Peter arranged a trip to Brussels as a family for my birthday. Knowing I would want to see some parts of my old stomping grounds from when I lived in Brussels, he left it up to me to decide what we would see. There was so much I wanted to see! The only hitch – and a blessing – we would have Miss M with us. With that in mind, here are our suggestions for what to see and do in Brussels with a child.
This post was actually one of the first travel posts that I wrote before I found a rhythm. We’ve improved, and this post had to be improved to reflect that. So here’s “What to see and do in Brussels with kids – take 2”
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Travelling with a child
Unfortunately, I am still not used to travelling with a child. I used to travel regularly – I saw most of Europe while at university, travelled regularly for work and had two long-distance relationships, including one with my husband. I could get ready and packed in just a few minutes. Now it takes me much, much longer to get organised, especially when Miss M is determined to help. On the upside, Miss M decided to wear her princess crown the whole weekend for my birthday.
On Saturday, we ended up leaving an hour later than planned. Our late departure, the weather and probably my overplanning meant that we didn’t end up doing everything on my “What to see and do in Brussels” list. Still, we had fun and it was lovely to see my daughter’s wide-eyed reaction to things that were once normal for me. And our lateness meant we missed roadworks and the worst of the weather.
Driving? Don’t forget the LEZ
Brussels is reasonably close to Solingen, so we decided just to drive. The train would have been a good alternative, too, as the train stations in Brussels are quite well connected to the Metro, tram and bus network.
During our drive, I discovered – quite by accident – that we had to register our car in advance for the Brussels “Low Emission Zone” or risk a fine of EUR 150. Registration is free and there is a registration form to use. Of course, the LEZ website was down for most of the weekend, so we had to register via email. If you are planning a trip by car to Brussels, make sure you register your car in advance!
Where to stay
Before looking at what to see and do in Brussels, you should look at where to stay in Brussels.
When we reached our hotel, we managed to find a car park almost right out the front. Our later arrival meant we could leave our car there all weekend.
We stayed at the relatively new Motel One next to the Metro and tram stop Park. We have stayed at several Motel Ones in Germany, Amsterdam and London and have always had a good experience. While the rooms are a little on the small side, clever design and good quality furnishings and mattresses make them quite comfortable. They are still normally larger than the average hotel room in London or New York.
While the rooms are always similar, the reception come bar come breakfast area is normally themed to suit the location. Brussels has chosen a modern regal look, with huge pictures of the first King on the wall and large velvet-covered armchairs.
Day 1: A weekend in Brussels with a child
First stop: Take in the view at Place Poelaert
After checking in and dumping our stuff at our hotel, we caught the tram to Place Poelaert and the Palais de Justice. There must have been some recent protests near the courts and barbed wire had obviously been used to restrict entry. In typically Belgian style, the barbed wire was still there, with no warning signs. (No, the barbed wire does not have to be on your “What to see and do in Brussels” list).
The view from Place Poelaert is nice but unfortunately, the weather was not really conducive to good photos during our trip. Yes, that is the Atomium you can see in the background.
I think the view from the top of the Music Instrument Museum is better as you get a better view of the Grand Place. If you ask nicely, they will let you in to visit the restaurant and take a few photos for free.
We had a quick look at the view (Miss M was not impressed), then took the elevator down to square Breughel L’ancien in the Marolles to visit the flea market at Place du jeu de balle. Of course, we stopped for a warm Liege waffle on the way.
What the rest of the world calls ‘Belgian waffles’ aren’t given that name in Belgium. I know of at least three different types of waffles – I will have to do a post on the differences and share the recipes. The Liege waffle is one with little bits of warm and caramelising sugar in it. They’re my favourite, but Miss M was not so keen.
Next stop: the flea market at Place du jeu de Balle
I love this little market. The variety of things on offer is amazing: pictures and picture frames, mirrors, tools, furniture, carpets, cutlery, toys, music (notes and records) and miscellaneous paraphernalia. And the prices are surprisingly reasonable. If you like flea markets, this one definitely has to be on your list of what to see and do in Brussels.
