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Both Brussels and Venice are fantastic cities, but which is better for your city-break or holiday?
We understand your dilemma. There is an abundance of travel guides for both cities, but few actually comparing them, and advising you which is the better for your trip.
This article will provide our unbiased and independent views of Venice and Brussels, hopefully making your choice that little easier.
The article is divided into the following sections, and can be jumped to using the underlined links:
1) Introductions -
2) City ratings -
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.
Ah, Venice – a bucket-list city if there ever was one! Famed for its myriad canals, vast plazas and grand churches, this is one of Italy's most visited destinations.
Once the epicentre of its own trading empire that stretched right across the Mediterranean and even east to the Old Silk Road, it became rich on spices, precious metals, and cloth. These days, relics of that golden age remain. See them rise with the Orientalist spires of Saint Mark's Basilica. See them in the opulent interiors of the endless Doge's Palace.
But Venice is still a thriving town, not just a museum piece. Ferry boats weave through the Grand Canal and under arches where Canaletto and Monet once painted. Ice-cream parlours spill onto the narrow streets of Cannaregio. Pizzerias meet buzzy student bars scented with grappa around the Campo Santa Margherita. Yep, there's oodles of life left in this old seafaring dame!
Which city would I go to?
Which one would I recommend to my parents?
Which location for my 19-year-old cousin?
Which for my food obsessed friend?
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!
It's no secret that most people whiz in and out of Venice on big cruise ships, even if recent regulations are bringing a slow end to that.
Lots of weekenders also come on low-cost flights – Venice's Treviso Airport is a major hub for budget airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet. Those sorts of travellers can only ever really expect to scratch the surface of what's on offer.
The upshot? If you really want to explore this amazing city, you're going to need a little longer. If the budget allows, a week is perfect. That will be enough to see the mainstay sights, but also venture across to Murano and the Venice Lido, the party bars of Campo Santa Margherita, and the pathways of Giudecca.
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.
We're almost tempted to say forget Venice in the summer entirely. During the Italian high season between May and August, the whole place is packed to bursting with tourists. You can barely swing a slice of pizza on the Rialto Bridge or down on Piazza San Marco.
What's more, the horizon is tainted with the outlines of huge cruise ships. Far better are the shoulder months of May and September. The crowds diminish considerably during those, but the weather still tends to be reasonable – think daytime temperatures regularly hitting the mid-20s.
The final weeks of February are also popular on account of the centuries-old tradition of the Venice Carnivale. Come then to join the revelry but be sure to bring along a flamboyant face mask (a must) and a good coat, because the winters can be cold.
It's probably a good idea to avoid the rest of the winter. Venice is one of the lowest-lying cities in the world, so flooding comes easy. In the last few years, there have been huge problems with water clogging up even the famous tourist hotspots around Piazza San Marco.
Venice is a perfect break for those keen to check off another bucket-list city. Yes, it might be over touristed, but there's still something truly magical about the canals and the gondolas and the great churches here.
It's simply unlike anywhere else on the planet. All that adds an edge of romance to boot. So, consider this one if you're searching for a city-based honeymoon.
On the flip side, Venice isn't for the budget traveller or the outdoorsy person. Yes, you can hop on a bus to go north to the Dolomites, but they are still several hours away.
There are beaches, but they are nowhere near the best on the Italian east coast. And you can expect to pay over the odds for virtually everything, from hotels to ice creams to pizza.
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.
48hours in Venice
Delve into the secrets and the uber-famous sights of Venice with this 48-hour itinerary. It will take you from the legendary walks of the Rialto Bridge all the way to the hidden glass workshops of Murano, revealing some of the most enthralling corners of the iconic City of Canals.
Day 1: Rise early and race to the Piazza San Marco. Beating the crowds to the vast plaza is a great way to see it in all its glory. As the sun rises, watch as the light caresses the red-brick Campanile (a 98-meter belfry dating from the 12th century) and the bulbous domes of St Marks Basilica.
If you've managed to arrive before the queues start to form, be sure to duck into the latter. It's free to enter and has intricate Byzantine apses and frescos. Right next door is the Doge's Palace. Again, if it's too late you can certainly expect a queue. If not, head behind the Gothic frontispiece to wander the old palace of the erstwhile leaders of the Venetian republic.
Then head north through the narrow alleys of the San Marco district. It's a beautiful maze of little side streets, occasionally punctuated by a watery canal. You're sure to find a cafeteria there for lunch, before you go straight for the Rialto Bridge, made famous by Shakespeare and painters. Cross it and hit the buzzing markets of Ruga dei Oresi, which abut the small Campo Bella Vienna, a top spot to sit with a cold beer and watch elegant Venetian gondolas drift in and out of the canals.
If you choose not to ride one, you can push on to see the San Giacomo di Rialto (probably the oldest church in the whole city!) and then the neighbourhood around Campo Santa Margherita. That's a nightlife mecca, where you can unwind with a prosecco or ten.
No trip to Venice is complete without a gondolas ride
Day 2: Your second 24 hours in Venice is all about hitting the different districts. We'd recommend starting on the northern side of the archipelago. That's home to characterful Cannaregio; the old Jewish Quarter. These days, it's got canal-side cafés next to the fascinating Muso Ebraico di Venezia, which tells the story of Venetian Jews over the centuries.
From there, move west to Santa Croce. Within, you'll glimpse the lived-in city. It's the only place where cars can travel on the archipelago and it has newer churches and loads of bakeries and shops. Hop the Grand Canal ferry (number 3) from there to Murano.
Pastel-painted workshops meet the water on that island, in an area that's been famed for centuries for its glass making. If you're interested, the Museum of Glass is a great place to start.
Alternatively, enjoy a lunch on the lagoon and then get back on the boat, travelling all the way through the Grand Canal to the Dorsoduro. The zone has beautiful broadside views of Piazza San Marco at sunset. It's also home to plenty of lovely osterias with northern Italian wines and delicacies to get stuck into.
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!
Venice is largely safe and easy to travel. However, there are some things worth knowing before you go. First off, the overload of tourists has seen a huge spike in pickpockets over the years. So, always keep an eye on your valuables, especially in uber-popular spots like the Piazza San Marco and Erbaria.
Second, be wary that Venice's side streets are rarely empty. You'll always need to dodge a crowd and watch where you're walking. When it rains, flooding is common, so pack waterproofs and wellies if you're visiting in the winter months. Also, keep an eye out for pigeons. They're a nuisance on the piazzas and can even carry disease.
There are two airports serving Venice and its region. The largest and the closest to town is the international hub at Marco Polo Airport. That's got connections going all around the world. It's linked to the city by the ATVO bus (arrives at Piazzale Roma) and to the train station in Mestre.
If you're flying low-cost, it's more likely you'll arrive at Treviso Airport. That sits some 20 miles to the north, with buses that link to the archipelago in around 70 minutes for about €10 each way.
Choosing where to stay in Venice is very important. Fly-in, fly-out tourists will want to be in the vicinity of Piazza San Marco. The area is laced with expensive and classy hotels, but also has some more affordable options, all within walking distance of the top sights.
If to save some cash and get somewhere a little quieter, you could sleep closer to Dorsoduro or the Cannaregio, or even out in Murano. The cheapest places of all will be on the mainland, in Mestre.
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.