Brussels is the capital city of Belgium. It is famous for its cuisine and fascination with gastronomy – the relationship between food and culture, the science of good eating and the art of preparation and presentation – as well as its architecture and art, particularly the comic strip.
Brussels is a popular site for travellers, particularly students, as it is a diverse, multilingual city with a unique collection of must-see sites, including museums, botanical gardens, and art nouveau architecture.
Brussels’s Grand Place
1000 Brussels, Belgium
Opening times: 24 hours
Brussels’s Grand Place is the perfect starting point for a trip to Belgium. Often cited as one of the grandest and most beautiful squares in Europe, the Grand Place marks the centre of the city and it is surrounded by some of Brussels’s most historic buildings, most dating back to before the 17th century.
Buildings of note are Brussel’s medieval Town Hall and King’s House, which now contains Brussels’s City Museum.
Standing at 96 metres (315 ft) tall and capped by a 3-metre (12 ft) statue of Saint Michael slaying a demon, the Town Hall dates back to 1402 (although it was built in stages, it wasn’t complete until 1455). It is a key example of Brabantine Gothic architecture, which is characterized by a use of light-coloured natural stone, usually, sandstone or limestone, with high side aisles, pointed arches and round columns. A great deal of the original building was destroyed in 1695 during the Bombardment of Brussels under the French army, along with its archives and art collections. It was restored in the 19th century under the direction of Victor Jamaer. To celebrate the city’s history, statues of figures important to both local and regional history were added. Recently, the Town Hall served as a makeshift hospital during World War II.
King’s House, dating back to the 12th century, was originally a wooden structure where bread was sold, hence the local’s nickname for it, Breadhouse. The original building was replaced during the 15th century and served on and off as an administration building. It was restored alongside the Town Hall by Victor Jamaer and has been home to the Brussels City Museum since 1887.
As the centre of the city, the Grand Place has been the focal point of many of Brussels’s major historical events, including the beheading of the counts of Egmont and Hoorn in 1568, the burning of the first Protestant martyrs, Hendrik Voes and Jan Van Essen, by the Inquisition in 1594, and the bombardment of the City by the French troops of marshal De Villeroy. The Grand Place now plays host to a variety of must-see events. Two of the best are the Meyboom of Brussels and the Flower Carpet.
The Meyboom is the oldest tradition in Belgium. It is held on the 9th of August every year and it involves planting a beech tree at the intersection of Rue des Sables/Zandstraat and Rue du Marais/Broekstraat. The Flower Carpet takes place every two years, and it involves a large group of volunteers who weave a carpet-like pattern of colourful begonias. According to its website, “the Flower Carpet is 70 m long by 24 m wide. 1,680 m2 of begonias, dahlias, grass and bark. A hundred volunteers assemble the carpet in less than eight hours. The first Flower Carpet of Brussels was created in 1971 and has been a showstopper every two years on the Grand Place since 1986.” Belgium is the largest producer of flowers; with 35 million bulbs each year. Each year, the Flower Carpet has a different theme. For example, in 2012, the carpet exhibited the colours of Africa, inspired by traditional fabrics and tribal costumes, and in 2016, the carpet portrayed a Japanese design to celebrate over 150 years of friendship between Belgium and Japan.
The Atomium & Mini-Europe
Square de l’Atomium, 1020 Brussels, Belgium
Opening times: (Atomium) Monday – Sunday: 10.00am – 6.00pm
(Mini-Europe) Monday – Friday: 9.00am – 5.3pm & Saturday – Sunday: 9.00am – 7.00pm
The Atomium has become one of Brussels’s most iconic locations. Originally built in 1958 for Brussels’s World Fair, otherwise known as Expo 58, it now sits where the fair took place and is open to the public as a unique museum.
It was designed by engineer André Waterkeyn and architects André and Jean Polak. The 1950s was a time of substantial scientific advancement, and scientific progress was particularly sought after the horrors of World War II. It was the desire of Waterkeyn and the Polaks that the Atomium represent Belgium’s pioneering engineering skills. According to visit.brussels, the Atomium’s “nine spheres represent an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. They represent the faith one had in the power of science and moreover in nuclear power”.
It now offers “a surrealistic walk through tubes and spheres the most beautiful panorama [360°] over Brussels and its surroundings [92m], lunch at 95m height in the panoramic restaurant (light or gastronomic, always 100 % Belgian), a permanent exhibition about the history of the building, temporary exhibitions with different themes, and a boutique full of original gifts with the Atomium colours”.
Situated beneath the Atomium is Brussels’ Mini-Europe, a miniature amusement park featuring charming reproductions of famous European locations such as France’s Eiffel Tower, Greece’s Acropolis, and Germany’s Brandenburg Gate. It also has live-action models that visitors can interact with, including an erupting Mount Vesuvius.
The Royal Saint-Hubert Galleries
Galerie du Roi 5, 1000 Brussels, Belgium
Opening times: 24 hours
The Royal Saint-Hubert Galleries are a collection of shopping arcades designed by architect Jean-Pierre Cluysenaer between 1846 and 1847. They are likely the oldest shopping arcades in Europe, or at least the first of this particular design and set-up, preceding The Passage in St Petersburg, Russia, Queen’s Arcade in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, Italy. Each establishment within is separated by intricately designed pilasters, an ornamental architectural element used to give the appearance of a supporting column.
