A travel journal
to Brussels by billmoy
Quote: Ever since my first visit to Brussels in 1991, I have thought that this cosmopolitan city is much underrated. If Paris did not exist, everyone would be talking about how wonderful the city of Brussels is. It is called Bruxelles in French and Brussel in Flemish.
As the capital of Belgium, Brussels is at the forefront for those who seek the best that the country has to offer. You can find a variety of top-notch beers, chocolates, foods, fries and waffles all over town. Locals may have a wide range of their own favorite choices. It is just a matter of taste as far as which ones become your favorites, and all that matters to you is that they all taste great. You really cannot go wrong once you are in the upper echelon of chocolate shops, for instance.
There is a lookout just west of the Palace of Justice, a point where the Upper Town and Lower Town sections of Brussels collide. There is a glass elevator that connects the two areas at this point. You can see the Atomium from here on a clear (or a rainy) day.
Officially Brussels is a bilingual city, with equal parts French and Flemish as far as addresses and such go. From my own experience, it seems that French is more predominant in Brussels, although in certain neighborhoods the reverse is true. English is an unofficial third language.
The trains are convenient, but if want to save a few euro, try Eurolines. A bus from Brussels (Gare du Nord) to Amsterdam (Amstel) is only 15 euro one way and takes about four hours. The equivalent train is an hour faster, but costs at least twice as much. Note that the Eurolines stations are not at the most central locations, but they are adjacent to major transportation stations and you can easily access the respective central stations with a bit of effort.
The main airport of Brussels, Zaventem, is easy to reach via local train. There are several trains an hour between the airport and central Brussels. Note that there are three main train stations in the center. Gare Centrale lives up to its name, being a few short blocks from the Grand Place. Gare Centrale is sandwiched by Gare du Nord (North - near the World Trade Center area and convenient for the Eurolines buses) and the Gare du Midi (Zuid or South – near the high-speed Eurostar trains).
An alternate airport to Brussels Zaventem is Charleroi or "Brussels South" (budget airline Ryanair flies here), about 30 miles from central Brussels.
If you enjoyed this article, please take a look at my journals on ANTWERP, GHENT and MECHELEN.
The Alfa Louise Hotel is in a modern mid-rise along the famed Avenue Louise, which branches off in a southeasterly direction from central Brussels. You can walk to the hotel from Gare Centrale, but it will be a substantial half-hour walk. I made the error of thinking that the hotel was about two blocks from the beginning of Avenue Louise, with addresses rolling to the next hundred after every new block. Not so! The numbers increase gradually in Brussels and seemingly every number is used along the way, so it was many blocks before the 212 address popped up. A steady Brussels drizzle did not make the walk seem any shorter. It is more advisable to hop on one of the modern trams that go down Avenue Louise.
The lobby area is small, similar to one that might belong to a small condominium building. There are some newspapers and brochures if you are killing some time here. The hotel has only a total of 40 rooms on its ten floors, so there are only four rooms per floor. Therefore the hallways are very short and minimally decorated so no endless walks to your room. Each guest room feels like a small apartment or condominium. My spacious and comfortable room had two double beds with amenities like a minibar, cable TV, and a safe. Business travelers will enjoy working at the large writing desk in the rooms. The balcony allowed me to feel like the king of Avenue Louise.
My breakfast buffet was included during my stay. The hotel has a bar with a pool table and piano music on the main level. There are three conference rooms that are available for business meetings.
If this hotel could be magically transported to within a few blocks of the Grand Place, I would give a big yes vote to the Alfa Louise. As it is, the hotel is a pleasant property and you are within lots of upscale shopping and little Art Nouveau gems.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on April 20, 2004
Alfa Louise Hotel
AVE LOUISE LOUISELAAN 212
Brussels, Belgium 1050
Hotel | "Brussels Marriott Hotel"
The entrance has one of those automatic revolving doors, so just hop in and do not push the glass. The lobby has that Marriott look to it, bright red and spacious with plush seating to hang out while waiting for your slower companions. There is a popular bar here where you can get a free cup of coffee or tea or step up and pay for a stiff drink. The front desk is manned with helpful staff members who are more than happy to hand you a free map of Brussels. The elevators are fast, but they seem slower because they are activated by your room key card (a good safety precaution, I suppose).
The Marriott has six floors and 218 rooms, with a fitness room and sauna in the lower level. My room with two double beds was on the highest level. Again the furnishings sport the Marriott look, with a red and yellow color scheme on the walls, carpet, bedspreads. Very comfortable, very familiar, very Marriott. Loads of amenities here, including cable TV, in-room safe, one bathrobe, plenty of tables and lamps and chairs. The bathroom is a good size and features Neutrogena products. The window is the most atypical feature, a small round window that looks like a porthole or a “painting” of a scene in Brussels. The window does flip open and if you stand on a chair, you can look outside onto the street level and get a more expansive view of the city. If you want a larger window, ask for another floor. It appears there are some rooms that have large windows which open up to create a small balcony effect.
