Brussels and Belgium are known for a lot of things – waffles, chocolate, beer, fries. Belgian beer is even a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. But if you hadn’t noticed, all these Belgian claims to fame are food and drink. While Belgians certainly love to eat, there’s much more to Belgium than the cuisine.
Related: The Belgian Wine Industry.
Brussels, in particular, is bursting with cultural significance. There’s the Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture, the city’s status as the unofficial (but pretty official) capital of Europe, and the deep arts and culture scene. There are so many nationalities represented in Brussels, and so much heritage, that once you stop eating so many waffles and going on chocolate tours you’ll be bowled over by what else there is to see.
My favorite way to explore multifaceted Brussels is through its museums. Museums say a lot about a city. They indicate what’s important, which parts of heritage are worth showcasing. It’s no wonder, then, in an eclectic city like Brussels, there are many museums on countless subjects. If you can’t find a museum here that piques your interest, then you’re not looking hard enough.
I’ve picked my 5 favorite Brussels museums and described each one here. Now, since there are over 100 of them, I haven’t visited them all. And I will admit there’s some bias in this list. I picked the museums that most appeal to my interests, so they may not be for everyone. But that’s kind of the point in having so many choices – you can pick the ones that suit you.
Related: Brussels travel tips.
BELvue is a medium-sized museum that takes you through the social, political, and economic history of Belgium. It bills itself as a museum of “history and democracy.” When it comes to unique museum subjects in Brussels, the history of Belgium isn’t so out there. But the best feature of BELvue is how well it’s curated.
It’s situated in a building dating back to 1776, which has had a long, detailed history in the affairs of the Belgian state. It was a hotel first, originally named the “Hotel de Belle-Vue.” Then it was a royal residence – it sits adjacent to the Royal Palace – then a Red Cross accommodation center. It wasn’t used as a museum until 1977 and didn’t become the BELvue until 2005. With each transition came renovations so that the building could function in each new role.
Considering the building’s opulent history, the rooms are spacious and easy to navigate. The main exhibition guides you through the story of Belgium, with numbers and color-coordinated displays to help you find your way. There’s just enough to see without feeling overwhelmed, and plenty of extras should a particular era of history intrigue you. There aren’t any displays in English, so you’ll have to take a guidebook with you. Of note are the artifacts installed for each era, ranging from old dishware and typewriters to toys and garments. It’s a delightful glimpse at the history of objects, with a Belgian slant.
Apart from the subject matter, I liked BELvue so much for its ease. You never had to figure out where to go next, and the building isn’t big enough to get lost in. And although they’ve packed a ton of information and displays into a building that was a hotel for most of its existence, you never feel cramped. I highly recommend BELvue for any first-time visitors to Brussels. Tickets are only €7, but it’s free every Wednesday afternoon from 2:00 pm. It’s also family-friendly since kids under 18 get in free. For more details about visiting, head to the BELvue website.
Museum of Musical Instruments
The Musical Instrument Museum, or MIM, is one of the most well-known in Brussels. It’s only a stone’s throw from BELvue, so you could do both of them in one afternoon! The MIM is also in cool, historically significant buildings. They’re part Neoclassical and part Art Nouveau, the latter being an acclaimed architectural style of Brussels. The buildings housed the Old England department store from 1905-1972. The MIM didn’t officially open until 2000.
The MIM houses musical instruments from different eras and parts of the world. It’s partitioned by type of instrument, such as mechanical and electric, traditional, and keyboards. The most interesting gallery is the traditional one because it features instruments used in folk music in different cultures around the globe. The other galleries are largely centered on European music.
You’ll want to block off some time to see the MIM, and you might not get to explore each of the four galleries in depth. The sheer amount of instruments in this museum is downright impressive, but for non-musciophiles it might be a bit overwhelming after a while. To make the experience more worthwhile, I’d recommend getting the audio guide so you can hear clips of music being played by the instruments you’re looking at.
Tickets at the normal price are €10. Admission is free the first Wednesday of every month after 1:00 pm. For more info about the MIM, see their website.
Museum of Natural Sciences
The Museum of Natural Sciences doesn’t normally show up on Brussels’ “best of” museum lists. But I’ve included it simply for the dinosaur gallery. This massive room is the largest museum gallery in Europe dedicated exclusively to dinosaurs. It has full-scale models of dinosaur skeletons on display, including the Iguanodon bones found in Bernissart, Belgium at the end of the 19th century.
Even if you go to the Museum of Natural Sciences and spend most of your time with the dinosaurs (like we did) it’ll be worth it. The gallery is so big and so packed with information you’ll be an expert when you’re done. The rest of the museum holds up well in comparison, too. The Gallery of Evolution is a fun, interactive walkthrough, as is the BiodiverCITY exhibit about urban plants and animals.
The Museum of Natural Sciences is another one that could take you a while. It’s an afternoon well-spent, though, with the incredible number of displays to discover. Who knew there was so much natural history in Belgium? It’s only €7 to get in, with reduced prices for children and students. For practical info, check out the museum’s website.
