Brussels Travel Guide
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
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.
Top image © Sira Anamwong/Shutterstock
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.
Brussels lies at the centre of Brabant, one of Belgium’s nine provinces. The Flemings claim the lion’s share of the province with their Vlaams Brabant (Flemish Brabant) actually encircling the capital – a noticeably narrow corridor of Flemish-speaking communities runs round the southern edge of Brussels. WATERLOO is easily the most popular attraction in Brabant Wallon (French-speaking Brabant) and is best seen on a day-trip from the capital. A run-of-the-mill suburb about 18km south of the centre of Brussels, the town has a resonance far beyond its size. On June 18, 1815, at this small crossroads town on what was once the main route to Brussels from France, Wellington masterminded the battle that put an end to the imperial ambitions of Napoleon. The battle turned out to have far more significance than even its generals realized, for not only was this the last throw of the dice for the formidable army born of the French Revolution, but it also marked the end of France’s prolonged attempts to dominate Europe militarily.
Nevertheless, the historic importance of Waterloo has not saved the battlefield from interference – a motorway cuts right across it – and if you do visit you’ll need a lively imagination to picture what happened and where – unless, that is, you’re around to see the large-scale re-enactment which takes place every five years in June; the next one is scheduled for 2015. Scattered round the battlefield are several monuments and memorials, the most satisfying of which is the Butte de Lion, a huge earth mound that’s part viewpoint and part commemoration. The battlefield is 3km south of the centre of Waterloo, where the Musée Wellington is easily the pick of several Waterloo museums.
Some 4km south of town, the Waterloo battlefield is a landscape of rolling farmland, interrupted by a couple of main roads and more pleasingly punctuated by the odd copse and farmstead. The ridge where Wellington once marshalled his army now holds a motley assortment of attractions collectively known as Le Hameau du Lion (Lion’s Hamlet). This comprises four separate sites all within a few metres of each other, with the added offering of a 45-minute battlefield tour in a four-wheel-drive. Of the four sites, the worst are the Centre du Visiteur, which features a dire audiovisual display on the battle, and the Musée de Cires (same hours), a dusty wax museum. The best is the 100m-high Butte de Lion (same hours), built by local women with soil from the battlefield. The Butte marks the spot where Holland’s Prince William of Orange – one of Wellington’s commanders and later King William II of the Netherlands – was wounded. It was only a nick, so goodness knows how high it would have been if William had been seriously injured, but even so the mound is a commanding monument, surmounted by a regal 28-tonne lion atop a stout column. From the viewing platform, there’s a panoramic view over the battlefield, and a plan identifies which army was where. Also enjoyable is the Panorama de la Bataille (same hours), where a circular, naturalistic painting of the battle, on a canvas no less than 110m in circumference, is displayed in a purpose-built, rotunda-like gallery – to a thundering soundtrack of bugles, snorting horses and cannon fire. Panorama painting is extremely difficult – controlling perspective is always a real problem – but it was very much in vogue when the Parisian artist Louis Dumoulin began this effort in 1912. Precious few panoramas have survived and this one is a bit past its best, but it does at least give a sense of the battle. You can also venture out onto the battlefield under your own steam by following the old track that cuts south across the fields from beside the Panorama.
Napoleon escaped from imprisonment on the Italian island of Elba on February 26, 1815. He landed in Cannes three days later and moved swiftly north, entering Paris on March 20 just as his unpopular replacement – the slothful King Louis XVIII – high-tailed it to Ghent. Thousands of Frenchmen rallied to Napoleon’s colours and, with little delay, Napoleon marched northeast to fight the two armies that threatened his future. Both were in Belgium. One, an assortment of British, Dutch and German soldiers, was commanded by the Duke of Wellington, the other was a Prussian army led by Marshal Blücher. At the start of the campaign, Napoleon’s army was about 130,000 strong, larger than each of the opposing armies but not big enough to fight them both at the same time. Napoleon’s strategy was, therefore, quite straightforward: he had to stop Wellington and Blücher from joining together – and to this end he crossed the Belgian frontier near Charleroi to launch a quick attack. On June 16, the French hit the Prussians hard, forcing them to retreat and giving Napoleon the opportunity he was looking for. Napoleon detached a force of 30,000 soldiers to harry the retreating Prussians, while he concentrated his main army against Wellington, hoping to deliver a knockout blow. Meanwhile, Wellington had assembled his troops at Waterloo, on the main road to Brussels.
