Belgium is a beautiful country of architectural wonders, history, and mouthwatering cuisine. Brussels, its capital, is considered the de facto capital of the European Union after its member states decided to make the city the seat of European institutions in early 2000. If you’re visiting Brussels, especially as a solo female traveler, this post gives you an overview of what to expect there.
Best Time to Visit Belgium
First, when is the best time to visit Belgium? Personally, I would recommend you go from April to July. Really popular cities like Bruges, Antwerp, or Ghent can be quite crowded in the summer months (which is quite short — August to September, so everyone in Belgium takes advantage of it!), so take note of that before making your plans.
The country, in general, has mild weather, but it does rain a lot from September onward. Make sure to bring rain gear if you’re visiting Brussels on those months.
Visiting Brussels — Arrival in the City
There are several ways to arrive in Brussels. It has two airports: Brussels Airport (BRU) and Brussels South Charleroi Airport (CRL), which is a little far from the city. I’ve used both and I can highly recommend arriving at BRU since it’s very easy to go where you need to go from there.
By train, there’s Thalys (which I’d taken to and from Paris), ICE, Eurostar, ICE, SNCB, and others. When booking a trip to Brussels, you can use Omio to check for the best train schedules. They present the best options for you including times and rates. You can also book the tickets directly there.
Once you arrive in Brussels, there are several choices you can take to get from the airport to the city center. The cheapest is the public buses that can be found at Level 0, particularly Line 272 and Line 471 from De Lijn Bus Company. Line 272 typically takes half an hour as it makes more stops, whereas Line 471 can take as fast as 18 minutes since it is more direct.
As for the bus tickets, you can get yours via three options. One is the SMS-ticket that costs €2.50 (plus €0.15 provider charge) and can be purchased by texting DL to 4884 with your Belgian SIM card. Second is the M-ticket that costs €1.80 and is available on the De Lijn app on both iOS and Android.
Brussels Airport also has its own train station located at Level -1, directly under the departures and arrivals halls. Travel time to the Central Station in the city center is only around 15 to 20 minutes, and trains arrive every ten minutes between 5 am to midnight, seven days a week. A one-way standard ticket costs €9.10 to Central, and you can easily purchase yours at the machines with either cash or credit card. You can also book online.
Taxis are also available right in front of the arrivals hall. Travel time is as fast as 18 minutes in light traffic, and the fare depends on a taximeter, which is based on the distance. This can cost around €45. If you prefer to drive a rented car, rental desks are located in the airport’s arrivals hall.
Things to Do in Brussels
Depending on how long you are visiting Brussels, you can either cover the following attractions yourself, or — as I usually do — go on a guided tour first to see the highlights of the city. This walking tour costs only €15 and COVID-19 precautions are taken.
When Visiting Brussels, Head First Thing to the Grand Place
Dubbed as Europe’s most beautiful square in 2010, the Grand Place is the central market of Brussels until 1959. It is enclosed by almost 40 guild houses with stunning architecture, the most prominent of which is the 96-meter tall City Hall that dates back to the Middle Ages.
There are several cafes, restaurants, and bars around the Grand Place, not to mention chocolatiers where you can buy chocolates per gram. There’s the popular Godiva and Leonidas, and the pricey Neuhaus. La Belgique Gourmande has a very pretty facade as well.
Try exploring the Grand Place at night when the square is lit up. There are usually a lot of people there even in the evening. It is quite close to Brussels Central Station (less than 5 minutes walk) so you won’t have to walk far to go there. Time your visit when the square is blanketed with a colorful flower carpet of begonias, which is in August every two years. It was not held in 2020, for obvious reasons.
Take a picture of the hilarious Manneken Pis
Manneken Pis can be found very close to the Grand Place, just 5 minutes’ walk away. Take the Rue Charles Buls/Karel Buls Straat and walk two blocks (less than 500 meters). You will find him at the corner of Rue de l’Etuve/Stoofstraat and Rue du Chêne/Eikstraat. (By the way, get used to seeing two street names in Brussels. One is in French, while the other is in Dutch, both official languages of the country.)
