From the heights of the Upper Town, the Francophile ruling class long kept a beady eye on the proletarians down below, and it was here they built their palaces and mansions, churches and parks. Political power is no longer concentrated hereabouts, but the wide avenues and grand architecture of this aristocratic quarter – the bulk of which dates from the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – have survived pretty much intact, lending a stately, dignified feel that’s markedly different from the bustle of the Lower Town.
The Lower Town ends and the Upper Town begins at the foot of the sharp slope which runs north to south from one end of the city centre to the other, its course marked – in general terms at least – by a wide boulevard that’s variously named Berlaimont, L’Impératrice and L’Empereur. This slope is home to the city’s cathedral, but otherwise is little more than an obstacle to be climbed by a series of stairways. Among the latter, the most frequently used are the covered walkway running through the Galerie Ravenstein shopping arcade behind the Gare Centrale, and the open-air stairway that climbs up through the stodgy, modern buildings of the so-called Mont des Arts. Léopold II gave the area its name in anticipation of a fine art museum he intended to build, but the project was never completed, and the land was only properly built upon in the 1950s.
Above the rigorous layout of the Mont des Arts lie the rue Royale and rue de la Régence, which together make up the Upper Town’s spine, a suitably smart location for the outstanding Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts, the pick of Belgium’s many fine art collections, the surprisingly low-key Palais Royal, and the entertaining Musée des Instruments de Musique (MIM). Further south, rue de la Régence soon leads to the well-heeled Sablon neighbourhood, whose antique shops and chic bars and cafés fan out from the medieval church of Notre Dame du Sablon. Beyond this is the monstrous Palais de Justice, traditionally one of the city’s most disliked buildings.