Breakfast is generally not included, but if you are a businessman or tourist with money to burn check out the selections at Brasserie le Sauvoir, just past the front desk area. The buffet includes a complete selection of hot and cold items, beverages, and plenty of it. You can ask for a made-to-order omelet, which is a nice touch. Otherwise, grab a plate and dig in amongst the sweet rolls, fresh fruit, potatoes, cereals, yogurts, sliced cheeses and meats. There is nothing particularly Belgian about this early feast, but it is all as good and healthy as you wish it to be. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner too.
The Marriott is a very pleasant hotel in a great up and coming location of central Brussels. There are plenty of good dining and shopping choices around. No surprises here, but that is what the international traveler wants from a Marriott.
RUE Auguste ORTS 3-7 Grand Pl
Brussels, Belgium 1000
You will note that the atmosphere is rather formal and old-fashioned, with white tablecloths and impeccably outfitted male waiters. This is a “man’s restaurant” where you would expect a traditional and typical “local” meal, prepared in a delicious manner of course. Careful once you pass through the revolving door, as there is not much of a foyer space and you may stumble into people in the way. The general warning about watching for pickpockets is a nice touch, but I suspect the way you will lose some euros here will be on whatever you decide to order. The brasserie has a dark and cozy look with some booths, while the bodega room is a little brighter with modern art on the walls.
I ordered a set menu plan for dinner and added on a beer. I was a bit surprised that the beer lineup was not more extensive, as I settled for a so-so glass of Primus. This says a lot about the superb quality of the complete meal when the Belgian beer is the weak link of the evening. My starter was a delicious bowl of creamy tomato soup, which I can honestly say this was the best tomato soup I have ever tasted. The slices of French bread went well with the soup. The appetizer was a generous plate of sliced Ardennes ham, loaded with streaks of fat but that is what makes it so good. The entree was chicken stuffed with endives, soaked in mushroom gravy and accompanied with fries, a combination that clicked for my palate. The dessert was a rich chocolate mousse, and one can see why the chocolate is so famous in Belgium. The set menu does offer a decent number of choices, so you can enjoy one of their numerous fish specialties as an appetizer or entree. The rest of the impressive list goes on and on, like a bucket of mussels with fries, rack of lamb, beef stewed in beer, pepper steak in a cream sauce, lobster, eels, pancakes flambé, sorbet, etc.
The establishment is rather large, and it well stocked with large and small gatherings of splurging locals and tourists, but the service is impeccable. Celebrities and royalty have been known to dine here over the years. Sit back and enjoy the excellent cuisine food as the waiters gracefully glide about with heaps of plates. The restaurant is closed on Mondays.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on April 20, 2004
Aux Armes de Bruxelles
Beenhouwersstraat 13 Rue des Bouchers
Brussels, Belgium 1000
+32 2 511 55 50
The cozy interiors carry on the scheme of the exterior signage, with grids of colored glass embedded in the walls. I came here early one Saturday evening and the crowd was rather light. At the conclusion of my meal, the restaurant was packed with perky people who came through the unlocked door, so arrive early if you do not want to be disappointed.
The young staff here is friendly and accommodating without being annoying. I seemingly was served by every member of the crew during my dinner experience. I ordered veal chops, which were scrumptious. The chops were accompanied with cherry tomato and a potato and leek "pie", which was basically a stack of scalloped potatoes with bits of leek in between. The presentation was elegant and the taste was wonderful. Other excellent entrees include fish, steak and caramelized duck, along with good options for vegetarians. For dessert I had an apple tart with honey flavored ice cream (that’s a new one on me), all subtly sweet and edged with a sprig of mint leaf.
The list of drinks is nice, from Belgian beers like a glass of Vedett to wines to champagne. The bar area is deep in the interior if you are waiting for your table. The music selections are jazzy and offer a refined atmosphere for the romantic couples to enjoy. There are plenty of larger groups as well, celebrating the fact that they will soon enjoy a delicious and well-crafter meal here.
Bonsoir Clara is closed for lunch on weekends, and there is a long siesta between the lunch and dinner sessions on other days. If one of the doors is not open, be sure to try the other one!
Antoine Dansaertstraat 22-26 Rue Antoine Dansaert
Brussels, Belgium 1000
+32 2 502 09 90
Its unassuming storefront with the red awnings and orange signage has a glass window where you can see various baked goods (including my beloved waffles) on display before you walk in. Inside are some more items behind a glass counter, including sandwiches, quiches, croissants, cookies, etc. These selections are great for a continental breakfast or a light lunch. You can enjoy your food in the smallish dining area or take it to go.
