Brussels Cruise Port

Port of Brussels: An Overview

If you've been to Brussels before, chances are you were there on a business trip. After all, only one-third of the 6 million people who visit Belgium's capital each year do so for pleasure. Of the tourists who visit the country, many skip over Brussels in their rush to see the scenic canals and cobblestones of nearby Bruges.

But as locals will make a point of noting, there's much more to Belgium than Bruges. The city boasts it's "the heart of Europe" for its role as the capital of the European Union and its multiculturalism. Locals say that the March 22, 2016, terrorist attacks, which took place at Brussels Airport and a subway station that killed 32 people, were an act of extremist individuals and not indicative of the city as a whole. Indeed, a makeshift memorial to the victims features chalked messages of love and peace on buildings and on cobblestones in multiple languages and alphabets. The messages include "Love wins," "Je suis Bruxelles" and "Hart bove Haat."

Visitors should move beyond Brussels' modern and somewhat sanitary government buildings of the Quartier European and instead dive deeper into into the historical heart of the city. In its intimate historic core, centuries-old houses hug narrow cobblestone alleyways, neatly dressed waiters serve lunch on the terraces along the Place du Grand Sablon, and the mighty Gothic spire of the Hotel de Ville soars above Grand Place, one of Europe's most magical squares. South of the center, you'll see the curving facades and wrought-iron balconies of the city's gracious Art Nouveau neighborhood, while to the north, you'll find the wide green lawns and the vibrant blooms of the Botanic Garden.

The city has expanded its pedestrianized central zone, turning the area around the Place de la Bourse into a place for street acrobats and musicians to showcase their talents. It's easy to walk to most places you'll want to visit, but for those who need a ride, taxis are easily hailed.

Art, history and culture are celebrated in more than 100 museums throughout the city, featuring everything from delicate Belgian lace to musical instruments and vintage cars. The newest offering is the Millennium Iconoclast Museum of Art, MIMA, in the Molenbeek neighborhood, which features different exhibits, mostly be street artists. The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium recently opened a unique exhibition of the work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, with videos and displays allowing for a deeper look at the lost master's works.

Brussels also has a sense of fun and whimsy. Cartoon murals adorn the facades of buildings throughout the old city, a tribute to the comic strip tradition that thrived in Belgium in the early-20th century. The Belgian Comic Strip Center includes a museum that looks at pioneers of the genre as well as contemporary masters and up-and-coming artists. Permanent exhibitions address the invention of comic strips and a deeper look at the art of the Smurfs. (Yes, the Smurfs!)

An even older tradition involves the city's most famous mascot, Manneken Pis, a statue of a little boy peeing into a fountain. Locals delight in dressing him up in various costumes (Elvis, Mozart, a vampire, a samurai warrior) and occasionally substituting beer for water in his stream. In 1987 Jeanneke Pis, a female counterpart to the famous statue was erected in another section of the city. And as if that wasn't enough, in 1998, a canine counterpart to the two was erected as a tongue-in-cheek tribute. (All this little bronze dog needs is a fire hydrant!)

Just in case statues of peeing children aren't enough of a draw, here's perhaps the best reason to visit Brussels: With the businesspeople tucked away in the modern part of town and a good portion of Belgium's tourists fighting the crowds in Bruges, it's easier there than in most European capitals to find a quiet corner to call your own.

Hanging Around

There's little to see at Brussels' ports, so hop on the metro system (buses are available at Heembeekkaai, while the Beco dock is near the Yser metro station) and head downtown.

Antwerp's gorgeous cathedral and famous Diamond District make it worth a day trip if you've already been to Brussels. Trains run directly to and from Brussels and take about 45 minutes.

Zeebrugge is a largely industrial port city that's mainly used as a jumping-off point for day trips to Bruges or Brussels. To get to Brussels, just head for the train station; the trip will take about an hour and 15 minutes, with a change of trains in Bruges.

Liege is another city worthy of a day trip. About 1 hour from Brussels by train, this city of about 195,000 is tucked in the Meuse River valley. Locals will tell you there are two types of Belgium waffles -- Brussels and Liege -- and even those who live in the capital prefer the Liege version.

Don't Miss

Grand Place: The heart of Belgium's historic district is the breathtaking Grand Place, a cobblestone square surrounded on all sides by elegant Gothic and Baroque buildings -- including the massive 13th-century Hotel de Ville (town hall). With a number of sidewalk cafes, this square is one of Brussels' prime people-watching spots, and during the summer it's colorfully carpeted by a large flower market. Also on the square is the Maison du Roi, a museum that chronicles Brussels' history and even includes a collection of costumes for the Mannekin Pis, the city's most famous statue. (Grand Place; 32-2-279-4350; open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.)

