Last updated on May 10, 2023 by Wandering our World
The capital cities of Europe are some of the best places to visit to enjoy world-class food, amazing architecture, centuries of history, and lively, exciting vibes, with Brussels and Amsterdam being two of the most popular examples.
However the fact remains that these cities are actually very different from each other…
Brussels, the Belgian capital, is known around the world for its pretty buildings and quirky landmarks, like the Mannekin Pis fountain or Atomium structure. It’s also one of the best places in the world to enjoy authentic Belgian waffles, crispy fries, and unbeatable chocolates.
Amsterdam, meanwhile, encapsulates everything that makes the Netherlands great, from its laid-back locals to its lively nightlife. Set across a network of canals, this arty and progressive city has a whole lot to offer for travelers of all ages, from art galleries to gardens.
Both of these cities rank among the most popular places to visit in Western Europe, with lots of touristic attractions and oodles of charm, and it’s best to visit both, if you can. But what if you only have time to see one of them?
Well, choosing between Brussels and Amsterdam can be quite a challenge, but our guide should make it a little easier.
Below, we’ll pit Brussels up against Amsterdam in several key categories, from accessibility and affordability to food, hotels, and nightlife, all to help you discover your ideal destination. Let’s get started!
- A Quick Overview
- Which Is Best For Activities?
- Which Is Better For Day Trips?
- Which Is Better For Nightlife?
- Which Is Best For Shopping?
- Which Has The Best Food?
- Which Has The Best Hotels?
- Where To Stay According To Your Budget
- Which Is Safest?
- Which Is Better For A Family Trip?
- Which Is Better For Couples?
- Which Is Better For Backpackers?
- Which Is Cheaper?
- Which Is Easier To Get To?
- Which Is Easier To Get Around?
- Which Is The Better Choice?
A Quick Overview: Brussels vs Amsterdam
Brussels: A Quick Overview
Brussels is the capital city of Belgium, and it’s also one of the country’s most populous cities, with over 188,000 people living in the city itself, and over 1.2 million people in the full Brussels-Capital Region. The city is located in the central part of Belgium, with good transport links all over the country.
The origins of Brussels date back to 979, when the city was officially founded by Charles of Lorraine. It was built in a strategic spot, beside the river Senne, which helped the city establish strong trade links.
As time went by, the city’s size and influence grow, and it was the site of several key moments throughout Belgian history, like the beginning of the Belgian Revolution.
In the modern era, Brussels is the main cultural and economic hub for the whole of Belgium.
It’s also a hugely important city for the world at large, being the administrative center for the European Union, as well as hosting important meetings for NATO. In addition, it’s a popular touristic location, with an array of beloved landmarks, museums, and attractions.
Like most Western European capitals, Brussels is a lively, multicultural, and fun place to spend a few days or more, drawing in big crowds of travelers from across the globe, especially during the summer months.
It has quite an impressive range of attractions and activities, sure to entertain tourists of all ages.
Amsterdam: A Quick Overview
Amsterdam is the capital city of the Netherlands. It’s also the largest city in the country, with a population of around 921,000 in the main city and over 2.4 million in the full metropolitan area. It’s located in the northwest part of the nation, in the province of North Holland.
Records show that Amsterdam was founded around the 12th century, and it started life as quite a small and sleepy village.
It was built on the Amstel River, and a large dam was also built nearby to reduce the risk of flooding in the area – the name Amsterdam effectively translates to ‘Dam on the River Amstel’.
As the centuries went by, Amsterdam evolved from a simple fishing village into one of Europe’s most significant port cities, becoming a leading location for trade and finance, while also emerging as an artistic and cultural haven.
It’s still a very wealthy and influential city to this day, as well as being a major touristic destination.
Nicknamed ‘Venice of the North’ for its many canals, Amsterdam stands out for its unique beauty and progressive, laid-back lifestyle.
There are many interesting attractions across the city, from its UNESCO-listed canals to its Van Gogh Museum, and Amsterdam is also famed for its dynamic nightlife and live entertainment scene.
Which Is Best For Activities?
So, what can you do in Brussels and Amsterdam? Well, both of these cities are packed full of interesting museums, fun tourist tours, landmarks to visit, restaurants to try, and shops to browse, putting them both among the very best cultural centers in Western Europe, but they do have some key differences.
