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Chances are if you've been to Brussels, you were sent there on a business trip -- after all, only one-third of the six million people who visit Belgium's capital each year come for pleasure. Of the tourists who do visit Belgium, many of them skip right over Brussels in their rush to see the scenic canals and cobblestones of nearby Brugge.
But before you strike Brussels from your own must-visit list, take another look. Get beyond the modern government buildings in the Quartier Europeen and you'll discover the city's intimate historic core, where 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. To the south are the curving facades and wrought-iron balconies of the city's gracious Art Nouveau neighborhood, while further north you'll find the wide green lawns and vibrant blooms of the Botanic Garden. Art, history and culture are celebrated in over 100 museums throughout the city, featuring everything from delicate Belgian lace to musical instruments and vintage cars.
As charming and eclectic as these sights are, they're often overshadowed by Brussels' no-nonsense reputation as a major seat of international government -- and to some extent that reputation is deserved. The city is not only the capital of Belgium but also of the Flanders region and the entire European Union, so it does have a disproportionate share of harried civil servants bustling around with briefcases and cell phones. But Brussels' position as a center of international government also means that it's uniquely multicultural and welcoming to visitors from all over the world. One local resident told me that her children never bat an eyelash when they meet someone whose skin color or language are different from their own, because in Brussels diversity is the norm. The city embraces both of Belgium's official languages with street signs in French and Flemish, while English and German are also widely spoken. And the locals are never too busy to translate a menu or help lost visitors find their way.
Brussels also has a sense of fun that belies its bland, businesslike reputation. Whimsical 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. An even older tradition involves the city's most famous mascot, 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 1998, a canine counterpart to the famous statue was erected a few blocks away as a tongue-in-cheek tribute (all this little bronze dog needs is a fire hydrant!).
Just in case a statue of a peeing dog isn'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 Brugge, it's easier here than in most European capitals to find a quiet corner to call your own.
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Other British Isles & Western Europe Cruise Ports:
Amsterdam • Antwerp • Belfast • Berlin • Bilbao • Brugge (Bruges) • Brussels • Dover • Dublin • Edinburgh • Ghent • Hamburg • Harwich • Holyhead • Le Havre • Lisbon • Liverpool • London • Newcastle • Paris • Prague • Rotterdam • Rouen • Southampton • St. Peter Port (Guernsey) • Vienna • Vigo
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, and we had no problem finding people who spoke at least a little English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the euro. ATM's are plentiful in the city center. For the most up-to-date conversion, visit www.xe.com or www.oanda.com.
Brussels is the birthplace of Godiva chocolates, and there are numerous outposts throughout the city where you can pick up a sampler of Belgium's signature sweets.
Watch Out For
Metro stations, museums and streets are often known by two different 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. (Editor's Note: We've listed all names and addresses below in French.)
Also, be aware that most Brussels museums are closed on Mondays.
Where You're Docked
Only river ships are small enough to fit through Brussels' canals, and they dock at either Heembeekkaai or the Becodock. Though both ports are within city limits, only the Becodock is a comfortable walking distance from downtown.
Big ships dock farther away in Antwerp or Zeebrugge. Train service connects both cities to Brussels.
There's little to see at either of Brussels' ports, so hop on the Metro system (buses are available at Heembeekkaai, while the Becodock is near the Yser train 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 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 Brugge 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 Brugge.
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 Public Transportation: When you get tired of walking, hop onto Brussels' efficient Metro system, which operates subways, trams and buses. Individual tickets are 1.50 euros (about $1.92) for a single ride, or 4 euros ($5.12) for an unlimited day pass.
By Taxi: There are many taxi stands throughout the city, particularly near major rail stations and hotels. You can also hail cabs from the street, but it may be difficult to find one during rush hour. To make a booking in advance, call Taxis Bleus at +32-2-268-0000. Learn more about the taxi system in Brussels from the Service regional des Taxis et Limousines.
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 (888-223-5555), Avis (800-331-1212) and other major rental agencies offer multiple pickup locations in Brussels. Expect to pay at least $35 a day.
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 (Grand Place, Tuesday - Sunday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., +32-2-279-4350), a museum that chronicles Brussels' history and even includes a collection of costumes for the Mannekin Pis, the city's most famous statue.
Just 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.
He may be only 22 inches tall, but the Mannekin Pis (Rue de l'Etuve) 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 Mannekin Pis, don't miss his canine counterpart, the Zinneke Pis (Rue des Chartreux and Rue du Vieux-Marche-aux-Grains) -- a bronze statue of a urinating dog about a 15-minute walk away.
Ornate Gothic architecture and brilliantly colored stained-glass windows make the 16th-century Notre Dame du Sablon (rue Bodenbroek 6, Monday - Friday 9 a.m. - 6:30 p.m., Saturday - Sunday 10 a.m. - 6:30 p.m., +32-2-511-5741) 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.
The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium (Place Royale 1 - 3, Tuesday - Sunday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., +32-2-508-3211) are a storehouse of artistic treasures. The bulk of the collections can be found in the Museum of Ancient Art (a somewhat misleading name, since this museum holds works from the 15th to the 18th century) and the Museum of Modern Art (spanning works from the end of the 18th century to today). The Royal Museums also encompass two smaller collections devoted to individual Belgian artists: the Antoine Wiertz Museum (Rue Vautier 62, weekends 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. and 1 - 5 p.m., +32-2-648-1718) and the Constantin Meunier Museum (Rue de l'Abbaye 59, weekends by appointment, +32-2-648-4449).
