15 Things Brussels is Known and Famous For

Belgium’s capital is truly a unique place. Both posh and down-to-earth, serious and laid-back, Brussels is known for its delightful and decadent culinary specialties, its landmarks spanning many architectural styles, and its multicultural identity.

Grand townhouses in Brussels

Despite not making the top of most folks’ bucket lists, Brussels is definitely worth a visit if you’re down to discover a global city with lots to offer in terms of food, culture, architecture, and nightlife.

Let’s go over the coolest things Brussels is known for as we try not to drop any of the toppings on our waffles!

1. Manneken Pis

I wanted to start off with Brussels’ ultimate mascot because the peeing infant speaks volumes about the city’s cool vibes and self-deprecating humor.

Possibly from the 15th century, Manneken Pis has been standing on top of a fountain residents would historically resort to for their supply of drinking water.

While some visitors whine about how disappointing the bronze statue’s tiny size is (61 cm or 24 in), they fail to realize Manneken Pis is more of a symbol than an actual sight.

Manneken Pis

Manneken Pis is also a fashion icon: a nonprofit has been picking outfit ideas submitted by the public and dressing the statue a couple of times a week since 1954.

More astoninishing is the fact there are other peeing statues in town. A girl and a dog are the newest members of this one-of-a-kind club that you’ll only find in Brussels.

2. Capital of the European Union

The European Union doesn’t have an official capital; its main political institutions are instead headquartered in three cities: Strasbourg in France, Luxembourg, and Brussels.

The EU has even a district of its own in the city. The European Quarter (pictured below) is a major source of revenue and jobs for Brussels and has been expanding since 1958. The latest addition to the complex is the Europa Building, completed in 2016, and its edgy space egg”.

Brussels European District
Editorial credit: Werner Lerooy / Shutterstock.com

It’s in Brussels that you’ll find one of two HQs of the European Parliament (i.e. the lower chamber), as well as the seat of the European Commission (the “Presidency”), the European Council (where heads of state meet), and the Council of Ministers (the “Senate”). NATO is headquartered in the capital too, by the way.

Brussels earned this very special role because of its top-notch infrastructure but mainly for the status of Belgium as a buffer zone between France and Germany, the two most powerful founding members of the bloc. It’s also right at the crossroads between the Latin and the Germanic worlds.

3. Chocolate

Together with its Swiss counterpart, Belgian chocolate is consistently praised as the best on Earth. By law, it must contain at least 35% of cacao, so it might taste far richer than the bars and truffles you eat back home.

As the largest city in the country, Brussels is of course the main hub for the Belgian art of chocolate making.

Traditional Chocolate and confectionery shop with big choice of chocolates and sweets in Brussels downtown, Belgium
Editorial credit: Sun_Shine / Shutterstock.com

Although several historic brands have either moved their factories abroad or been bought out by foreign groups, gems like Neuhaus (the royal family’s official chocolate supplier) still concoct their delicacies right outside of Brussels.

What’s more, the Belgian capital boasts a restless craft chocolate scene that you just have to explore by yourself. You can both visit a theme museum and take a chocolate tour around the city center. Yum!

4. Multiculturalism

It may sound surprising given its size, but Belgium was once a colonial power. That, coupled with Brussels’ current status as the unofficial capital of Europe and the fact French has replaced Dutch as the common language within the city, has turned it into an attractive destination for a bunch of foreigners.

Now, a third of the residents of Brussels were born abroad. With over 150,000 people, Moroccans form the biggest community (many of whom have settled in the Molenbeek neighborhood). They’re followed by the French, the Romanians, the Italians, and the Turks.

People of different nationalities on the streets of Brussels
Editorial credit: Balifilm / Shutterstock.com

One of the highlights of Brussels’ multicultural identity is the vibrant Matonge neighborhood, which became a sort of Congolese enclave in the 1960s.

To this day, the majority of the district’s residents are from Belgium’s largest former colony. Yet 40+ African nationalities call Matonge home these days.