In general, Brussels stands out from the crowd for its history; the city center has numerous historic quarters with old palaces, churches, and other centuries-old buildings.
Meanwhile, Amsterdam is a little more modern and quirky, with some unusual attractions to go along with its many museums and galleries.
Let’s delve into the activities in more detail below!
Brussels: The Activities
If you’re heading to Brussels, you’re likely to spend most or even all of your time in the historic Pentagon center, which is divided up into several neighborhoods, or quarters, each with its own landmarks and vibe.
The Central Quarter, for instance, is where you can find the famous Mannekin Pis fountain and Stock Exchange, as well as the iconic Grand-Place.
Over in the Royal Quarter, things get a little fancier, with several stunning palaces to explore, like the Royal Palace – this is the official residence of the Belgian royals, although they actually spend most of their time in a different palace in the Laeken area.
There’s also the Sablon quarter, home to lively antique markets, luxury stores, and neoclassical Egmont Palace.
Travelers can spend days exploring all the unique areas and landmarks. The Atomium – built for the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958 – is a must-see, while the Mini Europe park, filled with miniature replicas of famous European landmarks, is also worth checking out.
Those with political interests should also pay a visit to the Europa building, seat of the European Council.
There’s a nice mixture of old architecture and more modern, trendier areas across Brussels, offering something for everyone.
Museums are numerous here, too, with popular locations including the Art & History Museum, Museums of the Far East, and Magritte Museum.
And, if you’re looking for cultural tours, Brussels offer guided walks, beer tastings, and chocolate tours.
Amsterdam: The Activities
In Amsterdam, one of the best things to do is simply stroll around and admire the beauty of the place.
With dozens of canals, cute little bridges, and pretty streets with flowers, trees, and gorgeous buildings, there’s a really romantic atmosphere, and the Dutch capital is easily one of the best places for long, aimless wanders, especially around the famous Nine Streets area.
While roaming around, you’re sure to come across some of Amsterdam’s many museums and galleries.
The Rijksmuseum is one of the most famous locations, home to an extraordinary collection of Dutch art, while the Van Gogh museum is a very short walk away, with the biggest and best Van Gogh collection in the world, with hundreds of paintings, sketches, and letters.
The Anne Frank Museum is a popular tourist location, too – this museum is situated in the very house where Anne and her family hid during World War Two.
Or, if you’re looking for something different (and a little wacky), try the KattenKabinet Cat Museum, Torture Museum, or Micropia Museum, home to a one-of-a-kind collection of microbes.
Amsterdam has green spaces, like Vondelpark, waterfront hangouts, like NDSM Wharf, entertainment hubs, like De Hallen, and even retro arcades, like Blast Galaxy.
The city’s progressive political leanings also allow for legal cannabis coffee shops, as well as a famous Red Light District – this is pretty seedy in the evenings but is fine to wander around during the daytime.
Overall, both Brussels and Amsterdam offer long lists of attractions and activities.
Brussels has the edge in terms of historic buildings and grand structures, but in terms of quantity and diversity of attractions, Amsterdam is king, offering everything from boat rides along the canals to animal encounters at the Royal Zoo.
Which Is Better For Day Trips?
Both Brussels and Amsterdam have more than enough activities to keep you and your fellow travelers busy for a few days or even a full week.
However, many travelers to these cities like to take the opportunity to hop on a train or bus and visit some other cities or even cross over the borders into other European nations.
Brussels has some terrific day trip opportunities for those wanting to explore Belgium. It’s conveniently situated in the heart of the country, with rapid train rides taking you to several interesting cities, like medieval Bruges, lively Antwerp, and the gorgeous university city of Ghent.
It’s possible to get from Brussels into France in under an hour, with trains taking you to the city of Lille in about 45 minutes.
Other international options include the Dutch city of Maastricht, with its awesome art museum and Gothic church, or the German city of Aachen, home to the shrine of Charlemagne and Aachen Cathedral – one of the first ever UNESCO World Heritage sites.
With its northern location in the Netherlands, Amsterdam’s best and most convenient day trip destinations are all on Dutch soil.
You can visit all of the nation’s big cities with ease, like The Hague, home of the International Court of Justice and Noordeinde Palace, or Utrecht, which has a scenic medieval center and the Netherlands’ tallest church tower.
