Looking to make the most of your time in the beautiful capital of Belgium? Be sure to avoid these classic Brussels travel mistakes on your visit.
I have to admit, I screwed up big time on my first visit to Brussels.
The first time I visited this sugary Waffleland, I was no more than a beginner backpacker midway through her first long term trip, with an ego and confidence inflated after several “easy” weeks of travel in Paris and London.
Unsurprisingly then, when I met my match in Brussels, mistakes were made, expectations ruined and illusions shattered…
… I definitely did not do the city properly, I’ll tell you that.
And so for a long time, I thought I hated Brussels. Like truly, hated it! In fact, between you and me, this blog post was initially published in 2014, and in it I spewed a looot of vitriol about why Brussels was not the city for me.
Then something changed. I had to visit Brussels for work one day. Then I visited again. And again. I mean, call it exposure therapy, but whatever it was, it worked! I am now a believer, and see how poorly I had done Brussels justice on that first visit so many years ago.
Brussels really is an amazing city if you know how to visit it properly.
So, in the spirit of helpful advice, I’d like to share the major mistakes I made in Brussels, and how you can avoid having a bad experience like young naive me.
Hint: beer and waffles are maybe involved.
5 Brussels Travel Mistakes to Avoid for 1st Time Visitors
Accumulated over many visits to the Belgian capital, here are some common mistakes to avoid when you visit Brussels, and my tips for making the most of your Brussels travel experience:
Mistake #1: Following only guidebooks/top 10 lists
One thing I need to put into your head right off the bat is that Brussels is actually an awesome city… the problem is most of the existing guides out there don’t do it justice!
I know this because I didn’t “get” Brussels until my third or fourth visit. Especially on my first visit, I remember doing all the must sees that I read about on TripAdvisor, scurrying from one peeing kid statue to the next, having overpriced waffles in the center and going out of my way to see attractions that left me underwhelmed… all while sweating amongst hordes of fellow tourists doing the exact same circuit.
Trust me, if this is how you visit Brussels, you’ll likely be disappointed too!
Instead, I encourage you to explore some of the lovely neighbourhoods surrounding the Brussels city centre, and read some local blogs to get a feel for what people who actually live in Brussels enjoy doing, because I assure you it’s not “visit Mannekin Pis”.
Here are some suggestions to help you make the most of your Brussels trip, with some tips to get you off the typical tourist trek!
1. Visit some neighbourhoods outside the city center
While I must admit that Grand Place is one of the most beautiful squares in Europe, where I think Brussels really thrives is in the little neighbourhoods surrounding the center, the ones that most visitors don’t think to visit! To help get you started here are some Brussels neighbourhoods that are well worth a wander during your trip.
Sablon: With its charming cobblestoned streets and scenic surplus of chocolate shops, the Sablon district of Brussels is a wonderful place to wander and get a bit off the tourist trek. The Eglise Notre-Dame du Sablon is of course a must-see.
St Gilles: Saint Gilles is a trendy, artsy neighbourhood in Brussels which is a complete magnet for artists and students thanks to its hip mix of eateries, boutiques and street art.
Les Marolles: Last but not least, this multicultural neighbourhood is Brussels’ melting pot, with all sorts of shops, restaurants, cafes and markets representing cultures from around the globe. A special highlight? It’s home to the most famous flea market in Brussels: the Jeu de Balle Flea Market which is open 365 days a year!
2. Head to other locations of Brussels’ (and Belgium’s) most famous chocolatiers
One of my favourite spots in Brussels is the Galeries Saint Hubert. It’s a touristy place, but so beautiful I can’t resist!
What I don’t love though is the crowds. I think the Galeries are lovely for strolling through, but not ideal for shopping, given the Hunger Gamesy nature of it when the bus tours roll in… so here’s a tip. Most of the chocolatiers inside the Galeries (if not all of them) have other shops and locations in Brussels which will be MUCH less busy. Punch the name of your preferred chocolatier into Google Maps and head to one of those other locations instead, because then you can take your time and eat your chocolate in peace (with substantially better customer service to match).
3. Visit one of Brussels’ many quirky and offbeat museums
I’m not usually a museum person, but Brussels is filled with so many fun and quirky museums that it’s hard to resist! On my most recent visit, I bought a Brussels Card so I could visit as many museums as I wanted and I definitely got my money’s worth. I’m working on a full guide to the different Brussels museums you should visit, but definitely don’t rule out the Museum of Musical Instruments, the Royal Museum of Army and Military History, Autoworld, and the Belgian Comic Strip Museum.
