Last Updated on by Rodrigo @ OutofYourComfortZone
Have a trip planned to Brussels, Belgium – AKA the headquarters of the European Union? Interested in learning more about the inner workings of the EU while there? Then read on for a breakdown of the best EU institutions, sites, museums, and attractions to visit in Brussels. Includes what you need to know, how to visit, “local” tips, and more.
Waffles, the extravagant Grand-Place, the lively markets, the world-famous chocolate, a historical and cultural presence that spans nearly a millennia…
There are a lot of reasons that Brussels, Belgium is worth a visit.
But as someone who called Brussels home for nearly a year, one of many things that made me fall in love with the city was its designation as the primary headquarters – or unofficial “capital” and political/economic hub – of the European Union.
In other words, Brussels truly holds a unique place on the world stage.
So whether you’re a European history or politics buff…
Want to get some insight into the inner workings of Brussels’ “EU Bubble”…
Or are simply curious about this ambitious peace project that has sought to unite Europe politically and economically since the end of World War II…
Then read on for some “local” recommendations about the best EU institutions, museums, and attractions to visit during your stay in Brussels.
What to know about visiting the European Union institutions & attractions in Brussels, Belgium
Most of the EU institutions and museums are located in Brussels’ European District (also called the European Quarter) – a bustling neighborhood that’s a short metro, bike ride, or walk from the city center.
The beating heart of the European Quarter is the Schuman Roundabout, which is where I recommend you start your EU exploration.
While the square itself is nothing special, it will give you a chance to see the European bubble in action as you rub shoulders with the multilingual (seriously, just sit for a minute and see how many languages you hear!), well-dressed EU officials, diplomats, and bureaucrats going about their days.
As you look around the square, you’ll be able to spot the European Quarter’s most iconic building, the Berlaymont building, whose high walls house the headquarters of the European Commission (the executive body of the EU).
Nearby, you’ll also find the Charlemagne Building (another European Commission building), the European External Action Service (AKA the EEAS, or the EU’s diplomatic service), and a handful of other important EU institutions.
IMPORTANT NOTE #1: If there’s a council meeting/summit with the various EU heads of state, you *won’t* be able to access Schuman. It’s likely to be blocked off by police barricades for safety.
As locals put it: “Stay away from Schuman when the circus is in town.”
But luckily, as you’ll see below, you’ll still have plenty of EU attractions to visit if the “circus” is around and you can’t get into Schuman
Can you visit the European Union/European institutions in Brussels?
Like many government buildings around the world, a lot of the EU institutions – including most of those you’ll see in Schuman – are closed to the general public.
However, there are some parts of sections of the various institutions (like special visitor centers or the European Parliament’s famous Hemicycle) that you *can* visit.
I’ll break down which of the EU institutions you can visit – and how you can visit – below.
However, do make sure you bring a valid ID with you and be prepared for an airport-style security check to get in!
The best places to learn more about the European Union during your visit to Brussels: EU institutions you can visit, free museums & more!
- Schuman Roundabout
As the beating heart of Brussels’ European Quarter, I recommend you start your tour of the city’s EU attractions here.
See the section above on “What to know about visiting the European Union institutions & attractions in Brussels” for more details about what to see and expect in Schuman.
- The Experience Europe Exhibition Center
Conveniently located in Schuman, Experience Europe is a permanent, interactive exhibition where you can learn all about the European Commission – which is in charge of creating and enforcing EU law – as well as the values and initiatives of the EU.
Admission is free, and no pre-registration is required.
(Note that this exhibit opened up after I left Brussels so I haven’t been there personally. But the reviews – as well as this article from The Guardian – suggest it’s an excellent stop to add to your Brussels’ EU itinerary)
- The House of European History
The House of European History – a stately, historic building tucked within leafy Leopold Park a short walk from Schuman – is one of my favorite museums in all of Brussels.
Inside, you’ll find a comprehensive, chronological deep dive into contemporary European history including the history of the European integration process, the development of the EU, and the challenges faced by Europe today.
Admission is free and no pre-registration is needed.
- The Parlamentarium (AKA The European Parliament Museum)
The Parlamentarium is the European Parliament’s official visitor center and museum.
