We don’t want to brag, but we wrote the book on Brussels with kids. Really, you can find it on Amazon! And we love to share with you off-the-beaten-path adventures you can enjoy as a family–experiential, hands-on fun that give you a taste of a real Brussels childhood.
Here are five of our favorites:
1. Porte de Hal (Halle Gate)
In the 14th century, a large city wall surrounded Brussels to protect it from neighboring armies and general banditry. Seven heavily-guarded gates were the only points of entry. The last surviving city gate, the Halle Gate is now a splendid museum which gives a glimpse of life in a medieval fortified city. Hands-on exhibits let you try on a suit of armor and make a rubbing of a coat of arm. The collection includes suits of armor, medieval weaponry, artwork, and decorative objects.
The Guilds Room has a fantastic display on the medieval craftsmen who created bows and arrows, arrow guns, shields, and other armor. When you reach the top of the tower—a steep climb but there is an elevator—you’ll be rewarded with a fantastic view of the city. You’ll also see one of the best playgrounds in the city in the square down below.
We can’t say enough about the interactive English-language personal video/audio guides available for families. Your video tour guide (you can choose either an archer or a gatekeeper) will give you an informative tour through the tower, with plenty of interactive games, searches, and on-screen drawing activities.
2. Musée des Enfants (Children’s Museum)
If you can time it right, the Musée des Enfants is a spot your young children will not forget. Best for children under 10, the museum is open only Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday from 2:30 – 5pm and closed most of the summer (as I said, timing is everything here). But what a place!
The park and playground outside are some of the most magical play spaces we’ve seen – there was even a swan swimming under a weeping willow tree next to a tiny field with tiny goats! – but inside is just as special. Reserve a spot in a kitchen class as soon as you get there, and your kids can don aprons and chef hats and help make a cake, or move along to the supermarket room, or the ship, or the labyrinth.
Most of the displays are written in French and Dutch. You can request an English-language guidebook, but I suspect your kids won’t need it to find fun here.
There are art lessons on the top floor for your mini Breugels, and 30-minute theater workshops for the drama kings and queens.
Next to today’s Royal Palace, on the Mont des Arts, lies the fascinating underground archeological site of Coudenberg, a relatively recent excavation of the 17th century castle of Charles V that traced its roots to the 12th century. After the castle burned down in 1731, it was leveled, built over, and gradually forgotten. In 1986, excavations began to uncover the palace walls and the Aula Magna, former site of grand state dinners and events.
Today you can visit the entire site and marvel at the immensity of the rooms. The experience is something like visiting underground caves – it’s cold, echo-y, and there is dramatic lighting from below.
There are several games available for kids at the front desk. They receive a backpack with a costume, a map, a puzzle and a flashlight, and are even given their own secret code to access the site.
The Musée D’Ixelles in the leafy neighborhood of Ixelles is delightfully unpopular with tourists, and offers a collection of expressionist, surrealist, and modern paintings and sculptures, mostly by Belgian artists. The collection includes paintings of artists’ studios, many mother-and-baby paintings, and many works by women artists.
The museum is open and airy and welcomes children. Once a month they hold workshops for children age 6 and older in French, Dutch, and English, so that the children are occupied with arts and crafts while their parents tour the museum. If you arrive on a day without a scheduled activity, though, the docents are quite willing to put together an impromptu activity for children, and most speak English.
Note: Look for Frans Baudewijn’s “Vue de la ville de Bruxelles,” 1644-1711 for a great view of the Brussels gates and some very well dressed gentlemen approaching in their coaches.
Zaabar is an artisan chocolate boutique offering workshops for children and adults.
The open bright space houses a large production kitchen with viewing windows to watch the chocolate-making process at any time. The shop holds their collections of bars, pralines, sauces and the like, and there are many opportunities to taste the wares. The chocolate bars come in packages of one or two, in milk, dark, or white chocolate, and with flavors including lemongrass, cardamom, black pepper, and tonka bean, among more traditional favorites.
Their ORIGIN line of chocolates features a single origin cocoa bean in each one, so you can compare Papua New Guinea with Uganda, or Madagascar and Mexico.
On Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, Zaabar offers a one-hour course where anyone age 5 and up can make their own chocolates to take home. Reserve in advance.