Recently, I had the opportunity to spend one day in Brussels, the capital of Belgium. In my mind, there was always this idea of Brussels as the little sister of Paris, and I was wondering if it’s worth visiting.
And judging by its appearance, Brussels actually IS Paris’ little sister. And this makes sense: In the middle of the 19th century, then King Leopold II along with Mayor Jules Anspach decided to tackle an ambitious endeavor: the urban restructuring of Brussels. At the time, Belgium hadn’t been an independent country for long and a new urban planning was supposed to turn the city into a prestigious capital.
Anspach had been a great admirer of Baron Haussmann, the man who carried out the massive modernization program of Paris between 1853 and 1870. Paris as we know it today is mostly due to him: star-shaped spaces, wide straight boulevards connecting the most famous public monuments, magnificent buildings with homogenous facades and public parks.
Nothing short of this was the urban vision for Brussels, and this is what you see when strolling around this charming city.
But there’s a significant difference between Brussels and Paris: Brussels is small, or rather downtown Brussels is small. While there is no real “downtown” Paris (it consists of lots of different quarters, each of them a city in itself), downtown Brussels is exactly the right size for exploring it on foot. Most attractions are within walking distance.
As I had only one day to visit Brussels, I opted to focus on the historic inner city, which is surrounded by a ring of wide boulevards called the “Inner Ring”. This area is also refered to as “The Pentagon”. It is framed by the Boulevard d’Anvers and the Boulevard du Jardin Botanique in the north, Boulevard du Régent and Boulevard de Waterloo in the east, Boulevard du Midi and Boulevard Barthélémy-Laan in the south-west. It’s the area where most touristic sights are situated.
I then started my tour of Brussels with the most famous landmark:
Grand’ Place is the central square of Brussels. Due to its beauty and uniqueness, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988.
It is also the birthplace of Brussels itself. In the 10th century, Charles Duke of Lower Lorraine constructed a fort on this site, which was the seed of what would become Brussels.
The square is surrounded by historical buildings which were erected in different architectural epochs: Brussels’ City Hall, the so-called Maison du Roi, and the Guild Houses.
I entered the square quite early in the morning, and I thought this was a good thing in order to avoid crowds of tourists. Unfortunately, what I hadn’t anticipated was that incessant flow of cars and trucks which delivered their goods to the local stores. And so the site looked like this:
It was almost impossible to take any decent photographs without rows of cars in front of it.
However, the beauty of this place was amazing. I was lucky with the weather, so the buildings were sunlit. Each of the houses looks different, with elaborate ornamentation on its facade.
To start with, there is the Gothic City Hall:
It was built between 1402 and 1455 in the so-called “Brabantine Gothic Style”, which is a variant of Gothic Architecture that is typical for the Low Countries.
Brabantine Gothic City Halls are built in the shape of gigantic box reliquaries with corner turrets and usually a belfry. (Wikipedia)
But what struck me the most was this abundant decoration. The whole building is covered with statues and ornament that looks like pinnacles.
But one has to know that most of the decoration are reproductions.
In 1695, Brussels was heavily bombarded by French troops. It is said to have been the most destructive event in the entire history of Brussels. Half of the City was destroyed, including the Grand’ Place. Only the City Hall’s belfry and some walls remained standing.
Second: The Baroque Guild Houses
After the destruction of the Grand’ Place in 1695 by the French canons, the rich Guilds of Brussels helped out and built new houses around the square which they used as meeting places.
So each of the Guild Houses has still got a name that refers to its builders.
Most of them were built in the fashionable style of the time : Baroque.
Last but not least: La Maison du Roi
It was built at the end of the 19th century in a Neo-Gothic style. Although it is named “King’s House”, no king ever lived there.
It used to be a courthouse in the Middle Ages, now it is home to the City Museum. It’s located opposite the City Hall.
Just around the corner from Grand’ Place, the next attraction is waiting:
As far as I know, there isn’t any other city in the world which most known landmark is a peeing little boy.
So here he is: A statue on a fountain, he’s standing so inconspicuous at a corner that I almost overlooked him.
There are several legends behind this statue, but the most famous is the one about Duke Godfrey III of Leuven. In 1142, the troops of this two-year-old lord were battling against the troops of the Berthouts, the lords of Grimbergen. The troops put the infant lord in a basket and hung the basket in a tree to encourage them. From there, the boy urinated on the troops of the Berthouts, who eventually lost the battle (Wikipedia).
The funny thing about this statue is that he’s got a lot of costumes, in which he is dressed several times a week. Many of the costumes are displayed in the City Museum.
It has become a tradition for foreign state guests to bring a new costume as a present.
Eventually some clothes…..
You’ll find him – with or without clothes – in every souvenir shop.
After my encounter with Manneken Pis, I headed for the next “must-see”:
Ilôt Sacré (i.e. sacred little island)
The quarter Ilôt Sacré is the medieval Old Town of Brussels. Along with the Grand’ Place, it’s the site where Brussels was originally founded in 979.
