Wherever else you go in Belgium, allow at least a little time for BRUSSELS, which is undoubtedly one of Europe’s premier cities. Certainly, don’t let its unjustified reputation as a dull, faceless centre of EU bureaucracy deter you: in postwar years, the city has become a thriving, cosmopolitan metropolis, with top-flight museums and architecture (including a well-preserved late seventeenth-century centre), a superb restaurant scene and an energetic nightlife. Moreover, most of the key attractions are crowded into a centre that is small enough to be absorbed over a few long days, its boundaries largely defined by a ring of boulevards – the “petit ring”, or less colloquially, the “petite ceinture”.
First-time visitors to Brussels are often surprised by the raw vitality of the city centre. It isn’t neat and tidy, and many of the old tenement houses are shabby and ill-used, but there’s a buzz about the place that’s hard to resist. The city centre is divided into two main areas. The larger westerly portion comprises the Lower Town, fanning out from the marvellous Grand-Place, with its exquisite guildhouses and town hall, while up above, on a ridge to the east, lies the much smaller Upper Town, home to the finest art collection in the country in the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts.
Since the eleventh century, the ruling elite has lived in the Upper Town, keeping a beady eye on the workers and shopkeepers down below – a state of affairs that still – in part – remains. In recent times, this fundamental class division, so obvious in the layout of the centre, has been further complicated by discord between Belgium’s two main linguistic groups, the Walloons (the French-speakers) and the Flemings (the Dutch- or Flemish-speakers), and to add to the communal stew, these two groups now share their city with many others, including EU civil servants and immigrants from North and Central Africa, Turkey and the Mediterranean. Each of these communities tends to live a very separate, distinct existence, and Brussels’ compact nature heightens the contrasts: in five minutes you can walk from a chichi shopping mall into an African bazaar, or from a depressed slum quarter to a resplendent square of antique shops and exclusive cafés. This is something that increases the city’s allure, not least by way of the sheer variety of affordable cafés and restaurants – Brussels is a wonderful place to eat, its gastronomic reputation rivalling that of Paris. It’s also a great place to drink, with bars ranging from designer chic to rough and ready with everything in between.
The city’s specialist shops are another pleasure. Everyone knows about Belgian chocolates, but here in the capital there are also huge open-air markets, contemporary art galleries and establishments devoted to anything from comic books to costume jewellery and clubland fashion. Furthermore, Belgium is such a small country, and the rail network so fast and efficient, that Brussels also makes the perfect base for a wide range of day-trips. An obvious target is the battlefield of Waterloo, one of the region’s most visited attractions.
Brussels takes its name from Broekzele, or “village of the marsh”, the community which grew up beside the wide and shallow River Senne in the sixth century, allegedly around a chapel built here by St Géry, a French bishop turned missionary. A tiny and insignificant part of Charlemagne’s empire at the end of the eighth century, it was subsequently inherited by the dukes of Lower Lorraine (or Lotharingia – roughly Wallonia and northeast France), who constructed a fortress here in 979. Protected, the village benefited from its position on the trade route between Cologne and the burgeoning towns of Bruges and Ghent to become a significant trading centre in its own right. The surrounding marshes were drained to allow for further expansion, and in 1229 the city was granted its first charter by the dukes of Brabant, the new feudal overlords who controlled things here, on and off, for around two hundred years. In the early fifteenth century, marriage merged the interests of the Duchy of Brabant with that of Burgundy, whose territories passed to the Habsburgs in 1482 when Mary, the last of the Burgundian line, died; she was succeeded by her husband, Maximilian I, who was anointed Holy Roman Emperor in 1494.
