Begin your exploration of Brussels at the glorious Grand-Place, one of the finest squares in all Europe. Unless there’s a special event on, it’s best appreciated after dark, when it’s illuminated – take a stroll while you snack on a waffle from one of the nearby shops or stalls. On some evenings, a music-and-light show makes the gabled guildhouses glimmer even more brightly than usual.
A few steps away, the Manneken Pis, a famous statue of a little boy peeing, appeals to children’s sense of humour. Its origin is unclear – some say it was inspired by a kid who drove away invading troops by weeing on them from his hiding place in a tree.
Afterwards, head for the Musee de la Ville de Bruxelles back on the Grand’Place, to see the wardrobe of outfits in which the Manneken has been kitted out over time, including a tiny Elvis costume and a Moroccan get-up complete with mini fez. You could even go on a Pis trail, taking in the Janneke Pis female version created by feminists (off Rue de Bouchers in Impasse de la Fidelité) and the peeing dog, Zinneke Pis, on Rue des Chartreux in the St-Géry area.
Get kids walking by following Brussels’ comic-strip trail. Starting at the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée (Belgian Comic Strip Centre) on Rue des Sables, it comprises 30 large outdoor murals of comic-strip heroes, including Tintin. The Centre itself, set in a glorious former textiles warehouse designed by the great Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta, demonstrates the production of bandes dessinées from initial concept to finished product, including storyboarding and printing. There’s also a reference library and a book- and comic shop.
Other good museum bets are the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts (Fine Arts Museums), the Musée des Instruments de Musique (Musical Instruments Museum) in the wonderful Old England department store building, with instruments that start playing as you approach the, and the Musee Magritte, comprising the world’s largest collection of works by the Belgian Surrealist, in whose riddle-ridden works even the youngest kids find something to entertain.
Then there’s Scientastic, a science museum with 101 hands-on exhibits through which kids can explore the five senses, just off the Grand’Place, and, a short way southeast of the centre, the Musée des Enfants or Children’s Museum, with interactive exhibitions on colours, recycling and the like.
North of the centre lies Brussels’ iconic Atomium, a structure based on an iron crystal magnified 100 billion times, created for the 1958 Brussels World Fair. Inside its nine shiny steel balls, linked by escalators, are exhibition spaces, a restaurant, and the Kids Sphere Hotel (sadly, not a wacky family hotel but a dormitory for school kids). The top sphere also has panoramic views.
Next door stands Mini-Europe, a park with 350 models of European landmarks, including the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the canals of Venice, and the Acropolis – young kids love to see Vesuvius erupting, the Berlin Wall falling and a bullfight in action. Also here is the Spirit interactive exhibition about the European Union, should you be feeling in the mood for something a little more worthy, but you’ll probably be more tempted by a splash at the Océade waterpark.
Out east, the European Quarter is a sprawl of glass and steel where the Eurocrats strut their stuff. A visit to the European Parliament (over 14s only) might be educational for teens, while all ages will be enthralled by the famous collection of iguanodons (found in a Belgian coal-mine) on display at the Natural Sciences Museum of Belgium on nearby Rue Vautier. Newly overhauled, the dinosaur exhibition hosts hands-on activities for kids, and there’s an fascinating evolution gallery and children’s geology gallery.
Close by, the Parque Cinquantenaire is the city’s best-loved park, with ponds and waterfalls, plus Autoworld, an exhibition of more than 400 cars, from vintage to modern. A little way to the west is the small but charming Musée des Jouets, where you can ride a merry-go-round, see a schoolroom from 1900, board a tram and admire toys dating back to 1830.
If shopping’s your bag, the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert near the Grand-Place are full of quirky boutiques and chic cafés beneath an historic glass roof. Teens prefer the daily flea-market in Place du Jeu de Balle-Vossenplein, the Marché aux Puces-Vlooienmarkt, while the Place Sainte-Catherine is great for fashion.
Twelve kilometres south of the city, the Waterloo Battlefield has remained how it was on 15th June 1815, when Europe was irrevocably changed by the final confrontation between Wellington and Napoleon. As well as Battlefield Tours aboard special vehicles, there’s the Lion Mound tumulus where the Prince of Orange is believed to have been wounded, topped by a cast-iron lion, plus a wax museum, a free children’s booklet with a treasure hunt for ages 6–12, and a shop with battle-related figurines, games and toys.
Far less edifying but great fun, 27km southeast of Brussels lies Walibi Belgium, a themepark with Belgium’s only wooden rollercoaster plus more modern coasters, gentler family rides and a waterpark.