Short breaks
Simon Busch, MSN Travel editor
16/11/2011 11:06 | By Simon Busch, editor, MSN Travel

Lightning visit: Brussels

Simon Busch on five top things to enjoy on a short break to the Belgian capital

A bit of an experiment last weekend to squeeze the most out of two days on a European break: girlfriend and I hopped on the Eurostar at 8 on Saturday morning and returned on one of the last trains on Sunday evening. Our destination: a new city for me, and one widely but - I found - unfairly characterised as a rather grey workaday place given its status as the bureaucratic capital of the EU.

In fact, the city has distinct charms and, thankfully, not too many other tourists to get in the way of you enjoying them. Moreover, with a population of around one million, it's about the right size to enjoy in a packed weekend. After duly consulting various guides and other reports on the city, here's my pick of the five must-see attractions in Brussels.

1) The Magritte Museum

A surrealist Magritte image (© Getty)

A surrealist painting by the Belgian artist Magritte

Three storeys of a building devoted to the great Belgian surrealist artist, whose highly memorable works, some say, set the tone for much of the popular imagery, including advertising, of the latter part of the 20th century and beyond. The Magritte galleries form part of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, whose fine collections of works by classical artists such as Bruegel and Cranach can be seen for a few more euros on the ticket price.

Find out more

2) Grand Place

Self-effacing little Brussels rather keeps this marvel to itself. The ornate, mainly 17th-century buildings surrounding the Grand Place square, including various guildhalls and the town hall, are in generally magnificent shape and giddily transport you back to a magical, pre-modern European world. Thankfully, there are many, rather more updated beer houses around the periphery, where you can rest your feet and choose from many, invariably delicious Trappist and other Belgian ales.

Find out more

3) Manneken Pis

Souvenirs of Manneken Pis - Brussels' peeing boy (© Getty)

Souvenirs of Manneken Pis - Brussels' peeing boy

He may invariably be swamped by tourists, like a bunch of gawking voyeurs on vacation, but you can't really say you've seen Brussels until you've seen the city's celebrated statue of a peeing boy. (The name means literally "little man pee" in Dutch dialect.) The small, bronze 17th century sculpture, which city authorities garb in all sorts of costumes on various festive occasions, is much smaller than you might expect for an exhibitionist of such renown.

Find out more

4) Atomium

To continue the theme, as it were, this sculpture of nine enormous linked metallic balls, intended to represent iron atoms, takes you back to a more innocent-seeming era of science-driven optimism. The structure, built for the 1958 World's Fair, was only ever meant to be temporary but it is so distinctive looking it became a destination in its own right and was refurbished in 2006. Give your inner chemistry-set nerd an outing to north Brussels suburbia and clamber around this slightly clunky tribute to the space age.

Find out more

5) Day trip: Waterloo

Monument at the battle site of Waterloo (© Getty)

Monument at the battle site of Waterloo

No, not just an Abba song. The site of the 1815 battle - 10km outside of Brussels - in which the Duke of Wellington finally put paid to the empire of Napoleon Bonaparte is not only significant as the place where modern Europe was forged by cannon fire. It also still feels deeply solemn as the ground on which 40,000 men lost their lives.

Find out more

Simon stayed in Brussels courtesy of the Conrad Brussels, which is centrally located on fashionable Avenue Louise behind an original 19th-century facade.

Read more articles by Simon Busch on MSN Travel

Get the Bing Travel App for Windows 8 (© Microsoft)

More on msn Travel