Brussels Travel Guide


Cathédrale des Sts Michel & Gudule
This splendid twin-towered cathedral at Parvis Sainte Gudule is named after Brussels' male and female patron saints. After years of renovation, it now sits gleaming on the hillside to the north of Gare Centrale.

The rather out-of-the-way location means it is often overlooked - lost between the lower and upper towns and not on any of the paths most visitors tread.

Begun in 1226, the cathedral took some 300 years to build and consequently reveals a blend of styles - from Romanesque through all the stages of Gothic and right up to Renaissance. The interior is light and airy but almost bereft of decoration due to plundering, first by Protestants in the 17th century and later by the French army.

Beautiful stained-glass windows flood the nave with light and the enormous wooden pulpit, depicting Adam and Eve being driven out of Eden by fearsome skeletons, is worth inspecting. In the crypt are the remains of an 11th-century Romanesque chapel.

Grand Place
Brussels' magnificent central square, Grand Place, boasts the country's finest baroque guildhalls, popular pavement cafes and intimate restaurants. Hidden at the core of the old town, it's only revealed as you enter the narrow side alleys surrounding the square, a discreet position that adds to its charm.

The square dates from the 12th century and was once marshland. By the mid-14th century, Brussels was booming and a prosperous market covered not only the Grand Place but also the surrounding streets, as evidenced by names such as Rue au Beurre (Butter St), Rue des Bouchers (Butchers' St) and Rue du Marché aux Poulets (Chicken Market St).

The city's increasingly wealthy merchant guilds established headquarters - guildhalls - right in the middle of the milieu. The city added the Hôtel de Ville, cementing the Grand Place's role as the hub of commercial, political and civic life in Brussels. If you were promoting a jousting tournament or public execution in medieval Belgium, this would have been your A-list venue.

Most of the square's historic buildings were destroyed in 1695, when France's King Louis XIV bombed the area for 36 hours. The Hôtel de Ville was the only major building to survive - ironic, considering that it was the primary target - and nearly all the other buildings on Grand Place today are 17th-century replacements. The superb structure of Hôtel de Ville, with its creamy façade covered in stone reliefs and an intricate 100m-high (328ft-high) tower topped by a gilded statue of St Michel, is open for guided tours.

The Grand Place radiates different auras depending on the time of day and season. In the morning, superb guildhouses at the bottom (southern) end glint in the sun; at dusk, the azure sky becomes a vivid backdrop to the illuminated buildings. During the summer a carpet of flowers covers the whole square, and in winter ice-skaters swirl across the transformed cobbled surface.

Manneken Pis
The present-day bronze Manneken Pis was sculpted by Jerôme Duquesnoy in 1619, but a stone version - named Little Julian - stood here from the mid-14th century.

The statue's origins are lost in legend: some say he's modelled on a boy who extinguished a fire, others say he was the son of a nobleman. Whatever, the people of Brussels have adopted him as the symbol of their indomitable and irreverent spirit, and on occasion dress him up in one of his 650-odd costumes.

Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique
This museum houses Belgium's premier collections of ancient and modern art and is particularly well endowed with works by Pieter Breugel the Elder, Rubens and the Belgian Surrealists. Both sections are large and you'll need a good day here if you want to do them justice.

The Royal Museums of Fine Arts is actually a single museum divided into two sections - the Musée d'Art Ancien and the adjoining Musée d'Art Moderne.

If you plan your visit, you may be able to use the weekly lunchtime concert held in the Musée d'Art Ancien as a break between the two sections; phone the museum beforehand for details.

The best strategy is to buy a plan of the rooms and follow its colour-coded system.

Rue des Bouchers
Leading off from Galeries St Hubert in a lively little quarter known as Ilôt Sacré is the famous Rue des Bouchers. Whether you decide to eat at one of the many seafood restaurants here or not, this pedestrianised cobbled street is a spectacle not to be missed.

Both sides of the street are packed with tables where you can dine throughout the year (overhead heaters supposedly keep frostbite at bay in winter) and hard-sell waiters entice would-be diners with displays of marine delicacies and the odd novelty (singing fish are the latest attention-grabbing devices being used).

Off the Beaten Track

Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinée
The Belgian Centre for Comic Strip Art is a grand, ambitious showcase of the illustrated stories that have been humouring, confounding and inspiring local and foreign enthusiasts for decades. The collection's impact is heightened by its setting in the stupendous Grand Magasin Waucquez, an Art Nouveau department store created in 1906 by Victor Horta.

The building is pure Art Nouveau - light, airy and full of glass and wrought iron. Despite standing empty for 16 years, it was spared from the demolition madness that stripped Brussels of many of its Art Nouveau showpieces and is now worthy of a visit in itself.

Fans of Hergé will find a much photographed replica of Tintin's red and white rocket, plus plenty of examples of his work. The top level traces the evolution of Belgian comics from the 1960s to the present.

European Parliament
Since 1958, when the city was chosen as the provisional seat of the European Commission and Council of Ministers, Brussels has been the de facto 'capital of Europe'. Today, the European Union (EU) is headquartered east of the city center, where some 18,000 Eurocrats process red tape and try to keep the planet's second-largest economy on track.