At dawn on Sunday June 18, the two armies faced each other. Wellington had some 68,000 men, about one third of whom were British, and Napoleon around five thousand more. The armies were deployed just 1500m apart with Wellington on the ridge north of – and uphill from – the enemy. It had rained heavily during the night, so Napoleon delayed his first attack to give the ground a chance to dry. At 11.30am, the battle began when the French assaulted the fortified farm of Hougoumont, which was crucial for the defence of Wellington’s right. The assault failed and at approximately 1pm there was more bad news for Napoleon when he heard that the Prussians had eluded their pursuers and were closing fast. To gain time he sent 14,000 troops off to impede their progress and at 2pm he tried to regain the initiative by launching a large-scale infantry attack against Wellington’s left. This second French attack also proved inconclusive and so at 4pm Napoleon’s cavalry charged Wellington’s centre, where the British infantry formed into squares and just managed to keep the French at bay – a desperate engagement that cost hundreds of lives. By 5.30pm, the Prussians had begun to reach the battlefield in numbers to the right of the French lines and, at 7.30pm, with the odds getting longer and longer, Napoleon made a final bid to break Wellington’s centre, sending in his Imperial Guard. These were the best soldiers Napoleon had, but slowed down by the mud churned up by their own cavalry, the veterans proved easy targets for the British infantry, and they were beaten back with great loss of life. At 8.15pm, Wellington, who knew victory was within his grasp, rode down the ranks to encourage his soldiers before ordering the large-scale counterattack that proved decisive.
The French were vanquished and Napoleon subsequently abdicated, ending his days in exile on St Helena, where he died in 1821. Popular memory, however, refused to vilify Napoleon as the aggressor – and not just in France, but right across Europe, where the Emperor’s bust was a common feature of the nineteenth-century drawing room. In part, this was to do with Napoleon’s obvious all-round brilliance, but more crucially, he soon became a symbol of opportunity: in him the emergent middle classes of western Europe saw a common man becoming greater than the crowned heads of Europe, an almost unique event at the time.
The Musée Wellington, chaussée de Bruxelles 147 (wwww.museewellington.com), occupies the old inn where Wellington slept the nights before and after the battle. It’s an enjoyable affair, whose displays detail the build-up to – and the course of – the battle via plans and models, alongside an engaging hotchpotch of personal effects. Room 4 holds the bed where Alexander Gordon, Wellington’s principal aide-de-camp, was brought to die, and here also is the artificial leg of Lord Uxbridge, another British commander: “I say, I’ve lost my leg,” Uxbridge is reported to have said during the battle, to which Wellington replied, “By God, sir, so you have!” After the battle, Uxbridge’s leg was buried here in Waterloo, but it was returned to London when he died to join the rest of his body; as a consolation, his artificial leg was donated to the museum. Such insouciance was not uncommon among the British ruling class and neither were the bodies of the dead soldiers considered sacrosanct: tooth dealers roamed the battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars pulling out teeth, which were then stuck on two pieces of board with a spring at the back – primitive dentures known in England as “Waterloos”.
In Wellington’s bedroom, Room 6, there are copies of the messages Wellington sent to his commanders during the course of the battle, curiously formal epistles laced with phrases like “Could you be so kind as to …”. Finally, an extension at the back of the museum reprises what has gone before, albeit on a slightly larger scale, with more models, plans and military paraphernalia plus a lucid outline of the immediate historical background.
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.
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.
Brussels by no means ends at the petit ring. King Léopold II pushed the city limits out beyond the course of the old walls, grabbing land from the surrounding communes to create the irregular boundaries that survive today. To the east, he sequestered a rough rectangle of land across which he ploughed two wide boulevards to link the city centre with Le Cinquantenaire, a self-glorifying and markedly grandiose monument erected to celebrate the golden jubilee of Belgian independence, and one that now houses three sprawling museums, two specialists and the more general Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire. There’s no disputing the grandness of Léopold’s design, but in recent decades it has been overlaid with the uncompromising office blocks of the EU. These high-rises coalesce hereabouts to form the loosely defined EU quarter, not a particularly enjoyable area to explore, though the strikingly flashy European Parliament building is of passing interest, especially as it is just footsteps from the fascinating – and fascinatingly eccentric – paintings of the Musée Antoine Wiertz. If, however, you’ve an insatiable appetite for the monuments of Léopold, then you should venture further east to Tervuren, where the king built the massive Musée Royal de L’Afrique Centrale on the edge of the woods of the Forêt de Soignes.
