Brussels is the capital of Belgium with a population of about a million people which has grown into the headquarters of NATO, the European Union and many other institutions of worldwide importance. This political factor has given Brussels a negative perception from the leisure tourism point of view, but when the subjectivity is set aside there is a city well worth visiting with probably the most beautiful square in Europe, great food, shopping and nightlife.
Brussels was founded by Charles of Lorraine, a descendent of Charlemagne in the 10th century as a fortress. It grew quickly through the middle ages due to its position along the River Senne and its proximity to the nearby trading towns of Ghent, Bruges and Cologne. The marshes surrounding the city were drained to allow it to expand further in the 13th century and more city walls were built to protect it. These walls can be seen at places around the historical centre of Brussels, not far from the Grand Place. The city was virtually destroyed by Louis XIV of France in 1695 during the war with the Holy Roman Empire of which Brussels was a part.
The Belgian Revolution was centred on Brussels in 1830 during which Leopold I came to power, the first king of the Belgians. By this time the River Senne had begun to get silted, causing flooding and disease. The decision was made to completely cover it over, which became a defining moment in the development of the city. Eventually parts of the river were diverted completely with some remaining parts of the old channels used as metro routes in modern Brussels.
Brussels suffered some damage in WWII but much less than most cities in the region. Nevertheless, some areas of Old Brussels were razed to allow the construction of modern offices, a process some cynics called Brusselization. Despite this the centre of Brussels remains an architectural gem.
Brussels has been a bilingual city since 1970 with French and Flemish spoken.
Getting to Brussels.
Since the completion of High Speed 1 (HS1) the journey time between London St. Pancras and Brussels Midi by Eurostar has been reduced to just 1 hour and 45 minutes, making Brussels ever more accessible from the South East of England.
Brussels Airlines has taken over from Sabena, the now defunct Belgian national carrier to operate a very good service direct to Brussels from Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Birmingham and Bristol.
Brussels is only just over an hour by car from Calais, so you coulddrive it, but do so in the full knowledge that Brussels reputedly has the worst traffic jams in Europe. Enough said.
Getting around Brussels
Easy, just buy a Brussels card online or at a rail or Metro station. It gives you Free entry to over 30 main museums, free access to metro, tram & bus network, 25% discount for the Atomium, between 25 and 50% discount on entry to tourist attractions and tours, 25% discount (or free drink) in restaurants and bars, between 5 and 25% discount in typical shops and fashion designers shops, 1 free comprehensive “Brussels Card” guidebook. NB: You can cover a lot of ground in Brussels if you master the Metro.
Things to do in Brussels
Sue Dobson debunks the myth that Brussels is boring, finding a city that’s full of interest with great restaurants and excellent shopping.
Although Brussels dubs itself the ‘Capital of Europe’, this multicultural, bi-lingual (French and Flemish) home to the European Parliament seldom gets the attention it deserves. Yet it is an ideal weekend-break city with some stunning architecture, rich and offbeat museums, great food, smart shops, buzzing bars and a lively nightlife (and don’t forget the beer and chocolate).
At its medieval heart, the magnificent Grand’ Place is a feast for the eyes and hours can be spent exploring the web of narrow cobbled streets full of eye-catching restaurants and boutiques that lead off it. For contrast, wide Parisian-style boulevards are lined with embassies and expensive apartments while the glass-and-steel EU quarter feels like another world. Lovers of Art Nouveau architecture will enjoy the St-Gilles district.
Shoppers should head for the area between the Grand’ Place and the Rue de Midi (don’t miss the elegant 19th-century arcade of Galeries St Hubert) and the designer clothes displayed on elegant Avenue Louise and fashionable Rue Antoine Dansaert. If you share the Belgian passion for comic books, visit La Boutique Tintin on Rue de la Colline.
Le Petit Ring, a road that replaces the 14th-century city walls, encircles the compact and easily walkable city centre. Good signposting leads you to the main sights and the city boasts a clean and efficient public transport system. Remember that most museums and attractions close on Mondays.
Eurostar trains from London St Pancras take under two hours to reach Brussels Midi station. You’ll find the main tourist information office in the Town Hall on the Grand’Place. It is open daily from 9am to 6pm.
Grand Place. Lined with ornate Guild houses, full of fancy façades, spires, pinnacles and arcades, this glorious city centrepiece is one of the most stunning Old Town squares in the world. Beautiful by day and spectacularly floodlit at night, it is dominated by the magnificent Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), its spire tower topped with a gilded statue of the Archangel Michael. Inside there’s splendid wood panelling and superb Brussels tapestries. Opposite it, the impressive Maison du Roi houses the city museum.
