Both Barcelona and Brussels are fantastic cities, but which is better for your city-break or holiday?
We understand your dilemma. There is a wealth of information about both cities, but little stating which is the better destination and more suited for your trip.
This website will provide our unbiased opinions of Barcelona and Brussels, and hopefully help you to choose the best city to visit. The article is divided into the following sections, and can be jumped to using the underlined links:
1) Introductions -
2) City scores -
3) Which one should I, friends, or family visit? -
4) When to visit and weather -
5) Who is the city suited for? -
6) The perfect 48hours (with map) -
7) Tourism details (where to stay? airport details?)
It is all too easy to over-look Brussels as a city break destination, especially considering it is the home of modern European politics. However, there is a surprising amount here to explore and enjoy, and a visit here can end up being one of those unexpected hits that with hindsight, you can’t understand why you hadn’t been before.
Being smaller than many of its European counterparts it is able to offer the perks of a more manageable and friendly atmosphere with fewer crowds, exceptional art galleries, museums and medieval churches abundant around every cobbled street corner. It is also brimming with quirky café charm and home to the highest standard of food you will find anywhere in the world.
Which city would I go to? Barcelona
Which one would I recommend to my parents? Barcelona
Which location for my 19-year-old cousin? Barcelona
Which for my food obsessed friend? Barcelona
Note: The above comparison does not consider the weather, and assumes travel at the best time of year (which is detailed later in this article)
The following sections compare the two cities and considers; how long to spend in them, when to visit, and provides suggested 48hours in each city (along with an interactive map). The final section is tourism practicalities and includes which airport to fly into, what district to be based in and how best to explore the city. We hope that you find all of this information useful, in planning your next exciting trip.
Barcelona can be fully seen with two intense days of sightseeing, but if you include the beaches, the mountain viewpoints and a more leisurely pace, this leads to the conventional four-day visit.
A trip could be extended by visiting the picturesque Montserrat Monastery and mountains or the attractive coastal town of Sitges. Barcelona is much more suited for a short city break than a longer holiday, and does lack the diversity of day trips as with other destinations.
Brussels is compact city, and as such, you can see all the sights in 1 or 2 days. There is ample to see, but most of it is packed into the historical core.
Walking from the Grote Markt (The Grand Place) in the very middle of the city to the EU Parliament and through the bustling streets of the Stalingrad District hardly takes more than a couple of hours – depending on how many Belgian beers you stop for en route, of course!
With extra time, you could consider outings to places like Waterloo (the battlefield where Wellington defeated Napoleon in 1815) and the handsome medieval city of Bruges.
Brussels gets busiest during the warm months of the summer. Everyone from city breakers flying in on short-haul budget links to Interrail backpackers on a cross-continent grand tour pass through during the main holidays from June and August.
There's a real buzz about the bars of the Grand Place then, with people chatting and snapping selfies all around the UNESCO-tagged streets. Some downsides: Brussels can have heatwaves, and the price of hotels at this time is sure to be peaking.
While winter is probably best avoided unless you're on the hunt for cosy Christmas markets, spring and autumn have their pluses. They're both typically cheaper. There's fewer people around, so you're more likely to score tours of the EU Parliament and whatnot. And everything costs a little less, from hotels to flights deals into town.
Barcelona is almost a year-round destination, and the best time of year to visit is either early spring or later autumn as this is outside of the peak season, but the weather is still pleasant.
The peak tourist season is July and August, and we suggest Barcelona is best avoided, as it is just too hectic and crowded. The weather is suitable for spending time on the beaches from May until October. The winter months are cooler and possibly wet but there is a less hectic pace around the city.
Barcelona is flashy, energetic and modern. The city has vibrant tourist attractions and is without the stuffy atmosphere of many other historic destinations. It generally appeals more to the younger visitor with its heady mix of nightlife, beaches and Instagram ready tourist attractions.
It should be noted that Barcelona is not a cheap city, being the most expensive city in Spain. Barcelona great for a short stay or a one-day visit, such as from a cruise ship.
One of the great joys of Brussels is just how many facets there is to the city. You're certain to be entertained if you love architecture. The main square alone comes with Gothic, Neo-Gothic, and Renaissance elements.
Then there's all that fabled Belgian food, from the double-cooked chips to the chocolate-topped waffles to the frothy monk-brewed beers you find in the pubs. Add in enthralling tours of important parliament buildings, pretty parks, and some seriously rich galleries, and you've got a destination suited to all sorts.
Of course, some people might not feel right at home, Brussels is urban to the core. Finally, budget seekers could find themselves a little happier elsewhere. Brussels hardly breaks the bank, but it's no penny saver either.