The three main institutions of the European Union operate mainly, though not exclusively, from Brussels. The European Parliament carries out its committee work and the majority of its business in Brussels, heading off for Strasbourg for around twelve, three-day plenary sessions per year. It’s the only EU institution to meet and debate in public, and has been directly elected since 1979. There are currently 736 MEPs, and they sit in political blocks rather than national delegations; members are very restricted on speaking time, and debates tend to be well-mannered consensual affairs, controlled by the President, who is elected for a five-year period by Parliament itself – although this mandate is often split in two and shared by the two biggest political groups. The Conference of Presidents – the President of the Parliament and Leaders of all the political groups – meet to plan future parliamentary business. Supporting and advising this political edifice is a complex network of committees from agriculture to human rights.
The European Council consists of the heads of government of each of the member states and the President of the European Commission; they meet twice every six months in the much-publicized “European Summits”. However, in between these meetings, ministers responsible for different issues meet in the Council of the European Union, the main decision-making structure alongside the European Parliament. There are complex rules regarding decision-making: some subjects require only a simple majority, others need unanimous support, some can be decided by the Council alone, others need the agreement of Parliament. This political structure is underpinned by scores of Brussels-based committees and working parties, made up of both civil servants and political appointees.
The European Commission acts as the EU’s executive arm and board of control, managing funds and monitoring all manner of agreements. The 27 Commissioners are political appointees, nominated by their home countries, but their tenure has to be agreed by the European Parliament and they remain accountable to the MEPs. The president of the Commission is elected by the European Parliament for a five-year period of office. Over twenty thousand civil servants work for the Commission, whose headquarters are in Brussels, mainly in the Berlaymont and adjacent Charlemagne building on rue de la Loi as well as other buildings in the Schuman area.
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.
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.
The obvious place to begin any tour of Brussels is the Grand-Place, one of Europe’s most beautiful squares, which sits among a labyrinth of narrow, cobbled alleys and lanes at the heart of the Lower Town. Here, the Gothic extravagance of the Hôtel de Ville (town hall) presides over the gilded facades of a full set of late seventeenth-century guildhouses, whose columns, scrolled gables and dainty sculptures encapsulate Baroque ideals of balance and harmony. Inevitably, such an outstanding attraction draws tourists and expats in their droves, but there’s no better place to get a taste of Brussels’ past and Eurocapital present.
Originally marshland, the Grand-Place was drained in the twelfth century, and by 1350 covered markets for bread, meat and cloth had been erected, born of an economic boom that was underpinned by a flourishing cloth industry. Later, the Grand-Place’s role as the commercial hub of the emergent city was cemented when the city’s guilds built their headquarters on the square and, in the fifteenth century, it also assumed a civic and political function with the construction of the Hôtel de Ville. The ruling dukes visited the square to meet the people or show off in tournaments, and it was here that official decrees and pronouncements were proclaimed.
During the religious wars of the sixteenth century, the Grand-Place became as much a place of public execution as trade, but thereafter resumed its former role as a marketplace. Of the square’s medieval buildings, however, only parts of the Hôtel de Ville and one or two guildhouses have survived, the consequence of an early example of the precepts of total war, a 36-hour French artillery bombardment which pretty much razed Brussels to the ground in 1695; the commander of the French artillery gloated, “I have never yet seen such a great fire nor so much desolation”. After the French withdrew, the city’s guildsmen dusted themselves down and speedily had their headquarters rebuilt, adopting the distinctive and flamboyant Baroque style that characterizes the square today.
