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Belgium: Brussels – Historical Centre

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Brussels is very much the “Capital of Europe” – it is home to the European parliament and many of the agencies and organizations that keep Europe humming (or not!). Our first impression of Brussels is that it is a modern and soulless city – it looks and feels much like most European cities.

But first impressions are not always correct and after scratching beneath the surface there are some hidden gems. Brussels is a compact city and be easily explored on foot and has an excellent public transportation infrastructure. At its heart, there is evidence of the city’s medieval past and character that attracted cultural icons the likes of Brueghel, Magritte, Victor Horta (inventor of Art Nouveau architecture), Hergé (creator of Tintin) and Jacques Brel. Beyond the cultural attractions, there is much else to enjoy in the excellent restaurants, Belgian beers and of course chocolate!

We had two days to explore Brussels and the itinerary we followed was:

Day 1: 

  1. Exploring the beautiful and inspiring la Grand-Place
  2. Visiting the City Hall of Brussels (located in the Grand-Place)
  3. Checking out the Mannekin Pis and what he is wearing today
  4. Stop by the La Carillon du mont des Arts and hear the bells ring out a folk song
  5. Wander around the elegant St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral
  6. Enjoy the elegant setting and exhibits at the Belgian Comic Strip Center 

Day 2:

  1. Visit the Royal Palace of Brussels when the Royal family are away on their summer holidays
  2. Enjoy the surrealist art of Magritte at the Magritte museum
  3. Stroll the elegant Parc du Cinquantenaire
  4. Explore the iconic symbol of Brussels the Atomium
  5. See the whole of Europe is less than a couple of hours at Mini Europe.

HINT: Save time and money with the 24|48|72 hours Brussels Card

– Enjoy free access to 30 museums in Brussels
– Benefit from discounts in restaurants and tourist attractions
– Get free use of the public transport system during the validity of your card.

Click here to see all that’s included with the Brussels Card

Day 1

For our first day in Brussels, we decided to use foot power to get us around. Luckily, the city is compact and easy to navigate as a pedestrian. We decided to start our self-guided tour at the centre of the action at Brussel’s La Grand-Place.

The route to visit the suggested locations for Day 1 covers about 2km or about 1 1/4 miles. Below is a link to a Google Maps view of the route that can be downloaded to your phone.

VIEW IN GOOGLE MAPS

1. LA GRAND PLACE

The UNESCO listed La Grand Place is the centrepiece of Brussels. The cobbled rectangular market square is the central square of the City of Brussels. All over the world, it is known for its decorative and aesthetic wealth. The Grand-Place is surrounded by the guild houses, the City Hall and the Maison du Roi. We had seen many photographs of La Grand Place but seeing it in person was truly inspiring. The architecture is exquisite and each building has its own unique character – it took us several minutes to soak in the atmosphere and capture the details of each building.

There are several buildings you can explore right off La Grand Place. One of these is the City Museum, located in a neo-Gothic style building known as the Maison du Roi.  The museum had an excellent Picasso exhibition when we visited, but the exhibits do change so it is worth checking their website when you are in Brussels to see what is currently being shown.

If you can, try and visit when the “Flower Carpet” Exhibition is on. This happens every 2 years in mid-August. More than 500,000 begonias are laid out in a decorative carpet measuring 77m x 24m.

2. CITY HALL

Another place to visit whilst you are around La Grand-Place is Brussel’s City Hall, a Gothic building dating from the Middle Ages, located opposite the Museum of the City of Brussels. The City Hall is open to the public, but if you want a deeper insight there are 55-minute tours available, but only on Wednesdays and Sundays with tickets that can only be purchased on the day.