Now here a few words about my favorite waffles. Crousty sells the regular waffles that you can get at other stands across Brussels, sweet hand-held disks that are fine treats. I personally love their rectangular waffles that are stuffed with fruit. They are sort of like a cross between a regular waffle and a Pop Tart. You can get cherry, apricot or apple fillings in the waffle, and there are actual pieces of fruit inside, not a jam or puree. Just to show you, the cherry waffles may contain a cherry pit or two, so bite down carefully! Each of these fruity waffles cost 1.50 euros and is a lovely treat cold or gently heated. This is not the piled-high Belgian waffle you would get at an American pancake house, and this is not one of those waffles coated with chocolate or powdered sugar, but whenever I am in Brussels I make the pilgrimage to Crousty to buy some cherry-filled waffles (cerise in French). I suppose it is a matter of taste, but I do like these better than their more famous and familiar counterparts. Try one for a tasty snack, or as your dessert with a light lunch.
Crousty is just west of the Grand Place, around which there are dozens of rival waffle shops in the neighborhood. Just walk to the northwest corner of this intersection, and try not to smash up your car to get here before the shop closes up for the evening.
2 Rue Des Fripiers
32 2 218 4736
For a somewhat nondescript plaza, it has a certain urbane romantic charm to it. There are a few park benches where you can enjoy your food, there is a fountain with a sculpture, and the brownish polygonal kiosk itself has a certain benign appearance. I sat on a bench during a surprisingly sunny afternoon in Brussels (reason to celebrate right there) and soaked in the distinctively European ambience here. Buses and cars roll by; ladies with baby strollers roll by. Even garbage collectors roll by. . . but they actually stop by for a bite to eat!
There is a menu posted with a decent variety of fast food. The star here is the fries, served in a big heap inside a paper cone. The fries come in large and small cones and cost less than two euro, but even the small order is a very generous portion. Belgian fries are known to be crisp, usually because they are deep fried twice. No mushy fries here, although my order seemingly was fried several more times for extra bite. Surprisingly the fries are not overly greasy. There is a wide selection of funky sauces that you can add on, including the always popular (in Belgium anyway) mayonnaise. They are not free, but cost 50 cents a pack.
The menu lists sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs, kebabs, cheese sticks and other items you can order. My lunch was a "shaorma burger", which turned out to be like a veggie burger with a flat falafel-like patty and a tangy sauce on a bun. It was not bad with the fries though.
The lunch crowd is brisk, so be prepared for a line at times. The kiosk has a bit of shallow counter space if you want to stand up and wolf down your order, but the benches are more relaxing. Maison Antoine is open every day and has late hours if you are still hungry past midnight.
1 Place Jourdan
Attraction | "Dandoy"
Just a walk into the store is like a visit to a historic baking museum. The front of the store has a glass counter and shelves with various treats, and the back of the shop is filled with more specialized goodies on display. The walls are decorated with old handcrafted wooden cookie molds, which take on various characters and shapes and now act like sculptural reliefs. There are various metal cookie tins with colorful and unique designs on them. These usually become collectors’ items, like the ones bearing likenesses of the royal family of Belgium. A popular tin is a tall pointed container which is a three-dimensional image of the storefront itself, a bit self-congratulatory but still a clever design, since where else should one get a cookie from than from the Dandoy shop itself?
Some of the specialties cranked out by Dandoy include speculoos, a gingerbread-like cookie made of cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar, cloves and butter. The term is derived from a Latin word for mirror, and these cookies have the image of Sint-Nicolas and are an early Christmas treat for the kids. The Pain d’amandes is a thinner and more delicate spinoff of the speculoos, with almond bits. These remind me of those old-fashioned almond windmill cookies, but Dandoy’s are much tastier. There are other delectable goodies that are similar to what we may know as macaroons, butter cookies, shortbread and fruit cake.
Dandoy produces various seasonal specials. During my visit in March, there were many Easter-themed items such as cookies in the shapes of rabbits and chicks, along with a slew of cute Easter baskets filled with treats shaped like eggs and animals. They even have a sort of raisin cake that is baked only on Wednesdays, and it is so good that dedicated locals are sure to queue for some to take home.
Maison J. Dandoy
Boterstraat 31 Rue au Beurre
Brussels, Belgium 1000
+32 2 511 03 26
Attraction | "Planete Chocolat"
Pretend you are the "Willy Wonka" of this factory during a demonstration here. Listen to a background summary on the history of chocolate around the world. Your host will mention the very elements of chocolate, such as a description of cocoa beans and cocoa powders, the differences between the chocolates (dark, milk and white), the manufacturing processes that are involved, temperatures of the processed chocolates, etc. It was interesting to see how molded trays are used to create the carefully crafted chocolates and pralines, which are filled chocolates or bonbons. The tour concludes with a few samples of the finished products, a beautiful variety of chocolates and pralines with a range of flavors and fillings. Kids, the cognac pralines are an adult treat! Scheduled demonstrations take place on Saturday afternoons, and reservations should be made in advance for large groups.
The store has a selection of the great products that you have just witnessed and sampled. The literature proclaims that the candies are all hand-made (not mass-produced) and contain 100% pure cocoa butter. No preservatives or artificial colors are used here. A unique gift is a "bouquet" of chocolate flowers, featuring a cellophane wrapped bunch of thin and delicate chocolate planks embossed with floral patterns. This is an attractive novelty, if you do not drop them or eat them on the way home. A select box of chocolates is a bit easier to transport and just as delicious.