Case in point: I bought one of my favourite pieces of furniture at the market many years ago. This small handmade wooden cupboard only cost EUR 20 and was badly in need of a clean. The drawer knobs were originally just metal screw hooks: I updated them to glass knobs. Now it has a special place in our lounge room.
During this visit, I fell in love with a little handmade bench. It was like a school bench, without the table, with a narrow seat and short back. The wood had a lovely patina and was smooth from years of use. Amazingly, the stall owner only wanted EUR 20 for it! I was hooked. Nearly. However, after discussions with Peter, we passed. We really had nowhere to put it and it was too small to be practical in our entry. By that stage, it had also started to rain and it was just a little too big to carry all the way back to our car.
We did have some success though. My Dad collects oil cans and I managed to find a couple that are unlike anything he already has. Of course, our little dinosaur aficionado found the toy dinosaurs. She had about 50 to choose from and chose the ugliest plesiosaur that she could find. Strange child. I was looking for a tea strainer or teapot but didn’t find anything that I liked.
We walked through the rain along Rue Blaes towards Sablon, stopping at various shops on the way. Some shops feel like a smaller version of the market, but the prices are not quite as good, and others sell speciality goods. Many of the shops tend to have short lives, but Miss M was fascinated by the shop that seemed to sell every type of drawer pull you can imagine.
Sablon and some chocolate
You can’t visit Brussels without trying some chocolate. Sampling Belgian chocolate simply must be near the top of your “What to see and do in Brussels” list. It is probably on the list no matter where you are visiting in Belgium.
For me, Place Sablon is synonymous with chocolate. Our first stop was Pierre Marcolini’s flagship store. So pretty. So delicious. And the smell! Mmmmm. Pierre Marcolini was Mum’s favourite chocolate shop for cakes, but she also appreciated their chocolates.
We bought a selection of their filled chocolate hearts, which are filled with raspberry, salted caramel, passion fruit and other flavours. Yum! We also bought a box of their “Flavours of the world” for my mother-in-law.
Pierre Marcolini is one of the few chocolatiers, who sells their chocolates based on where the cocoa beans were grown: Java, Ecuador, Peru, Cuba, Brazil and their patented Pierre Marcolini mix with beans from Ecuador and Cameroon.
After we had paid, Miss M was given a small chocolate bean from our server for being such a good princess. She tried it and promptly spat it out. I guess Miss M is not yet a chocolate connoisseur.
We stepped outside to discover that it had stopped raining. Across the road, you can find real “muscles from Brussels”. No, not the ones from the Men at Work hit and not Jean Claude van Damme, either. Fresh mussels and oysters. We didn’t try any – I am allergic and we had more chocolate planned – but Miss M was fascinated.
Our next stop was Wittamer. The bright pink awning meant Miss M was already a fan. Their shop is downstairs, and upstairs they have a small café, which was our destination.
During our visit, Miss M was the only child in the café and was on her best behaviour. The staff noted her tiara and treated her like a princess, which made her feel even more special. And she really savoured her selection of ice cream.
This was Mum’s favourite place to have hot chocolate. They serve the whipped cream separately so that you can mix in as much as you want (and you do not need much). It also comes with a small selection of chocolates and some small cakes.
A little shopping on Avenue Louise
After walking around the square and through the (overpriced but interesting) antique market to walk off our lunch, we caught the tram to Place Stefanie, to do a little shopping on Avenue Louise.
We visited Mig’s Wine World, one of my favourite wine shops, and were lucky to walk out with only two bottles. One was for us to drink that night once Miss M was in bed and the other was to take home with us. Mig and his team know their wine and they have never steered me wrong.
We then wandered down Avenue Louise, doing some window shopping, and stopped off at one of my other favourite shops, Dille & Kamille. According to their website, they focus on “everyday products. Make life pleasant.” using natural materials and practical designs for the house, garden and kitchen.
We still have a number of the kitchen gadgets I purchased there while I lived in Brussels and Miss M loves her wooden coffee machine that we purchased last time we went to one. It takes pride of place in her kitchen.
