure to grab coffee somewhere in Bruxelles. Not on that list: A.M. Sweet (an adorable tea-house and sweet shop with some very strange hours) and God Save the Cream, which is great for a full meal or just tea.
Have a few extra hours in Brussels? Hope on a train and take a day trip to Bruges, Ghent or Antwerp. All are gorgeous. All are worthwhile.