The adjacent cafe is a casual place for a snack or light meal. You can choose items like sandwiches, salads, omelets, quiches, pastas, or just have a dessert like cake or hot chocolate. I ordered a croque monsieur, which is basically a toasted ham and cheese sandwich. It was accompanied with a small side salad. These are pedestrian items that you can get at most diners, so stick with the chocolates if you want a strictly heavenly experience. There are a few outdoor cafe seats during the warmer months.
The store is open every day, while the cafe is closed on Mondays. There is something called a "tea dance" on Sunday evenings, and the cafe can be rented out for receptions.
Lombardstraat 24 Rue Lombard
Brussels, Belgium 1000
+32 2 511 07 55
Attraction | "Grand Place"
The unity of appearance within the Grand Place is no accident. Brussels was pummeled by the French in 1695, and somehow much of the City Hall (also called the Hotel de Ville in French and the Stadhuis in Flemish) was not destroyed. This allowed for architects a unique opportunity to create a work of urban design that is remarkably refined and cohesive. Most of the guildhalls were constructed with Italian-Flemish Baroque facades from 1695 to 1700 to complement the Gothic City Hall, although they have been thoroughly renovated since then. The rectangular plaza (about 360 feet long and 225 feet wide) does not follow the compass points exactly, but we will call the longer sides the “northern” and “southern” sides.
The largest building of the Grand Place is the City Hall, which was begun in 1402 and occupies most of the southern side of the square. The Lions’ Staircase, a good spot to take some photos, was the former main entrance. The majestic tower (315 feet high) was added in 1455 by architect Jan Van Ruysbroeck. It is topped by a statue of St. Michael, the patron saint of Brussels. The facade looks asymmetrical due to the location of the tower, but it is composed of a certain number of bays, and the effect is that the design of the building defers to the overall appearance of the square. A fabricated legend has it that the architect had jumped off the top of the tower when he realized the supposedly erroneous spotting of the tower. The local tourism office is located here if you want to pick up some free brochures.
The counterpoint on the northern side is the King’s House (Maison du Roi), although no king has actually resided here. It was rebuilt and completed in 1895 based after its earlier appearance of 1515. The Musee de la Ville de Bruxelles is located here, including the collection of delicate and bizarre outfits of the Manneken Pis. The House of the Dukes of Brabant (1698) occupies the eastern side of the square. It actually contains six separate guildhalls, although it looks like one large and unified elevation. The rest of the square is filled in with the skinny and decorated facades of the guildhalls. The various buildings house shops, restaurants, as well as museums dedicated to brewing and chocolates. No one facade stands out, but they put forth a team effort and a beautiful visual whole is the grand result.
Grand Place (Grote Markt)
Brussels, Belgium 1000
Attraction | "Events in the Grand Place"
There is the annual Brussels Jazz Marathon in May, featuring musicians at various venues across the city. There is a temporary stage at the Grand Place for free featured musical acts along with food and beer available for purchase. The weather can be miserable, but the skies do not seem so gray with a waffle, a cherry beer, and mellow jazz music wafting in the confines of the plaza.
The annual Ommegang procession is based on a magnificent parade attended by Emperor Charles V in 1549. The origins actually can be traced back to 1359 after a special statue of the Virgin Mary was transported from Antwerp to the Eglise Notre-Dame-du-Sablon. Originally more somber and religious in nature, the Ommegang is now more of a mini-carnival with a procession of guilds, locals dressed up in velvety medieval period costumes, and performers balanced on precariously tall stilts. There are 3000 reserved seats on temporary bleachers within the Grand Place. If you do not have tickets, try to watch the flag processions and horse parades on one of the side streets leading towards the square. Otherwise you can get some free peeks here and there. This memorable event usually takes place on the first Thursday in July.
The famous Carpet of Flowers covers almost the entire Grand Place only once every two years, although the way the scene is depicted on every postcard rack in the city would lead you to believe that this horticultural spectacle takes place every day. The floral carpet, which includes over 700,000 begonias, usually lasts for only three days and is held the second weekend of every even-year August (in 2004 it is scheduled for August 13 to 15). The design of these amazing temporary floral tapestries is different every two years.
The Grand Place supports a European Christmas Market in December, featuring food, drink, music and chilly yuletide cheer. You may witness a "crib" with live animals stationed here. As winter continues, there is a public skating rink in the plaza.
Attraction | "Manneken-Pis"
This famous fountain is located three short blocks south of the Grand Place. If you are expecting a larger than life display, you will be disappointed. It is a tiny and dark bronze statuette that is fenced in at a corner. It is amusing to see the “little man” (or Manneken) do its civic duty, which was originally to supply water to its district. During certain festivals, the boy pees beer or wine, which may represent the real-life routines of many hard drinkers everywhere. Perhaps even more interesting is to watch the expressions on the faces of tourists as they look at the mischievous figure. Shops around the fountain sell loads of Manneken-Pis T-shirts and trinkets.