Belgium
Address:La Meuse et l’Escaut, Grand Place 1, 1000 Bruxelles
Website:brusselscitymuseum
Telephone:T:+32 2 279 23 43
Hours:Opening
Tuesday to Sunday 10 a.m. > 5 p.m.
Closed
Monday & 1/1, 1/5, 1/11, 11/11, 25/12
Admission FeesAdults 8€
Seniors 6€
Youth under age 18 Free

3. MANNEKEN PIS

One of the best-loved icons of Brussels is located two blocks southwest of the City Hall on Rue de l’Etuve 31 / Lievevrouwbroersstraat 31. The Manneken Pis (little pee man in Flemish) is a small bronze fountain statue of a little boy peeing which dates from the 17th century. Standing at just 61cm (24 inches) tall we wondered what all the fuss is about! Having said this the locals have so many stories and ways of celebrating with this little boy that even the toughest critic would find some fondness for the Manneken Pis.

There are many legends associated with the Manneken Pis, and the burning question is why was this statue erected? One story tells of a tourist father who lost his son in the city and after receiving help from villagers to find the boy, he gifted this statue to them. Another tale, which is not very believable, is one where the boy was a spy during a siege of the city and he ended a plot to bomb the city by urinating on the explosives! 

The people of Brussels don’t simply see the statue as a draw for tourists. The Manneken Pis plays a full part in the city’s annual calendar and has an outfit for every occasion. His costume is changed around 130 times each year, with a wardrobe ranging from Santa suits to national costumes from countries around the world. You can see many of the Mannekin Pis’ costumes at the GardeRobe (wardrobe) Mannekin Pis. Here they exhibit over 1000 of the costumes, including the oldest piece.

If the Mannekin Pis takes your fancy you might be interested in the family of peeing art pieces that are located around the centre of Brussels. The Jeanneke-Pis is a statue of a young girl peeing. This is a little harder to find but is marked on maps of the city. The final family member is the Zinneke Pis, a dog statue who is quite happily cocking his leg and peeing up against a fire hydrant.

4. CARILLON DU MONT DES ARTS

A short ten-minute walk from the Mannekin Pis is another site worth visiting. The Carillon du Mont des Arts is a spectacular clock with a “carillon” of twenty-four bells. The bells play alternative folk tunes, one Walloon, the other Flemish. Starting at noon, the quarter gives the fragment of Gretry air, at the half-hour, half of the air, three-quarters more measures, the hour which follows the whole air. The next fifteen minutes will sound a small fragment of the air of Peter Benoit, then half to half an hour and so on. The same air is repeated every two hours. At the top of the clock is a “jaquemart”, an automaton character who strikes a bell with a hammer on the hour.

The dial of the clock is 7.8 m in diameter and it is at the centre of a 12-pointed star, each pointing to a statue representing a character in Brussel’s history. Each statue leaves its niche briefly at the passage of the hour it represents.

The Carillon is definitely worth including on your walking route, just make sure you are there in the afternoon and try and coincide with a time when the bells are in action. The best time, of course, is to be there at the hour.

5. ST MICHAEL & ST GUDULA CATHEDRAL

A further five to ten-minute walk from the Carillon is the cathedral of Brussels, St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral. Records indicate that a chapel dedicated to St Michael was built at this site as early as the 9th century, which was later replaced with a Romanesque church in the 11th century. The relics of St Gudula were transferred there and the name of the church was changed to St Michael and St Gudula, and in 1962 the church was given Cathedral Status.

The cathedral is built in the Gothic style and has some wonderful stained glass windows. If you arrive at a time when there is no mass you can wander freely and enjoy the fabulous architecture and works of art that decorate the interior of the cathedral.

Address: Place Sainte-Gudule, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium

6. BELGIAN COMIC STRIP CENTRE

The Brussels Comics Arts Center is only a short five-minute walk from the Brussels cathedral. If you, like me, grew up on comics then this is definitely a place you will want to visit. It is housed in a building designed in the Art Nouveau style by the great Belgian architect Victor Horta (his work can be seen all over Brussels – and there is a museum dedicated to him).

Comic books (bande dessinée or BD) have a special place in the culture of France and Belgian and have been called the 9th Art. At the centre of this tradition are the popular works of Hergé, (the adventures of Tintin), Goscinny & Uderzo (Asterix) and Peyo (the Smurfs). For 25 years the Center has been celebrating the work of these artists and many more from around the world. This is a great place to visit for the family and you can easily while away an hour or two exploring the Comic Arts Center.

