Ornamental gables, medieval banners, gilded facades, sunlight flashing off gold-filigreed rooftop sculptures, a general impression of harmony and timelessness -- there's a lot to take in all at once when you first enter the Grand-Place (Métro: Gare Centrale or Bourse). Once the pride of the Hapsburg Empire, the Grand-Place has always been the heart of Brussels. Jean Cocteau called it "a splendid stage."
Its present composition dates mostly from the late 1690s, thanks to France's Louis XIV. In 1695, his army lined up its artillery on the heights of Anderlecht and blasted away at the medieval Grand-Place, using the Town Hall spire as a target marker. The French gunners 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, though badly damaged by Louis's guns, is the real thing, however, dating from the early 1400s.
Don't miss the cafes lodged within the opulent wood-beamed interiors of old guild houses; their upper-floor windows overlooking the Grand-Place give some of the best views in Europe. And be sure to take in the son-et-lumière on summer evenings. This sound-and-light show, in which a series of colored lamps on the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) are switched on and off in sequence to appropriately grand music, is admittedly kind of kitsch. But who cares? It's magical.
Top honors go to the Gothic Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) and the neo-Gothic Maison du Roi (King's House), which houses the Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles (Museum of the City of Brussels). See below for info on these.
A Detailed Tour of the Grand-Place -- The Grand-Place deserves both a generalized visual sweep to absorb the ensemble, and a close-up perusal of the myriad details. Going clockwise around from rue de la Colline, you begin with nos. 13-19, a harmonious array of seven mansions behind a single facade, known as the Maison des Ducs de Brabant (House of the Dukes of Brabant). The house dates from 1698 and is adorned with busts of 19 dukes on the pilasters, and has a curved pediment below which is a sculptured allegory of Abundance. The seven mansions are: no. 19, La Bourse (the Stock Exchange) -- not to be confused with the city's main Bourse; no. 18, La Colline (the Hill), formerly the Stonemasons' Guild House; no. 17, Le Pot d'Etain (the Pewter Tankard), formerly the Carpenters' Guild House; no. 16, Le Moulin à Vent (the Windmill), formerly the Millers' Guild House; no. 15, La Fortune (Fortune), formerly the Tanners' Guild House -- the traditional Belgian restaurant 't Kelderke is in the cellar; no. 14, L'Ermitage (the Hermitage), also known as L'Ecrevisse (the Crayfish); and no. 13, La Renommé (Fame). Next door, no. 12A is a private residence called L'Alsemberg.
Cross over rue des Chapeliers. On this side of the Grand-Place are two relatively unadorned private homes: Le Mont Thabor from 1699 at no. 12, and La Rose (the Rose) from 1702 at no. 11, named for the Van der Rosen family who lived in an earlier incarnation of the house during the 15th century. It now houses the rustic Belgian bistro La Rose Blanche.
Continuing around, no. 10, dubbed L'Arbre d'Or (the Golden Tree), from 1698, is headquarters of the Brewers' Guild, and is the location of the neat little Musée de la Brasserie. On the roof is a gilded equestrian sculpture from 1901 of Duke Charles of Lorraine. The next house, no. 9, also from 1698, is known as Le Cygne (the Swan), for the sculptured swan above the doorway. Formerly the Butchers' Guild House, it now houses the refined restaurant La Maison du Cygne, and the entrance is around the corner on rue Charles Buls. Standing as if on stilts, no. 8, L'Etoile (the Star), is a small house that was built in 1897 over the archway on rue Charles Buls. Do what every visitor does here and ensure good luck by rubbing the bronze deathbed sculpture of Everard 't Serclaes, on this side street. Serclaes was a 14th-century local hero who freed the city from the counts of Flanders, and who died resisting another would-be conqueror.
The monumental Gothic building across rue Charles Buls is the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), a glorious statement of Brussels's medieval pride and prestige.
Cross over rue de la Tête d'Or. No. 7, Le Renard (the Fox), formerly the Haberdashers' Guild House, dates from 1699. Look for reliefs of typical haberdashery tasks on the busy facade, along with sculptures representing Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas, and on the roof a statue of St. Nicholas, the guild's patron saint. Among the most interesting houses on the square is no. 6, the Italian-Flemish Le Cornet (the Horn), from 1697, which takes its name from a relief of a horn above the doorway. This was the Boatmens' Guild House, as you might well guess from the nautical images on the facade and the pediment in the shape of a sailing ship's stern. Images of ancient Rome adorn the facade of no. 5, La Louve (the She-Wolf), also in the Italian-Flemish style, from 1696, among them the classic image of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf. Look out also for the medallions of emperors Trajan, Tiberius, Augustus, and Julius Caesar, on a building that was the Archers' Guild House.
No. 4, Le Sac (the Sack), formerly the Carpenters' and Coopers' Guild House, is notable in that the lower floors survived the 1695 bombardment, and this part of the house dates from 1644. The post-bombardment rebuilding of the upper floors followed the original style. Likewise, no. 3, La Brouette (the Wheelbarrow), survived the French guns more or less intact, though the 1645 facade was embellished in later years, and there's a sculpture of St. Gilles, the guild's patron saint, on the gable of what's now a tavern.