Featuring a naked boy peeing into the fountain, Manneken Pis is a 61-cm bronze statue that is quite popular among locals and tourists alike. It is believed to date as far back as the late 1610s and has been stolen numerous times in the past. The current statue is a replica; the original restored sculpture is now kept at the Brussels City Museum.
Just before leaving to see Manneken Pis, you can find a statue at the corner of the Grand Place and Rue Charles Buls. It is a monument to Everard t’Serclaes, who was credited to recover the city from invaders in 1356. Like many other lucky sculptures in Europe (like Juliet of Verona or the musicians of Bremen) it is said that touching the statue will bring luck. Just make sure to sanitize your hands afterward!
Admire the glass ceilings at Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert
Housing almost five dozen luxury shops, the Royal Gallery of Saint Hubert (Galeries Royales Saint Hubert) is Europe’s first-ever covered shopping gallery. You will pass by it when you walk to the Grand Place from Central Station. Even if you have no intention of shopping, just go there to admire its architecture. Pay attention to the beautiful vaulted glass ceilings.
It has two sections: the King’s Gallery (Galerie du Roi) and the Queen’s Gallery (Galerie de la Reine). It also has a smaller side gallery (Gallery of the Princes). Walk from end to end, take pictures, and if you have time, have coffee or a meal in one of the many cafes inside.
Go back in time at the Musical Instruments Museum
Formerly a department store, the Musical Instruments Museum was built in the late 19th century and features an iron-cast turret and a stunning façade. It is home to a varied collection of 7,000 instruments, many of which can be played for visitors.
There is also a lovely patio on the rooftop that serves as a café and offers a sweeping view of the city. Entrance is free for every first Wednesday of the month.
Offer a prayer at Notre Dame Du Sablon
A site of pilgrimage since the 14th century, Notre Dame du Sablon is a Late Gothic cathedral commissioned by the archers of Brussels. It features a wooden pulpit dating back to 1697, a central nave with natural lighting, and 11 49-ft stained glass windows that circle the altar. The cathedral’s interior looks similar to the Brussels Cathedral, except it is slightly smaller.
Relax in Mont des Arts
Translating to “Hill of the Arts,” Mont des Arts used to be a densely populated district that has been converted into an elevated park with a scenic view of Brussels. It sits on the North-South axis connecting the aristocratic part of the city to the lower, working-class part.
From the park, you can see the City Hall in the Grand Place. If you’re lucky enough to be visiting on a clear sunny day, the Atomium and Koekelberg Basilica are also visible.
Feel like royalty at the Palais Royal
Constructed on the site of the previous Palace of the Dukes of Brabant, the Royal Palace in Brussels serves as the official residence of Belgium’s royal family despite them living in the Royal Palace of Laeken now. It was built back in 1820 under King William and was later modified in 1904 under Leopold II.
Among its notable features include the room with a ceiling covered in beetle wings, the impressive artwork, and interior decoration. Tourists are free to visit the palace in the summer months.
Enjoy a stroll around Parc Du Cinquantenaire
Measuring about 30 hectares, Parc Du Cinquantenaire was commissioned by King Leopold II for the country’s 50th anniversary of independence in 1880. The park features numerous vast gardens, three museums housing around 35,000 artifacts, and the popular arched centerpiece.
Whether you’re in the mood for a picnic or just wanting to soak up the sun, a visit to Parc Du Cinquantenaire will surely be worth your while.
Explore the inside of the Atomium
Visiting Brussels wouldn’t be complete without going to the Atomium. Standing at 102 meters and weighing 2500 tons, the Atomium in Heysel Park in the west of Brussels is an actual representation of the composition of an iron crystal, magnified about 165 billion times. It was originally designed for the Brussels World Fair in 1958 and was meant to last for only half a year.
However, because of its unexpected popularity, it wasn’t taken apart and had ultimately become a primary part of the city landscape. For a minimal fee, visitors can access the inside of the spheres, where a panoramic view of the city awaits.
There is also a miniature version of the Atomium in Haaltert (around 30 minutes by train from Brussels Central). Made by students of VTI Aalst in 2008, it was transferred to Haaltert from the school’s playground in 2012. I have joked to friends that this one-ton steel miniature represents an older Atomium; when the Atomium gets old, it shrinks to a fraction of its size and weight and is transferred to smaller towns like Haaltert.