This time we purchased a small easter decoration for a gift and a couple more kitchen gadgets. As always, there were a number of tempting things, but I remained strong. Fortunately, a month of purging to make space for our bathroom made me strong and we only purchased things that we needed. The plants were very tempting though. Aren’t they pretty?
By this time, Miss M was flagging, so we headed back to our room for a rest. The hotel had provided some pencils and pictures to colour in, so she was happy as a kid in mud.
A visit to the Grand Place
For dinner, we took a short walk from our hotel, past the cathedral to the Grand Place – arguably the jewel in Brussels’ crown.
The Grand Place was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1998 and is home to a number of celebrations. In May it hosts one of the largest stages for the – mostly free – Brussels Jazz Weekend. In August this year it will be shrouded in a floral carpet again and at Christmas time, the city Christmas tree will stand in the square.
Most of the original buildings around the Grand Place were destroyed in August of 1695 when troops lead by Marshall de Villeroy attacked the city. Only the facade and tower of the city hall survived. The other buildings were quickly rebuilt, this time by the guilds. Many of the buildings still have ornaments on top of the building to indicate which guild was responsible for the rebuild.
Most of the renovations (mostly cleaning) are finished, and it looks gorgeous. Miss M loved the lights and the gold. “Very sparkly” was her comment and we know 3-year-old princesses like sparkles.
From here, we stopped off briefly at the bronze statue of Everard t’Serclaes. It’s next to the Maison du Ville. Touching his arm is supposed to bring good luck, but you can see by the shiny bits that people think more than his arm brings luck.
A fascination with urination
We then took a short walk down to the Mannekin Pis (or little pissing boy in Flemish). The Mannekin Pis is dressed up a few times a year to celebrate various special days or events. I remember it took me about 4 visits before I finally saw him without clothes on. Apparently, this is rather unusual.
If you’d like to see his 1000 outfits, there is a museum devoted just to his garderobe. You can find it just around the corner from the Mannekin Pis at Rue de l’Etuve 31.
In the late 1980s, a little squatting girl fountain was also placed in the city. You can find her not far away, on the other side of the Grand Place opposite a pub just off my favourite covered galleries, the Royal Gallery St Hubert (which are definitely also worth a look!). She doesn’t have costumes and is now behind bars to protect her from vandalism.
Rounding off the trio is Het Zinneke (often wrongly called Zinneke Pis), a bronze statue of a urinating mutt. Unfortunately, it is not a fountain. You can find Het Zinneke at the junction of Rue des Chartreux and Rue du Vieux-Marché-aux-Grains, a short walk from the Bourse (stock exchange).
We went to dinner at the Hard Rock Café. While it was not the gourmet meal I would have liked to have, it was easy and we knew they have easy kids options and distractions. And some good cocktails.
Day 2: A tour of my old neighbourhood
The next morning after breakfast (Miss M has decided she loves croissants), we drove around my old neighbourhood. The house I lived in is still there and the street has not changed much. I still love it. As we slowly drove through the city it was interesting to note which things were the same and which things were new. Clearly, I have been away too long!
Dinosaurs – Roar!
Our highlight for the day and possibly Miss M’s highlight of the whole trip was the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences with its dinosaurs. There is so much to say about our visit that I have decided to write a separate post. Here’s some eye candy to encourage you to take a look.
French Belgian fries
Any suggestion of what to see and do in Brussels with kids must include a stop to eat every kids’ favourite food: French fries. Except they should be Belgian
Before leaving the city we stopped off at Place Jourdan for some fries from Maison Antoine (they are really Belgian not French). I remember when it was just a shack; now it has brick walls and doesn’t stink of grease. Unfortunately, I had forgotten that Sundays is a market day for Place Jourdan. Getting close was a problem. Still, the fries are some of the best in Brussels and they definitely brought back memories. Miss M liked them too – she had her eyes closed and was falling asleep in the back of the car on the way home but didn’t want to stop eating.
Four other recommendations of things to do and see in Brussels with kids
As we said at the start, we arrived later than we planned and we also wanted to be back in Solingen at a reasonable time on Sunday, so that I could see my mother-in-law for my birthday. If we’d had a little time and the weather permitted, we would have seen one of the following things as well.
