Brussels offers so much to the visitor that the city can feel overwhelming; there are more than 75 museums alone as well as the glorious architecture of King Léopold I’s purpose-built city, and one of the best fine-art galleries in the world. Most of the sights are clustered around the Grand-Place in the lower town, and the rue Royale in the upper town; these areas are within easy walking distance of each other, connected by the landscaped Mont des Arts, which leads up to Place Royale from Place de l’Albertine. If you head out into the suburbs, there’s a comprehensive public transport system that will get you around easily, but do be aware that this city has its share of social problems and a nighttime walk around areas such as Anderlecht is not a wise idea.
Some Brussels museums like the Musée Art & Histoire (Art & History Museum), Magritte Museum, the Museum des Sciences Naturelles (Museum of Natural Sciences) and the Royal Museums of Fine Art of Belgium, offer free admission the first Wednesday afternoon of every month. Others like BELvue and Coudenberg have free admission on the first Sunday of the month.
The City’s Principal Squares
Ornamental gables, medieval banners, gilded facades, sunlight flashing off gold-filigreed rooftop sculptures, and a general impression of harmony and timelessness—there’s a lot to take in all at once when you first enter the Grand-Place. Once the pride of the Habsburg Empire, it has always been the heart of Brussels.
Arriving in the Grand-Place for the first time is sheer breathtaking magic: a UNESCO World Heritage–listed expanse of elaborate guild houses smothered with gilt and statuary. The buildings you see today are mostly 18th- and 19th-century replicas of the original buildings, which were reduced to rubble by invading French troops in 1695. Louis XIV’s army lined up its artillery on the heights of Anderlecht and blasted away at the medieval Grand-Place, using the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) spire as a target. The French destroyed the square, but ironically the Town Hall spire escaped undamaged. The timber-fronted buildings of the city’s trading and mercantile guilds were not so fortunate. But the Bruxellois weren’t about to let a mere French king do away with their centuries-old corporate headquarters; the guildsmen had the place up and running again within 4 years, on the same grand scale as before but in the baroque style known as the Flemish Renaissance. The Town Hall, however, although badly damaged by Louis’s guns, is the real thing and dates from the early 1400s. It still dominates the Grand-Place, sitting on its southwestern flank with a facade smothered in statues of biblical figures; the highly ornate central tower is still a useful local landmark, although now more often used by lost tourists than invading armies. The City Hall is open for tours of its sumptuous Neo-Gothic public apartments and magnificent marble staircase; it also now houses a branch of the Brussels tourist office .
Opposite the Town Hall is the ornate facade of the 19th-century neo-Gothic Maison du Roi, location of the Museum of the City of Brussels, where displays include the wardrobe of outfits donated to the Manneken-Pis. Spanning the eastern side of the Grand-Place is the Maison de Ducs de Brabent, a series of seven ornate town houses that formerly belonged to powerful guilds such as the tanners, stonemasons, and sculptors. In the northwestern corner of the square is the Maison de Roi d’Espagne (House of the Spanish King), which was the base of the bakers’ guild.
Every day a flower market fills the Grand-Place with fragrance and hardly a week passes without some concert or performance here. The biggest festival is Brussels’s famous Florialentime flower festival , which takes place over a weekend in mid-August and sees the square filled with a carpet of flowers. There are lots of expensive cafes within the opulent wood-beamed interiors of old guild houses; their upper-floor windows overlooking the Grand-Place offer some of the best views in Europe and their terraces are suntraps for an evening beer.
Place du Grand Sablon
Although the traffic passing through it diminishes the experience, place du Grand Sablon is filled with sidewalk cafes and lined with gabled mansions; upmarket locals consider it a classier destination than the Grand-Place. The Grand Sablon and its environs are antiques territory; many of its mansions have been turned into antiques stores or art galleries with pricey merchandise on display; other high-end names pitching up here include Christian Louboutin and Marcolini Chocolate, plus a sprinkling of posh cafes. On Saturday and Sunday mornings an excellent antiques market sets up its stalls in front of Notre-Dame du Sablon. This flamboyantly Gothic church has five naves and glorious, slender stained-glass windows; it was built with money donated by the city’s wealthy Guild of Crossbowmen in the 15th century.
Place du Petit Sablon
Just across busy rue de la Régence is the Grand Sablon’s little sister, the place du Petit Sablon. This contains an ornamental garden with a fountain and pool, and it’s a tranquil little retreat from the city bustle. The 48 bronze statuettes adorning the wrought-iron fence surrounding the garden symbolize Brussels’s medieval guilds. The two statues at the head of the pond commemorate the Catholic counts of Egmont and Hornes, who were beheaded in 1568 for rebelling against Spain’s Holy Inquisition in the Low Countries.
Brussels’s royal square is at the meeting point of rue de la Régence and rue Royale, the two thoroughfares that hold many of the city’s premier sights, including the Musée Magritte and BOZAR . The Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgiques are at the west end of place Royale. This 18th-century square was laid out in neoclassical style and is graced by a heroic equestrian statue of the leader of the First Crusade, Duke Godefroid de Bouillon. On the north face of the square is the Eglise St-Jacques-sur-Coudenberg. Archaeologists have excavated the foundations of the Royal Palace of Emperor Charles V on the square, and the site has been covered over again to form the Coudenberg museum .
Place des Martyrs
Some years back, the once-elegant 18th-century place des Martyrs, in the Lower Town near the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, was in a sorry state and crumbling to the ground. It entombs the “500 Martyrs” of Belgium’s 1830 War of Independence. The square has been extensively restored, and although it lost some of its former ragged charm in the process, it is once again an attractive public place.
The European District
Home to the European Commission, European Parliament, Council of Ministers, and related institutions, Brussels has no less than 1.2 million sq. m (12.7 million sq. ft.) of office space packed with 25,000-plus Eurocrats to back up its “Capital of Europe” tag. Entire neighborhoods full of character were swept away to make room for them, causing resentment among local residents.
To tour the heartland of European Union governance, take the Métro to Schuman station. If you wish to view that exotic species, the European civil servant, in its native habitat, take the tour Monday to Friday as the district is dead on the weekend.
Your first sight is the X-shaped Palais de Berlaymont, the commission’s former headquarters at Rond-Point Schuman. Across rue de la Loi, the Council of Ministers headquarters, the Consilium, is instantly recognizable for its facade’s lavish complement of rose-colored granite blocks. On its far side, take a soothing stroll through Parc Léopold, an island of green tranquility at the heart of the Euro District. This little park is laid out above an ornamental lake and was originally conceived as a zoo and science park. The zoo didn’t fly for long, but a cluster of scientific institutes dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries still occupies part of the terrain. Among these is the Museum des Sciences Naturelles (Museum of Natural Sciences).
A walk through Parc Léopold brings you to the postmodern European Parliament and International Conference Center, an architectural odyssey in white marble and tinted glass. Take the passageway through the building’s middle to place Luxembourg, an old square that looks lost and forlorn in comparison to its powerful new neighbors.
The Lost River
Brussels is constructed on a river called the Senne (Zenne in Dutch). In the late 19th century, the City Fathers had it covered up for health reasons (it stank and carried many diseases), and it continues to flow underground. Glimpses of the missing river can still be seen in a tiny courtyard off place St-Géry in the Lower Town, which was once the biggest island in the river. Today the river is reasonably clean and fish have once more been sighted swimming in it.
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