What to Eat in Brussels
While many outside Belgium call the dish as “French fries,” Belgium claims to be the originator of frites. It is largely similar to your average fries, except the potatoes used are prepared fresh and cut into thicker slices. (Note that there is a specific variety of potato that is best for making frites. We’ve tried others and we can definitely tell the difference.) The pieces are then fried twice in animal fats instead of vegetable oil to make them tasty and crispy.
Belgians use mayonnaise for their fries, but local shops still offer a variety of sauce. If you want to try some, the most locally recommended place for frites is at Fritland Brussels, found close to the Grand Place.
Mussels and Fries (Moules-frites)
Generally considered as the national dish, moules-frites (mussels and fries combo) can be found anywhere in Brussels almost all year round. You can see many variety of the dish around the city, but the basic idea of moules-frites is steaming tender mussels in a metal pot with your broth of choice.
Among the most popular versions of this staple are those that contain white wine paired with aromatic herbs and vegetables like parsley, shallots, onion, celery, and leeks. Moules-frites is then served with a side of fries to complete the experience.
When in Brussels, never skip out on Belgian waffles just because they’re also available in your home country. You might be surprised that waffles made right in Belgium is a whole other experience.
This treat actually come in two varieties: Liege waffles and Brussels waffles. The former is thicker, crispier, has sugar in the dough, and comes in round shapes. Meanwhile, the latter is lighter, fluffier, and typically rectangular.
Belgians eat this treat with no toppings other than a sprinkle of powdered sugar (usually €2). To maximize your experience, make sure to indulge in those extra toppings (around €5) with cream, chocolate, and various fruits. Note, though, that it will definitely mark you as a tourist! Do it once for the gram, but for the best waffle, opt for just the plain one.
In almost every corner of Brussels, especially around the Grand Place, you can find a chocolate shop to satisfy your sweet cravings. One of the signature chocolates that you must definitely try is praline, a chocolate bonbon with some sort of filling. Created by the son of a pharmacist in 1912, pralines were originally made as a way to mask the bitterness of medicine. It has since evolved to become the popular treat it is today.
If you have a sweet tooth and want to get the most of Brussel’s chocolatiers, feel free to join a Belgian Chocolate Tasting Tour or indulge yourself in the artisan chocolatiers found in the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert or around the Grand Place. Local favorites include Leonidas, Godiva, and if you want to splurge, Neuhaus.
Safety Precautions for Solo Travelers Visiting Brussels
Just like many other capital cities around the world, Brussels is also home to pickpockets and other petty criminals, especially at night. That said, it is best to keep these following precautions in mind when visiting Brussels alone.
It is generally recommended not to go out late at night, but if you want to experience the nightlife in Brussels, try to avoid railway stations such as Brussels Gare du Midi/Zuid and Noord/Nord, which can get pretty dodgy after dark. Always know your way home before heading on a night out, and use public transportation instead of walking back to your accommodation.
When you’re taking the train, always keep your belongings close to you. A known scam is someone trying to call your attention from outside on the platform. It is a diversion so the person’s accomplice who is inside the train can take your bag without you knowing and get off before the train leaves. This has been reported especially in Midi/Zuid station.
If you’re visiting Brussels and going around by car, never leave any valuables inside the vehicle nor leave them out in plain sight while driving. Spread your valuables around, too, and don’t pack your cash, cards, and passport in just one bag.
Prioritize location over budget when booking your Brussels accommodation. Be wary of hostel descriptions saying that they are “centrally located” when in fact, they may be in a sketchy part of town. Make use of Google Maps to check it out.
All these safety precautions can be applied to any major city, not just Brussels. Rule of thumb is to practice common sense and be aware of what’s happening around you.
Visiting Brussels should definitely be part of your European trip. There are many other cities you can visit on day trips from Brussels; Bruges, for example, is only an hour by train from Brussels Central. You can also go to Ghent (35 minutes), Antwerp (~1 hour), Mechelen (25 minutes), or Waterloo (30 minutes), and see some of their highlights in one day.
Have you been to Brussels? What do you like most about the city?