Philip IV of Spain (1605–65) had no fewer than fourteen children, but only one of his sons – Charles II (1661–1700) – reached his twenties. With women banned from the succession, the hapless, sickly Charles became king aged just four and, much to everyone’s surprise, survived to adulthood. After his first marriage in 1679, there were great hopes that he would sire an heir, but none arrived, allegedly because Charles suffered from premature ejaculation. A second marriage, twenty years later, was equally fruitless and, as it became increasingly clear that Charles was unable to procreate, Europe focused on what was to happen when Charles died and the Spanish royal line died out. Every ambassador to the Spanish court wrote long missives home about the health of Charles, none more so than the English representative, Stanhope, who painted an especially gloomy picture: “He (Charles) has a ravenous stomach and swallows all he eats whole, for his nether jaw stands out so much that his two rows of teeth cannot meet…His weak stomach not being able to digest the food, he voids it in the same (whole) manner.”
In the autumn of 1700, it was clear that Charles was dying and his doctors went to work in earnest, replacing his pillows with freshly killed pigeons and covering his chest with animal entrails. Not surprisingly, this didn’t work and Charles died on November 1, an event which triggered the War of the Spanish Succession.
From the south side of the Grand-Place, the scrubbed and polished Hôtel de Ville (town hall) dominates proceedings, its 96m spire soaring high above two long series of robust windows, whose straight lines are mitigated by fancy tracery and an arcaded gallery. The edifice dates from the beginning of the fifteenth century, when the town council decided to build itself a mansion that adequately reflected its wealth and power. The first part to be completed was the east wing – the original entrance is marked by the twin lions of the Lion Staircase, though the animals were only added in 1770. Work started on the west wing in 1444 and continued until 1480. Despite the gap, the wings are of very similar style, and you have to look hard to notice that the later one is slightly shorter than its neighbour, allegedly at the insistence of Charles the Bold who – for some unknown reason – refused to have the adjacent rue de la Tête d’Or narrowed. The niches were left empty and the statues seen today, which represent leading figures from the city’s past, were added as part of a nineteenth-century refurbishment.
By any standard, the tower of the Hôtel de Ville is quite extraordinary, its remarkably slender appearance the work of Jan van Ruysbroeck, the leading spire specialist of the day, who also played a leading role in the building of the cathedral. Ruysbroeck had the lower section built square to support the weight above, choosing a design that blended seamlessly with the elaborately carved facade on either side – or almost: look carefully and you’ll see that the main entrance is slightly out of kilter. Ruysbroeck used the old belfry porch as the base for the new tower, hence the misalignment, a deliberate decision rather than the miscalculation which, according to popular legend, prompted the architect’s suicide. Above the cornice protrudes an octagonal extension where the basic design of narrow windows flanked by pencil-thin columns and pinnacles is repeated up as far as the pyramid-shaped spire, a delicate affair surmounted by a gilded figure of St Michael, protector of Christians in general and of soldiers in particular. The tower is off-limits, and guided tours in English are confined to a string of lavish official rooms used for receptions and town council meetings. Tours begin at the reception desk off the interior quadrangle; be prepared for the guides’ overly reverential script.
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.
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.
From the Manneken Pis, it’s a short stroll to place de la Vieille-Halle aux Blés, where the Éditions Jacques Brel (www.jacquesbrel.be) is a small but inventive museum celebrating the life and times of the Belgian singer Jacques Brel (1933–78), who was born and raised in Schaarbeek, a suburb of Brussels, though he lived most of his life in France. A legend in his own musical lifetime, Brel became famous in the 1960s as a gravelly voiced singer of mournful chansons about death, loss, desire and love, all of which he wrote himself. Inside the museum, a sequence of life-size tableaux give the impression that you have just missed Brel – a cigarette still burns in the replica bar – and you can watch films of the man in concert in the small and cosy theatre-cum-cinema. Brel’s performances were famous for their intensity and if you watch a show you can’t fail to be affected, though actually liking the music is another thing altogether.
If you like what you hear at the Éditions Jacques Brel, you might want to check out some songs from the playlist below, which covers the very best of Brel’s work.
Brel’s deliberately repetitive, climactic tale of sailors in seedy ports is a fantastically evocative song, and was one of his most intense live numbers.
This is Brel at his wittiest and most unforgiving, poking fun at 1960s hippies.
Brel in autobiographical mode, looking back in fantastically rumbustious fashion on his career and forward into his future.
One of Brel’s greatest love songs, brilliantly covered by Scott Walker.