Address:Rue des Sables 20, 1000 Bruxelles
Website:

comicscenter.net/en/home

Telephone:T:+32 2 219 19 80
Hours:Open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10 am to 6pm (last admission: 5pm).
Open every day (7/7) in July and August and during Belgian school holidays.
Closed on 25/12 and 01/01. Closed from 3pm on 24/12 (last admission: 2pm).
Entry FeesAdult ticket 12€
Seniors 9€
Youth 12-25 9€
Child 5-11 5€

Day 2

For our second day in Brussels, we decided to start out at the Royal Palace. Sadly, the Palace is only open for a couple of months in the Summer when the Royal Family is out of town on their holidays. An alternative to the Palace is the close by Magritte Museum. From here we headed to the Parc du Cinquantenaire. After walking around the park for a while we headed to the Atomium, which is a bit of a hike (about 9 km /5 1/2 miles) so we took the metro. There is a metro station conveniently right next to the Parc du Cinquantenaire.

1. ROYAL PALACE OF BRUSSELS

The Royal Palace is the administrative office of the King of Belgium and is used for hosting state events, but is not the official residence of the Royal Family. Essentially, this large edifice serves as the King’s “office”. Since 1965, the tradition has been that the Royal Palace is opened annually to the general public from the 21 July, Belgium’s National Holiday, to the beginning of September, which is when the Royals are away on their annual getaway.

The self-guided tour takes you through several of the public receptions rooms, which are beautifully decorated; from the marble floors to the crystal chandeliers to the period furniture. Probably the most spectacular salon is the ceremonial room with a ceiling decorated with the elytra wings of scarab beetles. Magnificent reminders of the past and of contemporary artists are found side by side in this palace.

Address:Rue Brederode 16, 1000 Bruxelles
Website:

monarchie.be/

Telephone:T:+32 2 551 20 20
Hours:From July to September
Entry FeesFree

2. MAGRITTE MUSEUM

If you are travelling at a time when the Royal Palace is not open then the close by Magritte Museum makes a great alternative.

I am a big fan of the surrealist art form so the chance to visit a museum dedicated to Magritte’s work was something I could not resist. Magritte is known for his witty and thought-provoking images, often depicting ordinary objects in an unusual context.

I really enjoyed the museum and it gives a good overview of Magritte’s life and works in a nice building. The exhibition rooms are somewhat darkened which really makes the works pop. The museum displays some of Magritte’s lesser-known works. Most of the major works are not on display and are often out on loan to other museums. Nonetheless, I enjoyed what was there and spent a good two hours soaking in the atmosphere and enjoying the exhibition.

If you want more Magritte then you might be interested in visiting Magritte’s house which is now a museum.

Address:Pl. Royale 1, 1000 Bruxelles
Website:

https://www.musee-magritte-museum.be/en

Telephone:T:+32 2 508 32 11
Hours:Tuesdays – Fridays: 10:00-17:00
Weekends: 11:00-18:00
Entry Fees

Adults € 15

Seniors € 10 

Children and Youth Free

3. PARC DU CINQUANTENAIRE

A short walk from the Royal Palace is the Parc du Cinquantenaire. It is a lovely park to walk around and escape the hubbub of the city and get a few minutes of welcome peace and quiet. There are the beautifully laid out formal gardens to admire and plenty of statues and monuments along the way.

The most celebrated feature of the park is the u-shaped complex that was built in 1880 for the National Exhibition to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Belgian independence. The centrepiece is the arch, the current version of which was erected in 1905.

We only had a limited time to explore the park as we were headed further out of town to explore the Atomium and Mini Europe, but there are several museums that are housed in the complex, including the  Royal Museum of the Armed Forces & Military History, the Royal Museums of Art and History and Autoworld.

4. ATOMIUM

From the Parc du Cinquantenaire we took a short metro ride to the Atomium.

The Atomium was the main pavilion and icon of the World Fair of Brussels (1958), commonly called Expo 58. It symbolised the democratic will to maintain peace among all the nations, faith in progress, both technical and scientific and, finally, an optimistic vision of the future of a modern, new, super-technological world for a better life for mankind.

