As the capital city of Belgium, Brussels is a must-see on many a visitor to Europe’s bucket list, particularly when it comes to the Grand Place and Manneken Pis, a tiny statue of a boy peeing into a fountain! However, scratch beneath the surface, and you’ll soon discover that Brussels has much more to offer visitors than just a handful of art museums and cobbled lanes. Here’s your ultimate guide to the best of hidden gems and secret spots in Brussels you must know about before visiting for the first time.
Sandwiched between the Netherlands, France, and Germany, Belgium often misses out on much of the press it deserves in favour of its more famous neighbours. But if you take the time to visit the tiny country for yourself, you’ll soon discover that there’s plenty more to discover beyond Tin Tin, French fries (yes, they come from Belgium!), and waffles.
After all, Belgium has the most castles per square kilometre in the world and remains somewhat of an off the beaten path when it comes to Western European travel. For more Belgium wanderlust, check out this guide to the best-kept secrets of Belgium. Otherwise, read on to discover the best of secret spots in Brussels…
Brussels Cathedral Crypt
Of course, no one can claim that Brussels Cathedral is a hidden gem by any scratch of the imagination! Given cathedral status in the early 1960s, the ecclesiastical building is dedicated to St Michael and St Gudula. What began as a chapel in the 9th-century was expanded over the centuries and the building you see today largely dates from between the 11th and 15th-centuries, with the grand front façade and towers dating back to 1485.
But what many visitors to Brussels Cathedral miss out on the fact that you can actually visit part of the crypt for a nominal fee of just €1. Insert a coin into the turnstile and you’ll soon descend into the depths of the cathedral underbelly, where you can spy the ruinous walls of the original Romanesque church.
GardeRobe Manneken Pis
If you’ve ever received a postcard from Brussels, then no doubt you’ll have seen the teeny tiny fountain that is Manneken Pis. The statue of the urinating boy measures just over 60 cm in height and has since become a symbol for the city, with keychains, t-shirts, and other souvenirs plastered with the 17th-century designed statue.
The actual statue is now held in the Brussels City Museum for preservation purposes and the one that can be seen on the side of the street is an exact replica dating back to 1965. But what is perhaps most amusing is that the statue is dressed in different outfits on a regular basis, a tradition that dates back as far as the 18th-century. Today, you can visit an entire small museum dedicated to the statue’s wardrobe.
Statue of Everard t’Serclaes, Grand Place
When leaving the illustrious Grand Place to head towards the Manneken Pis statue, I soon noticed that many visitors and locals alike were touching the bronze statue of Everard t’Serclaes for good luck. It’s also said that rubbing the statue’s arm will ensure that one will return to Brussels one day! To the Belgians, t’Serclaes represents freedom, liberty, and the defense of those rights.
You see, during the 14th-century, the count of Flanders seized the city following the death of John III of Brabant. However, Everard scaled the walls of the city one night, together with a group of fellow Brussels residents, and drove the Flemings away from the city. The worn bronze statue that’s visible today dates back to the 19th-century, when it was created to commemorate t’Serclaes’ efforts.
12th-Century La Tour de Villiers
The vestiges of the former medieval walls of historic Brussels can still be spied, if only you know where to look. La Tour de Villiers is also known as tour Saint-Jacques and dates all the way back to the 13th-century, when a wall would have encircled the entirety of the medieval city. Though in a fairly residential area, nearby, I particularly loved GRUUN, a coffee shop that specialises in both plants and coffee!
Carillon of the Mont des Arts
One of the more iconic views to be found anywhere in Brussels is that of Mont des Arts, a high up hill that overlooks the rest of the city. The Carillon of the Mont des Arts district of Brussels features twenty four bells and is the most iconic timepiece in Brussels.
The exterior of the Carillon is to be found on the side of the Palais de la Dynastie and features a clock in the form of a star which was designed by Jules Ghobert. Each hour is represented by a painted figurine and on the hour, a figurine will move to a cacophony of carillon bells. Of all the secret spots in Brussels, this was by far the least expected and one I simply stumbled upon quite by accident!
Black tower, St. Catherine’s Church
Situated in the shadow of the 19th-century built St. Catherine’s Church, Black Tower is a medieval turret that looks like it’s been plucked straight out of a fairytale. Surrounded by incredibly modern apartment blocks, the ‘Tour Noire’ as it is so-called in French is the sole surviving tower of the 13th-century fortifications that once encircled Brussels.
When the fortifications were modified and expanded during the 14th-century, the Black Tower no longer fit within the walls and fell out of use as a guard tower. Historians theorise that from that point onwards, the tower became a private residence and it is probably for this reason that it has survived intact right up until modern times.
Birthplace of Audrey Hepburn
Though simply a residential building today, you’ll know you’re in the right place when you spy throngs of tourists gathered outside, all snapping photos of this otherwise unremarkable building. After all, 48 Rue Keyenveld is to be found in the Ixelles neighbourhood of Brussels and is where iconic actress Audrey Hepburn was born in 1929.
Though Hepburn spent the first five years of her life in the building, there is little to see apart from a plaque and I would not prioritise this Brussels hidden gem if you’re short on time and wish to maximise your sightseeing opportunities while in the Belgian capital.
Musical Instruments Museum
Though not so much of a ‘hidden gem’ as some of the other Brussels attractions contained within this article, one of the more unusual things to do in Brussels is to visit the Musical Instruments Museum, which is to be found within the Mont des Arts neighbourhood.
Set against the backdrop of a steel and glass Art Nouveau building that was formerly used as the flagship store for the Old England Department store, today the museum boasts a collection of over 8000 instruments. Created in the mid 19th-century, rarest of all in the collections is the only surviving luthéal, a type of hybrid piano.
Zinneke Pis (Het Zinneke)
Perhaps thanks to the popularity of Manneken Pis, there is now an entire subculture of urinating statues that has emerged as a result of the original tiny statue! As well as a 1980s creation of Jeanneke Pis, a urinating sister for Manneken Pis, there is also a urinating dog statue, which was erected in 1998.