Cramped and populous, the Lower Town fans out from the Grand-Place in all directions, bisected by one major north–south boulevard, variously named Adolphe Max, Anspach and Lemonnier. Setting aside the boulevard – which was ploughed through in the nineteenth century – the layout of the Lower Town remains essentially medieval, a skein of narrow, cobbled lanes and alleys in which almost every street is crimped by tall and angular town houses. There’s nothing neat and tidy about all of this, but that’s what gives it its appeal – dilapidated terraces stand next to prestigious mansions and the whole district is dotted with superb buildings, everything from beautiful Baroque churches through to Art Nouveau department stores.
The Lower Town is at its most beguiling to the northwest of the Grand-Place, where the churches of Ste-Catherine and Ste-Jean-Baptiste au Béguinage stand amid a cobweb of quaint streets and tiny squares. The streets to the north of the Grand-Place are of less immediate appeal, with particularly dreary rue Neuve, a pedestrianized main drag that’s home to the city’s mainstream shops and stores, leading up to the clumping skyscrapers that surround the place Rogier and the Gare du Nord. This is an uninviting part of the city, but relief is at hand in the precise Habsburg symmetries of the place des Martyrs and at the Belgian Comic Strip Centre, the Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée. To the south of the Grand-Place, almost everyone makes a beeline for the city’s mascot, the Manneken Pis, but much more enjoyable is the museum dedicated to Belgium’s most celebrated chansonnier, Jacques Brel.