Self-styled world capital of comic books as well as of Belgium, Brussels is famous for waffles, chocolate and beer. But it offers visitors so much more, shattering its image as a city of "Eurocrats". Alongside many fine examples of Art Nouveau architecture, Brussels has a thriving cultural scene and is one of the great culinary hubs of northern Europe.
Brussels: city layout
Central Brussels is divided in two: the Lower Town and Upper Town, both filled with narrow, medieval streets and linked by a gently sloping escarpment. The former centres on Grand-Place , while the latter is home to fine arts museums and the Royal Palace.
To the east, in Schuman, you'll find most European institutions, and the museums of Parc de Cinquantenaire. In the northern suburb of Laeken you can climb the city's symbol, the Atomium – a giant, atomic model of an iron crystal built for the 1958 Brussels World's Fair.
What to see: from Gothic art to Tintin
The centrepiece of the Lower Town, Grand-Place is one of Europe's great squares. Surrounded on three sides by ornate, step-gabled guildhalls, it is dominated on the fourth by the soaring Gothic tower of the city hall, completed in 1420. Nearby is the infamous urinating boy statuette, the Mannekin Pis.
Also in the Lower Town, the Comics Art Museum focuses on Belgium's history as a centre for comic books, including The Adventures of Tintin, written and often set here in the city. For classical art, head to the Upper Town's Old Masters Museum, featuring works by Rubens, Van Dyck and Rembrandt.
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Most sights and many shops are located in central Brussels, so many visitors find it convenient to stay here. Hotels in Brussels' suburbs are often quieter, and the city has an efficient public transport network so all neighbourhoods have fast connections to the centre.
Staying in the central Upper or Lower Town will leave you within an easy walk of sights and nightlife. There is also a high concentration of hotels in Ixelles, particularly around the northern end of Avenue Louise, a leafy boulevard lined with shops and restaurants.
If you're here on European business, you may prefer to stay in Schuman, where many EU institutions are located. Hotels near Brussels Airport (BRU) leave business visitors close to several international offices, including the NATO headquarters and Eurocontrol.
Brussels enjoys an excellent culinary reputation, from simple street food to fine dining.The former includes Belgian frites (incorrectly called "French" fries in English), usually smothered in mayonnaise. Also popular are gaufres (waffles) and the Belgian chocolate praline: a silky smooth treat that melts on your tongue.
The Lower Town contains hundreds of restaurants serving global cuisines, as well as plenty of simpler cafés focusing on classic Belgian dishes. In this area, Quai aux Briques has become known as the place to go for seafood.
The central Rue des Bouchers is a narrow alley crammed with restaurants that also serve seafood, but are more geared towards tourists – ask your concierge about the best places. Head to the Upper Town and the area surrounding Place du Grand Sablon for a cluster of chic bistros.
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If you've always wanted a corkscrew featuring a Mannekin Pis (the famous Brussels statue of a boy urinating), you'll find plenty in the city's souvenir shops. However, more discerning shoppers also appreciate Brussels for its high-end fashion outlets and chocolatiers selling an array of pralines.
Shops abound throughout the Lower and Upper Towns, but Rue Antoine Dansaert has made itself a name as the home of high-end fashion pieces by some of Belgium's most talented designers. For more everyday items, you'll find chain stores all along pedestrianised Rue Neuve, at the north end of which is the City 2 shopping mall.
Just browsing the boutiques of Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert is worthwhile to marvel at the architecture of this 19th-century, glazed-roof shopping arcade – one of Europe's oldest. Farther south, the city's largest open-air market, Marché du Midi, sets up every morning outside Midi Station.
Prices are fixed and bartering is unnecessary. You should also keep in mind that most shops remain closed on Sundays.
Top souvenirs from Brussels
Brussels has a vibrant nightlife scene, based largely around its restaurants, bars and clubs. Outside the central area, with some notable exceptions such as the north end of Avenue Louise, bars tend to be oriented towards a local clientele, although visitors are of course welcome. Many bars and clubs have very late opening hours – until dawn in some cases.
You'll find most of the livelier bars and clubs scattered throughout the Lower Town. The area around Bourse and Grand-Place has a high concentration of bars, several of which still sport their original Art Nouveau decor.
If sitting and admiring the architecture is too staid for you, there are several popular dance clubs in this area and to the south, around Rue du Marché au Charbon. If you'd prefer to sip and savour an aperitif in peace, you'll find a number of upmarket bars in the Upper Town, many clustered around Place du Grand Sablon.
Live music venues in Brussels
Children of all ages are welcome in the cafés and restaurants of this family-friendly city. Many museums and attractions will appeal to young and old, although some charge an entry fee. Parks are free, of course, the main one in the city centre being Parc de Bruxelles near the Royal Palace.
For a cartoon-themed day out in the Lower Town, head first to the Comics Art Museum. Its exhibits take visitors on a journey through the history of comic books, showcasing a cast of characters from Lucky Luke to Tintin.
On a grander scale, but also for free, the Comic Strip Walk is a series of more than 40 colourful murals adorning buildings throughout the Lower Town, starting near Place de Brouckère. They playfully recreate famous scenes from the books, often merging ingeniously with the city's architecture.
Top family attractions in Brussels