Felicity Long
Felicity Long

I have a special fondness for Brussels, one of the more overlooked capital cities in Europe. This was the destination that caused my then-teen daughter to fall in love with Europe. I remember the exact moment: We were in the Grand Place, the city's central square, to see a summer son et lumiere, a sound and light show with images projected onto building facades and thundering, dramatic music piped through the streets.

Other cities in Europe do this, of course, but this was my daughter's first. All around us were people sipping drinks in the outdoor cafes that line the square, standing awestruck in clusters or strolling around greeting friends.

There were tourists, but most of the onlookers seemed to be locals enjoying the spectacle and each other's company. I remember noticing that the crowd was diverse in terms of age, with teens mingling amiably with people old enough to be their grandparents and young couples letting their young children run around in carefree, boisterous packs.

In short, this is the Europe that many Americans want to see -- Old World charm, outdoor cafes, and an arty strain of culture underpinning it all.

From that moment on, my kid, who had always preferred sun and sand over drafty castles, was hooked.

With that in mind and considering that school vacation periods are looming, here are some suggestions for families looking for a European vacation full of child-friendly attractions and events:

Probably the most eye-popping calendar item, which could have a similar effect on young visitors that the light show had on mine, is Bright Brussels, a festival featuring a dozen light installations set up in venues throughout the city. Scheduled for Feb. 13 to 16, the event is free and will run from 6:30 to 11 p.m.

Also set for mid-February, the Salon du Chocolat offers young foodies a chance to sample Belgium's most famous product: chocolate. The salon will feature dozens of Belgian and international exhibitors vying for their attention with tastings and activities.

Meanwhile, for fans of graphic novels, anime and cosplay, there are several big events on tap to arouse the interest of even moody teens.

Festival Anima, otherwise known at the Brussels International Animation Film Festival, will take place from Feb. 21 to March 1. The 10-day event features a menu of animated films, cartoons, workshops for children and teens, concerts and conferences for fans of animation.

Delve even further into the genre at Comic Con Brussels, which typically draws some 10,000 visitors every year. 

Visitors will see plenty of cosplayers in costume mingling with international celebrities, while hundreds of pop-up stands will feature comics, video gaming, movies, manga and all manner of clothes, toys, gadgets and collectibles.

The event is set for Feb. 22 and 23.

Looking ahead to spring school vacation, the city is gearing up for a Made in Asia & Youplay! event March 13 to 15. There will be some 300 exhibitors at the Brussels Expo to celebrate Asian pop and manga culture, with video games, VR demos, concerts and international guests as well as popular YouTubers on hand for signing sessions.

Finally, if all this is too last-minute, families can find plenty to do in Brussels year-round. There are many chocolate workshops and tastings to choose from, such as Laurent Gerbaud Chocolatier, who holds hands-on workshops on Saturday mornings.

Or take the kids to Mini-Europe, where they can stroll among waist-high reproductions of Europe's most famous buildings and sites -- from Big Ben to the Venetian Canals -- some of which are interactive, such as the one that depicts the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

Plan a whole day for this, because Mini-Europe is right next to the Atomium, a relic from Expo 58 that impresses to this day, with its retro, sci-fi look and massive scale and its ongoing menu of kid-friendly exhibitions and activities.

Mini-Europe closes annually for upgrades from early January through March 12 but otherwise is open year-round with holiday and themed attractions, fireworks festivals and evening light shows.

Finally, no discussion of family fun in Brussels would be complete without giving a shout-out to Tintin, the red-headed sleuth created by comic book artist Herge, one of Belgium's greatest and most enduring exports, and the Smurfs, those little blue troll-like creatures that have entertained kids on various TV shows, movies and comics for decades.

To experience both while learning about the history of comic books, head to the Comics Art Museum, which features both permanent and temporary exhibitions in an art nouveau building.

Or take a deeper dive into Tintin at the Herge Museum, just outside the city in Louvain-la-Neuve and accessible as an easy daytrip by car or rail.

For more ideas, check out www.agenda.brussels.

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