The tormented and yet curiously upbeat lament of a dying man that gave rise to the Terry Jacks hit of 1974.
Brel’s most anguished love song, and perhaps one of the most affecting ever written, memorably covered by Nina Simone.
One of Brel’s earliest songs, When we have only Love was his first hit single.
The Impossible Dream has been covered by just about everyone and is quite rightly one of Brel’s best-known songs, but his version stands out.
This late and very atmospheric study of summer ennui in small-town Belgium is one of Brel’s most beautiful songs.
Brel is typically satirical in this biting rant against war, militarism and middle-class bourgeois values.
Tintin was the creation of Brussels-born Georges Remi, aka Hergé (1907–83). Remi’s first efforts (pre-Tintin) were sponsored by a right-wing Catholic journal, Le XXième Siècle, and in 1929 when this same paper produced a kids’ supplement – Le Petit Vingtième – Remi was given his first major break. He was asked to produce a two-page comic strip and the result was Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, a didactic tale about the evils of Bolshevism. Tintin’s Soviet adventure lasted until May 1930, and to round it all off the director of Le XXième Siècle decided to stage a PR-stunt reception to celebrate Tintin’s return from the USSR. Remi – along with a Tintin lookalike – hopped on a train just east of Brussels and when they pulled into the capital they were mobbed by scores of excited children. Remi and Tintin never looked back. Remi decided on the famous quiff straight away, but other features – the mouth and expressive eyebrows – only came later. His popularity was – and remains – quite phenomenal: Tintin has been translated into sixty languages and over twenty million copies of the comic Le Journal de Tintin, Remi’s own independent creation first published in 1946, have been sold – and that’s not mentioning all the Tintin TV cartoon series. Remi’s life and work are also celebrated at the Musée Hergé in Louvain-la-Neuve.
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.
To the north of the city centre lies Jette, a well-heeled suburb that wouldn’t merit a second glance if it weren’t for the former home of René Magritte, now turned into the engaging Musée René Magritte, which pays detailed tribute to the artist, his family and friends. East of here is leafy Laeken, where the Belgian royal family hunker down, and next door again is Heysel, with its trademark Atomium, a hand-me-down from the 1958 World’s Fair.
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.
Cobwebbed by tiny squares and narrow streets, home to a plethora of local bars and many of the capital’s finest Art Nouveau houses, the neighbouring areas of St-Gilles and Ixelles, just south of the petit ring, make a great escape from the razzmatazz of the city centre. St-Gilles, the smaller of the two communes, does have patches of inner-city decay, but it gets more beautiful the further east it spreads, its run-down streets soon left behind for attractive avenues interspersed with dignified squares. Ixelles, for its part, is one of the capital’s most interesting and exciting outer areas, with a diverse street-life and café scene. Historically something of a cultural crossroads, Ixelles has long drawn artists, writers and intellectuals – Karl Marx, Auguste Rodin and Alexandre Dumas all lived here – and today it retains an arty, sometimes Bohemian feel. Ixelles is cut into two by avenue Louise, a prosperous corridor that is actually part of the city – a territorial anomaly inherited from Léopold II, who laid it out and named it after his eldest daughter in the 1840s. Some of Brussels’ premier hotels, shops and boutiques flank the northern reaches of the avenue and further along is the enjoyable Musée Constantin Meunier, sited in the sculptor’s old house.
More than anything else, however, it’s the superb range of Art Nouveau buildings clustering the streets of St-Gilles and Ixelles that really grab the attention. Many of the finest examples are concentrated on and around the boundary between the two communes – in between chaussée de Charleroi and avenue Louise – and it’s here you’ll find Horta’s own house and studio, now the glorious Musée Victor Horta, one of the few Art Nouveau buildings in the country fully open to the public. Access to most of the city’s Art Nouveau buildings is restricted, so you can either settle for the view from outside, or enrol on one of ARAU’s specialist Art Nouveau tours.