The Galleries are home to a wide range of shops, restaurants, cafes, and apartments. It is an important location for Arts and Humanities lovers. The Galleries used to house the Théâtre du Vaudeville, the Cinéma des Galeries and the Taverne du Passage (called the Café des Arts until 1892), a meeting place for the likes of writers Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Edgar Quinet, as well as painters from the short-lived Surrealist art group The Cobras, which included Karel Appel, Pierre Alechinsky, and Else Alfelt. They are also important to cinematic history: “ a commemorative plaque recalls the first showing of the Lumière brothers’ motion picture camera on 1 March 1896, in the former dispatch room of the La Chronique daily newspaper (above Pâtisserie Meert, Galerie du Roi)”.
The Musical Instrument Museum (MIM)
Rue Montagne de la Cour 2, 1000 Brussels, Belgium
Opening times: Tuesday – Friday: 09.30am – 5.00pm, and Saturday – Sunday: 10.00am – 5.00pm
The Musical Instrument Museum, referred to as MIM by the locals, stands in central Brussels. It is part of the Royal Museums for Art and History (RMAH) and is world-famous for its immense assortment of musical instruments. As of 2020, the MIM has 1100 instruments in its collection.
The MIM was founded in 1887 in conjunction with the Brussels Royal Music Conservatory, with the “didactic purpose of showing early instruments to the students”. When it first opened it had but two exhibitions. One was a collection of the renowned Belgian musicologist François-Joseph Fétis, which was purchased by the Belgian government in 1872, and put on deposit in the Conservatory (Fétis was the first director of MIM), and a hundred Indian instruments were given to King Leopold II of Belgium by Rajah Sourindro Mohun Tagore in 1876.
The MIM grew in popularity during the early 20th century, mostly thanks to the efforts of director Victor-Charles Mahillon, and it soon gained international respect and reputation. It is worth noting that Mahillon also “described the collections of the museum in a monumental five-volume catalogue. The catalogue also includes the four versions of his “Essay on the methodical classification of all instruments, ancient and modern” that was to be served as the basis for the classifications of E.M. von Hornbostel and C. Sachs which are still used today. This classification of musical instruments entitled him to be considered as one of the pioneers of organology, the science of musical instruments.”
The museum guides visitors through Belgium’s musical history, in particular their role in the making of recorders and as the homeland of instrument creator Antoine-Joseph “Adolphe” Sax, best known for creating the saxophone. Each floor is dedicated to a different theme: the basement houses mechanical instruments, the ground floor houses traditional instruments, the first floor houses tracks the development of modern orchestra instruments, and the second-floor houses keyboards and string instruments. Visitors are also provided with infrared headphones upon arrival so they can listen to over 200 musical extracts as they pass through the museum.
The MIM also features a fascinating range of special, limited-time exhibitions. Recent exhibitions include Congo Masks and Music: Masterpieces from Central Africa, The Electric Guitar: Inventing an American Icon, and Ancient Musical Treasures from Central China: Harmony of the Ancients from the Henan Museum.
Church of Our Lady of Victories at the Sablon
Rue des Sablons, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
Opening times: Monday – Friday: 10.00am – 6.00pm, Saturday – Sunday: 9.00am – 6.00pm
Although Brussels has many churches, including the fifth largest church in the world – the Basilica of the Sacred Heart – the Church of Our Lady of Victories at the Sablon is perhaps its most beautiful. Located in the Sablon/Zavel district of the city, this Roman Catholic church is of Late Brabantine Gothic design on the outside and lush decoration inside, including two Baroque chapels. It was frequented by the upper-class of Brussels, and several members of the German noble family of Thurn und Taxis are buried in the sarcophagi placed under the chapel of Saint Ursula.
Although the site was briefly used as an exercise ground in the 1200s for the guild of Noble Serment of Crossbowmen, granted to them by King Henry 1, “the courageous”, it has been a place of religious worship since 1304, when the Guild of the brothers and sisters of Saint John’s Hospital built a modest chapel on the site, dedicated to Our Lady (Jesus’s mother Mary).
According to Introducing Brussels, the church’s central nave “has beautiful natural light which streams from eleven stained-glass windows, each measuring 49 ft (15 meters) long. It is precisely the numerous stained-glass windows that encircle and light up the altar that draws the attention of the church’s visitors.”
The church’s most striking feature is the macabre burial place of Claude Bouton, Lord of Corbaron. An important courtier, poet, and diplomate Bouton was buried with his wife Jacqueline of Lannoy, and their gravestone depicts the couple’s skeletal remains standing upright below their family crest.