Related: The Museum of Communism in Prague
Comic Strip Center
For those who don’t know, Belgium is the birthplace of the comic strip. Classics like Tintin, the Smurfs (the Schtroumpfs in French), and Spirou and Fantasio all originated in Belgium. Comic strips are so infused into Belgian culture that you’ll find comic book stores all over Brussels. There’s even a Comic Strip Festival every year in September.
If you’re unfamiliar with Belgian comic strips, then a visit to the Comic Strip Center is definitely in order. The museum is dedicated to the history and evolution of comic strips in Belgium, presenting the classics as well as delving into modern comic strip-making techniques. There’s even a comic strip library where you can peruse old editions. And the building is architecturally significant – naturally. It was designed by the renowned Brussels architect Victor Horta in 1906 as a textile warehouse, in the Art Nouveau style. It became the Comic Strip Center in 1984.
It’s much easier to appreciate the Comic Strip Center if you’re already familiar with the famed comic book characters. But it’s not lost on those who had no idea that the Smurfs were Belgian until they set foot inside the museum (like me). Gawking at the stunning architecture isn’t too bad either. Once you’ve visited the Comic Strip Center, head to a comic book store somewhere in Brussels. They’ll have copies of all the classics, along with newer comic books and graphic novels. You’ll even find nonfiction comic books like biographies or memoirs. The medium has a rich history in Belgium that is still front and center today.
For practical info on the Comic Strip Center, head to their website.
Fashion and Lace Museum
The final Brussels museum on my top five list is the Fashion and Lace Museum. Consider it my “wildcard” entry. It doesn’t get as much traffic as some of the others on this list. The museum is small, but only a few blocks away from the famous Manneken Pis statue. With its central location, it’s easy to stop by for a visit as you’re exploring the Brussels city center.
The Fashion and Lace Museum focuses on the history and evolution of Belgian and European fashion, as well as the historically renowned lace industry in Belgium. In addition to comic strips, architecture, frites, chocolate, and beer, Brussels is has been known for producing high-quality lace. This city sure has a lot of things going for it, doesn’t it? The Fashion and Lace Museum has collections of clothing from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, as well as a Lace Room. It also changes out temporary exhibitions.
The Fashion and Lace Museum is indeed small, and you’ll need an English guidebook to make your way through it. But for fashion-lovers, it’s a real treasure. You’ll also learn why you’ve seen so much lace hanging up in shop windows around Brussels’ city center. Including methods of lace production, the history of the industry, and the story of how Brussels lace rivaled that of Paris, the Lace Room is a detailed glimpse of a lesser-known feature in Belgium’s history.
Regular-priced admission is €8, with reductions for students, seniors, groups, and jobseekers. It’s free the first Sunday of every month, along with several other museums in Brussels. Check out the Fashion and Lace Museum’s practical info here.
Best of Brussels Museums
These are only 5 of Brussels’ interesting museums, there are plenty more worth seeing. For a full list plus info about each one, head to the Brussels Museums website.
Brussels is proud of its museums, and it should be. Each autumn from September to December, a group of museums in the city will have reduced admission and special evening events every Thursday night. Museums are also the beating heart of Brussels’ cultural scene, holding events throughout the year. A notable museum that hosts many events that didn’t make it on my list is BOZAR Centre for Fine Arts.
Speaking of visit-worthy museums I left out, here are a few of my honorable mentions.
Other Brussels Museums Worth Visiting
MIMA, a sleek contemporary art museum in the Molenbeek-Saint-Jean neighborhood.
Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History, which has a hangar of full-sized fighter jets and military planes, as well as WWII-era tanks, and historical military kit from around the world. It’s in the scenic Parc du Cinquantenaire, right next to the EU quarter.
Belgian Chocolate Village Museum, not to be confused with the Choco-Story. The Chocolate Village Museum is in a – you guessed it – historic Art Deco building in Koekelberg that was originally a biscuits and chocolate factory. It takes you through the history of Belgian chocolate, chocolate production (with real cocoa plants growing in a climate-controlled tropical greenhouse!), and why Koekelberg was known as “Chocolate Village.” They also give away free samples.
House of European History, which is 100% free every day. Learn about the history of Europe and witness the EU’s attempt to forge a common European identity.
Brussels’ Museums Make It a Cultural Epicenter
You’ll notice my top-five list didn’t include anything about waffles, fries, beer, or chocolate. Although my honorable mentions did feature a chocolate museum – when in Brussels, right? Brussels has much more to offer than gastronomy. The city is and has been a cultural mecca and its museums reflect that. You don’t have to visit a museum every day of your trip to Brussels (although that’s what I would do). But carve out some time to see at least a few. They’re the best way to learn about Brussels and its rich heritage.
Featured image: The MIM, housed in the former Old England department store building. Credit: Flickr photo by William Murphy under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.
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