4. Head to some of the amazing viewpoints in Brussels that most visitors don’t know about
The view from the Mont de Arts is a well-known Brussels attraction, but there are in fact plenty of other (much lesser known) viewpoints that are worth checking out if you have time. Getting these secret vantage points over the city really makes it much easier to fall in love with Brussels! Two I recommend are:
From the 5th floor cafeteria of the Royal Library of Belgium
From the 10th floor restaurant of the Museum of Musical Instruments
Mistake #2: Staying or wandering into not-so-safe areas in Brussels
I’ll be honest: one of my initial gripes with Brussels was that I simply didn’t feel safe… which, having spoken to a lot of fellow travellers, is a common sentiment among those who are visiting for the 1st time.
But Brussels really is a safe city, so long as you take the right precautions. I realize now in hindsight that a lot of my initial feelings regarding safety were down to a few key factors:
1) The areas around the Brussels train stations are some of the more run-down parts of the city, with a lot of petty theft rampant nearby. Since this is a common first touchpoint of Brussels for many travelers, this can really ruin that first impression. Rest assured, most parts of the city are way nicer than the train stations!
2) There are certain neighbourhoods VERY close to the main tourist sights that are easy to randomly wander into. These neighbourhoods, again, can seem a bit run-down, with a lot of litter on the streets and large groups of (unfortunately, at least in my experience) catcalling men and groups of teenagers. These factors all contributed to an overall feeling that certain areas weren’t safe, and dumb me booked a hostel in one of these neighbourhoods on my first visit!
And so, I would say that as a first timer, you should know that Brussels is 100% safe for tourists – you should just know what areas to avoid and what safety precautions to take. You can check out my Brussels accommodation guide here if you want some recommendations of where to book.
And while I am by no means an expert on safety in Brussels, I can speak from personal experience on places around the city where I had negative experiences and wouldn’t stay/visit again. I never like to generalize about a city, so of course, be sure to supplement these personal stories with your own research, but I definitely think you would be better off booking accommodation away from the following neighbourhoods:
Around Place de Brouckère – I can’t sugarcoat it: the entire stretch from the Bourse de Bruxelles to the Gare du Nord is littered with casinos and weird catcalling/staring guys just lurking around. On my first Brussels visit, I stayed at the 2GO4 hostel which is in the heart of this area and I would never do it again. As two young female backpackers, we got eyed like pieces of meat on the walk home day and night, but especially after sunset. This is an area very close to the very center of Brussels, so it’s easy to wander into it, and I would avoid it at all costs!
Molenbeek – This is a part of Brussels where I almost got pickpocketed at the Comte de Flandre (Graaf von Vlaand) station. I was on my way to a museum (which was unfortunately closed) and so I headed back to the station, where some kids tried to mob me and take my wallet straight out of my purse! Unfortunately, this neighbourhood does have a reputation for being popular with pickpockets and petty crime, so I would avoid it if possible, especially given that there aren’t many touristy things to do in this neighbourhood anyway.
Cureghem – As I mentioned before, the neighbourhoods around Brussels’ train stations are not particularly nice, and Cureghem (located around the Brussels Midi station) is perhaps the one with the worst reputation. I did stay here during a short stopover one trip and I wouldn’t do it again. I felt incredibly uneasy during the walk from the station to my AirBNB (which was really short) and I’m quite certain there was a guy following me for most of the way. Anyways, I definitely wouldn’t book a hotel by here, certainly if you’re travelling alone!
Mistake #3: Getting tourist trapped in Brussels
Another unfortunate truth that works against 1st time visitors in Brussels is there are a lot of scams/tourist traps lurking around, especially in the city center. Here are a few to be mindful of (and don’t worry, I’ve been trapped by each one!)
TOURIST TRAP #1: Medicore Waffle Stands
I know it sounds impossible, but yes, you actually CAN find bad waffles in Brussels, and they are usually found in the most touristic parts of the city because they’re out to dupe tourists who don’t know better. Any generic-looking place that flaunts “1 EURO WAFFLES” and lures you in with plastic-y looking waffle displays covered in toppings is, unfortunately, likely to be mediocre. I’m not saying they’ll be terrible (because come on, they’re still waffles) but the overwhelming consensus among my local friends is that no actual Belgian would get a waffle there, so that to me is telling! For some local recommendations, here is a nice post from local blogger S Marks the Spots.’
TOURIST TRAP #2: Rude de Bouchers and other tourist trap restaurants
Rue de Bouchersis a notorious little street in Brussels that is infamous for its pushy restauranteurs, inflated tourist prices and subpar food. As my tour guide emphasized, “this street is home to some of the worst restaurants in Brussels!” Unfortunately, because of their approachable English menus and scarily adamant staff, this street is a natural trap for tourists, so be sure to steer clear of them. Some evident signs that you might be at a tourist trap restaurant are 1) there’s an overinsistent restaurant hawker trying to get you to sit down, 2) there are big signs with giant pictures and all the menu items in English, 3) they have big block letters saying things like “TOURIST MENU, ENGLISH MENU, or FREE WIFI”.