The best place to start a visit to St-Gilles is the delightful Musée Victor Horta (wwww.hortamuseum.be), just off the chaussée de Charleroi at rue Américaine 25 and reachable by tram #92 from place Louise. The museum occupies the two houses Horta designed as his home and studio at the end of the nineteenth century, and was where he lived until 1919. The exterior sets the tone, a striking re-working and re-ordering of what was originally a modest terraced structure, the fluidity of the design incorporating almost casually knotted and twisted ironwork. Yet it is for his interiors that Horta is particularly famous. Inside is a sunny, sensuous dwelling exhibiting all the architect’s favourite flourishes – wrought iron, stained glass, ornate furniture and panelling made from several different types of timber. The main unifying feature is the staircase, a dainty spiralling affair, which runs through the centre of the house illuminated by a large skylight. Decorated with painted motifs and surrounded by mirrors, it remains one of Horta’s most magnificent and ingenious creations, giving access to a sequence of wide, bright rooms. Also of interest is the modest but enjoyable selection of paintings, many of which were given to Horta by friends and colleagues, including works by Félicien Rops and Joseph Heymans.
The son of a shoemaker, Victor Horta (1861–1947) was born in Ghent, where he failed in his first career, being unceremoniously expelled from the city’s music conservatory for indiscipline. He promptly moved to Paris to study architecture, returning to Belgium in 1880 to complete his internship in Brussels with Alphonse Balat, architect to King Léopold II. Balat was a traditionalist, partly responsible for the classical facades of the Palais Royal – among many other prestigious projects – and Horta looked elsewhere for inspiration. He found it in the work of William Morris, the leading figure of the English Arts and Crafts movement, whose designs were key to the development of Art Nouveau. Taking its name from the Maison de l’Art Nouveau, a Parisian shop which sold items of modern design, Art Nouveau rejected the imitative architectures which were popular at the time – Neoclassical and neo-Gothic – in favour of an innovatory style characterized by sinuous, flowing lines. In England, Morris and his colleagues had focused on book illustrations and furnishings, but in Belgium Horta extrapolated the new style into architecture, experimenting with new building materials – steel and concrete – as well as traditional stone, glass and wood.
In 1893, Horta completed the curvaceous Hôtel Tassel, Brussels’ first Art Nouveau building (“hôtel” meaning town house). Inevitably, there were howls of protest from the traditionalists, but no matter what his opponents said, Horta never lacked work again. The following years – roughly 1893 to 1905 – were Horta’s most inventive and prolific. He designed over forty buildings, including the Hôtel Solvay, the Hôtel Max Hallet, and his own beautifully decorated house and studio, now the Musée Victor Horta. The delight Horta took in his work is obvious, especially when employed on private houses, and his enthusiasm was all-encompassing – he almost always designed everything from the blueprints to the wallpaper and carpets. He never kept a straight line or sharp angle where he could deploy a curve, and his use of light was revolutionary, often filtering through from above, with skylights and as many windows as possible. Horta felt that the architect was as much an artist as the painter or sculptor, and so he insisted on complete stylistic freedom; curiously, he also believed that originality was born of frustration, so he deliberately created architectural difficulties, pushing himself to find harmonious solutions. It was part of a well-thought-out value system that allied him with the political Left; as he wrote, “My friends and I were reds, without however having thought about Marx or his theories”.
Completed in 1906, the Grand Magasin Waucquez department store was a transitional building signalling the end of Horta’s Art Nouveau period. His later works were more Modernist constructions, whose understated lines were a far cry from the ornateness of his earlier work. In Brussels, the best example of his later work is the Palais des Beaux Arts (BOZAR) of 1928.
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).
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.
On the edge of place Royale, the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts (wwww.fine-arts-museum.be) holds Belgium’s most satisfying all-round collection of fine art, a vast hoard that is exhibited in three interconnected museums, one displaying modern art from the nineteenth century onwards, a second devoted to René Magritte, and a third to older works. Finding your way around is made easy by the English-language, colour-coded museum plan issued at the information desk behind the entrance. The museum also hosts a prestigious programme of temporary exhibitions (colour-coded red on the museum plan) for which a supplementary admission fee is usually required.
In the Musée d’Art Ancien, the blue area displays paintings of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, including the Flemish primitives and the Bruegels, and the brown area concentrates on paintings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the collection of Rubens (for which the museum is internationally famous) as a particular highlight.
