A weekend in…
The enchanting downtown
Like in most of the Belgian cultural cities, Brussels’ gems can be found inside its historic centre. Between Mont des Arts (see page 19) at one end and Boulevard Anspach at the other, you can get lost in a most-atmospheric maze of narrow alleys and cobble
THE WORLD’S MOST BEAUTIFUL SQUARE
It might be a tad pompous to call your own square the most beautiful one in the world, but the Bruxellois have a good reason to do so. In 1837, legendary French writer Victor Hugo arrived in the city for the first time and called the square “a miracle”. The belfry of the Town Hall, he described as “a dazzling fantasy dreamed up by a poet and realised by an architect”. Still today, the square features in many listings of the most beautiful squares in the world. Nearly all of the buildings are neo-Gothic, which means that they are far younger than they appear; they were all rebuilt after 1695, after the French Sun King Louis XIV bombed the city. Almost all of the buildings are decorated with gold, and each has a name and a story of its own. When facing the town hall, the buildings on your right are among the lushest around. On the far left, you’ll see ‘In den Vos’, a building that was intended to represent the honesty of the city’s tradesmen. The blindfolded statue in the centre illustrates justice, while the other four statues show the four continents that were known back then. The building next to it (Den Hoorn)
was the headquarters of the city's sailors. Most of its decorations have a maritime theme; others point in the four directions the wind blows. Like these, every building has its own story. On the left-hand side of the town hall, you’ll see the gold-covered house of the Dukes of Brabant, which was the home of six guilds. The bas-reliefs still show which six trades they represented. The 18 serious statues above the second row of windows are the Dukes of Brabant, who gave their name to the building.
The queen of the square is the town hall and its belfry. This building was the only one to partially survive the bombing. The decorations you see today are neo-Gothic, but the structure dates back to the Gothic era. While the building looks symmetrical at first, you will soon notice that the belfry doesn’t stand centrally in the building and that the door does not sit straight underneath the peak. The legend states that the architect only noticed this when the building was finished, and that it infuriated him so much that he climbed to the top and jumped off it. In reality, the errors are simply the consequence of a long building history with many redesigns, and the architect in fact died at home of old age.
Facing the town hall is the Maison du Roi. Unlike what its name suggests, no king has ever slept in it. It was originally the residence of the Dukes of Brabant. After that, it was used as the office of the tax collector, a court, and even a jail. Today, this neo-Gothic building houses the Brussels City Museum. Here, you can discover the history of the city and get close and personal with the original Manneken Pis (for the replica, see page 34).
This statue can be found on the corner on the left side of the town hall and shows a dying Everard ‘t Serclaes. After the Dukes of Flanders conquered the city from the Dukes of Brabant in 1356, Brussels became a place of suppression. After four months, ‘t Serclaes sneaked his way into the town hall, climbed the building, and rose the flag of Brabant again. This ignited the fighting spirit in the citizens and, after a fierce battle, they reclaimed the city. ‘t Serclaes became a hero, but 20 years later, during the next battle (this time against the Dutch ruler William I), the old man was ambushed on the road. His tongue was cut out and he died five days later. The anger of the citizens over the murder ignited the fight once more and finally led to their victory. Rumour has it that if you rub the arm of this statue, you will return to Brussels once more. That is why the arm of ‘t Serclaes is still as shiny as ever.
Grand Place (Gare Central, metro 1 and 5; Bourse, tram 3 and 4). Brussels City Museum. €8 (discounts available). Open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm.
Rue des Bouchers is the beating heart of the Îlot Sacré (see page 17). Its ancient façades envelop plenty of warm, Belgian restaurants. The street, therefore, indulges all your senses. Gaze at its colourful lights and atmospheric busyness at nightfall and explore Belgian gastronomy by scent and taste, but beware that some restaurants here can be a tad overpriced for the quality they offer. Mere metres from Rue des Bouchers, you’ll enter the Delirium Café, Brussels’ most popular beer temple and a popular hang-out for tourists and locals alike.
Rue des Bouchers (Gare Central, metro 1 and 5). Restaurants tend to open at 12pm for lunch and at 5pm or 6pm for dinner.
THE KING, QUEEN AND PRINCE
The gallery complex of Saint-Hubert is simply breathtaking. It consists of three stunning corridors: the King’s Gallery, the Queen’s Gallery and the Prince’s Gallery. It’s hard to imagine that this feat of engineering has been around for nearly two centuries already. In total, the gallery is 230 metres long and eight metres high. Its awe-inspiring glass roof floods the galleries with natural light. Alongside the corridor, you’ll find some of the finest boutiques in Brussels. Besides chocolate and jewellery shops, it also counts design boutiques, bars, bookshops and an art-house cinema. In 1896, the gallery was the setting of the first movie screening in Belgium – overseen by the inventors of cinema, the brothers Lumière themselves. And by the way, the location of the galleries couldn’t be better: the Prince’s Gallery ends in the atmospheric Îlot Sacré (see page 17).
Entrance at Place du Marché aux Herbes. Free admission. Open 24/7.
The opera building today known as La Monnaie is not the first to carry this name. Since 1700, a total of three eponymous opera houses have stood in this exact spot. The current building is a mid-19th-century reconstruction of the building from 1819. On 25 August 1830, a performance of the opera La Muette de Portici ignited the patriotism of the spectators and led to the Belgian Revolution, which was fought in front of the Belgian Royal Palace (see page 42). A little under one year later (on 21 July 1931), the Belgian declaration of independence was signed.
Place de la Monnaie (De Brouckere, metro 1 and 5; tram 3 and 4). Ticket prices and opening times vary.
ECONOMY AND CULTURE
This monumental building, which used to house the stock exchange and was the beating heart of the Belgian economy, is now a huge events space and cultural temple that only welcomes the most important exhibitions. The lion’s share of the year, the building isn’t open to the public. Yet, every so often, it hosts high-profile art exhibitions. In front of the building – on the Place de la Bourse – you’ll find street artists and people chatting. In the aftermath of the 2016 bombings of Brussels’ metro and airport, the stairs of the building and square have become an impromptu memorial. Boulevard Anspach, the road that runs on both sides of Place de la Bourse, is often regarded as the border between the old town and the touristy area. On the other side, you’ll walk the streets of the hip Sainte-Catherine and Saint-Géry neighbourhoods (see page 36).
Place de la Bourse (Bourse, tram 3 and 5; De Brouckere, metro 1 and 5). Admission fees and opening times vary.
THE FORGOTTEN CATHEDRAL
While in most cities, the cathedral marks the historic heart and centre for tourists, the Cathédrale Saints-Michel-et-Gudule is located at the edge of the old town. Few tourists pass here, almost turning it into a hidden gem. A Baroque cathedral with two towers adorning the nave, it looks like a slender copy of the Notre Damme in Paris. Over the course of the last 700 years, the cathedral has been the setting of many an official event: royal marriages, baptisms and funerals; Te Deums… the works. Since 2004, the tower is also the home of a couple of peregrine falcons. Through their cameras, biologists and bird spotters follow their every move.
Rue du Bois Sauvage 15 (Gare Centrale, metro 1 and 5; most NMBS-SNCB trains). Free admission. Open from 7am to 6pm on weekdays, from 8am to 5pm on Saturday and from 1pm to 6pm on Sunday. Also open during mass.