I personally like Brussels as I traveled a lot there while working for a big company, so I try to cut the subjectivity and be as honest as I can. Here are the DON’Ts and bellow some DOs although the travel sites are full of good advice on things to do.
- don’t book flights to Charleroi airport if not big savings, more than 30 euros, I mean a return ticket by bus to Brussels city center. Check blablacar or other ride sharing in advance and book instantly. I usually payed 10 euros return ride.
- don’t rent a car if only for Brussels. Parking is difficult and expensive in the city center (better though than Paris or Amsterdam). It is a great option if you’re 4 and want to see Ghent, Bruges, Lille, Liege or even Antwerp and Amsterdam. Check accommodations that primarily offers parking, even payed.
- if canot avoid Charleroi airport, don’t arrive or depart too early or too late as rides from Brussels could be around one hour so it is exhausting and is influencing the quality of your travel. If no ride sharing then book the bus online in advance as it is also cheaper.
- don’t be ashamed to ask others to share a cab from the airport as it is quite expensive. This is a saving everybody wants to make. Be proactive.
- don’t visit Charleroi if you have some hours transit. It is not a city to visit. Better stay in the airport, one of the friendliest I ever seen.
- don’t go without preparing your trip – book online in advance the museums you want to see as it could be sometimes cheaper and please pay for skiping the line. Don’t underestimate the time of queuing.
- don’t over-plan as there are a lot of museums and things to see. Just know yourself and eliminate. Personally after seeing Louvre or other top 3 museums, I would avoid big museums except if want to see an exclusive art of work or exhibition. Check the websites and look for free entries if any.
- don’t follow blindly the tops of what to see and do from major websites, as they are an opinion of the majority. When in Brussels go to local artists, galleries, pubs, restaurants. Go out of the city center. Don’t miss parks and churches.
- don’t book your hotel without knowing the neighborhood – this is a very multicultural city and you might feel uncomfortable. Avoid Maalbeek at any cost, the surroundings of train stations, especially Zuid.
- avoid periods of EU events as accommodation can be very expensive. Book in advance, close to city center. Airbnb or other home-sharing websites have a wide range of good flats. Don’t book outside of city center.
- if short time in Brussels don’t visit European institutions (only if big fan), Mannekin Piss, Jeanneke Piss, Atomium and it’s surroundings as they all are over-rated, big museums without preparing in advance.
- don’t avoid travel insurance. Smart travelling is about where to make savings and where not to, just to have a great trip. Insurance is not a saving it’s a risk.
- Belgians are not very friendly like madrilenos, not very fashionistas like Parisians, but they are open to show you directions so just ask them nicely. A big plus – they speak foreign languages, especially English.
- please don’t buy the usual souvenirs like fridge magnets. It is a general DONT valid for every destination, as they are bad taste, poor quality, expensive and shows lack of interest for the recipient. Try something else. If in Belgium buy chocolate or send an actual physical postcard.
- don’t come unprepared: check the weather and pack accordingly remembering it is very moist in autumn or spring, have copies of your papers to leave at the hotel and go out in the evening without having to worry about loosing the original ones, bring some cash with you to manage risks, avoid exchange offices at the airport, share the cab or take public transport as it is very convenient.
Here are some personal DOs about Brussels.
I usually use the formula 112 Plan for a day. One part for culture including museums, galleries, tours. One part for entertainment and two parts for walking, feeling the city, resting in parks and have local foods and experiences.
Stay in city center, near the beautiful Grande Place where you feel as if you’re in Harry Potter’s school. All things to see are at walking distance so take a walk. See nice architecture, art nouveau buildings as it is it’s birthplace. Therefore visit Horta Museum, Magritte Museum for amazing surrealist paintings that you suddenly recognize. Churches are always and everywhere the places to see, to feel the history, to meditate, to admire marvelous masterpieces, to take a break. I love Grand Sablon and Cathédrale des Sts Michel et Gudule. For interesting and free views go to Ministry of Justice located on a hill and even walk inside for the architecture. Nearby go to the flea market of Marolles. Have a drink in the evening in the area of Place Sainte-Catherine.
Don’t miss in Brussels the street food and local markets. The Belgian fries are different than McDonald’s or French fries. In fact the last ones originated from here. Go to Fritland near the Bourse and have a carbonnade flamande with your fries, but be prepared for a delicious caloric bomb . If in winter then go to Christmas Fairs and have a hotdog with onion or cabbage and mulled wine, shop local souvenirs. If not into local fast food then go for mussels, check for the local restaurants popular among Belgians. Don’t miss the chocolate and the waffles; if you do so it’s like you never visited Brussels.
In every destination you go I would recommend to get out of the beaten paths and create personal experiences. For me it would be: free tours from the locals, a photography class in the city, cooking class or food tours, local markets, meeting locals, using public transport or walking as much as I can but not till exhaustion. So many opportunities….
If a longer stay in Brussels or in general in any other destination it is of a great inspiration to have your return flight earlier than the last day of your holiday. You have a day to rest at home and prepare for work.
I therefore rate Brussels a 3.5 stars destination considering one star for over-rated and 5 stars exceeding any expectation. It is obviously a personal rating, subjective, depending on my level of expectations – the WOW factor – related to a mixture of culture, food, local shopping, night life and affordability.