A Weekend in Brussels & Bruges
The Belgian cities of Brussels and Bruges are perfect destinations for a city break. Both have compact city centres that are easy to explore on foot, travel time from the UK is short, and thanks to good rail links — the two cities are only an hour apart — you can easily combine them over a long weekend, perhaps by staying in Brussels and taking a day trip to Bruges.
Magical UNESCO World Heritage-listed architecture, exquisite chocolates, hundreds of varieties of beer, and works by great artists are just a few of the delights that await you. Here are our deal experts' favourite places to visit in Brussels and Bruges.
What to see and do in Brussels
If you’re travelling to Brussels by Eurostar, services arrive at Brussels-South station, from where it's five minutes by train to Brussels Central. Meanwhile, direct trains from Brussels Airport to Brussels Central take about 25 minutes.
From Brussels Central it's a few hundred metres to the Gothic St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral, considered Belgium’s national church. It has impressive stained-glass windows dating from the 16th to 19th centuries, and a huge organ containing 4300 pipes.
Head five minutes west and you can wander through the stunning Royal Saint-Hubert Galleries (comprising the King's Gallery, Queen's Gallery, and the smaller Princes' Gallery), a shopping arcade dating from the mid 19th century and featuring an arched glass roof. It’s home to chocolatiers, jewellers, cafés, bookstores, a cinema, a theatre, and more.
Nearby is the Théâtre Royal de Toone, a lovely little puppet theatre hosting regular performances. It's well worth visiting, even if there isn't a show on — you can have a drink in the atmospheric tavern and browse the puppetry museum.
The theatre is close to the Grand-Place, the city's main square. Once the site of beheadings and burnings at the stake, it's now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is surrounded by Baroque guildhalls, the stunning Gothic Town Hall, which dates from the 15th century and features a 96-metre-high tower, and the 19th-century Gothic Revival-style Maison du Roi, now home to Brussels City Museum.
Walk five minutes southwest of the square and you’ll reach one of the most famous — and smallest —visitor attractions in Brussels, the Manneken Pis. This fountain features a 61-centimetre bronze statuette of a little boy urinating. Brussels also has a female version, the Jeanneke Pis, a fountain put up in the 1980s, and even a statue of a dog cocking its leg against a bollard, known as Het Zinneke.
A few minutes’ walk east of Brussels Central is an area of royal and government buildings. Brussels Park (Parc de Bruxelles), the city's largest public park, is a great place for a stroll, and is home to historic landmarks including the Royal Park Theatre, a cast iron bandstand, ponds, and several sculptures and fountains. Opposite the southern end of the park is the Royal Palace of Brussels, the official palace of the Belgian king.
Walk another 10 minutes east and you’ll reach the buildings of the European Union. You can take a tour of the European Parliament and sit in the viewing gallery at the EU Parliament if a session is in progress.
To the southwest of Brussels Park is Mont des Arts, a raised area offering some of the best views across the city, as well as popular public gardens. You’ll find some of the most important museums, galleries, and performing arts venues in Brussels, including the Centre for Fine Arts, home to the National Orchestra of Belgium. A fun, interesting place to visit is the Musical Instruments Museum, home to a collection of more than 7000 instruments from around the world. You can listen to the sounds of many of the instruments via headphones.
The nearby Magritte Museum is home to the world's largest collection of works by the famous Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte. You can also head to the Old Masters Museum for older works by the likes of Rubens, Bosch, and Van Dyck.
In the south of the city centre, between Brussels-South station and the huge, imposing Palais de Justice, is Marolles, a charming neighbourhood that's home to shops selling vintage clothes, antiques, and records, plus a daily flea market in Place du Jeu de Balle. It's also a great place for seeking out unique restaurants, cafés, and bars.
What to see and do in Bruges
The Flemish city of Bruges is about an hour from Brussels by train. The city centre is a leisurely 15-minute stroll through pretty, cobbled streets from the station. The historic centre of Bruges is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Markt, the vast main square, is surrounded by stunning Medieval buildings, including a number of guild houses. Towering over the square is the 83-metre-high Belfry of Bruges, built in the 13th century, and you can climb the 366 steps to the top for magnificent views over the city. Markt hosts a market every Wednesday, while if you're there around the festive season, you can visit the square's Christmas market.
From Markt, walk a few minutes southeast to another fine square, the Burg, which has some beautiful buildings including the late-Gothic City Hall (Stadhuis) and the 12th-century Basilica of the Holy Blood. Head south across the canal bridge, continue through the cute Huidenvettersplein square, and you’ll arrive at one of Bruges's most famous spots, the Rozenhoedkaai. Here the Groenerei and Dijver canals meet, and the view along the water of the surrounding historic buildings — with the Belfry towering above them — is unforgettable. Get there early for the best photos; like most of Bruges it can get busy particularly in peak season. You can also jump aboard boat trips at Rozenhoedkaai.
It's worth following the course of the Dijver canal for 15 minutes or so for views of more Medieval waterside buildings and bridges. Call in at the Church of Our Lady Bruges, a magnificent church built between the 13th and 15th centuries that is home to the Madonna of Bruges, a marble sculpture of the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo. There’s also the Groeningemuseum, whose permanent collection spans several centuries of Flemish and Belgian painting; works include Jan van Eyck's Portrait of Christ, Jan Provoost's Crucifixion, and Nicolaes Maes's Portrait of Four Children.
Continue along the canal and you'll eventually reach the Beguinage, a collection of 13th-century houses once home to a group of women who wanted to live piously, but outside of a convent (today, it's inhabited by nuns). This is a peaceful spot away from the main tourist trail, and the gardens are particularly tranquil. Close by, Minnewaterpark is a romantic park that's home to some pretty bridges and several music festivals.
It's worth heading to the east of Bruges, too. A 15-minute walk from Markt is Kruispoort gate, a Medieval city gate next to a canal. If you follow the water's edge north, you'll pass a handful of historic windmills.
Belgium is, of course, one of the world’s beer capitals, and a great place to sample a few is at ’t Brugs Beertje on Kemelstraat, a charming little beer pub with around 300 Belgian varieties to choose from. Meanwhile Le Trappiste, on Kuipersstraat, is in a 13th-century cellar with a vaulted ceiling, and has a great atmosphere.
Chocolate is another product the country is famous for, and for a drink of a different kind, head to De Proeverie tearoom on Katelijnestraat for some hot chocolate (you’ll get a cup of hot milk and a scoop of chocolate made at neighbouring Chocolaterie Sukerbuyc — just stir it in). It's the perfect pick-me-up, especially on a cold day.
Find your next trip to Brussels or Bruges in our city breaks guide.
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Giorgio Petti and Nick Elvin contributed to this post.