A flower market is held on the Grand’ Place daily except Monday. Chocoholics might like to visit the little Musée du Cacao and du Chocolat, housed nearby in a 17th-century building on Rue de la Tête d’Or, while art lovers should take a good look at the neo-Classical Bourse (Stock Exchange), which has Rodin statues along the top.
Manneken Pis. This tiny bronze statue of a urinating boy attracts crowds, but you may wonder what the fame and fuss is all about. He even has an annual festival devoted to him and some of his vast wardrobe of clothes are displayed in the Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles on the Grand’ Place.
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts. The Musée d’Art Ancien and the Musée d’Art Moderne make up the Royal Museums of Fine Art. The collections are vast, so it makes sense to pick the era you’re interested in. Among the highlights of the Flemish paintings, sculptures and drawings from the 15th to the 18th centuries are works by Hans Memling, Quentin Matsys, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony Van Dyck and Jacob Jordaans. Local stars of the Modern Art Museum, which is partly underground, are Surrealists René Magritte and James Ensor.
Cathedral of St Michel and St Gudule. Dedicated to the city’s patron saints, the soaring, twin-towered Cathedral was beautifully restored in the 1990s. Highlights are the 13th-century choir and the glorious 16th-century stained glass windows.
Musée Horta. Famed for his beautiful Art Nouveau buildings, architect Victor Horta lived and had his studio at 25 Rue Américaine in the Saint-Gilles district of Brussels. Now a museum, the house reveals sinuous lines, mosaics, stained glass, elegant furnishings and the finest attention to detail.
Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée. This fascinating and hugely popular museum, housed in a Horta-designed Art Nouveau building on Rue des Sables in the heart of the city, celebrates the art of the comic strip in permanent and temporary exhibitions. Think Tintin, Smurfs and so much more. A feast for the imagination, with a good Brasserie to retreat to when you need refreshment.
Place du Grand Sablon. Brussels’ prettiest square hosts lively bars, art galleries, chocolatiers and upmarket antiques shops and is the setting for an antiques and books market at weekends. Don’t miss the stunning stained glass windows in the church of Notre Dame au Sablon, or the nearby Place du Petit-Sablon, a green space edged with statuettes representing the ancient guilds. Travellers and map-lovers should look for the image of the Flemish cartographer Mercator among the statues in the park.
Natural Sciences Museum. Children love this museum, which boasts Europe’s largest dinosaur exhibition, sends you in search of early man and woolly mammoths, explores the wildlife of the North and South Poles and into the deep of a tropical aquarium.
Museum of Musical Instruments (MIM). Housed in the former Old England department store, a wonderful building that’s among the most striking in the city, this splendid museum uses sound to magically illustrate the extensive collection and the rooftop café offers great views over Brussels.
Fondation Internationale Jacques Brel. Heaven for fans of the iconic, gravely-voiced singer of powerful, bitter-sweet lyrics. Relive his life and concerts on film and in evocative photographs.
Parc de Bruxelles. Avenues criss-cross this formal, fountain-dotted park that’s edged by some impressive buildings including the Palais de la Nation (the Belgian Parliament) and the Royal Palace, which opens its sumptuous State rooms to visitors in high summer. Do take a look at the Palais des Beaux Arts. Built in the 1920s, it was the first building ever to incorporate concert halls, exhibition spaces, restaurants and shops all under one roof and is the centre of a lively arts scene.
Where to stay in Brussels
***** Hôtel Metropole. Situated right in the historical centre of Brussels, on the Place de Brouckère, five minutes away from the Grand Place. Built in 1895, it is the only remaining 19th century hotel in Brussels, and a listed building.
***** The Hotel Amigo opened in 1958, but renovated in 2001, is located in the centre of the city, right next to the Grand Place which is considered by many to be the most beautiful square in Europe. The Hotel Amigo offers a variety of bedrooms and suites which are individual in style, some have views through to the Grand Place, whilst others look out over the churches and spires of the city.
*** Comfort Art Hotel Siru. A showcase of Contemporary Belgian Art, between 1989 and 1990, the Comfort Art Hotel Siru gave free rein to the imagination of 130 painters, sculptors and comic-strip draughtsmen. Most people love this hotel, some people hate it.