Its dynamic, interactive, and hands-on exhibitions will give you a solid insight into the inner workings of the European Parliament and the role of the European Union in the world today.
Although admission is free, note that you do have to book a time slot to visit right here.
- The European Parliament Hemicycle
A visit to Brussels’ famous parliamentary “hemicycle” – or the distinctive, horse-shoe-shaped chamber where Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) gather for debates and voting sessions – gives you a chance to see the real heart of European democracy.
Here’s how you can visit (and what you need to know before visiting) the European Parliament Hemicycle:
- You can choose to visit with a multimedia guide, as part of a guided talk, or during a plenary (or debate) session
- Although entrance is free, you have to book your time in advance for any one of the 3 options above (you can book that time and read more about the different options here)
- Multimedia guide tours are available Monday through Friday, guided talks are available at 11:00 and 15:00 on Mondays only
- Visits are not possible on weekends, public holidays, or during other office closures
- On the day of your tour, make sure a bring a valid photo ID and that you aren’t carrying any prohibited items in your bag
- From there…enjoy!
- The European Council Visitor Center
Not to be confused with the Council of Europe, the European Council is an institution that brings together the leaders of EU member states to deal with key political and policy matters affecting the union.
While many parts of the Council are closed to visitors, the free visitor center is a great opportunity to learn about its work and the operation of the EU at large – as well as take a peek inside the distinctive, glass-walled Justus Lipsius building.
Every Friday at 8:00 AM, there is also a free guided tour that will give you additional insight into the Council plus exclusive access to parts of the Council’s Europa building (which you can only ever see on this tour).
You can book your tour on the same page I linked above.
Other ideas for what to do in Brussels’ European District
- Take a stroll through Parc du Cinquantenaire
Parc du Cinquantenaire is a Brussels’ classic that’s not to be missed.
Tucked behind Schuman mere steps away from the most important European institutions, this lovely park is a great place to scope out bureaucrats in suits and heels taking mid-day walks, EU trainees and interns grabbing a bit of sun, or locals having a picnic while enjoying one of the city’s best green spaces.
- Head to the top of Cinquantenaire’s famous arch for a panoramic view of the city
Here’s an insider secret: with your entrance fee to the Brussels’ Royal Military Museum, you *also* get access to a panoramic view of the city from the terrace on top of Cinquantenaire’s famous arch.
(Plus, as one of the largest military museums in Europe, the museum can keep you entertained for quite a while as well!)
- Join a free walking tour of Brussels’ European Quarter
If you want to get the inside scoop of the European District, consider taking a tip-based free walking tour of the area.
(Here’s a highly-rated option to look into!)
- Grab a Thursday night beer at Place Jourdan
Place Jourdan, a lively, well-known square right in the heart of the European district, is a popular place for EU officials, diplomats, and employees to blow off steam (and make EU deals!) after work.
Make your way there on a Thursday night (the most popular going out night for those in the “EU bubble”), strike up some conversations, and see what you can learn.
- Go to the “EU Open Doors Day” in May
Approximately once per year (normally around Europe Day on May 9th), Brussels’ normally-closed-to-the-public institutions – including the Berlaymont building, the European Parliament, the Committee of the Regions, and several other nearby institutions – open their doors to visitors for one day.
Alongside this once-in-a-year chance to look behind the curtain, there are also interactive exhibits, cultural events, EU informational sessions, and more for you to take part in.
And while I have you here, here are a few other lists that may help you make the most of your trip to Brussels.
Top 10 things to do in Brussels
(beyond visiting the EU institutions and museums above)
- Indulge in Belgian chocolate: Brussels (and Belgium in general) is famous for its chocolate. Take a chocolate tour, visit a chocolate shop, or set aside some time to sample some of the world’s finest chocolate.
- Wander through the old town: From the city’s iconic central square (the Grand-Place) to the somewhat disappointing – yet still very famous! – Mannequin Pis statue, Brussels’ cobblestoned old town has plenty for you to see.
- Savor Belgian waffles: Try authentic Belgian waffles, often served with a large heaping of the toppings of your choice. (Though the true Belgian way is with just a bit of powdered sugar!)