5. Grand Place

Consistently ranked one of the most beautiful squares on the planet, the Grand Place has been Brussels’ political, historic, and even emotional core for almost 1,000 years.

Its crown jewel is the Gothic Town Hall building, a relic from the 15th century that is surrounded by lavish Baroque townhouses.

Place du Luxembourg, Belgium

Brussels’ main plaza has rightfully been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site from 1998. It hosts amazing events year-round and most famously a fabulous flower carpet with 50,000+ flowers each August.

To learn more about this incredible metropolis, check out the Brussels City Museum. It’s located within the King’s House, a dazzling Gothic Revival palace facing the Town Hall.

6. Comics

The universe of Belgian comics is so vast that the 9th art is one of few spheres in which Belgium has influenced France, not the other way around.

Everything started in 1929 with Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin, which has spawned several adaptations (most notably a live-action movie by Steven Spielberg).

Comic strip mural painting in Brussels
Editorial credit: antonnot / Shutterstock.com

Apart from being the birthplace of many iconic cartoonists and Belgium’s publishing capital, Brussels boasts a comic museum and 60+ colorful murals spread throughout the city.

7. Beer

Trappist monks, who live in remote monasteries across Belgium, are the forefathers of the nation’s brewing tradition. Some of these monasteries have been working on their brewing game since the Middle Ages!

Selection of brewed Belgium beers in small taster glasses for a beer tasting tour in city centre Brussels.

Partly because of that, Belgian beer doesn’t really have a capital within the country (unlike chocolate). Granted, in Brussels you’ll find pubs galore, tons of bar crawl options, and countless microbreweries to explore. But watch your step through the cobbled streets!

8. Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau (French for “New Art”) was arguably the first modern art movement, as it sought to look into the future instead of searching for inspiration in the past.

The style was all the rage between 1890 and WWI and covered virtually every art form. Architecture-wise, its epicenter was the then unassuming city of Brussels.

Typical art nouveau facade with shaped metal ornaments, round windows, arches and decorated curling stairs at Square Marie-Louise
Editorial credit: Werner Lerooy / Shutterstock.com

Art Nouveau buildings incorporate industrial materials like glass and iron more widely, all while mimicking nature’s curvy lines. Thanks to the style, Brussels is dotted with townhouses that are as spooky as they’re stunning.

In case you’re intrigued by the movement’s bold shapes, visit the Horta Museum, which is dedicated to the life and work of Art Nouveau pioneer Victor Horta.

That said, strolling around the central parts of town will also give you a wonderful glimpse into the style’s masterpieces.

9. Atomium

Visitors who aren’t impressed by Manneken Pis should have a field day at Brussels’ most imposing monument. The Atomium represents the basic cell of an iron crystal enlarged about 165 billion times.

atomium

Built at the height of the Atomic Age, it was meant as the centerpiece of the 1958 World’s Fair, which was hosted by the city. Six of the nine stainless steel spheres are visitable and offer breathtaking views of Brussels. The one on top is home to a restaurant too.

The Atomium stands in the middle of an entertainment and arts complex spanning a miniature park, a stadium, a design museum, as well as Parc de Laeken, the biggest green area in town.

10. Bilingualism

Brussels is midway between Belgium’s protestant, industrial, Dutch-speaking north and its catholic, rural, French-speaking south.

Despite being historically part of the country’s north, over the last couple of centuries the capital turned into a sort of buffer zone between the two regions, much like Belgium itself on a European scale.

Streetname tag on a brick facade of the Rue de la Loi
Editorial credit: Werner Lerooy / Shutterstock.com

Today, more than 75% of the city’s residents are fluent in French, against 25% who speak Dutch. Still, on paper Brussels remains strictly bilingual.

That includes everything from street name signs to government services, though in practice French usually has the upper hand.

11. Waffles

Unfortunately, only one of the waffles that you see below deserves the title of authentic Brussels-style waffle: the one with right angles and a layer of confectioner’s sugar on top.

Belgians are less self-serious than the French (the perks of being a small country), yet like any good Europeans they’re traditionalists in the kitchen. To them, there is such a thing as too many toppings.