The EU area is bordered by the Petit Ring to the west and Parc du Cinquantenaire to the east. It's not a district for idle wandering. Totally abandoned on weekends, it comes to life only on weekdays, particularly at mealtimes. Despite this, the area does offer some interesting sights, including art nouveau houses, museums and views of the new European Parliament building.

The best place to get an overall perspective of the EU area is from the northern end of rue Froissart. Looking west from here, you can see the now defunct Berlaymont, which up until 1991 was the European Commission's bustling headquarters (it's now undergoing remodeling, including the removal of tons of asbestos).

You can also see the Council of the European Union from this vantage point, as well as the distinctive glass and steel European Parliament building, built in 1998.

The EU area isn't exactly a fun mecca of tourist infrastructure, but it does provide a unique view of regular people making history without shooting at each other.

Musée Bruxellois de la Gueuze
Anyone with even a vague interest in Belgian beer must not miss the excellent family-run Cantillon brewery, where the owners still proudly use traditional methods to make their fine lambic beers.

Also called 'the champagne of the poor', lambic is a unique beer that takes years to make and comes out sparkling right when you need it. There are three main types. The most popular (but still something of an acquired taste) is gueuze, a sour, refreshing beer made from a mix of different-aged lambics.

Kriek comes from lambic mixed with real cherries, and traditionally has a rather sour similar to Framboise, a slightly sweeter raspberry beer. Faro is a sweet beer with a short shelf-life (the caramel and sugar added to the lambic cause strong fermentation and possible explosions).

Seventy years ago there were some 50 family-run breweries in Brussels, but today the century-old Cantillon Brewery is the sole survivor. So grab an English-language leaflet and make your way around the ancient, and at times dusty, complex. Then head back to sample two of the brews on the house.

Other Belgium Attractions

The richly historic city of Antwerp is Belgium's most underrated tourist destination. Few places tangle the old and the new quite so enchantingly. Here eclectic Art Nouveau mansions stare back at Neo-Renaissance villas, and medieval castles provide a magical backdrop for the city's myriad bars and cafes.

Europe's best-preserved medieval city and Belgium's most visited town, this 13th-century 'living museum' was suspended in time five centuries ago by the silting of its river. Blessed with two medieval cores, the Markt and the Burg, the town also boasts some of the country's most compelling art collections.

The Ardennes
Home to deep river valleys and high forests, Belgium's southeast corner is often overlooked by travellers hopping between the old art towns and the capital. But here you'll find tranquil villages nestled into the grooves of the Meuse, Lesse and Ourthe valleys or sitting atop the verdant hills.

Nearly 60km (37mi) southwest of Antwerp is the city of Ghent (Gent in Flemish and Gand in French), once a medieval-era powerhouse due to its 14th-century status as the largest cloth producer in Europe, and rebellious when it came to tax increases. It is now the capital of the Flanders province of Oost-Vlaanderen and home to a significant university student population. The most famous medieval attraction in Ghent is inside the otherwise unremarkable St Baafskathedraal (St Baaf's Cathedral): a stunningly overwrought piece of art by 15th-century artist Jan Van Eyck called De Aanbidding van het Lams God (Adoration of the Mystic Lamb). It may sound like the title of a Frank Zappa song, but this 20-panel altarpiece with its allegorical portrait of Christ's death is thought to be one of the earliest-known oil paintings, not to mention a luminous work of genius.

Other Middle-Aged features of Ghent include Belfort, a 14th-century belfry that stretches up from Botermarkt and allows magnificent city views, and Gravensteen, an imposing 12th-century moated and turreted castle. Burdened with the unfortunate acronym SMAK, the Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (Museum of Contemporary Art) is worth a browse for its collection of Belgian artistry and the work of international gate-crashers like Warhol and Christo. Another decent local gallery is Museum voor Schone Kunsten (Museum of Fine Arts), which has Flemish Primitives like Rubens, Van Dyck and Delvaux on display.

Jeaneke Pis
Gender equality comes to kitschy peeing statues! Normally it's a cherubic Y chromosome-endowed micturator that gets a guernsey, but the girls strike back with Jeaneke-Pis. Sister of Mannekin Pis (the little boy weeing), she can be found in Brussels' central restaurant strip, Rue des Bouchers (Butcher's Street).

Menin Gate
Within the town of Ypres, this tragic memorial is inscribed with the names of 55,000 British and Commonwealth troops lost forever in the quagmire of the Flanders trenches during WWI. A bugler sounds the last post here every evening at 8pm.

Museum voor Schone Kunsten
This museum is well worth a couple of hours, particularly when combined with a visit to the nearby Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kinst (SMAK). The Flemish Primitives are well-represented, as are Reubens, Jordaens, Van Dyk, Ensor and Delvaux.

To the east, near the city of Liege, Tongeren has the honour (along with Tournai) of being Belgium's oldest town. Settled in 15 BC as a base for Roman troops, the town has an important collection of Gallo-Roman remains, and is surrounded by Roman and medieval walls.

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