If you want to see another part of Europe, you can take trains from Amsterdam to Belgian cities like Bruges and Antwerp – it’s even possible to get to Brussels in just under two hours!
Otherwise, you can travel into Germany to see cities like Dusseldorf, with its great pubs and beer halls, or the 2,000-year-old city of Cologne, home to an iconic cathedral.
Overall, Brussels and Amsterdam both work well for day trips, but Brussels is arguably the better option, as it gives you such a great range of places to choose from, both in Belgium and in the bordering nations of the Netherlands, France, and Germany.
Which Is Better For Nightlife?
When it comes to nightlife, there can only be one winner, and that’s Amsterdam.
The Dutch capital is renowned far and wide as one of the main party and nightlife hubs in all of Europe, and even though this city can seem a little laid-back during the day, it really comes alive once the sun has set.
The nightlife scene in this city is exceptional, with many bars, clubs, and other evening entertainment venues to choose from.
Those are spread out across three main areas: Dam Square, home of the Red Light District and clusters of cannabis cafes, Rembrandtplein, which is filled with cozy bars, and Leidseplein – the top spot for music and dancing.
In Brussels, most of the nightlife is centered around the Pentagon, with the Sablon and Marollen areas having some of the best bars and liveliest clubs.
The Rue des Bouchers, near the Grand-Place, is also a top spot for pubs, with small crowds of locals and tourists gathering here each evening for beers and snacks.
Overall, Amsterdam is far and away the livelier and more exciting place to be in the evenings.
It’s got some of the best clubs and bars in all of Europe, and party fans are guaranteed a great time in this city.
Which Is Best For Shopping?
It’s always fun to shop while on vacation. You can grab some souvenirs to take home and remember your trip, pick up some local crafts and produce to give as gifts to friends or family back home, or buy some of the latest local fashions and accessories to jazz up your wardrobe.
But which is best for shopping between Brussels and Amsterdam?
Well, Brussels has some terrific shopping areas. The Royal Saint-Hubert Galleries, for example, are simply out-of-this world – they were built back in the mid-19th century and still stand proud to this day, home to a range of fashion boutiques, jewelers, traditional Belgian chocolate shops, and other interesting stores.
Those looking for high-end fashion in Brussels can head to the up-market Avenue Louise, while those searching for budget-buys should take a tour of the Place du Jeu de Balle flea market.
There are also plenty of independent stores, antique emporiums, and large shopping centers spread out across Brussels’ many neighborhoods.
Over in Amsterdam, the Nine Streets are among the best places to shop – this area is often classed as a tourist trap, but it also houses some of the city’s loveliest gift shops and vintage stores.
The massive Magna Plaza mall is perfect for rainy days, with a massive food court and dozens of stores selling everything from luxury fashion to typical Dutch clogs.
Antique lovers can head to the Spiegelkwartier to find dozens of specialty stores, while Utrechtsestraat offers a diverse selection of indie and retro shops.
If you love the hustle and bustle of a street market, you can take your pick from the famous Albert Cuyp Market, which has been running for over a century, or the famous floating flower market of Bloemenmarkt.
Overall, both the Dutch and Belgian capital cities offer similarly deep and enjoyable shopping experiences, so shopaholics will be happy in either destination.
Which Has The Best Food?
When it comes to food, Brussels and Amsterdam offer some of the finest examples of their respective national cuisines.
In Brussels you can enjoy the crispiest Belgian fries, the fluffiest waffles, and the most indulgent chocolates, along with many more delicious dishes, while Amsterdam is perfect for sweet Dutch pastries and pancakes.
Both of these cities have excellent restaurants, with lots of options to choose from, as well as super street food.
But when it comes to pure quality and foodie appeal, Brussels may just have the edge, as Belgian cuisine is arguably more appealing than Dutch.
Many people visit Brussels purely to sample the local food (and beer!), and the same can’t really be said for Amsterdam.
Which Has The Best Hotels?
Of course, you’ll also need to think about where you’re going to stay on your trip to either Brussels or Amsterdam, as well as how much it’s going to cost.
Naturally, since both of these cities are big, popular locations, they have a lot of hotels, ranging from budget-friendly chains to luxurious boutique guesthouses.