Waffle stall in Brussels

The more decadent and extravagant waffles are aimed especially at tourists. Since that’s exactly what I was when I went to Brussels, you won’t catch me complaining about it.

But It’s certainly no crime to try both kinds! After all, locals have been fine-tuning the recipe for their waffles for 300 years now. So I guess a simple dusting of sugar on top should as well do!

12. Stromae

Often hailed as a genius in Belgium and abroad, Stromae rose to stardom with the 2009 smash hit “Alors on danse” (meaning “Then we dance”), in which he sang about a disillusioned youth to a catchy tune.

Stromae, Belgian singer who plays House, New Beat and electronic music
Editorial credit: Christian Bertrand / Shutterstock.com

The rapper was born in Brussels to a Belgian mother and a Rwandan father who died in his country’s 1994 genocide. That of course left a mark on the artist, who turned the pain into poetry with Papaoutai (i.e. “Papa-where-u-at”).

Stromae’s strength lies in the combo of thought-provoking lyrics and wild beats. He’s the smiling face of a country (and a city) that has been inquiring into its own identity since forever. It’s definitely a sarcastic smile, though.

13. Royal Palace

The region that would eventually account for most of Dutch-speaking Belgium (the historic Duchy of Brabant) was ruled from the site of the Royal Palace of Brussels for about 700 years. The current Neoclassical building stands at the site of an 11th-century castle that burned to the ground in 1731.

Royal Palace Brussels

The palace dates back to 1823, yet the façade was only completed around 1904. While that may seem quite recent for a European country, Belgium gained its independence from the Netherlands in 1830.

These days, the Belgian royal family lives on the outskirts of town at the Palace of Laeken (which is located within Parc de Laeken). The Royal Palace serves a chiefly ceremonial role, like the king himself by the way.

14. Moules-frites

Belgians actually claim to have invented French fries, which isn’t that much of an issue because the French are busy with everything else they’ve come up with. Regardless, Brussels will treat you to the country’s mouthwatering national dish: mussels with fries (or moules-frites in French).

Just like the best inventions (either in the kitchen or not), apparently moules-frites was born out of necessity. It pairs a staple along the coast of the Low Countries (mussels) to the one thing folks would have access to as seafood became scarce over winter: potatoes.

A bowl of mussels with French fries

In typically Belgian fashion, there are two ironic things about having moules-frites in Brussels: the specialty in fact originated in the city of Liège in 1875, plus chances are you’ll be eating mussels that were imported from the neighboring Netherlands.

Head to Le Marmiton in the emblematic Royal Saint-Hubert Galleries for some of the tastiest moules-frites in town and a selection of Belgian classics with a modern twist.

15. Upper and lower towns

Like a few of the most interesting cities on Earth, Brussels is known for the stark contrast between its lower and upper towns.

The flat area between the stock exchange and the former port is more historically significant, bohemian, and traditionally more working-class as well. It used to be the economic core of Belgium’s capital.

The Mont des Arts or Kunstberg is an urban complex and historic site in the centre of Brussels, Belgium.

Now the hilly districts to the east of the Royal Palace are a lot fancier. This is where you’ll find the European Quarter and high-end shopping spot Avenue Louise. The cultural complex around Mont des Arts (seen above) is a key link between the two parts of town.

The lower town had been declining for decades ever since the city’s economy started moving toward the service sector and away from industrial activity. But the area’s been taken over by artists and hipsters in the last 20 years. It’s also home to much of Brussels’ thriving expat community.

Conclusion

Cinquantenaire, Bruxelles, Belgique

When I booked Brussels right after Amsterdam, I got a bit antsy about perhaps feeling underwhelmed by the capital of Belgium.

Much to my surprise, I was ecstatic as soon as I landed there. It seemed to me I was visiting a city that felt real and authentic.

Since I had no preconceived notion of what Brussels should look like, discovering it on my own was a really pleasant experience.

Hopefully this post will inspire you to do just that whenever you get a chance!

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