The Bakers' Guild clearly wasn't short of cash in those days, and they invested plenty in their guild house at no. 1-2, Le Roy d'Espagne (the King of Spain), from 1697. A neoclassical Italianate look extends to a cupola surmounted by a gilded weather vane. Medallions sport images of Roman emperors Marcus Aurelius, Nerva, Decius, and Trajan. This ornate building houses one of Brussels's finest cafes, so be sure to invest some time in a drink at one of the upstairs tables, looking out on the grand cobbled square.
Cross over rue au Beurre. The houses from nos. 39 to 34 form the plainest segment on the Grand-Place, allowing you a break from detailed facade perusing. From left to right, the six are called L'Ane (the Donkey), Ste-Barbe (St. Barbara), Le Chêne (the Oak Tree), Le Peitit Renard (the Little Fox), Le Paon (the Peacock), and Le Heaume (the Helmet). Across rue Chair et Pain is the neo-Gothic Maison du Roi (King's House), which houses the city museum.
Moving on across rue des Harengs, you arrive at the final segment. No. 28 has a strange name (even by Grand-Place standards). It's called La Chambrette de l'Amman (the Little Chamber of the Amman), and dates from 1709. The Amman was the name for a kind of early mayor, a minion of the dukes of Brabant. An alternate name is Le Marchand d'Or (the Gold Merchant), because it was once a gold merchant's premises. No. 26-27, Le Pigeon (the Pigeon), from 1697, was the Painters' Guild House. In the 1850s, Victor Hugo spent part of his time in exile from France here, firing off literary broadsides at Napoleon III until the City Fathers told him to leave town. Now the house is home to a fine lace store, the Maison Antoine and a branch of Neuhaus pralines.
St. Boniface, a native of Brussels, blesses passersby from the roof of no. 24-25, known as La Chaloupe d'Or (the Golden Sloop), or the Maison des Tailleurs (House of the Tailors), whose guild house it once was. Nowadays, under its first-mentioned name, it's another of the Grand-Place's standout cafes. A bust of St. Barbara, the patroness of tailors, is above the doorway of what is now the deluxe lace store Rubbrecht Dentelles. No. 23, L'Ange (the Angel), from 1697, is a private house in the Italian Flemish style, graced by Doric and Ionic pilasters. Nos. 21-22 and 20, respectively known as Joseph et Anne (Joseph and Anne), from 1700, and Le Cerf (the Stag), from 1710, are relatively plain private dwellings. Godiva Chocolates now sets out its store in the Joseph et Anne, and Le Cerf is a traditional Belgian restaurant.
Place du Grand Sablon
Though the traffic passing through it diminishes the experience, place du Grand Sablon (tram: 92 or 94) is filled with sidewalk cafes and lined with gabled mansions. Locals consider it a classier place to see and be seen than the Grand-Place. The Grand Sablon is antiques territory; many of its mansions house antiques stores or private art galleries with pricey merchandise on display. The dealerships have spread onto neighboring side streets as well. The statue of Minerva on the square dates from 1751. Saturday and Sunday mornings, an excellent antiques market sets up its stalls in front of Notre-Dame du Sablon (tel. 02/511-57-41). This flamboyantly Gothic church, with no fewer than five naves, was paid for by the city's Guild of Crossbowmen in the 15th century. The church is open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm, and weekends from 10am to 6:30pm. Admission is free.
Place du Petit Sablon
Just across rue de la Régence is the Grand Sablon's little cousin, place du Petit Sablon (tram: 92 or 94). An ornamental garden with a fountain and pool, it's a magical little retreat from the city bustle. The 48 bronze statuettes adorning the surrounding wrought-iron fence symbolize Brussels's medieval guilds. Two statues in the center commemorate the Catholic counts of Egmont and Hornes, who were beheaded in 1568 for protesting the cruelties of Spain's Holy Inquisition in the Low Countries.
Brussels's royal square, place Royale (tram: 92 or 94), is at the meeting point of rue de la Régence and rue Royale, two streets that hold many of the city's premier sights. The 18th-century square, which was laid out in neoclassical style, is graced by a heroic equestrian statue of the leader of the First Crusade, Duke Godefroid de Bouillon. The inscription describes him as the "First King of Jerusalem," a title Godefroid himself refused, accepting instead that of "Protector of the Holy Places" (which amounted to the same thing). 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.
Place des Martyrs
Some years back, the once-elegant 18th-century place des Martyrs (Métro: Brouckère) in the lower city, near the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, was in a sorry state, literally crumbling to the ground. It entombs the "500 Martyrs" of Belgium's 1830 War of Independence. The square has been extensively restored, and though it lost some of its former ragged charm in the process, the square is once again an important and attractive public place.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.