Brussels has the benefit of having slightly cheaper accommodation overall.
It’s generally easier to find a place to stay that fits your budget in the Belgian capital, and since there are so many fun districts and lots of attractions spread out across the city, you’re never too far away from something fun and interesting.
Over in Amsterdam, the costs are higher, but the quality levels are pretty similar, so there’s less value for money.
Plus, many of the attractions and key landmarks are quite close together, and the central hotels can be very expensive, so you might want to book a cheaper B&B in the outer areas of the city to save money and use the metro to get in and out each day.
Overall, Amsterdam and Brussels have similar accommodation options, but Brussels’ cheaper rates and wider selection makes it the clear winner in this category.
Where To Stay According To Your Budget
Budget: The 3-star Top Of The City bed & breakfast is set in the heart of the city within walking distance of many of the main attractions. The hotel is clean, modern and set right beside a canal so you’ll be staying in a fantastic setting too. See photos and rates!
Luxury: There’s many reasons for Hotel TwentySeven being one of the best rated 5-star hotels in Europe. For one, with just 16 suites the service is extremely personal, the decor is gorgeous, and the on-site restaurant even has a Michelin star. On top of that, the location is unbeatable. See photos and rates!
Luxury: Set in a gorgeous historic building, the five-star Juliana Hotel Brussels is as photogenic as it is special. Alongside the spa facilities, indoor pool and luxurious feel, this hotel is also smack bang in the middle of the capital. See photos and rates!
Which Is Safest?
In terms of safety, both Brussels and Amsterdam are pretty safe places to visit.
In either city (and most other big cities across Europe), you need to watch out for pickpockets, who may target tourists, but there aren’t too many other issues to worry about.
Amsterdam has lower crime rates, and even solo travelers are said to be in minimal danger there, as the locals are friendly, and the main center is very touristic.
However, you do need to be careful of the bike paths to avoid any accidents, and it may be best to avoid areas like the Red Light District after dark if you don’t wish to encounter the seedier side of the city.
The crime rate is slightly higher in Brussels, and there are some less pleasant areas outside the historic center, like Anderlecht and Sint-Jans-Molenbeek, but that shouldn’t be an issue for the vast majority of travelers.
As long as you stick to the central areas and keep your wits about you, you should have no problems.
Which Is Better For A Family Trip?
Planning a European escapade with the whole family?
If so, both Amsterdam and Brussels can be fabulous locations to choose, as both of these cities are packed full of culture, history, and fun attractions to entertain visitors of any age, from the youngest kids to the oldest adults.
Brussels, for example, has the famous Mini Europe miniature park, with 350 famous landmarks represented in teeny tiny format, as well as the awe-inspiring Atomium, its own Chocolate Museum, and the Comic Strip Center, where kids can learn all about the many famous Belgian comic characters, like Tintin or the Smurfs.
Because of its Red Light District and wild nightlife, some parents may worry that Amsterdam isn’t family-friendly, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Amsterdam is actually a really fun place for kids, with plenty of playgrounds, a super interactive science museum called NEMO, canal cruises, and the aforementioned Royal Zoo, with species from all over the planet.
Overall, the right choice for your family will mostly depend on their ages and tastes.
Those with younger children should probably opt for Brussels, but older kids might prefer the more diverse attractions and unique lifestyle of Amsterdam.
Which Is Better For Couples?
Next, let’s consider if you’re planning a couple’s getaway, which city is the best to visit between Brussels and Amsterdam?
Which city has more romantic and relaxing vibes, and which can appeal more to couples of different ages and backgrounds?
Well, once again, it’s a pretty close content between the two capitals. Brussels has the benefit of lots of interesting historic buildings, museums, and green spaces to explore, along with fabulous food for those romantic evening meals with a special someone by your side.
However, Amsterdam is generally regarded as the more romantic destination, with its charming canals and colorful streets.
This city’s nightlife will definitely appeal to young and young-at-heart couples, while the fun mixture of attractions makes Amsterdam an awesome destination for any kind of couple.
It’s also one of the safest and most accepting destinations for LGBT+ couples.
Overall, when it comes to pure romance and fun vibes, Amsterdam emerges as the winner. With that said, Brussels is still a super spot for couples, especially if you want to spend time admiring grand palaces and exploring intriguing museums.