The fountain, also nicknamed “Little Julian”, was the work of sculptor Jerome Duquesnoy the Elder in 1619. It is said that the boy is a symbol of the general attitude of the locals, who like to think of themselves as having a playful sense of humor and individuality despite serious outward appearances. Despite its reputation as a bit of pop culture, it actually has its merits as a fine work of art, as Duquesnoy was no slouch as a sculptor. Over the years the statue has been stolen, smashed, recovered, restored, and it is still ticking.
I was fortunate enough to witness a costume change one morning. The boy is only occasionally dressed with an outfit on special dates. The statue is fenced off and slightly elevated, so a maintenance man with a ladder has to let himself in with a key. He has to turn off the water during a changeover, as otherwise the outfits (and the man) would become soaked. Supposedly the man has an occasional bit of fun by turning up the water pressure so that the boy “pees” on the crowd, but on this day he was very businesslike. Each outfit has a slot through which the boy’s you-know-what slides through. The dressing process takes about ten minutes or so, and the tourists are oh so ready with cameras in hand to snap the statue in its “new” garb. There is a small sign on the fence that proclaims what the theme of the outfit is for that day.
The Musee de la Ville de Bruxelles, which is located in the King’s House (Maison du Roi) on the northern side of the Grand Place, actually contains the stunning wardrobe of the Manneken-Pis. The lucky boy statue has hundreds of outfits, although many have been retired.
Manneken Pis Fountain Sculpture
Rue De L'etuve/Stoofstraat
Brussels, Belgium 1000
The house, built from 1898 to 1901, is on a quiet residential street just outside of central Brussels and about two miles south of the Grand Place. The museum celebrates the house itself of course, but it also commemorates the life and career of the architect. Most of his finest Art Nouveau works were produced within a 10-year span hugging the turn of the century. His later career displayed more Art Deco tendencies (such as his Palais des Beaux-Arts, built in 1928, and the Gare Centrale), and these designs are less ballyhooed than his earlier works.
The exterior is stylish but simple, which is very typical of Horta. This is very different from the gaudy tendencies of the legendary Barcelona architect Antoni Gaudi, who created wild and flamboyant exteriors. Horta preferred to concentrate the lavishness on the interiors. The exterior is so understated that one can easily bypass the building if one did not know the exact address. The stone facade with golden brown details certainly is attractive enough, with gentle curves that are the trademark of Horta’s hand. The building to its right was originally Horta’s studio and it couples handsomely with the house. The studio is now a privately owned house, and some of its windows have been changed over the years.
Horta was proud to have designed everything within the house, including the furniture, wall decorations, and the doors. He believed that the architecture and interior decoration should be a total and unified work of art. The staircase is perhaps the finest element of the building. The graceful blending of wood and wrought iron is enhanced by the curving stained-glass ceiling, mirrors and the floral wall patterns. It can get crowded in here, so just relax and admire the harmonious details of the superbly restored interiors. The museum also contains a library, study center, offices and spaces for temporary exhibitions. Fragments of destroyed buildings by Horta are kept in a back area. The best of his former structures was the Maison du Peuple, an 1895 building housing political headquarters that was regarded as the most important example of the Franco-Belgian Art Nouveau style. In deference to the interests of developers it was demolished in 1965 despite the pleas of architectural preservationists.
The Musee Horta is open only in the afternoons from 2pm to 530pm, and it is closed Mondays. It is a healthy walk from the center of town, so it may be better to take one of the trams that go down or near Avenue Louise, from which you would walk a few short blocks. The museum has been surprisingly popular over the years and it is an essential visit for architecture buffs. Photographs are not allowed of the interiors.
25 Rue Americaine
First a bit about the building, designed by the great Belgian architect Victor Horta and a work of art in itself. The Art Nouveau structure was designed in 1903 as the Maison Waucquez department store, so it has large picture windows along its horizontal two-story front. The building was on the verge of demolition, but fortunately this museum found a home here in 1989 after a thorough renovation. As usual, Horta’s interiors are splashier, as you stand in the atrium entrance hall with tiled floors, colorfully glazed surfaces, and bold iron structural framing. A street lamp welcomes visitors along with comic elements like Tintin’s red and white rocket ship. The ground floor houses a souvenir shop, a cafe, and a display focusing on the history of this building. If you are not big on Belgian and French comics, this may be the extent of your visit.
Climb the grand central staircase with its elegant iron balustrades to buy your admission ticket. The museum houses thousands of original plates by the great comic strip writers and illustrators, with a strong lean towards those produced within Belgium. If you do not understand French, a lot of these works will go over your head. The drawings and images are amusing enough though, and the great comics should be able to transcend language barriers anyway. There are tributes to the most popular cartoon stars and their creators. Characters such as Tintin, the Smurfs, Gaston Lagaffe and Lucky Luke get their due here. Informative displays explain the various stages of a comic strip, from story board to drawing and coloring to printing. Do not forget to look around and appreciate the details of the Horta building itself.
