Brussels wears three impressive hats, as the capital of Flanders, Belgium and Europe. It started life as a fortress, then developed into a market square and eventually blossomed into the economic, political and social centre of the Flemish capital. There’s lots to see in the city from the bizarre comic strip to enjoying its café culture in the Grand-Place.
1. Grote Markt (Dutch) / Grand-Place (French)
Grand-Place, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the main tourist attraction of the City of Brussels but its beginnings were less than glamourous. The area was just a swampy sand-bank between two brooks, known as ‘broek sella’ which gave Brussels its name. The sand bank was reclaimed and turned into ‘Niedermerckt’ (lower market) and sold French and English textiles, French wines and German beer.
In the Middle Ages wooden houses were built around the market and by the 14th century wealthy families took to building stone mansions which led to the market developing into the main commercial administrative centre. The town hall came in 1402 and by now it was also a political centre. This is where dukes, royalty and emperors were received but the square was also the site of executions.
Today the Grand-Place is a beautiful, wide open cobbled medieval and is Brussels’ main market square. It is a great place to hang out and admire the elegant guildhouses which replaced all the wooden homes. Many have admired its beauty including Victor Hugo and Baudelaire who rhapsodised about its charm and appealing looks.
There is a daily flower market between March and October and often accompanied with concerts and a light show in the evening.
Every two years, during the third week of August (next one will take place 16-19 August 2018), Belgian begonia cultivators decorate the Grand-Place with a beautiful flower carpet using around 750,000 begonias. Visitors are greeted with 3,200 square feet of amazing plant tapestry depicting a theme.
The square is where daily business is done and where a flurry of local bars and cafés are a superb example of top quality café culture.
2. Hôtel de Ville – Town Hall
While at the Grand-Place don’t forget to visit the Gothic Hôtel de Ville. It dates back to 1402 and is the seat of civic government. It is an attractive building with arched windows, towers and adorned with sculptures including St Michael slaying a she-devil. If you are feeling energetic, climb the 96 metre high Brabantine Gothic tower and enjoy the amazing views over the city.
3. City Museum – Maison du Roi (French) – Broodhuis (Flemish)
The French name of Maison du Roi is translated as ‘the Kings House’ but although the building is a richly ornamented masterpiece, no royalty ever lived here. The Flemish called it ‘The Bread House’ because the house replaced the town’s Bread Market which had been there for hundreds of years.
This museum is dedicated to the history of Brussels, and if you have already seen the Manneken-Pis, in here you can take a look at his costumes. The history of Brussels is told over three floors from the Middle Ages to date.
Address: Grand-Place (in front of the Town Hall)
Open: Tue-Sun 10am-5pm (open until 8pm on Thur)
Closed: January 1; May 1; November 1, 11; December 25
Entry: 4 euros (free for under 18s on weekends!)
4. Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée – Belgian Comic Strip Center
Did you know that Belgium has more comic strip artists per square kilometre than any other country? If you love cartoons, you may appreciate this museum dedicated to the comic strip. It is housed in the Waucquez Warehouse, a masterpiece in itself, designed by Art Nouveau architect, Victor Horta. You will be taken on the journey a comic strip artist has to make from concept to shop. There’s over 5000 original drawings and an entire section to Belgium’s famous cartoon character hero – Tin Tin.
Incidentally, you can see six dramatic, surprising and amusing cartoon murals painted on gable ends around the city. These were commission by the city itself. Pop into the tourist office, located in the Town Hall, to get a map.
Address: 20 Rue de Sables/Zandstraat
Open: 10am-6pm every day except Monday
Entry: Adults 8 euros; 12-18 year olds 6 euros; under 12s 3 euros.
5. Heysel Park and the Atomium
Heysel park, located in the west of Brussels, is dedicated to recreation and leisure. In 1985, the European Champions Cup tragedy took place in the Heysel stadium killing several spectators. It has been redesigned since then and renamed Stade Roi Baudoin (King Baudoin Stadium).
One of the highlights of the park is the Atomium. This is a glistening 102 metre (335 ft) high model of an atom made out of chrome and steel designed by André Waterkeyn. To really appreciate this structure, take time to gaze up and enjoy the sheer enormity.
It was erected for the 1958 World Fair to symbolise a new ‘atomic age’. It is an accurate depiction of an iron molecule that has been magnified 165 billion times. It comprises nine 18 metre diameter steel spheres connected by tupes, all of which contain exhibits.
It is probably more impressive on the outside than inside but a high-speed, glass-roofed lift takes visitors to the top in just 23 seconds where you can stop for a beer and a snack, take in the views and then get the escalators down stopping off at the various spheres.