Should you bother going to Brussels with kids? It’s often thought of as a pass through city — you know, the kind backpackers check off their lists en route to its more glamorous neighbors Bruges, Paris, and Amsterdam. Ask anyone who has been to Brussels and they’ll likely recall a fuzzy night at a beer hall, the Grand’ Place, and that little peeing boy. “Boring,” I’ve even heard it called. To them I respond, “You haven’t spent enough time there.”
This unassuming city, the address of NATO and the European Union headquarters, was where my daughter attended first through seventh grade. It was home to me, and still feels like it most days. Brussels may not have the wow factor of Paris at first glance, but that’s part of her charm. Brussels makes you work to discover her beauty, and reveals herself slowly.
For families willing to give the city more than just a hasty glance from the train window, you’ll find plenty to entertain and amuse you. From the myriad green spaces to run and play to the world-class museums to the dense international population, Brussels boasts an understated cosmopolitan air that makes it both intriguing and accessible.
Like taking a bite of its famous chocolate, even a small dose of the Belgian capital will leave you wanting more. Bon appétit!
From Brussels with Love, 48 Hours with Kids
Morning: Kids, and adults too, will delight in the nearly 40 larger than life comic book characters painted on buildings and gable ends around Central Brussels. Obtain a detailed Comic Strip Trail map at the Brussels Info Point (BIP) the Place Royale, or at the Belgian Center of Comic Strip Art, colloquially called the Comic Strip Museum, a good starting point for the colorful outing, and worth a visit if you have time too. You don’t have to search for all the murals, but seeking out a few is a good way to discover the city.
Midday: Head to the gorgeous Grand’Place, Brussels’ most visited site and the main square of the city, once called the most beautiful in Europe by Victor Hugo. Turn 360 degrees and admire the splendor and architecture that inspired UNESCO to designate it a world heritage site in 1998. The square is surrounded by houses called guildhalls that were once meeting places for the various guilds of Brussels.
Le Cygne (the swan), for example, was the meeting place of the butcher’s guild but is now a swanky restaurant. Guided tours of the town hall (the building with the spire) are available. Kids might enjoy a visit to the City Museum located in the Maison du Roi, the former bread makers’ guild, has a funny collection of costumes that have been worn by the Mannekin Pis (peeing boy), the city’s most famous and irreverent statue located just down the street.
Eat: Be warned, there are numerous tourist traps surrounding Brussels’ Grand Place. You will be very tempted to hit one of the many restaurants along the Rue des Bouchers, a charming narrow cobbled street where pushy restaurant owners beckon with “hello” “hola” and “bonjour” in hopes of luring you in. The result is mostly subpar food at sky-high prices. On the Grand Place, there are numerous cafés and even a Hard Rock now but La Brouette (2-3 Grand’Place) is very good and serves simple food in a traditional environment. The waiters can be crusty, but that’s part of the charm.
Afternoon: Follow the signs from the Grand’Place to the Mannekin Pis (just a few hundred yards) to snap a photo. If you’re lucky, he’ll be dressed in a crazy costume. If not, he’ll still be doing his thing.
Mention museums and kids usually whine, but how about a chocolate museum? Belgium is famous for the confection and the Museum of Cocoa and Chocolate traces the sweet history and offers a demonstration and tasting too.
Burn off that excess energy at the Brussels Park located across the street from the Royal Palace, which opens its doors to visitors, free of charge, for six weeks following July 21, Belgium’s national day. It’s worth a visit if you are in Brussels in late July.
The park doesn’t have a playground but does have plenty of space to run, play hide and seek, and rest. Often there are shows and events during summer months.
Evening: Stroll around the Place du Grand Sablon. This stunning square topped by the Notre Dame du Sablon gothic church and surrounded by gabled roofs under which chic shops, restaurants, and antique stores dwell. There are several casual restaurants around but one of my favorites, especially for kids, is Le Perroquet (Rue de Watteeu), an art deco gem known for its massive menu of pita sandwiches stuffed with every combo imaginable. Fast and inexpensive too—a real treat!
Morning: Trams are a major mode of transportation in Brussels and have served the people of the Belgian capital since the late 1800s. Their history is alive at the Brussels Tram Museum, and many are still in working order. After climbing on a few of these ancestors of transportation, take a ride through the Soignies Forest on a 1930’s ride.
Across the street from the Tram Museum is a small park, off the tourist track but known by locals, called Les Etangs Mellearts. (Etangs is the French word for ponds). This is an especially fun spot for families thanks to paddleboat rentals, an ice cream stand, and a mini-golf course. There’s also a brasserie tucked into a 100-year-old house, with a fenced in garden and swing set for the kids if you feel like grabbing lunch.
Afternoon: Head to the Cinquantenaire Park. Paris has its triumphal arch, and so does Brussels. This arch was started in 1880 and finished in 1905 and is a gorgeous spot for photos. Inside the two flanking exhibition halls are museums, including the the Royal Museum of the Army and Military History whose “air section” displays 130 planes from different eras, many of which you can climb into.
Grab a late afternoon snack at nearby Place Jourdan where Maison Antoine, has been scooping out some of the city’s best frites (French fries) since 1948. Served piping hot in paper cones with a dollop of your favorite sauce (the Belgians prefer mayonnaise), this is a Brussels rite of passage.
Also nearby is the European Quarter of Brussels. Not particularly interesting for kids, but the scenic Leopold Park has some old buildings, such as the Eggevoort Tower, which dates from the 15th century, and the Solvay Library.
Evening: Place Luxembourg, in the heart of the European Quarter and just below the gleaming parliament building, brims with cafés and outdoor terraces, and is a popular meeting place for people from all over the world.
If you have extra time or energy while in Brussels, consider these favorites:
> Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, aka The Dinosaur Museum, which houses Europe’s largest Dinosaur Gallery.
> The Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) inside a gorgeous Art Nouveau building, the Old England building, near the Place Royal. Over 1,500 musical instruments are on display, from Tibetan temple bells, ancient Greek lyres to spinet-harpsicord (one of only two left in the world), which can be listened to on headphones.
> The daily flea market on the Place du Jeu de Balle in the Marolles neighborhood (not far from the Sablon). You can find everything and the kitchen sink here, or at least unearth a few hidden treasures and unique Belgian souvenirs.
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Photos by Kimberley Lovato
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Kimberley Lovato is a freelance writer based in San Francisco whose work has appeared in national and international publications. Read more about her, and her culinary travel book Walnut Wine & Truffle Groves, at www.kimberleylovato.com.