The first Habsburg rulers had close ties with Brussels, and the Emperor Charles V (1519–55) ran his vast kingdom from the city for over a decade, making it wealthy and politically important in equal measure. By contrast, his successor Philip II (1527–98) lived in Spain and ruled through a governor (for the whole of the Low Countries) resident in Brussels. It could have been a perfectly reasonable arrangement, but Philip’s fanatical Catholicism soon unpicked the equilibrium. Horrified by the Protestant leanings of many of his Low Country subjects, the king imposed a series of anti-Protestant edicts, and when these provoked extensive rioting, he dispatched an army of ten thousand men – led by a hardline reactionary, the Duke of Albe – to crush his opponents in Brussels absolutely. Albe quickly restored order and then, with the help of the Inquisition, set about the rioters with gusto, his Commission of Civil Unrest soon nicknamed the “Council of Blood” after its habit of executing those it examined. Goaded into rebellion by Albe’s brutality, Brussels, along with much of the Low Countries, exploded in revolt, and in 1577, the one-time protégé of the Habsburgs, William the Silent, made a triumphant entry into the city and installed a Calvinist government. Protestant control lasted for just eight years, before Philip’s armies recaptured Brussels – and the king wasn’t a man to forgive and forget. Seeing which way the religious wind was blowing, hundreds of Protestants left the city and the economy slumped, though complete catastrophe was averted by the conspicuous consumption of the (Brussels-based) Habsburg elite, whose high spending kept hundreds of workers in employment. Brussels also benefited from the digging of the Willebroek Canal, which linked it to the sea for the first time in its history in 1561.
By the 1580s, the Habsburgs had lost control of the northern part of the Low Countries (now the Netherlands) and Brussels was confirmed as the capital of the remainder, the Spanish Netherlands (broadly modern Belgium). Brussels prospered more than the rest of the country, but it was always prey to the dynastic squabbling between France and Spain: in 1695, for example, Louis XIV bombarded Brussels for 36 hours merely to teach his rivals a lesson, though the guilds, those associations of skilled merchants and workers who were crucial to the economy of Brussels, rebuilt their devastated city in double time, and it’s this version of the Grand-Place that survives today.
In 1700 Charles II, the last of the Spanish Habsburgs, died without issue. The ensuing War of the Spanish Succession dragged on for over a decade, but eventually the Spanish Netherlands were passed to the Austrian Habsburgs, who ruled – as had their predecessors – through a governor based in Brussels. It was during this period as capital of the Austrian Netherlands (1713–94) that most of the monumental buildings of the Upper Town were constructed and its Neoclassical avenues and boulevards laid out – grand extravagance in the context of an increasingly industrialized city crammed with a desperately poor working class.
The French Revolutionary army brushed the Austrians aside at the Battle of Fleurus in 1794, and the Austrian Netherlands promptly became a département of France. This lasted until the defeat of Napoleon when, under the terms of the Congress of Vienna which ended hostilities, the great powers decided to absorb the country into the new Kingdom of the Netherlands, ruled by the Dutch King William I. Brussels took turns with The Hague as the capital, but the experiment was short-lived, and in 1830 a Brussels-led rebellion removed the Dutch and led to the creation of an independent Belgium with Brussels as capital.
The nineteenth century was a period of modernization and expansion, during which the city achieved all the attributes of a modern European capital under the guidance of Burgomaster Anspach and King Léopold II. New boulevards were built; the free university was founded; the Senne – which by then had become an open sewer – was covered over in the city centre; many slum areas were cleared; and a series of grand buildings were erected. The whole enterprise culminated in the golden jubilee exhibition celebrating the founding of the Belgium state in the newly inaugurated Parc du Cinquantenaire.
Following the German occupation of Belgium in World War II, the modernization of Brussels has proceeded inexorably, with many major development projects – not least the new métro system – refashioning the city and reflecting its elevated status as the headquarters of both NATO and the EU.Read More
As a cumbersome compromise between Belgium’s French- and Flemish-speaking communities, Brussels is the country’s only officially bilingual region. This means that every instance of the written word, from road signs and street names to the Yellow Pages, has by law to appear in both languages. Visitors soon adjust – though on arrival the names of the main train stations can be confusing – but for simplicity we’ve used the French version of street names, sights etc.
