Brussels may be most famous to many in Britain as the home of the European Union - but there is so much more to the Belgian capital than international politics. The city is also full of great architecture and has plenty of attractions that make it the ideal place for a short break.
History of Brussels
The city of Brussels was founded in the 10th century and went on to become an important centre of the Low Countries, passed between competing empires and nations as Europe was riven by war and formation of alliances. But it was to be the 1830 revolution and the declaration of Belgian independence from Dutch rule that would mark the start of Brussels’ journey to becoming a major world city.
After independence Brussels began to develop all the characteristics of a modern city. The first railway station was built in 1835, fresh water began to be supplied to homes and the old city walls were turned into boulevards. As the city evolved and expanded, it swallowed up neighbouring towns as it continued to grow. During this period Brussels remained mostly a Dutch-speaking city but in 1921 Belgium was formally split into three language regions - Dutch-speaking Flanders, French-speaking Wallonia and bilingual Brussels.
During the 20th century Brussels was occupied during both world wars but was spared the damage inflicted on so many other European cities and towns during those conflicts. Since the Second World War the city has become a major centre for international politics and is today home to the main institutions of the European Union and the headquarters of NATO.
Five things to do in Brussels
So you are ready to start exploring Brussels. But what are the ‘must see’ attractions that should be on every visitor’s itinerary? Here are five suggestions of things to do during your visit to the Belgian capital - and a map to help you find your way around the city.
Perhaps the most famous landmark in all of Brussels, the iconic Atomium was built for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, Expo ‘58, and is made up of nine stainless steel-clad spheres in the shape of a unit cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times.
The Atomium houses a permanent exhibition about its history, while the upper sphere offers wonderful views out across the city. Located at the foot of the Atomium is Mini-Europe, a park that allows you to tour the landmarks of the continent in a matter of hours. A must for quirky holiday snapshots.
Square de l'Atomium, 1020 Brussels
Comic Strip Museum
Housed in a historic fabric warehouse built by Victor Horta in 1906, the Comic Strip Museum is a celebration of this artform that, thanks to Hergé and his famous Tintin stories, which will always be closely associated with Belgian culture. A space dedicated to the work of Hergé was opened in 2005, while on the mezzanine level there are changing displays of around 200 items from the museum’s collection of some 7,000 original drawings.
Rue des Sables 20, 1000 Brussels
Located close to the Atomium and Mini-Europe, Océade the Belgian capital's waterpark. It is open all year round and offers something for all the family, from high-speed water slides for thrill-seekers to jacuzzis and saunas for those looking for a more relaxing way to spend an afternoon.
Museum of Natural Sciences
This Brussels museum - also known as the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences - is dedicated to natural history and its most important pieces are a collection of fossilised Iguanodon skeletons discovered in 1878 in a Bernissart coal mine. Since renovation in 2007, the Janlet wing of the museum is said to be the largest dinosaur hall in the world. As well as the dinosaurs, there are also permanent displays exploring evolution during the Ice Age and the natural world on the Belgian coast.
Rue Vautier 29, 1000 Brussels
If the Atomium is perhaps Brussels’ most famous landmark, then the Manneken Pis is certainly one of its most popular tourist sites. The iconic bronze fountain sculpture, located close to the city’s Grand Place, depicts a naked boy urinating into the fountain's basin and was erected around 1618. There are numerous legends surrounding the statue’s inspiration - many involving small boys who went missing in the city only to be found urinating nearby - and today the sculpture is regularly dressed up in a range of costumes.
Brussels is located in the centre of Belgium, around 130 miles from the port at Calais. Getting there is easy if you book one of the frequent cross-Channel ferries to France, with Brussels being around two hours by car if you travel on one of the Dover ferries to Calais.
MyFerryLink offers up to 16 sailing between Dover and Calais every day and you can book your crossing from £19 one way by visiting our booking page on the website or by calling 0844 2482 100.
You can find out more about Brussels on the Visit Brussels website.