The Atomium was built and designed for the World Fair held in 1958 in Brussels. With nine large spheres, the Atomium resembles an iron atom. Like the Eiffel Tower, Atomium was supposed to be dismantled after the World Fair. However, the city fell in love with it and it was renovated and reopened in 2006.
We decided not to go to Atomium during our visit because it was quite a way away from the rest of what we wanted to see and the weather was not good. Our view would have been limited.
If you are travelling with little ones and you are going to visit Atomium, take them to Mini Europe too. It has 350 miniature models of attractions located throughout Europe, from Big Ben in London to the gondolas in Venice and the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin. All the buildings are on a scale of 1 to 25.
Built to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Belgium as a nation (thus the name), Park Cintquantenaire is a lovely park that is well worth a visit.
The highlight is a ‘mini Brandenburger Tor’ type triumphal arch with two wings. The northern wing houses the Royal Military Museum, with an impressive collection of aircraft and the largest collection of military uniforms in the world. The southern wing houses AutoWorld and a museum about the park.
On a nice day, you can climb to the top of the triumphal arch for a great view. Entrance is free from an entrance within the army museum.
The park also houses the Great Mosque of Brussels.
Art nouveau and art deco bike tour or walking tour
Brussels is famous for its art nouveau and art deco architecture. Some of the most famous art nouveau architects called the city home and strange laws made it difficult to demolish the buildings they designed after art nouveau went out of style.
There are art nouveau and art deco tours available, but I would suggest just picking a couple of areas and going to have a look yourselves. My recommendations include Flagey, with its large steamship art deco building, and the Etang d’Ixelles (Ixelles Ponds). You need only stroll down a few streets to discover a number of houses by Blérot (Rues Bell-Vue 42-46), du Monastère (No. 30) and Vilain XIIII (7-11). Houses b the brothers Delune can be found on Rues du Lac (No. 6), and Rue de la Vallée (2, 4, 8-12, 18-28 and 32). Most of these are just around the corner from where I used to live.
If you are going to take a stroll down Avenue Louise, you might want to take a detour along Rue Dufacqz for Ciamberlani House by Paul Hankar at No. 48 or his own house at No. 71.
If you want to visit a museum about one of the art nouveau masters, try the Horta Museum, located in the former house and studio of Victor Horta. Alternatively, visit the Music Instrument Museum, which is possibly more enjoyable for children. Definitely get an audio guide: they play music using the instruments you are currently viewing. The building itself – the Old England Building – is one of the most recognisable art nouveau buildings in Brussels and, as I mentioned before, it has great views over the city.
If you are looking for somewhere different to go for dinner, try De Ultieme Hallucinatie. The brasserie serves typical Belgian food in among the gorgeous art nouveau architectural details. Sit on the benches which were designed for the Belgian railways during the Belle époque and try some local beer while sitting in a tramway in the garden.
If you choose to stay at Motel One, you will find a wonderful art nouveau specimen just across the road.
I can see that I really should write a post on my favourite art nouveau and art deco places in Brussels. I shall add it to the list! Check back here for updates!
The Royal Greenhouses at Laeken
If you happen to be visiting Brussels from mid-April to Mothers’ Day, your “What to do and see in Brussels” list must include a visit the Royal Greenhouses at Laeken (near Atomium). These gorgeous greenhouses look like giant glass crowns and are said to have inspired the art nouveau movement.
Botanists and gardeners will love the glasshouses because:
- Some of the original plants still exist (since 1876)
- The greenhouses contain an enormous number of rare and valuable plants.
One of my favourite things to do was to quickly walk through the greenhouses and sit and just people-watch while sipping champagne in the winter garden, which is still used for royal receptions.
What to see and do in Brussels with kids
There is much to do and see in Brussels with kids. Just looking at what we managed to squeeze into 2 days proves that we really need to go back for another trip.
If you are visiting Brussels, I hope you might find time to see some of the places I loved when I lived there.