Offbeat, bizarre and unusual discoveries in Belgium's 'surreal' capital

Brussels is in the midst of celebrating 100 years of surrealism, but travellers don't need to visit art galleries to come face-to-face with the city's quirky finds

Belgium's quirky capital is filled with surreal sights to see. Visit Brussels  / Jean Paul Remy
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The Belgian capital is celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of the surrealism movement with a series of major art exhibitions, giving travellers the opportunity to discover a city that is already wonderfully quirky.

At the majestic Royal Museum of Fine Arts, IMAGINE! 100 Years of International Surrealism is a classic blockbuster show, an immersive journey featuring masterpieces by the likes of Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Picasso and Man Ray alongside the instantly recognisable paintings of Belgium’s most famous surrealist, Rene Magritte.

A few minutes’ walk away, the more avant-garde Bozar is presenting two exhibitions. Histoire de ne Pas Rire concentrates more on Belgium’s very own irreverent, humorous surrealists, with an exceptional collection of rarely seen works from private collections by Magritte and Paul Delvaux.

The much darker surrealist world of James Ensor, an artist who rarely travelled from his home in Ostend, Belgium, where he created a fantasy world of ghosts, masks and duelling skeletons, is explored in James Ensor. Maestro.

But you don’t have to head to a special exhibition to celebrate surrealism. In Belgium, it’s nothing less than a way of life where locals, often without much thought, transform the ordinary into something offbeat.

In the capital city, you can see it wherever you go, and this list rounds up some of the top surreal things to see and do when you visit.

See the Manneken Pis in costume

Nothing better captures the zany spirit of Brussels than the city's cheeky, cherubic bronze statue. Featuring a naked little boy urinating into a fountain basin with a name that translates as The Little Weeing Man, it's one of Brussel's most famous attractions and crowds teem around the tiny statue day and night.

Dating back more than 500 years, the impudent sculpture has a wide-range of costume changes, so don't be surprised if he's donning some new garb when you visit – from Dracula to a Maltese Knight, his wardrobe extends to more than 1,000 flamboyant costumes.

City views at The Atomium

Described as futuristic, scientific and just a little bit strange, the Atomium vies with the Manneken Pis as the ultimate symbol of Brussels. The eye-stopping 100-metre structure was built for the 1958 World's Fair to symbolise the potential benefits atomic energy could bring to the world.

Meant to remain for just six months, the Atomium has avoided the wrecking ball on numerous occasions and still stands 68 years later as the most visited tourist sight in Brussels, incorporating exhibitions and a panoramic restaurant with epic views of the city.

Eat spicy biscuits at La Fleur en Papier d’Ore

While lovers of the surrealist images of Rene Magritte can spend a whole day in the city's sprawling Magritte Museum, a stop-off in the great artist’s favourite hangout is a worthy visit. This traditional Belgian “estaminet” bar, evocatively named The Gilt Paper Flower is a veritable Aladdin's Cave of surrealist memorabilia, with more than 400 objects displayed on its ochre walls.

The cosy cafe has been a favourite haunt of poets, writers, painters and sculptures for more than 70 years. Perfectly preserved, it's still serving coffee with spicy speculoos biscuits and their speciality onion soup.

Explore locomotive history at Train World

Located in the immense Belgian National Railway Company workshops, this spectacular train museum resembles a sci-fi movie set, showcasing 22 different locomotives. Visitors follow a path past five 19th-century vintage steam trains, perfectly preserved First World War coaches, a sumptuous royal carriage and futuristic high-speed train simulators. There is even an original train carriage where, until 1984, postmen would sort Belgium's mail as the train was speeding between cities. Irresistible for children.

Discover Tintin and the Smurfs at the Belgian Comic Strip Centre

Forget Disney, Snoopy or Superman and plunge headfirst instead into the surreal, absurd world of Belgium’s world-famous Bande Dessinee – Comic Strip Art. Housed in one of Victor Horta’s elaborate Art Nouveau buildings, this funky museum is dedicated to local heroes like Herges intrepid reporter Tintin, the Smurfs, naughty bellhop, Spirou and the yellow black-spotted leopard-like imaginary Marsupilami.

Walk the Comic Strip Trail

After you fall in love with the stars of Belgium's comic world, download the interactive map that leads you on a unique city tour around some of the city's monumental wall murals devoted to these famous cartoon characters. An arts programme that was launched more than 30 years ago, there are now a staggering 80 frescoes throughout Brussels.

Don't miss the Smurfs by the Central train station, Spirou near the Jeu de Balle flea market and twin sisters Kinky and Cosy wreaking havoc just off the landmark Grand-Place.

Visit friends of the Manneken Pis

Just when you thought nothing could be as cheeky as the Manneken, the Zinneke Pis is a less famous sculpture that is fun to discover. Set on a corner of the city’s chic fashion district Sainte-Catherine, is a scruffy dog lifting his leg to urinate against a bollard. Created by local sculptor Tom Franzen in 1998, Zinneke is Brussels dialect for a mongrel who represents the Brussellois inhabitants, always ready to cock a snook at authority.

And if you're keen for more, seek out Jeanneke Pis, the younger sister of her bronze brother that was designed in 1985 by artist Denis-Adrien Debouvrie.

Step back in time at Coudenberg Palace

It is important to realise that the Coudenberg Palace does not actually exist any more, as this splendid medieval castle was actually destroyed in a 1731 fire. But after major archaeological excavations, visitors can now discover the underground labyrinth of the palace that was once home to Belgium’s legendary Emperor Charles V.

The tour is like walking back through the centuries and is also a great attraction for families with children as there are treasure hunts and music trails.

Updated: March 22, 2024, 8:22 AM