Ilot Sacre: Adjacent to Grand Place is Ilot Sacre, a neighborhood of narrow medieval streets whose charm is only partially dimmed by the many souvenir shops that have taken over the area. Shoppers should head for the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert (between Rue du Marche-aux-Herbes and Rue de l'Ecuyer), a grand neo-Renaissance gallery filled with jewelry stores, upscale cafes, chocolatiers and bookstores.

Mannekin Pis: He might be only 22 inches tall, but the Mannekin Pis has become one of Brussels' most enduring symbols. This bronze statue of a little boy urinating into a fountain dates from 1619 and can occasionally be seen dressed in costumes made especially for him (the first such outfit was a gift from King Louis XV in 1747). If you like the Manneken Pis, don't miss his female counterpart, Jeanneke Pis (east side of the Impasse de la Fidelite) or his canine counterpart, the Zinneke Pis (Rue des Chartreux and Rue du Vieux-Marche-aux-Grains) -- a bronze statue of a peeing dog. (Rue de l'Etuve)

Atomium: Another iconic symbol of the city is the Atomium, constructed for the 1958 World's Fair. This 335-foot-tall structure is a collection of nine silver spheres, what an atom would look like if multiplied 165 billion times. Five of the spheres are open to the public today, with temporary exhibitions and a multimedia light show. A restaurant on the highest level offers an amazing view and the food, while on the more expensive side, is good, too. (Atomiumsquare; 32-2-475-4777; open daily, usually between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., last ticket sold at 5:30 p.m. Shorter hours in place during the December holidays.)

Notre Dame du Sablon: Ornate Gothic architecture and brilliantly colored stained-glass windows make the 16th-century Notre Dame du Sablon one of Brussels' most beautiful churches. After your visit, you can sit and relax in the tranquil gardens of Place du Petit Sablon or enjoy coffee at a sidewalk cafe overlooking Place du Grand Sablon; both squares are adjacent to the church. (Rue Bodenbroek 6; 32-2-511-5741; open Monday to Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.)

Cathedrale Saint-Michel et Sainte-Gudule: Construction of the massive cathedral began in the early 1200s, but was not completed until some three centuries later. Visitors can wander through the present-day Gothic nave and then head underground to see the remains of the 11th-century Romanesque church over which the current structure is built. (Place Ste-Gudule; 32-2-219-6834; open Monday to Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Hours vary in winter.)

Museums: Brussels is home to dozens of museums addressing everything from art to natural history to folklore. One new and economical way to see many of them is by purchasing a Brussels Card. Passes are sold as 24-hour, 48-hour or 72-hour cards. Once the card is activated, the user can visit 31 of the city's major museums. The card is also good for discounts for certain tours and at restaurants, bars and stores. Visitors can purchase their cards via the internet before their visit or at two city tourism offices. (Rue Royale 2; 32-2-513-89-40; open daily, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed 12/25 and 1/1.)

The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium are a storehouse of artistic treasures. The bulk of the collections can be found in the Museum of Old Masters, which holds works from the 15th to the 18th century (Place Royale 1 - 3; 32-2-508-3211; open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.); the Museum of Modern Art, spanning works from the end of the 18th century to today (Rue de la Regence; 32-2-508-3211; Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; weekends, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.); and the new Fin-de-Siecle Museum, dedicated to the 1900s. (Rue de la Regence; 32-2-508-3211; Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; weekends, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.) The Royal Museums also encompass three smaller collections devoted to individual Belgian artists: Magritte Museum (Place Royale Koningsplein 1; 32-2-508-3211; open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.), the Wiertz Museum (Rue Vautier 62; 32-2-648-1718; open Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.) and the Meunier Museum (Rue de l'Abbaye 59; 32-2-648-4449; open Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.).

Less formal works of art can be found at the museum that's part of the Belgian Comic Strip Center. Permanent exhibits look at the art and history of comics while changing displays feature the art of current comic artists. (Rue des Sables 20; 32-2-219-1980; open daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) Two of the city's newest museums look at more recent art and still-living artists. The Millennium Iconoclast Museum of Art aspires to be the city's defining modern art museum. The museum opened in April 2016. Its first exhibition featured the work of four American street artists. Its permanent collection includes works by Steve Powers, Todd James and Swoon. (Quai du Hainaut; 39-41-32-47-261-0351; open Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) The Art & Design Atomium Museum (ADAM) is affiliated with the nearby Atomium. The museum features 20th- and 21st-century design, including a permanent collection of more than 2,000 plastic items. (Place de Belgique 1; 32-2-669-4929; closed Mondays and limited hours during winter holidays, regular hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.)