The museum owns several paintings by Rogier van der Weyden (1399–1464), who moved to Brussels from his home town of Tournai (in today’s southern Belgium) in the 1430s, becoming the city’s official painter shortly afterwards. When it came to portraiture, Weyden’s favourite technique was to highlight the features of his subject – and tokens of rank – against a black background. His Portrait of Antoine de Bourgogne is a case in point, with Anthony, the illegitimate son of Philip the Good, casting a haughty, tight-lipped stare to his right while wearing the chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece and clasping an arrow, the emblem of the guild of archers.
Weyden’s contemporary, Leuven-based Dieric Bouts (1410–75) is well represented by the two panels of his Justice of the Emperor Otto. The story was well known: in revenge for refusing her advances, the empress accuses a nobleman of attempting to seduce her. He is executed, but the man’s wife remains convinced of his innocence and subsequently proves her point by means of an ordeal by fire – hence the red-hot iron bar she’s holding. The empress then receives her just desserts, being burnt on the hill in the background.
One of the museum’s most interesting paintings is a copy of Temptations of St Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch (1450–1516); the original is in Lisbon’s Museu Nacional. No one is quite sure who painted this triptych – it may or may not have been one of Bosch’s apprentices – but it was certainly produced in Holland in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. The painting refers to St Anthony, a third-century nobleman who withdrew into the desert, where he endured fifteen years of temptation before settling down into his long stint as a hermit. It was the temptations that interested Bosch – rather than the ascetic steeliness of Anthony – and the central panel has an inconspicuous saint sticking desperately to his prayers surrounded by all manner of fiendish phantoms. The side panels develop the theme – to the right Anthony is tempted by lust and greed, and on the left Anthony’s companions help him back to his shelter after he’s been transported through the skies by weird-looking demons.
Another leading Flemish artist, Quinten Matsys (1465–1530) is well represented by the Triptych of the Holy Kindred. Matsys’ work illustrates a turning point in the development of Low Country painting, and in this triptych, completed in 1509, he abandons the realistic interiors and landscapes of his Flemish predecessors in favour of the grand columns and porticoes of the Renaissance. Each scene is rigorously structured, its characters – all relations of Jesus – assuming lofty, idealized poses.
René Magritte (1898–1967) is easily the most famous of Belgium’s modern artists, his disconcerting, strangely haunting images a familiar part of popular culture. Born in a small town just outside Charleroi, he entered the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels in 1915, and was a student there until 1920. His appearances were, however, few and far between as he preferred the company of a group of artists and friends fascinated with the Surrealist movement of the 1920s. Their antics were supposed to incorporate a serious intent – the undermining of bourgeois convention – but the surviving home movies of Magritte and his chums fooling around don’t appear very revolutionary today.
Initially, Magritte worked in a broadly Cubist manner, but in 1925, influenced by the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico, he switched over to Surrealism and almost immediately stumbled upon the themes and images that would preoccupy him for decades to come. His work incorporated startling comparisons between the ordinary and the extraordinary, with the occasional erotic element thrown in. Favourite images included men in bowler hats, metamorphic figures, enormous rocks floating in the sky, tubas, fishes with human legs, bilboquets (the cup and ball game), and juxtapositions of night and day – one part of the canvas lit by artificial light, the other basking in full sunlight. He also dabbled in word paintings, mislabelling familiar forms to illustrate (or expose) the arbitrariness of linguistic signs. His canvases were devoid of emotion, deadpan images that were easy to recognize but perplexing because of their setting – perhaps most famously, the man in the suit with a bowler hat and an apple for a face.
He broke with this characteristic style on two occasions, once during the war – in despair over the Nazi occupation – and again in 1948, to revenge long years of neglect by the French artistic establishment. Hundreds had turned up to see Magritte’s first Paris exhibition, but were confronted with crass and crude paintings of childlike simplicity. These so-called Vache paintings created a furore, and Magritte beat a hasty artistic retreat behind a smokescreen of self-justification. These two experiments alienated Magritte from most of the other Surrealists, but this was of little consequence as he was picked up and popularized by an American art dealer, Alexander Iolas, who made him very rich and very famous.
Magritte and his family lived in Jette, a suburb of Brussels, until the late 1950s, and the house is now the Musée René Magritte. He died in 1967, shortly after a major retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York confirmed his reputation as one of the great artists of the twentieth century.