Train station names
Train station names
When you first arrive, the city’s bilingual signage can be very confusing, especially with regard to the names of the three main train stations: Bruxelles-Nord (in Flemish Brussel-Noord), Bruxelles-Centrale (Brussel-Centraal) and, most bewildering of the lot, Bruxelles-Midi (Brussel-Zuid). To add to the puzzle, each of the three adjoins a métro station – respectively the Gare du Nord (Noordstation), Gare Centrale (Centraal Station) and Gare du Midi (Zuidstation).
The Brussels Card
The Brussels Card
The good-value Brussels Card (wwww.brusselscard.be) provides free access to most of the city’s key museums, unlimited travel on the STIB public transport network, and discounts of up to 25 percent at specified restaurants and bars. There are three versions – 24hr (€24), 48hr (€34), and 72hr (€40) – and each is valid from the first time it is used, rather than the day of issue. The card is on sale online via the website and at both main tourist offices; there are no concessionary rates for seniors or children. It’s issued with a booklet detailing all the concessions and discounts.
Guided tours are big business in Brussels; everything from a quick stroll or bus ride round the city centre to themed visits is on offer, and both Brussels International tourist offices have the details of – and take bookings for – about twenty operators. As a general rule, the more predictable tours can be booked on the day, while the more exotic need to be booked ahead of time, either direct with the company concerned or with the tourist office, who normally require at least two weeks’ advance notice. Among the many more straightforward options, Brussels City Tours, rue de la Colline 8 (wwww.brussels-city-tours.com), operates the Visit Brussels Line, a hop-on, hop-off bus service which loops round the city, visiting twelve of its principal sights.
More promising is ARAU (Atelier de Recherche et d’Action Urbaines), blvd Adolphe Max 55 (t02 219 33 45, wwww.arau.org), a heritage action group which provides tours exploring the city’s architectural history – with particular emphasis on Art Nouveau – from April through to December; prices vary with the length of the tour and the itinerary, but average about €10 per person for walking tours, €15 if there’s some transport involved.
With over seventy hotels dotted within its central ring of boulevards, Brussels has no shortage of convenient places to stay, but even so finding hotel accommodation can still prove difficult, particularly in the spring and autumn when the capital enjoys what amounts to its high seasons – July and August are much slacker as the business trade dips when the EU (pretty much) closes down for its summer recess. The same cautions apply to the city’s B&Bs, though these are thin on the ground. If you do opt for a B&B, don’t expect UK-style hospitality – in effect you get a self-contained room in a private house – but do expect to be on the peripheries of town, a good way from the action. The city has half a dozen hostels, of which we have listed the best options.
At peak times, it’s prudent to reserve a bed at least for your first night, but if you do arrive with nowhere to stay, the city’s two main tourist offices operate a free same-night hotel booking service. Hotel prices vary hugely. Many have both deluxe and more standard rooms, with charges adjusted accordingly, and regular special and weekend discounts bring prices down by about fifteen percent, with some places occasionally halving their rates.
Eating and drinking
Eating and drinking
Brussels can hold its own with any international city when it comes to eating out, and whatever your taste, price range or preferred type of cuisine there is almost always something that will suit. Look out particularly for traditional Bruxellois dishes, canny amalgamations of Walloon and Flemish ingredients and cooking styles, whether rabbit cooked in beer, steamed pigs’ feet or waterzooi (for more on Belgian specialities). As for where to eat, the distinction between the city’s cafés, café-bars and restaurants is fairly elastic, and there are great places over the city, with particular concentrations on place Ste-Catherine and rue du Flandre in the Lower Town and place Boniface and place du Châtelain in Ixelles.
Drinking in Brussels, as in the rest of the country, is a joy. The city boasts an enormous variety of café-bars and bars: sumptuous Art Nouveau establishments, traditional bars with ceilings stained brown by a century’s smoke, speciality beer bars with literally hundreds of different varieties of ale and, of course, more modern hangouts. Many of the more distinctive bars are handily located within a few minutes’ walk of the Grand-Place and also in Ixelles, but really you’ll be spoiled for choice.
