What to Do on a Layover in Brussels

Brussels | © Christophe Licoppe / courtesy of Visit Brussels
Brussels | © Christophe Licoppe / courtesy of Visit Brussels
Photo of Nana Van De Poel
20 August 2018

Layovers can be a blessing in disguise if your mid-journey stop is Brussels. With its international airport Zaventem a brisk 15-minute train ride away, the heart of Europe can be your oyster even when on a strict time limit. Here’s how to make the most of your Brussels layover, whether you have a three-hour window to kill or an entire half day.

If you have three hours…

When confronted with that awkward three-hour window between flights, the outspoken favourite for a stretch of the legs is the Cinquantenaire Park in Brussels’ European quarter. A 10-minute ride from the airport, this grand green space built in honour of Belgium’s 50th birthday is the ideal candidate for a walk, a picnic, or a quick game of frisbee. Make sure to check out the imposing Triumphal Arch and stroll underneath its U-shaped colonnade. During colder times, the park’s three museums – the sprawling Cinquantenaire Museum with its prehistoric artefacts, the nostalgia-rich Autoworld with its plethora of vintage cars and the Royal Military Museum with its ceiling of suspended aircrafts, provide plenty of intriguing indoor options. Few people are aware that the top of the arch is actually accessible for splendid panoramas – just follow the signs in the Military Museum leading you upwards.

Cinquantenaire Park | © Andersen Pecorone / Flickr

If you have five hours…

With five hours to spare, make your way from the arrivals hall to the airport’s underground train station. Brussels’ Central Station is only a 15 to 23-minute ride away (depending on how many stops are scheduled) and you can count on at least five trains per hour. From Brussels Central it’s a five-minute walk to the medieval splendour of the Grand Place. The heart of the heart of Europe, Brussels’ 17th-century main square is known for the remarkable homogeneity of its ornate City Hall, Breadhouse and tens of lavish guild houses. Cross the cobblestones to one of its side streets, the Rue de l’Etuve, to find the world’s most famous peeing statue waiting on a corner three minutes onwards. Once familiar with the rebellious Manneken Pis, retrace your steps and cross the iconic Grand Place again to happen upon his female counterpart, Jeanneke, in an inconspicuous alley. Spend the time you have left in Belgium fittingly: in the same alley’s Délirium Café for a drink or two off its infamous beer menu carrying over 3,000 choices.

Délirium Café | © Thibaud Cordonnier / Courtesy of Délirium Café

If you have seven hours…

Follow the same route detailed in the five-hour layover plan until you arrive in Brussels’ Central Station. Close by, two typical sightseeing bus lines have stops and their hop-on, hop-off policy allows for the possibility to jump off at any landmark or neighbourhood that intrigues the most. The blue line – the Atomium Line – has among its highlights the Royal Greenhouses (open and in full bloom between mid-April and early May), the iconic Atomium with exhibits in its nine globes, surrealist painter René Magritte’s former home-cum-museum, Manneken Pis, and the oldest neighbourhood in town, the Marolles, with its perennial flea market and surrounding vibrant terraces. The red line – the Europe Line – takes you past the museum-rich Mont des Arts (literally ‘Mountain of Arts’), the upscale Sablon neighborhood, the Horta Museum, the European Parliament and the star of the three-hour plan, the Cinquantenaire Park. Without intermezzos, both buses have a separate tour time of around 75 minutes, bringing their combined total to two-and-a-half hours, with pick-up times per stop ranging from 10 minutes to 45 depending on the season. Find the schedule here. Decked out with audio tours in eight different languages, a seat on the upper level of one of these double deckers is the best way to form a perspective on the city in such a short time frame.

Hop on Hop Off stop 1 of Line 1: Rue de Loxum 6, 1000 Brussels, Belgium

Mont des Arts garden | public domain / Pixabay

If you have 12 hours…

If you have hit the layover jackpot of 12 hours, this allows you to really sample two of Brussels’ biggest assets: the work of its local artistic champions, and its comforting Belgian cuisine. Take the train, as explained in the five-hour plan, and from the Central Station head towards the Mont des Arts hill via its beautiful garden slope. Once you’ve reached the top, the extraordinary Art Nouveau building that houses the MIM – the Musical Instruments Museum – reveals itself, cast-iron turret and all. Grab a piping hot Belgian waffle from a yellow van on the nearby Place Royale, and step inside the Magritte Museum, where 200 of the influential surrealist’s works reveal his themes and artistic evolution by way of the vastest Magritte collection in the world. Next, head to the Châtelain neighbourhood for a taste of exquisite Belgian seafood at La Quincaillerie, an Art Nouveau ironmonger’s shop turned haute cuisine restaurant originally designed by a Victor Horta pupil. After feasting on treasures from the North Sea, round the corner of the Rue Américaine and head towards the real deal: Horta’s personal Maison and Atelier, a watermark of the movement by its architectural father and one of the few Horta townhouses accessible to the public.

La Quincaillerie | Courtesy of La Quincaillerie

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