Brussels used to be on a little river, the Senne. But during the urban restructuring of the city in the middle of the 19th century (see above), the Senne was almost completely covered in order to have more open space for wide boulevards and large squares. And so the Ilôt was no island anymore.
But the quarter’s medieval appearance didn’t change. It consists of lovely narrow, cobblestoned alleys where lots of souvenir shops and restaurants are located.
Brussels is famous for its chocolates, mussels and French Fries. If you want to indulge in all that, you’ll find it here. But before you opt for a place to eat, I would do a thorough research on the internet. Ilôt Sacré is lovely as a whole, but some restaurants seemed like tourist traps to me.
I was there quite early in the morning, so I could enjoy this place without the usual tourist crush.
After a stroll through Brussels Old Town, it’s time for some window shopping:
Les Galeries St. Hubert
The Galeries St. Hubert is a covered shopping arcade that reminds one immediately of other classic galleries as in Milan. But I didn’t know that this one is even older.
It was inaugurated in 1847, and was the longest and highest gallery at the time.
Today, it is home to elegant and expensive stores and cafés.
It is great to look at and I enjoyed the window shopping. I had planned to have a coffee sitting outside in the gallery, but it was rather drafty there (at the beginning of october).
When you are in Brussels, there is one thing you shouldn’t miss: Brussels is stuffed with chocolate stores, which are called Confiseries. There you can buy delicious creamy chocolates that are a Belgian specialty. They will melt in your mouth and I can highly recommend them.
All over Brussels, you’ll see the stores of the following brands: Leonidas, Neuhaus and Godiva.
As to me, somewhere on the way I treated myself to some and then continued my wanderings.
The Cathedral of St. Michel
La Cathédrale des Saints Michel et Gudule is a Roman Catholic Church which was built between the 13th and 15th century. Its architectural style is Gothic and it is said to be the most beautiful church in Brussels, last but not least because of its beautiful stained-glass windows.
But I must say, I was a little bit disappointed. It actually is a beautiful building, but it has nothing on cathedrals as Cologne Cathedral in Germany or Notre Dame in Paris. It is smaller by far and not as impressive as the latter ones. But I might be spoiled as I live near Cologne 🙂
However, if you have little time to visit Brussels, I’d say you can skip this one.
Getting hungry? Brussels has a lot of lovely parks that are perfect places to have a picnic, such as this one:
Parc de Bruxelles
Parc de Bruxelles is a wonderful place to have a rest. There are lots of benches under shady trees.
It’s located between the Palais de la Nation, the official seat of the Belgian Parliament and Senate, and the Palais Royal, the official residence of the Belgian King.
At the end of the Parc de Bruxelles, I turned right and entered
La Place Royale
La Place Royale is a prestigious square in the style of Neo-Classicism (i.e. Klassizismus in German). It is surrounded by elegant buildings and the Catholic Church St.-Jacques-sur-Coudenberg which is neoclassical, too (built between 1776 – 1787). This Church used to have a temple-like appearance until, in the 19th century, someone had the genius idea of adding an incongruous bell-tower and a coloured fresco on the pediment (Fresco by Jean Portaels). And – with all due respect to this lovely city and its monuments – this is the most kitschy pediment decoration I’ve ever seen. This city is so mural-friendly (later more on that), why can’t someone come and lift them from this eyesore 😉 ?
But the amazing René Magritte Museum, that is situated on Place Royale as well, made it all up to me. It is home to the world’s greatest collection of his works. Unfortunately, it is not allowed to take any photographs inside.
And it got even better. After the exhibition, I felt like coffee & cake. So I headed to a place round the corner that was described in my guide as a “nice café with an Art Nouveau décor”. It turned out to be the highlight of my trip:
The Restaurant of the Musical Instrument Museum
This is the most beautiful café/restaurant I’ve ever been to. I like it even better than the Café Campana in Paris (on the 5th floor of the Musée d’Orsay), that has been my favorite before now. Admittedly, I’m an aficionado of Art Nouveau, so I was an easy touch.
This is the Art Nouveau building where the Musical Instrument Museum is located (built in 1898/1899 by Paul Santenoy). It used to be a department store called ” Old England”.
The café is on the 10th floor.
And this is its terrace with a spectacular 360° view of Brussels:
I’ve written a whole post about this adorable cafe, see it here.
As you are sufficiently attuned to beauty now, it’s time for a short digression:
Art and Architecture in Brussels
Brussels features not only innumerable museums, such as the famous Musées des Beaux Arts de Belgique and the Art Nouveau Musée Horta, it also seems to have a very friendly attitude towards public art.
Actually, it’s one of the things that strikes you immediately when you walk the city. For example, there are a lot of murals. They seemed to blend in very well with the surroundings, and I didn’t have the impression that they were mainly considered as a kind of damage to property as it is in Germany. On the contrary, they were well-kept and an integral part of public life.