The Belgian Comic Strip Centre
Rue des Sables 20, 1000 Brussels, Belgium
Opening times: Tuesday – Sunday: 10.00am – 6.00pm
One thing travellers may not know about Belgium is that they are famous for their comic strip art, as well as their knowledge and passion for food. It was established in 1984, making it a relatively new attraction. Their website describes it as the Kingdom of Comics: “with more than 700 comic strip authors, Belgium has more comic strip artists per square kilometre than any other country in the world! It is here that the comic strip has grown from a popular medium into an art in its own right. Nowhere else comics are so strongly rooted in reality and in people’s imagination.”
According to its mission statement, The Belgian Comic Strip Centre’s aims are twofold: “to promote the comic strip as a valuable cultural medium and to maintain the architectural masterpiece in which it is housed in”.
The building is a beautiful example of Art Nouveau architecture. Designed by Victor Horta in 1905, it served as a textile department store for, the Magasins Waucquez, until it fell into disarray after the death of Waucquez in 1920. The firm officially closed its doors in the 1970s, and although it was saved from demolition by an old aid of Horta’s (it was declared a protected monument), it was the subject of vandalism for many years.
It was in 1980 that architect Jean Breydel and comics artists François Schuiten, Bob de Moor, Alain Baran, Guy Dessicy and Hergé decided to restore the masterpiece of a building and use it as the home of their new museum dedicated to Belgium’s comic strip art. The museum was inaugurated in 1989, in the presence of King Baudouin of Belgium and Queen Fabiola of Belgium.
Today, it stands as a tribute to Horta’s Art Nouveau style and the contemporary art produced by some of Belgium’s best artists, a startling combination of the past and present. The ground floor takes visitors through the process of creating a comic and includes a gallery of older, original comic strips. The first floor, the “Museum of the Imaginary”, is dedicated to the work of Belgium’s most famous comic strip artists, including Georges Prosper Remi, better known as Hergé, creator of The Adventures of Tintin, and Pierre Culliford, better known as Peyo, the creator of The Smurfs. The top floor, “The Museum of Modern Comics”, takes visitors on a journey through the evolution of comic strip art in Europe (1929 – 1960), and it includes more serious examples of works that deal with politics, sexuality, and violence.
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium
Rue de la Régence 3, 1000 Brussels, Belgium
Opening times: Tuesday – Friday: 10.00am – 5.00pm, and Saturday – Sunday: 11.00am – 6.00pm
Founded in 1845, The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium are a group of art museums in Brussels: they include the Musée Old Masters Museum, the Musée Modern Museum, the Musée Wiertz Museum and the Musée Meunier Museum, the Musée Magritte Museum and the new Musée Fin-de-Siècle Museum. Together, this group houses more than 20,000 pieces of art – painting, sculpture and drawing – from the 15th to the present day. The museums are situated close together in the downtown Royal District of Brussels.
Each museum specialises in a certain area.
The Magritte Museum houses an immense collection of works by Belgian Surrealist artist René Magritte (1898-1967), one of the world’s most famous artists. Magritte was a multi-disciplinary artist, meaning that he dabbled in a little bit of everything; the museum has examples of his drawings, house paintings, gouaches, sculptures, painted objects, advertising posters, musical scores, photographs, and films. Uniquely, the Museum also has the most important compilation from Magritte’s ‘vache’ – cow art – period.
The Musée Fin-de-Siècle Museum reflects Belgium’s move from the late Victorian period to the 1920s Art Nouveau style that would become a key part of Belgian art. This museum is particularly interesting because it features other forms of artistic expression from the period, including literature, opera, music, architecture, photography and poetry.
The Musée Oldmasters Museum is dedicated to artists from the 15th – 18th centuries, hence the name “Old Masters”. Most of this art is religious in nature, as per the period, and features work from all around Europe, including French, Italy, and the Flemish School.
The Musée Modern Museum houses more contemporary work, from 1914 to the present day. It includes the work of David, Panamarenko, Alechinsky, Bacon, Dalí, and Fabre.
The final two museums are dedicated solely to the works of two specific artists: the Musée Meunier Museum for the painter, sculptor and draughtsman Constantin Meunier, and the painter, sculptor, and writer Antoine Wiertz.
Planétarium De Bruxelles
Avenue de Bouchout 10, 1020 Brussels, Belgium
Opening times: Monday – Friday: 9.00am – 5.00pm, and Saturday – Sunday: 10.00am – 5.00pm
Brussels’ Planetarium – a 360-degree theatre built to present entertaining and educational shows about space, astronomy, and celestial travel – is part of the Royal Observatory of Belgium and the institutions of the Belgian Federal Science Policy Office. It is one of the largest in Europe – its dome measures 23 metres in diameter, meaning that the Sun, the Moon, the planets, the Milky Way and thousands of stars can be projected onto its surface – and one of the oldest in the world, dating back to its inauguration in 1935 for the Brussels International Exposition.
A short walk from Mini-Europe, the Planetarium attracts over 40,000 visitors per year, and has the latest digital technology, including eight up-to-date projectors, to enable visitors to journey across space from the comfort of their chairs.
According to the Royal Observatory of Belgium, the Planetarium’s national scale is well known abroad: “it hosts the European Space Education Resources Office (ESERO), it is the press contact point for the European Southern Observatory (ESO), and also the coordinator of the Belgian activities for the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and it is involved in many other European educational projects.”