TOURIST TRAP #3: Unnecessary public transportation passes
Last but not least, don’t get talked into a transit pass you don’t need! Upon my first ever arrival to Brussels, I encountered a creepo ticket stall attendant who moved at a sloth-like pace and boasted a very odd fascination with China. After an eternity of strange banter, he strongly recommended the purchase of a 48 hour transit pass which we barely used because as it turns out, Brussels is extremely walkable. So, before committing to any costly passes for Brussels, be sure to do the math first and see if you’d even need them.
Mistake #4: Making yourself an obvious tourist (read: target)
The beautiful thing about Brussels is that it is very multicultural, which makes it substantially easier to masquerade as a local.
And I do highly recommend you try to blend in as much as possible, because a lot of the safety issues concerning tourists come down to how obviously you make yourself a target.
I know it’s silly… after all: what does a tourist look like anyway?
Well, here are some things I’d avoid:
1) Looking lost and having a map out (either a paper map or your phone)
2) Walking around with an expensive camera on your neck, and not paying attention to your surroundings
3) Lugging around big shopping bags of expensive purchases (e.g. luxury shops, chocolate, etc.). I would conceal pricey purchases and bring them back to your hotel as soon as possible
4) Bringing a big travel backpack when you are walking around town just exploring, not just because it flags you as a tourist, but also because many of the museums don’t let you bring backpacks in and you need to throw them into a locker, which are usually small
5) Flaunting your valuables (e.g. wearing expensive jewelry, leaving your phone out on a terrace table, etc.)
6) … and be especially vigilant walking to/from the train stations, especially when you have all your belongings on you. This is when you’d be the tastiest possible target for a pickpocket!
When I almost got pickpocketed on the Metro, it was 100% because I had my phone out and I was taking photos of the pretty art in the station. This clearly flagged me as a non-local, and within seconds I had a mob of teenagers trying to steal my wallet.
Mistake #5: Visiting only Brussels during your Belgium trip!
If I could make a final confession, while I slowly learned to love Brussels over the years, it is still far from my favourite place in Belgium.
I honestly think that Belgium is one of the most underrated countries in Europe, especially considering most people pass through Brussels and that’s it. My final tip to you is to take some time and explore other parts of Belgium. Since the country is so small, you could easily do them as day trips from Brussels!
I’ve been to Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and Leuven – they’re all amazing.
BONUS: Mistakes to Avoid in Brussels If Taking Any Day Trips
If you heed my final tip above, then odds are you might venture off on a day trip or two while you’re in Brussels! Well, allow me to be a total buzzkill and inform you that there are tons of mistakes you can make while doing that too!! Just kidding – they’re pretty easy to avoid, but here they are for you just in case…
Mistake #6: Getting on/off at the wrong Brussels train station
Straightforward advice, but you should know that Brussels has three main train stations. Double check the name of the station when boarding/disembarking the train to ensure you’re going to the right one.
There’s Brussels Midi, Brussels Centraal and Brussels Nord.
I know it sounds dumb, but one time I truly did show up at Brussels Centraal 5 minutes before my train, only to realize it was a train that left from Midi. Needless to say, I did not make that train.
Mistake #7: Paying too much for train tickets
The Belgian train system is blessed with a number of enticing discounts that will let you see the country for a low price. For example, those under the age of 26 can enjoy a ridiculously cheap Go-Ticket, which is 6.40 for anywhere in the country. This is way cheaper than paying full-price!
Mistake #8: Not memorizing the French and Dutch names of stations
As you probably know, Belgium is a tiny country that nonetheless has two official languages: Flemish (like Dutch) and French.
The confusing thing is, train stations (including Metro stations) are marked with the names of both… and trust me – they’re usually not that similar. This can cause some confusion if you’re looking for the right train to catch or the right station to get off at. For example, Antwerp is Antwerpen in Flemish and Anvers in French, while Bruges is Brugge in Flemish. Be sure to have the name of your destination in both languages so that you don’t get confused!
Some Finals Words Before You Visit Brussels for Yourself
Overall, I am completely certain that my first visit in Brussels would have been better under different circumstances. Many of the reasons why I didn’t have fun were caused by my own silly mistakes (e.g. booking an overnight bus to get there, buying an unnecessary transit pass, staying in a sketchy area, etc.) and so with that in mind, I hope this article saves you from doing the same!
Let me know if you have had a more positive experience… I’d love to hear your stories!