The cure for the art museum fatigue that plagues many visitors to Europe is the unique Musical Instrument Museum. This is a place where the exhibits are not only seen but also heard; included in the cost of admission is a headset that plays a sample from each musical instrument as you step in front of it. You'll hear and see both familiar instruments (violins, harps, guitars) and more foreign ones -- like a gigantic Tibetan mountain horn or a carved wooden fish totem from Vanuatu. (2 Rue Montagne de la Cour; 32-2-545-0130; open Tuesday to Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.)

Art Nouveau Quarter: Though Brussels' historic core dates back hundreds of years, the area features the architecture of a more modern era. Victor Horta, one of the leaders of the Art Nouveau movement, once lived and worked in Brussels' St. Gilles neighborhood, and, today, his house has been transformed into the Horta Museum. The elegant rooms feature curved lines, stained-glass windows and a dramatic main staircase. There are a number of other Art Nouveau residences in the surrounding neighborhood, so be sure to leave time for a quick stroll after you visit the museum. (25 Rue Americaine; 32-2-543-0490; open Tuesday to Sunday, 2 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.)

Parc de Bruxelles: Join the locals for a stroll through this park's neatly manicured flowerbeds -- or consider an afternoon nap in the grass. Classical statues, colorful blooms and several lovely fountains make this a serene place to rest after a long day of sightseeing. (236 Rue Royale; 32-2-218-3732; open daily, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in summer and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in winter)

Shopping: The city's finest antique stores can be found in the neighborhood surrounding Place du Grand Sablon -- and if you're in town on a weekend, don't miss the antique market held on the square in front of Notre Dame du Sablon. If you'd rather take home a little piece of Belgian haute couture, head for Avenue Louise, a major shopping artery packed with chic boutiques and high-end department stores.

Chocolate: Frederic Blondeel -- one of the city's famed chocolatiers -- will most likely be at work in one of his stores when you visit. Blondeel said he dreams about chocolate and new ways to combine it with other flavors. His shop allows visitors to see the journey from bean to bar, too. (Rue de la Paille 32, Grand Sablon; 32-2-511-7500; Tuesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.) Godiva was also born in Brussels and there are numerous stores selling samplers. Visit its largest hub in a downtown shopping plaza. (Les Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, Grand Place. 32 2 21; 32 2 511 25 37; open daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.)

Beer Mania: Belgium is, of course, also known for its beer. More than 400 different brews are for sale at the city's Beer Mania, including the shop owner's own "Mea Culpa" brand, so named as to apologize to his wife for all of the time he spent developing his blend. The shop also sells products online, meaning most people can order a shipment once back in the U.S. (174-176 Chausse de Wavre, 32-2-512-1788; Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.)

Getting Around

On Foot: Once in the city center, it's easy to walk between Brussels' main attractions -- just remember to pack comfortable shoes for navigating the cobblestones.

By Metro: When you get tired of walking, hop onto Brussels' efficient Metro system, which operates subways, trams and buses. You can purchase single ride tickets or an unlimited day pass.

By Taxi: There are many taxi stands throughout the city, particularly near major train stations and hotels. You can also hail cabs from the street, but it may be difficult to find one during rush hour.

By Car: We don't recommend using a car in Brussels, as navigating the crowded streets can be more trouble than it's worth, and efficient train service is available both within the city and to most of the surrounding cities and towns. That said, Auto Europe, Avis and other major rental agencies offer multiple pickup locations in Brussels.

Lunching

Belgium's cuisine is best known for a number of signature dishes: moules (steamed mussels), frites (fries, dipped not in ketchup but mayonnaise) and, of course, gaufres (waffles), which are warm and delicious whether served with powdered sugar, chocolate, fruit or ice cream. You'll also want to save room for handmade chocolates and Belgian beer.

Belga Queen: Its high ceiling and cavernous dining area might make you feel like you're sitting in a train station rather than a restaurant, but Belga Queen, housed in a converted bank, is one of Brussels' prime spots for fine dining. The focus is on seafood (there's an extensive oyster bar) and local Belgian ingredients. For lunch, the fixed-price menu varies each day; recent offerings included a first course creamy garden bean soup with smoked salmon and an entree of beef stew with gueuze (a type of Belgian beer), glazed carrots and mashed potatoes. (32 Rue Fosse aux Loups; 32-2-217-2187; open daily, 12 to 2:30 p.m.)

