Amsterdam and Brussels are two completely different European capitals. Even though they are both located in very similar latitude, they both developed different ways of attracting tourism and complete their functions as capitals. Both are worth visiting but let’s see which one is better.
Amsterdam is a much more touristic and holiday-oriented capital. What you can see in Brussels in one or two days you need twice as much time to see in Amsterdam. Whereas Brussels is historically, politically and architecturally interesting, Amsterdam is that and more: art, fun, fashion…
Of course, that is a brief summary of such important and impressive cities. I have visited Brussels a couple of times and I have lived in Amsterdam for years, so let me explain to you why I believe Amsterdam is in a way more of a holiday-oriented city and what both cities have to offer.
Amsterdam vs Brussels
Did you know that Amsterdam is the official capital of the country yet not the political capital of the Netherlands. If we were fair to compare the Netherlands and Belgium, we would have to compare The Hague and Brussels as the recipient of some of the most important Political Headquarters in Europe and the world.
Amsterdam is the capital and favourite touristic destination of the Netherlands but the Government, the Royal family and the main European and international institutions such as most embassies, the International Court of Justice, the main judicial arm of the United Nations, as well as the International Criminal Court, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, Europol, and over 200 other international governmental organisations are located here.
Amsterdam is the capital of most museums, touristic attractions and canals:
- Anne Frank House
- Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art
- Artis, zoo
- NEMO Science Museum
- Hortus, botanical garden
- De Oude Kerk
- The Canal Belt
- Van Gogh Museum
- EYE Filmmuseum
Brussels has a lot to offer but it is The Hague of Belgium. Brussels is not only the capital and the main cultural centre of the country but also the headquarter of most European organisations (read more about the EU here) and international ones: European Commission, the Council of the European Union, and the European Council, as well as one of two seats of the European Parliament. Belgium is also a founding member of the Eurozone (as well as Strasbourg), NATO, OECD, and WTO, and a part of the trilateral Benelux Union and the Schengen Area.
What is there to see in Brussels besides the international organisations headquarters?
- Grand Place, square
- Brussel’s Notre Dame Du Sablon
- Old England Building
- Le Botanique, botanical gardem
- The Palais Royal
- Manneken Pis, fountain
- Musee Royaux Des Beaux Arts
- Parc Du Cinquantenaire
- The Broodhuis, building
Both cities have interesting things to see, both of them offer a lot of cultural entertainment, historical buildings and an international atmosphere. However, if I had to choose one, which city is better?
I personally belive Amsterdam is a much more recommended city both for visiting and living. Amsterdam is both chaotic/energetic and relaxing. When writing other posts about Amsterdam, I always explain that Amsterdam is a city to discover, a city that can offer you everything you are looking for in any aspect, yet a city to discover. What does Amsterdam really offer that other cities don’t have?
- Touristic Amsterdam: the touristic part of the city is great for fun. The very famous Red Light District and all the area are controversial yet a very interesting part of the Dutch culture of tolerance. I have seen many bachelor parties in Amsterdam for a good reason.
- Historical Amsterdam: in this aspect, the city has a lot to offer. It was founded in the 12th Century and it has maintained the same structure since, something very peculiar and unique for Northern European cities. Among the aspects that we can observe we have the Canal Ring, the old buildings, the streets, the Palace in Dam Square, the Red Light District buildings, the Chinese neighbourhood and more actual buildings such as Anne Frank House. There are also museums for all historical periods: Contemporary Art (MOCO), Modern Art (Stedelijk Museum, Van Gogh) and the Dutch Golden Ages and previous (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam Museum).
- Fashionable Amsterdam: the main shopping street in the city is Kalverstraat, where you can do all the shopping you want for high street brands, luxury brands and touristic shops (including cheese shops!). The Bijenkorf, located in Dam Square, offers most of the famous designer brands and more. However, if you are looking for more alternative yet high-quality pieces, Amsterdam has several independent stores, mostly in the neighborhood Jordaan, where you will be able to find Dutch couture and a lot of European independent brands. Also vintage if you like!
- Vicious Amsterdam: going back again to the Red Light District and now including Coffeeshops in the equation. If you want to know more about the drinking age in Amsterdam, read this article. For more information about coffeeshops, here.
- English speaking tourists: Amsterdam is an English speaking city where it will be even hard to hear anyone speaking Dutch. Many touristic places also hire people like me, who speak other languages such as Spanish and Italian for the high demand. Very convenient too!
- Bike-friendly: even though one can use a bike in Brussels, the geography of Amsterdam is ideal for cycling. This is also due to historical causes (curios? read more here) but this is definitely something positive about Amsterdam for me. It is a different way of experiencing the city!
HOWEVER: Belgium, in general, is cheaper than the Netherlands. It is not a big difference yet it is much cheaper to travel to Belgium for public transportation, food and even souvenirs. The Netherlands is, in general, an expensive country, something that also includes Amsterdam, of course. An even more expensive European capital is Paris. Also tempted to know more about it? Read my comparison between Amsterdam and Paris!
Amsterdam and Brussels: What Do They Offer?
Both cities offer a lot of similar things. Back in the Middle Ages, half of the Belgium territory was one with the South of the Netherlands, Flanders. If you go to Brussels, the limit of this territory, you will also be able to hear and read their version of Dutch, Flemish. Besides the language, there are a lot of things you can find in both cities, and here is the list of similarities I have observed:
- Good beer: both cities, (both countries!) offer great national beers, in fact, I could call them the capitals of beer. The most famous one in Amsterdam is Heineken (you can also visit the factory there) and my favourite Belgium beer is La Chouffe. Belgium is also very well-known for its beer tasting bars and both cities offer brewery tours and so on (more about beer consumption in Amsterdam here)
- Great traditional food: in the Netherlands, you can find poffertjes, the Dutch version of the Belgian waffles. Amsterdam also has the famous stroopwafel, Brussels offers some of the most amazing chocolates in the world and both cities have great selections of cheeses. (read more about cheese in Amsterdam here). Neither of these countries is famous because of their national cuisines, but these goodies are definitely worth trying!
- International food: even though, as I was saying, they don’t have great traditional food, they do have great food! Both cities are melting pots of culture, which also translate in the gastronomy they offer. Both capitals offer food from all over the world, including French bistro, colonial food from African countries in the case of Belgium and Pacific-Asian in the case of Amsterdam, and also South American, American and Italian food. A little bit of everything!
- Many Day Trips: this is great and true for both places. If you are in Brussels you can easily do a day trip by bus, train or car to Brugges, Ghent, Antwerpen, Paris and even the Netherlands! If you are in Amsterdam, you can do day trips to Rotterdam, The Hague, Utrecht, Haarlem, Delft, Gouda and also some Belgium towns such as Antwerpen, Ghent and Brugges. Everything is well-connected thanks to the amazing Dutch train system, and busses too! I have personally done day trips to all of these cities, literally all of them, and it is doable and a great experience. You end up tired but happy! (This article has a lot of good ideas for day-trips in the Netherlands)
- Good connections (train, airport, etc): both cities are capital cities, well-connected by air and by land. Schiphol is the airport of Amsterdam, a hub airport that serves to many connection flights and that offers several direct flights every day to everywhere in the world. The same happens with Brussels Airport, another international hub. Both countries have a good train system (in my opinion the Dutch one is better tho’) and offer daily connections to London, Paris and among Brussels and Amsterdam for daily trips if needed. Both countries are well-connected by land with highways.
- City Transportation: even though both cities are walkable, both offer great public transportation, connecting airports and train stations at all times by metro, tram and busses. (Read more about the Dutch train system and their personal cards here).