And Brussels is home to the only museum in Europe which is solely dedicated to comics, the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée.
The Belgians are known to cherish comics as the “9th art”. This comes as no surprise, as two world-famous comic-strip artists are Belgians. The first is Hergé, who created “The Adventures of Tintin”, the second is known under the name of Peyo, who brought “The Schtroumpfs” into being, better known in Germany as “Die Schlümpfe” and in the English-speaking countries as “The Smurfs”.
All over Brussels you’ll find comic-themed murals or public art like this:
And this is the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée:
It used to be a department store which was constructed by the famous Art Nouveau artist Victor Horta – who was Belgian, quelle surprise 🙂
This brings us to the next item: Art Nouveau and Art Déco in Brussels.
Brussels is so abundant of Art Nouveau and Art Déco buildings that you don’t know where to start. You see them almost everywhere, but especially in the residential areas of Ixelles and St. Gilles. And because those quarters are situated outside of the historic city center, I decided to come back to Brussels in spring next year and dedicate a whole day only to exploring the Art Nouveau landmarks.
Until then, you’ll get at least a little teaser:
As to the photograph above: When I sat on the marvelous terrace of the Musical Instrument Museum and looked down over Place Royale, I couldn’t believe my eyes: even the streetcars are stylishly decorated with Art Déco motifs!
And this was my impression of Brussels as a whole: It seems as if an interior designer had carefully and tastefully created the whole city. Everything seemed to match: Beginning with a standard flower arrangement on Grand’ Place, up to eye-catching ornamental patterns on the buildings.
Before this digression, where were we? We were on the breathtaking terrace of the Musical Instrument Museum.
When you exit this place and turn right, you’re right in front of the next sight: The so-called
Mont des Arts (Mountain of the Arts)
To say it bluntly, the term “mountain” is a little bit too bloated for what you have here: There are two flights of stairs leading down to the Place de l’Albertine. And it’s called an arty mountain because of some museums that are on both sides of the flights, as such the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts de Belgique.
However, you have a nice view of Brussels and a garden.
From Place de l’Albertine, I continued on the Boulevard de l’Empereur. Then I turned left and found myself on a nice pedestrian alley with many restaurants, called Rollebeek. From there, I went straight on until I arrived at Place Grand Sablon. At the end of Grand Sablon, I headed in the direction of Le Palais de Justice on the Rue de la Régence. Finally I arrived at Place Poelaert.
The Palais de Justice and the Elevator
At first glance, Place Poelaert doesn’t exactly look attractive.
But when you approach the sidewalk on the other side of the square, you’ll get a pleasant surprise:
You’ve got a wonderful view of Brussels.
I was especially lucky, because it was the beginning of sunset when I arrived.
And when you look to the left, you’ll see the monumental Palais de Justice. It is the most important Court building in Belgium. It was built between 1866 and 1883 in an eclectic style by architect Joseph Poelaert.
At the time, it was the biggest building constructed in the 19th century. It still looks gigantic and over-the-top, a chunk of a building. This is the result of urban megalomania, of which some present-day architects equally seem to suffer.
There is another thing you have to know about Brussels: Brussels is set on a hillside, and therefore there are an upper and a lower part of the city. If you want to go from below to the top or vice versa, you’ll use either roads or stairs.
Yet – there is a third alternative: One I’d never seen or heard of before:
A public, open-air elevator.
This is “L’Ascenseur des Marolles” (Elevator of the Marolles Neighborhood). It connects the upper city with the Breughel l’Ancien square in the Marolles quarter.
When I did some research on the internet, I was surprised how many cities use an elevator for urban transport (see entry elevator in Wikipedia, you have to scroll down at the bottom of the page).
I must say, I was quite fascinated by this construction. And naturally, I wanted to ride it.
But as a person that is afraid of heights, this was a difficult endeavor for me.
Actually, I already felt so dizzy when I was walking over the gangway, so that I stood completely paralyzed in front of this cubicle for about 10 minutes.
And then – you may have guessed it – I turned back and took the footpath downhill instead. When I arrived on the square below, I looked up at the elevator and it didn’t seem that high. But when you’re in front of it…… 😉
Once safe and sound on the site below, you’re in the Marolles Neighborhood.
At this point, I had been walking for almost 11 hours, with two short breaks at restaurants. I realized that this had been a really tough program.
So in case you don’t want to feel completely exhausted at the end of the day, I would advise to shorten the must-see list.
But from my point of view, it was worth every minute of it.
And just one last remark: Some of you might wonder why I didn’t include the so-called Atomium in my list. As it is located in the suburb neighborhood of Laeken, it would have taken up too much time to go there. Then, it seemed to me like a very touristy attraction, and I wasn’t sure if it’s really worthwhile. So this one has to wait until next time around.
And for all those of you who can’t get enough of Brussels, I’ll give you a gallery of nice left-over shots:
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