The Belgian Centre for Comic Strip Art is closed on Mondays, as are most museums in Brussels.
Comic aficionados will enjoy looking for colorful murals scattered about the city. Used to spruce up blank walls of buildings, the comic strip murals illustrate various characters and themes with subtle references to landmarks around Brussels.
Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinee
20 Rue des Sables
The Museum of Ancient Art was designed in a neoclassical style by Alphonse Balat in 1874. It features the great Flemish and Dutch Old Masters like Rubens, Bruegels, Bosch, Van der Weyden, Memling, Van Dyck, Jordaens, Hals, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. This is not exactly the Louvre (but that is an unfair comparison), but it is a very solid collection of art that any visitor will appreciate.
The Museum of Modern Art occupies the ground floor of the original building and the newer wing burrowed underground. My favorite pre-20th Century masterpiece here is the 1793 work "Death of Marat" by the chameleon-like French painter Jacques-Louis David. The main core of the new gallery is a circuit that goes down, sort of like a bunkered version of the great Frank Lloyd Wright spiral at the New York Guggenheim Museum. The new wing features two rooms; one each devoted to Belgian superstars Rene Magritte and Paul Delvaux. Many of your favorite modern artists are here – Ensor, Matisse, Picasso, Chagall, Dali, Miro, Ernst, Bacon, Moore, Segal, Flavin, and many more.
South of the museum complex is a pleasant sculpture garden, with the figures intermingling with nature. "The River", a stunning sculpture considered to be Maillol’s last masterpiece, is a nude woman squirming afloat a reflecting pool. There are a few benches in this practically unnoticed garden.
The museum complex is closed on Mondays, and there is a mandatory coat check for security reasons. Some galleries are closed during the lunch hour, and there is a chart showing the daily projected closings. The art shop and cafeteria will help you spend your extra euros.
Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique
3 Rue de la Regence
The Atomium was designed by architect Andre Waterkeyn in 1958 as the symbolic centerpiece for the World Fair in Brussels. It consists of nine spheres, constructed of steel coated with aluminum, which are linked by 22 tubes. Each sphere has a diameter of 59 feet, and the highest point of 335 feet can be reached by elevator in under a half-minute. The viewing gallery will offer you interesting views of Brussels, although keep in mind that you are not that close to the central city. The top pod has a restaurant besides the viewing platform. There are also spaces within the spheres for temporary exhibitions. Note that from the lookout just west of the Palace of Justice in the center of town, keen eyes will spot the Atomium miles away as a shiny little jack in the landscape.
The Atomium is scheduled for a thorough renovation which seems to be gradually taking place but should last until at least 2005. It is easily accessible by Metro as well as bus, tram or car. The nearby Metro stop is Heysel, named after the adjacent soccer stadium where an infamous riot in May 1985 took the lives of 38 spectators in the stands.
The nearby Brupark entertainment complex is geared towards grabbing the tourism euro. Mini-Europe is a collection of miniature recreations of European landmarks, if you are too busy to see the real things (look for the Petit Place, or should I say the miniature Grand Place). At the other extreme, the Kinepolis cinema with about 30 screens and an IMAX auditorium compose the largest movie theater complex in Europe. The Oceade water park falls in line somewhere here. Le Village is a string of touristy restaurants and bars.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on April 20, 2004
Brussels, Belgium 1020
32 (0)2 475 47 75
Officially opening in 1998, the two main buildings have polished stainless steel and reflective glass exteriors that shimmer in baby blues and grays in the sun but seem to magnify the general paleness of the skies above on bleaker days. These glossy edifices are accented with facings of marble and granite, grandiose styling that has earned the complex the nickname “Whim of the Gods.” The west building, adjacent to the Quartier Leopold train station, has the principal entrance to the complex and the visitors’ information center. This is a good place to pick up some cool free souvenirs like maps of the European Union in the European language of your choice (some stacks are smaller than others), tiny books which list the fundamental rights of all EU citizens, and informative brochures. Take the stairs to the upper level for more brochures (mostly in more obscure languages) and relax in a comfy seat, or look at a few reproductions of Rodin works. While the west building is a somewhat uneven rectangular block with a wavy main elevation, the east building is a more pristine elliptical form. There is a semicircular vault in the middle that pays a vague nod to the glorious Galeries Saint-Hubert.
Individual visitors to the European Parliament do not need advance reservations. You can go on an audio-guided visit into the Hemicycle of the European Parliament on weekdays at 10am and 3pm, with the afternoon visit eliminated on Fridays. Fortunate groups can even see actual debates when the Parliament is in session. The Hemicycle of the elliptical building is the featured element designed by architect Michel Boucquillon. A tour here is not necessarily fun, but it can be an educational experience.
