The lovely Brabant countryside around Brussels offers scenic beauty and several sightseeing attractions well worth the short trip.
10km (6 miles) S of Brussels
The battle that ended Napoleon's empire was fought on rolling farmland near Waterloo, just south of Brussels. On June 18, 1815, 72,000 British, Dutch, Belgian, and German troops, aided before the day's end by around 40,000 Prussians, defeated the mighty Napoleon Bonaparte and his 76,000 French, leaving 40,000 dead and wounded on the field. Napoleon survived, but his attempt to rebuild his empire was crushed; he was exiled to the island of St. Helena, where he died 6 years later.
The battlefield remains much as it was on that fateful day. To visit, though, you don't go to the town of Waterloo, which is a pleasant suburb of Brussels -- and the capital town of Brabant-Wallon (Walloon Brabant) province. The Battle of Waterloo wasn't fought there. A stretch of rolling farmland speckled with stoutly constructed manor-farmhouses several miles to the south got that "honor."
Before touring it, you should study a 360-degree Panoramic Mural featuring the massed French cavalry charge led by Marshal Ney and see a short audiovisual presentation of the battle, including scenes from Sergei Bondarchuk's epic movie Waterloo, at the Centre du Visiteur (Visitor Center), route du Lion 252-254, Braine l'Alleud (tel. 02/385-19-12; www.waterloo1815.be). To survey the battlefield, climb the 226 steps to the top of the nearby Butte du Lion (Lion Mound), a conical hill surmounted by a bronze lion, behind the center -- it takes an active imagination to fill the peaceful farmland with slashing cavalry charges, thundering artillery, and 200,000 colorfully uniformed, struggling soldiers. Across the road from the Visitor Center is the Musée des Cires (Waxworks Museum), where Napoleon, Wellington, Blücher, and other key participants appear as rather tatty wax figures.
Draw rations from one of the cafes or restaurants, which have names like Le Hussard, Bivouac de l'Empereur, and Les Alliés. Souvenir stores sell everything from Napoleonic corkscrews to hand-painted model soldiers. Beside the crossroads at the Brussels-Charleroi road are monuments to the Belgians and Hanoverians; to Colonel Gordon, Wellington's aide; and to General Picton, shot down at the head of his division. A little way down the Brussels-Charleroi road is La Haie-Sainte, a farmhouse that played a crucial role in Napoleon's defeat by shielding Wellington's center from direct assault.
These four sites are open daily April to October from 9:30am to 6:30pm, and November to March from 10am to 5pm (closed Jan 1 and Dec 25). Admission to the Visitor Center is free. Admission to its audiovisual presentation and the four on-site attractions is 18€ for adults, 17€ for seniors and students, 9€ for children ages 7 to 17, and free for children 6 and under.
From Brussels, TEC bus W departs twice hourly for Waterloo from Gare du Midi (Métro: Gare du Midi). The 18km (11-mile) ride takes 55 minutes. The bus stops at both the Wellington Museum in Waterloo itself and at the battlefield Visitor Center, south of the town. By car from Brussels, take the ring road (R0) to Exit 27 for Waterloo, and N5 south to the battlefield.
In Waterloo itself is the well-ordered Musée Wellington (Wellington Museum), chaussée de Bruxelles 147 (tel. 02/354-78-06; www.museewellington.com), in an old Brabant coaching inn that was the duke's headquarters. It was from here that Wellington sent his historic victory dispatch. The museum is open April to September daily from 9:30am to 6pm, and November to March daily from 10am to 5pm (closed Jan 1 and Dec 25). Admission, which includes an audio guide (except for children 5 and under), is 10€ or adults, 8€ for seniors and students, 4€ for children ages 6 to 12, and free for children 5 and under.
9km (5 1/2 miles) SW of Brussels
The only local example of a still-intact fortified medieval castle is Kasteel van Beersel, Lotsestraat, Beersel (tel. 02/359-16-46; www.beersel.be). The three-towered, 13th-century castle is set in a wooded area and surrounded by a moat, which you cross via drawbridge. Pick up the excellent English-language guidebook at the entrance for a detailed history of the castle and its inhabitants, and then wander through its rooms for a trip back through time. End your visit with a stop at the magnificent mausoleum that holds the alabaster effigies of Henry II of Witthem and his wife, Jacqueline de Glimes, who lived here during the early 1400s. The castle is open March to mid-November Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to noon and 2 to 6pm; and mid-November to February Saturday and Sunday from 10am to noon and 2 to 6pm. Beersel is a half-hour train ride from Brussels.
Leafy pathways through the castle grounds make this a favorite retreat for Brussels residents, especially during the summer months. At the entrance to the park, you find Auberge Kasteel Beersel, Lotsetraat 65, Beersel (tel. 02/377-10-47; www.auberge-beersel.be), a charming rustic restaurant with a decor of dark wood, exposed brick, and accents of copper and brass. In good weather there's service on the shaded outdoor terrace. Light meals (omelets, salads, soups, and sandwiches) are available, and complete hot meals are offered for both lunch and dinner. Prices are moderate. If you don't want a meal, you're welcome to stop in for a draft of Belgian beer.
13km (8 miles) SW of Brussels
The ancestral château of the counts of Egmont is at Gaasbeek, beyond the village of Vlezenbeek. The furnishings of Kasteel van Gaasbeek, Kasteelstraat 40 (tel. 02/531-01-30; www.kasteelvangaasbeek.be), are magnificent, as is the castle itself. All the rooms are splendid, and far from presenting a dead "museum" appearance, they create the eerie impression that the counts and their families may come walking through the door any moment. Before each guided tour, a slide show augments your appreciation of the castle's countless works of art, silver items, religious objects, and priceless tapestries. The castle is open April to October Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 6pm; the park is open daily from 8am to 8pm (to 6pm Oct-Mar). To get there by car from Brussels, take the R0/E19 Brussels ring road west to Exit 15A, for Vlezenbeek, and continue through this village to the castle; by public transportation, take De Lijn bus no. 142 (Gaasbeek-Leerbeek) from Brussels's Gare du Midi/Zuidstation or from the end-of-the-line Métro station Erasmus, and get out at the Kasteel van Gaasbeek stop.
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.