To get there the best option is to take the metro. The Atomium is located in the Northern part of the city of Brussels, a 5-minute walk from the Heysel / Heizel metro station (line 6) and right opposite Mini-Europe.

Address:Pl. de l’Atomium 1, 1020 Bruxelles
Website:

atomium.be

Telephone:T:+32 2 475 47 75
Hours:7 days a week : from Monday till Sunday included
From 10 am to 6 pm (ticket office closing and last entry in the building at 5:30 pm)
24 and 31 December : From 10am to 4pm
25 December and 1st January : From 12am to 6pm
Entry Fees

Senior [≥65]: €14
Adult [18-64]: €16
Child [>115cm-17]: €8,50
Child [≤115cm]: €0
Student [with card]: €8,50
Person with a disability: €8,50

5. MINI-EUROPE

A short walk from the Atomium is Mini Europe, where you can explore Europe in a few hours… A unique experience!

Mini-Europe is above all an “invitation to travel”. The chimes of Big Ben, the gondolas in front of the Doge’s Palace, the Grand-Place in Brussels, the Acropolis … an animated tour with visual and sound effects of 350 miniatures and attractions that you won’t find anywhere else.

All the monuments have been recreated down to the smallest detail. Big Ben is 4 m high. With its height of 13 m, the Eiffel tower projects above a 3-storey building! And yet all the buildings are on a scale 1 to 25.

Address:Av. du Football 1, 1020 Bruxelles
Website:

minieurope.com/en/

Telephone:T:+32 2 474 13 13
Hours:Open from end of March to end of August. Check the website for hours.
Entry Fees

Mini-Europe

Child* €12,30
Adult €17,30
Senior €17,30

Mini-Europe + Atomium

Child* €18,70
Student €22,80
Adult €29,40
Senior €27,70

Best time to visit Brussels

The best time to visit Brussels is between March and May and September and October, the shoulder seasons; this is when room rates are cheaper and the weather is mild. This city experiences all four seasons and rain is a possibility year-round. Average lows range from the mid-30s in winter to the low 70s in summer.

No matter when you’re in town, you can count on something going on at the Grand-Place, from street performances and flower shows to the nightly light shows in winter. But if you can, try to plan your trip around the Ommegang festivities (the first week in July). This Renaissance-style festival recreates the celebration held when Emperor Charles V first entered the city in the 16th century. Another festive time to visit is around Christmas when the entire square is illuminated by a massive Christmas tree.

Where to stay in Brussels

1. JULIANA HOTEL BRUSSELS (5-STAR)

Featuring a bar, terrace and views of city, Juliana Hotel Brussels is located in Brussels, a few steps from Rue Neuve. With free WiFi, this 5-star hotel offers a 24-hour front desk and room service. Guests can use the spa and wellness center with an indoor pool, fitness center, and hammam, as well as a restaurant.

2. B&B LA MAISON HAUTE

B&B La Maison Haute is located in the heart of historical Brussels, 3,100 feet away from the Grand Place, the Manneken Pis Statue and the city’s shopping district. Featuring modernly designed guest rooms and a shop selling toiletries, this bed and breakfast also includes free Wi-Fi.

Elegantly decorated, the rooms at La Maison Haute come equipped with a flat-screen TV, a small seating area and a private bathroom with a shower, a sink and a toilet. The rooms feature double-glazing and wooden shutters.

The accommodations serves breakfast every morning, including a gluten-free menu upon prior request. It is just a 2-minute walk to the closest eating facilities, bars and supermarkets.

3. MEININGER BRUXELLES  CITY CENTRE

The hotel is situated directly on the Canal de Charleroi a short 15 minute walk from the Grand Place and 300 meters from the Porte de Flandre, at the heart of Belgian city life a perfect starting point for your exploration of this European metropolis.

Take note!… the comic-book theme can be found throughout the entire building. Walls, tables and floors are resplendent with comic-book figures and modern street art. For the sake of the environment the hotel has CO2-neutral management!

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