Barcelona is a tremendous destination for a 48-hours, and excels as a short-stay destination. Below is an interactive map for 48 hours in Barcelona; day 1 is highlighted in green and day 2 in yellow, with optional sights marked grey.
The first morning would start on the La Rambla the authentic shopping street, which is so popular with tourists and locals alike. For the middle of the day explore the Gothic Quarter, which contains the cathedral and Picasso museum.
For the final part of the head towards the harbour and the lively Barceloneta district, that lies the beaches. For the evening both Gothic Quarter or Barceloneta boasts restaurants, atmosphere and entertainment.
The cable car up to Montjuïc Castle provides wonderful views over Barcelona
For the second day begin by visiting the awe-inspiring Sagrada Familia basilica, with is whimsical towers, intricate carvings and masterpiece of Antoni Gaudí. The theme of Gaudí continues with the next sight, the Parc Guell, which was designed by him and includes delightful mosaic-covered buildings and wonderful views of the city.
The final area to discover is Montjuï, where you can ride the cable car to a stunning or visit the MNAC museum housed in the grand Palau Nacional.
The finale for your time in Barcelona is the inspiring Magic Fountain light show, held at the fountain near the MNAC museum (Wed-Sun peak season).
48hours in Brussels
A whirlwind 48 hours in Brussels can take you from curious statues to modernist structures, regal parklands to beautiful palaces. Of course, there's plenty of time to fit in home-brewed beers and indulgent waffles along the way.
Day 1: The Grand Place is the only real place to begin in Brussels. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is the kernel of the city, and has been since time immemorial. Look to the north end and you can see the elegant façade of the Brussels City Museum. It's housed in the Neo-Gothic Maison du Roi, hosting collections that include masterworks by Flemish painters and the original Manneken Pis statue (more on him later).
On the south flank is the indomitable Brussels Town Hall. Gaze up at its gorgeous medievalist spire and wonder at the carvings of dukes on the portals. The rest of the square is a photographer's dream, with guild houses and pubs and more. Next, the area of Stalingrad calls. Curiously named, it's nonetheless one of the liveliest quarters of Brussels.
It's also where you'll find the famously underwhelming Manneken Pis statue – we won't spoil it with a description! After lunching in one of the taverns there, head east to the acclaimed Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium. It's a must for any culture vultures, what with exhibits that contain works by the likes of Anthony van Dyck, Bruegel, and Rubens. It demands a whole afternoon.
The town hall on the Grand Place, the main plaza of Brussels
Day 2: Overdosed on art and ready for something completely different? Good, because day two begins at the Espace Léopold. Welcome to the vast European Parliament; the corridors of power for 27 states that range from Romania to Portugal. Tours of the huge debating chamber and the plenary rooms where the decisions are made run daily from 9am.
After an hour inside, you can head for the grand Parc du Cinquantenaire that sits just behind. It's a prime example of Brussels' flamboyant public garden style, hosting the eye-watering Arc du Cinquantenaire, a national symbol of Belgium.
The afternoon sees you hop on trams (a combo of Tram 5 and Tram 6 usually does the trick) to the area of Laeken. This otherwise green a leafy suburb has one major claim to fame: the strange Atomium. You might not believe it, but it was built in 1958. Up top there's a lookout point with panoramas of the whole city.
For the evening, mosey back to the Grand Place and seek out the iconic Delirium Café on the side streets nearby. It's home to a whopping 2,000 variations of Belgian and global beers!
Once in Barcelona all of the main sights are close and can be easily walked. The standard of food and service at restaurants in the tourist areas varies dramatically, it’s always advisable to check reviews first.
Brussels Airport (BRU) and the Charleroi Airport (CRL) combine to offer all sorts of long-haul and short-haul air links into the capital. The cheapest cross-continent flights on Ryanair and the like usually jet into CRL. Transatlantic and premium carriers usually go to BRU.
You can use Brussels City Shuttle to get to Charleroi for as little as €5 each way if booked online and in advance. Meanwhile, direct rail links go to Brussels Airport from Brussels Central, costing €8.60 and taking a little over 20 minutes in total.
In terms of travel safety, Brussels ranks well. Incidents involving tourists are rare, although thefts, bag snatches, and pickpocketing do occur in many of the visitor hotspots.
Try not to walk alone in the city centre after dark, particularly if you've been drinking. Never leave valuable items within sight if you're parking your car. Also always keep one eye on your handbag or wallet when riding the metro.
For hotels, the best area of Brussels is surely the district immediately around the Grand Place. The closest establishments to that UNESCO site typically cost oodles but ooze luxury. A few streets back and you can find affordable local B&Bs with plenty of charm.