The thoroughly modern buildings are located on grounds that still seem a bit underdeveloped, although the flowering trees in the immediate area and the parade of member nation flags are attractive. The Parc Leopold is down at the foot of the eastern slope of the hill, and these bucolic grounds feature a natural history museum, a small pond and a basketball court.
60 Rue Wiertz
Attraction | "Sablon"
The Eglise Notre-Dame-du-Sablon is a dainty Flamboyant Gothic church that separates the two plazas. The original church dates back to 1304 when it was a small chapel for the Crossbowmen’s Guild. It has been enlarged over the years because it became a pilgrimage site for those wishing to see a special statue of the Virgin Mary which was transported from Antwerp in 1359. The interiors are famed for its tall (over 40 feet high) and beautiful stained glass windows and a Baroque-style chapel. Currently its front elevation is unfortunately under a veil of scaffolding while it is undergoing renovation.
The Place du Grand-Sablon is regarded by some as the most elegant square in Brussels. The elongated plaza is surrounded by fancy restaurants, hotels, elegant houses and antique shops. The Grand-Sablon butts into the side of the Notre-Dame-du-Sablon, and the plaza gently slopes down with its pointed end towards the Lower Town. A flea market takes place here on weekends. It was fascinating to observe some experienced movers gently lowering a grand piano from an upper level of a building to the ground. Something called a "Chocolate Passion Festival" is held in the Grand-Sablon every odd February.
One can be confused by the name of the Place du Petit-Sablon, as you would think that this would be an insignificant square that would pale in comparison with the Grand-Sablon. This could not be further from the truth. Although they share practically the same name, the Grand-Sablon is more of an active urban plaza while the Petit-Sablon is more of a contemplative park. The Petit-Sablon was designed by Henri Beyaert in 1890 and includes railings by Paul Hankar. The gated square is formal in design and includes many statues of humanists intermingling with the trimmed shrubbery. The perimeter includes a series of 48 bronze statues on columns, each one representing a local guild of Brussels. In the middle of the park is a statue of the Counts of Egmont and Hornes, both executed in the Grand Place in 1568 as a result of rebelling against Spanish rule. The park is very peaceful and a nice place to relax within the urban jungle of Brussels. Watch out for the pigeons lest they think you are one of the statues.
Antiekmarkt Zavel/Marché des Antiquités et du Livre du Sablon
Grote Zavelplein/Place du Grand Sablon
Brussels, Belgium 1000
+32 2 219 47 36
Attraction | "Galeries Saint-Hubert"
The use of the glass arcades was a technological advancement that allowed for the unification of what otherwise would be a regular street of shops into a cohesive whole. The threat of poor weather would be eliminated in a covered environment, yet the glass allowed sunlight to penetrate into the street level below and allow for a more pleasant atmosphere. This was important, because the weather in Brussels can be frequently gray and gloomy. This design set the table for later developments, such as the vaunted Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan. Unfortunately, the concept eventually was bastardized by the typically ghastly American suburban shopping centers.
Galeries Saint-Hubert actually is composed of three arcades: the Galeries du Roi (King’s Gallery), the Galerie de la Reine (Queen’s Gallery), and the smaller Galeries des Princes (Princes’ Gallery). The elegant mauve-hued elevations are Italian Renaissance in appearance with three levels of pilastered and Palladian windows. The semicircular glazed vaulting is supported by thin metal frames. This allows for the end facades to take on a particularly attractive shape and appearance, with classical statues in niches peering over the shoppers below. The ground is laid with thick stone pavers that have endured heavy foot traffic over the years. It is said that the pavers need to be replaced soon because they are approaching the thin side, but the risk of closing off sections for construction is that business would be heavily dampened.
The motto “Omnibus omnia” (“Everything for everybody”) appears above one of the entrances. The shops here include famous bookstores that have been there seemingly forever, swanky cafes and luxury goods emporiums. There are other outlets in town selling the great Neuhaus Belgian chocolates, but the shop here is credited as the location where the first praline was invented. The upper levels house apartments for lucky locals. I am told that the rent is not terribly expensive, but the waiting list to live in one of these apartments is extraordinarily long.
A recent development within the Galeries is “Brussels On Stage,” sort of a multimedia exhibition with fifteen scenes that review the history of Brussels for visitors. This tourist attraction is wrapped around an intimate vaudeville theater dating from 1884. The rows of seats can stored away to make room for swanky receptions. Racks of brochures can come in useful for visitors.
Rue de la Montagne Bergstr. en Grasmarkt
Brussels, Belgium 1000
Let us begin with the Halles Saint-Gery, the marvelous centerpiece of this gentrifying area. This charming red brick building with its glass roof, by architect A. Vanderheggen Elles, was inaugurated as the local meat market in 1882. On the brink of demolition in 1982, it was renovated first as a shopping gallery and then recast in 1999 as a cultural center and as a regional center for the promotion of estate heritage. There are interesting exhibits ranging from architecture to a Tintin comic retrospective. The ground level houses offices with an environmental bent for conscientious locals to visit. An historic obelisk from 1802 sits in the middle of the ground level, and patrons can enjoy drinks at tables beside the monument. The lofty skylit space, supported by attractive steel trusses, has a very lively atmosphere.
