After spending many days in this wonderful city, I’ve come up with the ideal single day itinerary for those who only have 24 hours to explore the Belgian capital of Brussels! There are so many things to do and see in and around Brussels but with limited time, this itinerary concentrates on the historic centre.
I’ve detailed my one day itinerary by starting in the morning and finishing late evening, but you could easily change the day around to fit any 24 hour period depending on when you arrive in the city.
Any trip to the Belgian Capital be it one day or one week should begin in the Grand Place, one of the finest city squares in the world and rightly so became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.
Whichever way you approach the enclosed cobblestoned square, stunning architecture greets you and the further you venture in, the bigger the wow factor becomes. Just find yourself a position in the centre and slowly turn around and around taking it all in. The grandeur will not fail to impress!
The Grand Place is the geographical, historical and commercial heart of the city and remains the civic centre centuries after its creation. It displays the best example of 17th Century Flemish ornate architecture. Originally, the guild houses lining the square were a concoction of different styles, but after the fire of 1695, most of the facades were destroyed and the trade guilds instructed to rebuild their frontages in approved styles, resulting in the harmonious unity of baroque buildings we see today.
The focal point in the Grand Place is the unnaturally tall spire of the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) which towers 315 ft high and is resplendent with ornate stone carvings. Standing opposite is the equally ornate Maison du Roi, home to the Musée de la Ville (City Museum) and worth a visit if time allows.
If you are visiting on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday morning, the famous flower market will greet you; however, if you’re looking for a truly memorable experience, keep in mind the unforgettable flower carpet that happens every 2 years and plan your visit to coincide.
Head round the back of the Maison du Roi to the Tourist Information Office where you can pick up a map if you don’t already have one, then delve into the side streets around the Grand Place checking out the many chocolate shops and lace and tapestry emporiums, three of Belgium’s greatest exports.
Head down the Rue Charles Buls off the Grand Place (which turns into the Rue de l’Etuve) which I apologise is extremely touristy, but 3 blocks from the Grand Place and you’ll stumble across the Manneken Pis, a fountain statue of a little boy relieving himself into a small pool. At only 2ft tall, you’d be forgiven for wondering what all the hype is about but whatever your thoughts are about this most unlikely of attractions, this famous ‘pisser’ has become the symbol of the city. Most of the time, his nakedness is hidden beneath a costume which changes on a regular basis and his ever-growing wardrobe is displayed in the city museum at the Maison du Roi.
Depending on how long you’ve spent exploring the streets around the Grand Place, it’s probably now time for a bite to eat. For those on a budget, choose one of the many eateries along the Rue des Bouchers, a tourist attraction in its own right. Here restaurants fall over each other with seating sprawled out onto the pavements practically touching each other, so pick your way through with care and expect to get accosted by restaurant staff trying to get you in to their establishment. The offerings are plain and simple and menus very similar from one place to the next with moules frites and steak frites being popular options, but the food very tasty and served quickly.
For more salubrious surroundings with a bigger budget, head to the nearby area of Ste-Catherine and chose from a plethora of seafood restaurants in the shadow of Eglise Ste. Catherine.
After lunch, choose from one of the city’s excellent museums. As already mentioned, back on the Grand Place there’s the Musée de la Ville at the Maison du Roi where you’ll learn all about the history of the city. Maps, paintings, models and architectural relics tell the story of Brussels including such detail as why there’s no river running through the centre as you would expect from most inland cities. Also see a good selection of the Manneken Pis’s many costumes, for me a far more intriguing prospect than seeing the statue itself.
If costume and textiles are your thing, check out the Musée du Costume et de la Dentelle – the Costume and Lace Museum. Lace is one of Belgium’s finest crafts since the 16th Century so it’s not surprising there is a museum dedicated to its development and applications for under and outer wear over time.
For art buffs, visit the Musées Royaux de Beaux-Arts, a prestigious museum split into the Musée d’Art Ancien (ancient art), the Musée Fin de Siècle (19th/20th Century Art) and the Musée Magritte, the latter of which houses the world’s largest collection of the Belgian surrealist painter’s work: René Magritte.
A quirkier offering is the Underpant Museum located above above the Dolle Mol Cafe, which features collages incorporating the underpants of Belgian celebrities.
Other options are:
The National Bank of Belgium Museum
Musee BELvue, which charts Belgium’s history from independence to the present
Coudenberg: a subterranean archaeological site of the remains of Brussels old palace
The Musee des Instruments de Musique – Brussels famous music museum housed in the Old England building where there are more than 2000 historic musical instruments on display with audio clips of most delivered by a headset provided on entry.
Lastly there’s the Museum of Comic Strip Art: the Centre Belge de la Band Dessinée. This museum pays tribute to many world famous comic strip artists from Belgium and abroad with a large concentration of works featuring Tintin: probably the most well known Belgian comic character.
After getting your cultural fix, ascend the Mont des Arts Kunstberg admiring the impressive 1958 clock which features figurines marking each of the hours. Stop for a drink at Kwint’s open air terrace while enjoying a lovely view over the city.
Admire the Old England Building (home of the Music Museum) whose imposing black facade with wrought iron detail and arched windows easily makes it the most beautiful Art Nouveau building in Brussels.
Continue on up to the Place Royale and pop in to the Eglise Jacque sur Coudenberg if it’s open, then head round the corner to take a selfie in front of the impressive frontage of the Palais Royal.
Cross the road to walk through the Parc de Bruxelles enjoying the largest area of green in Brussels centre, exiting at the other end by the Palais de la Nation and down to the Brussels Cathedral of St Michel and St Gudule.
Open until 6pm, the cathedral is free to enter, with admission only charged to enter the crypt and the treasury. Marvel at the stained glass on display – it’s some of the most colourful I’ve seen and floods the nave with light so you should get some good photos! Read more about a visit to the cathedral here
Take one of the many routes back down to the shopping area bordering the Grand Place and wander through the attractive Galeries St-Hubert, a 19th Century neo-classical shopping arcade and the first of its kind in Europe.
Choose from one of the eclectic cafes/restaurants inside for tea: I can recommend Mokafe. Then conclude your evening meal with a few chocolate truffles and sweet fancies at a nearby chocolate shop, such as La Belgique Gourmande or Elisabeth.
Finish off the day where you started back at the Grand Place which is truly magical at night-time when all the buildings are beautifully illuminated and a sight that should not be missed!
You can keep enjoying the Belgian chocolate scene until late as stores typically stay open till 11pm, so don’t use too many of your daylight hours doing this when you could be sight-seeing instead.
Here is a further Brussels day itinerary centred on Churches and Chocolate, two of my favourite things!
What are your favourite parts of historic Brussels?