- Join a free walking tour: Get the inside scoop on the city’s top sites by joining one of the great free walking tours here: https://freetoursbyfoot.com/free-walking-tours-brussels/
- Explore the Brussels art scene: From the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium to the René Magritte Museum of Abstract Art, the Brussels art scene has something for everyone.
- Sample some Belgian beer: Belgium boasts an impressive beer culture with a wide variety of traditional brews for you to choose from. Just stop into any one of the city’s many pubs, breweries, and beer bars to see what you find!
- Take a stroll (or a bike) through one of the city’s many parks and green spaces: Beyond the European District’s gorgeous Parc de Cinquentennaire, my personal favorites are the picturesque Parc de Bruxelles – right in the heart of the city – and the forested Bois de la Cambre.
- Admire the view from Mont des Arts: Brussels’ “Hill of the Arts” is a beautiful spot with panoramic city views and many of the city’s top museums.
- Visit the futuristic Atomium: Set inside Brussels’ lovely Parc de Laeken/Royal Park, this iconic building and museum offers breathtaking views of the city alongside some fascinating exhibitions on science and innovation.
- Take a day trip: Given Brussels’ central location in Belgium, its a great base for day trips to other cities and regions in the country. (See next section for some of the best Brussels day trip recommendations!)
[bloco adinserter = “2”][bloco adinserter = “11”]
Top 10 best day trips to make from Brussels (in Belgium and beyond!)
- Bruges, Belgium: Known as the “Venice of the North,” Bruges is famous for its well-preserved medieval architecture, picturesque canals, and cozy old town (roughly a 1:20 train ride from Brussels)
- Ghent, Belgium: Explore this university town’s historic center with its stunning cathedrals, medieval history, and vibrant cultural scene (roughly a 50-minute train ride from Brussels)
- Antwerp, Belgium: Discover the fashion, diamond, and fine art capital of Belgium, just a short 1-hour train ride away from Brussels
- Waterloo, Belgium: Step into history at the site of the Battle of Waterloo where Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated in 1815 (roughly a 30-minute train ride from Brussels…or a pleasant 1-hour bike ride each way!)
- Leuven, Belgium: As the home to one of Europe’s oldest universities, Leuven’s rich cultural heritage, vibrant student population, and welcoming atmosphere make it well worth a visit (roughly a 30-minute train ride from Brussels)
- Dinant & Namur, Belgium: Enjoy the scenic beauty of the Muese River Valley with a visit to the picturesque town of Dinant. On your way back to Brussels, make a stop in Namur to explore its charming city center and riverside location (roughly a 1:45 and 1-hour train from Brussels, respectively)
- Liège, Belgium: As one of Belgium’s largest cities, Liège’s blend of history, culture, and scenic beauty make it another great day trip to consider (roughly a 1-hour train from Brussels)
- Paris, France: Take a high-speed train to the French capital (less than 2 hours away from Brussels!) and explore iconic landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre
- Lille, France: This former European Capital of Culture, located in northern France near the Belgian border, makes an excellent day trip from Brussels due to its rich history, stunning architecture, and excellent cuisine (this is France, after all!)
- Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Just a 2-hour train ride from Brussels puts you in Amsterdam, where you can enjoy the city’s world-class museums, picturesque canals, and vibrant city life
And that’s it! Have you been to any of the EU-based attractions in Brussels listed above? Do you have any additional recommendations or questions? Let us know in the comments area below and we’ll get back to you!
Planning your next trip?
Already reserved your hotel or hostel? If not, we recommend Booking.com. They have a huge selection of hotels and hostels all over the world. Plus, in most cases, you can cancel your reservation without any costs up to a few days before the check-in date!
Still haven’t booked your plane ticket and want to save big? Take a look at Momondo. It’s a flight aggregator that combines several other ticket search websites to make it easier for you to compare prices and make sure you are getting the best deal.
And finally, will you need to rent a car during your trip? Then check out Rentalcar.com to search and compare car rental companies from all over the world in a single website. Then, you can find the cheapest price for the best car!