Which Is Better For Backpackers?
Backpackers often head to both Brussels and Amsterdam, and it’s easy to see why, as both of these cities have numerous cheap hostels to choose from, super street food, lots of activities, and friendly, welcoming locals ready to greet you.
Brussels has the benefit of being a little cheaper and highly walkable. It’s also got great transport links with other cities – perfect if you’re planning to do some city-hopping across Europe.
The street food scene here is also sublime, and budget-conscious travelers can easily live on affordable snacks as they explore the city.
Amsterdam is often considered an essential stop on any backpacking trip of Europe, and adventurers of all ages can appreciate this city’s vibrant nightlife, progressive vibes, and quirky attraction – the cannabis cafes definitely attract a lot of backpackers, but might not be to everyone’s taste.
Overall, there are pros and cons to both cities.
If you want the most budget-friendly backpacking experience, opt for Brussels, but if you want the most fulfilling and interesting experiences, Amsterdam is probably the place to be.
Which Is Cheaper?
When it comes to costs, trips to Amsterdam and Brussels won’t be cheap.
Both of these cities rank among the more expensive spots to visit in Western Europe, and it’s recommended to book flights, hotels, and activities in advance to help cut down some of the costs.
When we compare the two directly, Amsterdam is more expensive than Brussels.
Obviously, the final price of your trip will depend on where you stay and what you do, but average accommodation, transportation, and food prices are all higher in the Dutch capital.
So, if you’re a budget-conscious traveler looking for the lowest prices and best value for money, Brussels may just be the top option for you.
Which Is Easier To Get To?
Traveling to big European cities like Brussels and Amsterdam isn’t usually too difficult. However, depending on where you’re flying from, you may find that it’s slightly easier to get to one of these cities over the other.
Brussels Airport is the biggest and busiest in Belgium, and it’s very well-served, with direct flights from many different parts of the world.
You can fly here from all over Europe, parts of Africa, Japan, China, and several cities in North America, like New York, Toronto, Chicago, and Washington. The airport is about 20 minutes from the city by taxi or train.
Amsterdam Airport, also known as Schiphol, is even bigger and busier. In fact, it ranks among the busiest airports on the planet, with direct flights to a huge number of cities all over the globe, from Tokyo, Seoul, and Singapore in the east, to Los Angeles, Seattle, and Dallas in the west.
You can fly to Amsterdam from almost anywhere, making it the easiest of the two cities to get to.
Which Is Easier To Get Around?
Once you’ve arrived in either Brussels or Amsterdam, you’ll need to consider how you’re going to get around each city and see all of the big museums, landmarks, and attractions to make your stay as enjoyable and memorable as possible.
Brussels has a terrific public transport system, with several metro lines that can take you to all the key locations across the city.
There are also buses and trams here, although the roads can get quite congested, so it’s usually best to opt for the metros or simply use your own two feet – Brussels’ historic ‘Pentagon’ area is very walkable.
Over in Amsterdam, first-time visitors might worry that all those canals and narrow streets could make traversal pretty difficult.
However, in reality, Amsterdam is one of the easiest and most pleasant cities to get around, with metros, trams, and buses. Cycling is also super popular here, and you can easily rent a bike and follow the city’s countless cycle paths to get from A to B.
Overall, both cities have pretty flawless public transport options. Both of them are very walkable, too, but you do need to be careful to stay off the cycle lines when walking around in Amsterdam.
Brussels vs Amsterdam: Which Is The Better Choice?
Overall, it’s easy to see why Brussels and Amsterdam often feature on lists of the best places to visit in Europe; they’re both beautiful, with lots of landmarks to see and activities to try, but they also have some pretty notable differences in terms of things like food, nightlife, and general vibes.
For most travelers, Amsterdam may be the better destination.
It’s definitely the livelier of the two cities, boasting immensely friendly locals, an unparalleled nightlife scene, and a true myriad of attractions and activities you’re sure to never forget, from the haunting history of the Anne Frank Museum to the chilled-out vibes of canal rides and coffee shops.
With that said, Brussels is a pretty close contender in many of the categories listed throughout our comparison, and it’s absolutely worth considering for your next European adventure, with some super museums and green spaces, excellent food, and terrific day trip potential all over Western Europe.