Construction of the massive Cathedrale Saint-Michel et Sainte-Gudule (Place Ste-Gudule, Monday - Friday 7 a.m. - 7 p.m., Saturday 8:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m., Sunday 2 - 7 p.m., hours vary in winter, +32-2-219-6834) was begun in the early 1200's but 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.
Been There, Done That
The cure for the art museum fatigue that plagues many visitors to Europe is the unique Musical Instruments Museum (2 Rue Montagne de la Cour, Tuesday - Friday 9:30 a.m. - 5 p.m., Saturday - Sunday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., +32-2-545-0130). 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.
Though Brussels' historic core dates back hundreds of years, the city also has an Art Nouveau quarter where visitors can enjoy 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 (25 Rue Americaine, Tuesday - Sunday 2 - 5:30 p.m., +32-2-543-0490). Its elegant rooms feature curving 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.
Go 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.
On a nice day, join the locals at the Botanic Gardens (236 Rue Royale, daily 8 a.m. - 8 p.m. summer, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. winter, +32-2-218-3732) for a stroll through its neatly manicured flower beds -- or for 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.
Many visitors to Brussels take their ship's shore excursion or a quick train ride to the romantic city of Brugge.
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. Of course, you'll also want to save room for handmade chocolates and Belgian beer.
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 (32 Rue Fosse aux Loups, daily 12 - 2:30 p.m., +32-2-217-2187), 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 include a first course of oysters and an entree of roasted young guinea-fowl with green pepper sauce and apple gaufrettes.
The elegant, sun-splashed dining room at Kolya (Hotel Manos Premier, 100-106 Chaussee de Charleroi, +32-2-537-9682) offers exquisitely presented dishes like Norwegian lobster salad, monkfish and Moroccan lamb stew. Fresh flowers and soft jazz music contribute to the serene ambience.
In the midst of all the pricey sidewalk cafes along Place du Grand Sablon is Chez Richard (2 Rue des Minimes, Monday - Saturday from 7 a.m., Sunday from 9 a.m., +32-2-512-1406), a dim, cozy neighborhood hangout where beer and conversation flow freely. The unpretentious fare (quiches, salads) is tasty and reasonably priced.
You don't want to visit Belgium without trying a waffle, so be sure to treat yourself to one as a light lunch or a sweet afternoon snack. Vendors are legion, but we like Belgaufra (tongue-in-cheek motto: "Probably the best since 1950"), which has outposts throughout the city -- just look for its yellow cartoon logo.
If the weather is sunny, enjoy a view of Grand Place from the terrace at 'T Kelderke (15 Grand Place, daily from noon, +32-2-513-7344), or, if it's not, dine inside in a 17th-century vaulted cellar. Traditional Belgian cuisine is the order of the day here, including mussels, chicory au gratin and mashed potatoes with sausage.
The only shore excursion currently offered in Brussels is a coach tour, which includes transportation from the embarkation port to the historic center of the city, where you can shop, explore and eat lunch. Your meal is included. Eight hours.
Brussels sees so many business travelers that many of its hotels err on the bland, expensive side -- but that doesn't mean you can't find properties with charm and character even if you're traveling on a budget.
Closest to the Port: The Crowne Plaza - Brussels City Centre (3 Rue Gineste, +32-2-203-6200) is a few blocks from the Becodock (Editor's note: It's probably too far to walk if you're toting a heavy bag, so we recommend taking a quick cab ride instead). The recently refurbished guest rooms feature Art Nouveau accents, and many offer a view of the nearby Botanic Gardens.
Historic Charm: Located in the Art Nouveau quarter in the southern part of the city, the Hotel Manos Premier (100-106, Chaussee de Charleroi, +32-2-537-9682) has an elegant Old World ambience. Rooms are furnished with Louis XV and Louis XVI period furniture and generously lit by floor-to-ceiling windows. Marble bathrooms and a gorgeous Arabian-themed spa add to the sense of luxury.
Big Splurge: The Royal Hotel Windsor (5 Rue Duquesnoy, +32-2-505-5555) enjoys an ideal location just a block or two from Grand Place and the central train station. The decor is subtly luxurious in the standard rooms, with calming earth tones, marble bathrooms and flat-screen TV's, but what makes this hotel worth the splurge are its "fashion rooms." A handful of Belgium's top designers have created a dozen funky, fanciful rooms that combine fashion and function in innovative new ways -- and provide a unique luxury experience.
Fun and Affordable: In a city that sees visitors from all over the globe, the Brussels Welcome Hotel (23 Quai au Bois a Bruler, +32-2-219-546) embraces that multiculturalism with 15 rooms that each represent a different country of the world. Exotic fabrics, artwork and decorative objects -- some donated by past guests of the hotel -- capture the spirit and culture of places like Japan, Morocco and India. The small size of the hotel ensures friendly, personal service, and the rates are surprisingly affordable for its center-city location.
Staying in Touch
There are several Internet cafes on Chaussee de Wavre, near the Porte de Namur Metro station. Expect to pay 1.50 to 2 euros per hour.
For More Information
Belgian Tourist Office, 212-758-8130
Brussels Tourist and Convention Bureau
Cruise Critic Message Boards: British Isles/Western Europe
Independent Traveler: Europe Exchange
--by Sarah Schlichter, Editor for Cruise Critic's sister site, IndependentTraveler.com.