There’s no smoking in any establishment that sells food, along with bars and clubs.
Restaurant opening times are pretty standard – a couple of hours at lunchtime, usually noon to 2pm or 2.30pm, and again in the evening from 7pm to around 10pm; precise hours are given with the reviews below. At all but the cheapest restaurants, advance reservations are recommended, especially on Friday and Saturday evenings.
Bars and cafés
Belgians make little – or no – distinction between their bars and cafés: both serve alcohol, many stay open late (until 2am or even 3am) and most sell food as well. What you won’t find (thank goodness) are lots of the coffee house chains which beleaguer so many big cities.
Nightlife and entertainment
Nightlife and entertainment
As far as nightlife goes, it’s likely you’ll be happy to while away the evenings in one of the city’s bars or café-bars – there are plenty in which you can drink until sunrise. If that isn’t enough, Brussels also has a clutch of established clubs, though most of the action revolves around club nights with moveable locations. It’s a fast-moving scene, so the best bet is to check out local websites to see what’s on. Brussels is a good place to catch live bands, with a number of especially appealing smaller venues such as Ancienne Belgique and Botanique. Along with Antwerp, the city is also a regular stop on the European tours of major artists, the big venue being Forest Nationale. Jazz is well catered for too, with several bars playing host to local and international acts, as well as the internationally acclaimed Jazz Marathon held every May (www.brusselsjazzmarathon.be).
The classical musical scene is excellent. The Orchestre National de Belgique (www.nob.be) enjoys an international reputation and the city showcases a number of excellent classical music festivals. Cream of the crop are the Ars Musica festival of contemporary music held in March (www.arsmusica.be), and May’s prestigious Concours Musical Reine Elisabeth (www.concours-reine-elisabeth.be), a competition for piano, violin and voice. Opera lovers should make a beeline for the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, which is much praised for staging contemporary interpretations of classic operas, as well as offering a more eclectic repertoire of music and dance. Indeed, the city’s dance scene has been impressing visitors ever since Maurice Béjart brought his classical Twentieth Century Ballet here in 1959. Now the main dance venues are the Koninklijke Vlaamse Schouwberg and the Kaaitheatre, but the innovative legacy of Béjart lives on, with his old company (now called Rosas and led by Anne Theresa de Keersmaeker) regularly performing at Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie.
The big players in the Brussels theatre scene are the Francophone Théâtre National and the Flemish Koninklijke Vlaamse Schouwberg, but the city also has an abundance of small theatres providing an eclectic programme from experimental theatre to political pieces and comedy. Most productions are performed in French and Flemish, but several American, Irish and British theatre groups put on high-quality amateur productions too.
The free, trilingual Agenda has the most comprehensive listings of concerts and events. Published every Thursday, it can be picked up in all main métro stations, plus some bars and cafés.
Brussels has a supreme selection of small, independent shops, a smashing range of open-air markets and a number of charming galeries, covered shopping “streets” dating back to the nineteenth century. The main downtown shopping street is rue Neuve, but this is dominated by chain stores; the Galeries St-Hubert, near the Grand-Place, are much more distinctive, accommodating a smattering of upmarket shops and stores, while the nearby Galerie Agora peddles bargain-basement leather jackets, incense, jewellery and ethnic goods. Behind the Bourse, rue Antoine Dansaert caters for the young and fashionable, housing the stores of upcoming designers as well as big Belgian names like Strelli, and in neighbouring St-Géry, rue des Riches Claires and rue du Marché au Charbon are good for streetwear. More than anything else, however, Brussels is famous for three things: comic strips, beer and chocolate.
Generally speaking, shops and stores are open from 10am to 6pm or 7pm Monday through Saturday. On Fridays, most department stores stay open till 8pm, and some tourist-oriented shops open on Sundays too.