Chez Richard: Tucked in the midst of pricy sidewalk cafes along Place du Grand Sablon, this dimly lit, cozy neighborhood hangout is where beer and conversation flow freely. The unpretentious fare (quiches, salads) is tasty and reasonably priced. Plus, every weekend between October 1 and April 30, the eatery puts out an oyster bar spread. (2 Rue des Minimes; 32-2-512-1406; open Monday to Saturday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sunday, from 9 a.m.)

Belgaufra: Sampling a Belgium waffle, either as a light lunch or a sweet snack, is a necessity when visiting Brussels. This popular family-owned chain -- its tongue-in-cheek motto is "Probably the best since 1950" -- has outposts throughout the city that are easily recognizable by the yellow cartoon logo. (Multiple locations, including Rue Neuve 102; 32-2-217-7180. Hours vary.)

'T Kelderke: A coveted seat on the terrace on a sunny day allows for a great view of the Grand Place. But even if it's cloudy, step inside this 17th-century vaulted cellar to sample traditional Belgian cuisine, including mussels, eel in herb sauce and mashed potatoes with sausage. (15 Grand Place; 32-2-513-7344; open daily, noon to 2:30 p.m.)

A La Mort Subite: This popular spot is especially busy at night. Opened in 1928, the interior manages to feel both crowded and large, with tables and chairs tightly pushed together into three rows in a room that seems vast with its rising columns, high ceilings and arched mirrors. The diverse crowd -- including businesspeople in work attire and students in casual garb -- is served by wait staff wearing white shirts and black vests, which adds a formal air to the place. But don't worry, as it's not stuffy: Some of those servers sing as they carry drinks, including the bar's namesake brew. (Rue Montagne aux Herbes Potageres 7; 32-2-513-1318; open most days, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.)

Delirium Cafe: This popular -- and often loud and crowded -- bar offers more than 2,000 different beers from 60 countries. The name refers to the Delirium Tremens, the flagship product from the Huyghe Brewery in East Flanders. The bar's pink elephant logo is taken from the beer's label. (Impasse de la Fidelite 4; 32-2-514-4434; Open daily until 4 a.m.)

Where You're Docked

Only river ships are small enough to fit through Brussels' canals, and they dock at either Heembeekkaai or the Beco dock. Though both ports are within city limits, only the Beco dock is a comfortable walking distance from downtown.

Big ships dock farther away in Antwerp or Zeebrugge. Train service connects both cities to Brussels.

Watch Out For

Metro stations, museums and streets are often known by two names, one in French and one in Flemish -- so keep that in mind when asking for directions and navigating your way around the city. For instance, if you're looking for Grand Place and you find yourself in Grote Markt, you're in the right spot.

Also be aware that most Brussels museums are closed on Mondays.

Currency & Best Way to Get Money

The local currency is the euro. Visit www.xe.com for up-to-date conversion rates. ATMs are plentiful in the city center.

Language

Brussels is a town of many tongues. Nearly all street signs are in both French and Flemish (a variant of Dutch), Belgium's two official languages. English is also widely spoken.

Best Souvenir

Those who fall in love with Mannekin Pis will find the little boy immortalized in miniature chocolate, metal and ceramic form and adorning many product labels. If you really, really love Mannekin Pis, go home and get online as several companies sell lifed-size versions of the statue. Clothes are not included.

Best Cocktail

Belgium has a well-deserved reputation for its beers, many of which were originally -- and still are -- brewed by Trappist monks. Whether your tastes tend toward a strong Flemish sour brown ale, a yeasty wheat beer or a fruity lambic, you're sure to find something that suits.

For More Information

On the Web: Belgium Tourist Office
Cruise Critic Message Boards: British Isles and Western Europe
IndependentTraveler.com: Europe Travel Guide

--By Sarah Schlichter, Senior Editor at IndependentTraveler.com; updated by Dori Saltzman, Senior Editor, and Natalie Pompilio, Cruise Critic Contributor

  • Brussels: Oriana
    JRHYTHE
    It was about a 15 minute stroll from the railway station and a very nice centre to stroll around. ... Read more
  • Brussels: Azura
    Margaret Keane
    We were most pleasantly surprised at this port f call and what an amazing beech in Bleckinburg. The town was lovely and we found a lovely place to have some waffles and coffee.The cake and sweets shops were amazing. Definitely worth a visit. ... Read more
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    nurselaura2001
    Took cab into city center, walked the city took canal boat ride, wonderful lace shops. had curry chicken and french fries that were to die for at a small little restaurant. ... Read more
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    Cipi&Pepe
    Worth it to travel to Brugges on your own without paying for the ship's excursion. easy to take a taxi for 40 euros ... Read more
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