Just north of the Halles Saint-Gery is the Beursschouwburg, a promising new arts center in a renovated complex with red and white interiors that will be "open to the artists and thinkers of tomorrow". Art, music, dance, theater, film and video will be the focus here, with a cafe that will feature free concerts on Thursday evenings. Just south of the Halles Saint-Gery is a wharf reconstruction of the Senne River, which in the past was unfortunately filled in and is now basically just an underground river. This small canal runs behind the Eglise Notre-Dame des Riches Claires (Church of Our Lady of Riches Claires), a heavily renovated church of red brick with an interesting Italian-Flemish Baroque style. The Riches Claires Auditorium across the street is a performance stage for a variety of concerts, plays and dance.
There are some very hip stores, restaurants and bars in this area, along with a few buildings that barely can be called Chinatown. The Halles Saint-Gery is just west of the Bourse and not far from the Grand Place. Try and check out this area while it is hot.
1 Place Saint-Gery
The complex is located in a working-class area of Anderlecht, just west of central Brussels. Some recommended that I take a taxi here, but I hopped on one of the tram lines and that left me a few blocks from the place. It is actually even walkable from central Brussels, perhaps a 20-minute stroll or so.
I was handed a booklet which allowed me to take a self-guided tour of the facilities. This institution was started by Paul Cantillon in 1900, as the brochure explains. Each room is labeled with a number, which matches informative paragraphs on the brewing and fermenting process. You can see the authentic equipment and specially fitted rooms, which look, feel and smell old. Lambic beer is created by the spontaneous fermentation of airborne wild yeasts and microorganisms, and it is believed that the brew from this area of Brussels is so select because of the unique “micro-organic equilibrium” here. It is so distinctive that the original tiles of the old roof were retained after a renovation, and spiders and their webs are not disturbed. No insecticides are used to ruin the natural beers, so spiders take care of any bad insects that may be lured by the fermentation.
The gueuze (or gueuze-lambic) is the standard blend of one, two and three-year old lambic. It can vary from year to year, barrel to barrel, but it has a unique taste that can be described as bitter, tangy or sour. A popular variation of gueuze is kriek, which has a fruity and sour cherry flavor. Other fruit versions use raspberries, apricots or white grapes instead of cherries.
The tour is simple and not too strenuous, although there are a few stairs, and some dark and dank areas. The stacks of giant oak barrels are impressive sights, and watching the bottling machine operate shows that the brewery has made slight concessions to modern technology. The labels on the bottles feature colorful renderings by local artists.
You will get to sample small glasses of gueuze and kriek at the end of the tour. This is powerful stuff and geared to the beer connoisseur, not for the town drunk or the bloated beer belly who quaffs light American beer. You can relax in the seating area and admire some old photos on the walls. Purchase from a select variety of beautifully packaged bottles of brew. If you like what you drink here, you can also buy some unique marmalades. Souvenir t-shirts depict the brewery logo, a silhouette of a tipsy fellow barely balanced on a chair but still enjoying his serving of Cantillon.
The brewery is open as early as 9am on weekdays (drink your beer samples for breakfast!) and is closed on Sundays.
56 Rue Gheude
Attraction | "Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture in Brussels"
Horta is clearly the architectural star of Belgium. His designs featured bold exterior facades that concealed beautifully free-flowing interiors. His buildings which house the Musee Horta and Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinee are covered in separate sections. The Hotel Tassel at 6 Rue Paul-Emile Janson, built in 1892, is a house generally recognized as the first building in the Art Nouveau style, predating the existence of the term itself. The Hotel Solvay (1894-98) has the prestigious location on 224 Avenue Louise. The Hotel van Eetvelde (1895-97) at 4 Avenue Palmerston is a house with an iron facade and lavish interiors topped by a glass-domed winter garden. Horta’s designs gradually shifted from Art Nouveau to Art Deco, as illustrated in the large-scale Palais des Beaux-Arts and Gare Centrale projects.
Brash young architects and designers employed elevations with murals which are examples of sgraffiti, a method derivative of fresco painting that produced beautiful results that proved difficult to maintain. Two buildings with standout examples of sgraffiti are the Maison Ciamberlani (1897) at 48 Rue Defacqz by Paul Hankar and the Maison Cauchie (1905) at 5 Rue des Francs. The latter, designed by muralist Paul Cauchie as his home and studio, is perhaps the best remaining example of sgraffiti, and the building is now a museum open only the first weekend of every month. The Maison Saint-Cyr (1900) at 11 Square Ambiorix, designed by Gustave Strauven, features a slim but highly ornamental elevation. Trademarks of Art Nouveau designs include flowing lines, colorful and natural motifs and round windows. Wander around and you will see many less celebrated but still alluring facades and details all over Brussels.
The Palais Stoclet (1905-11) by Josef Hoffmann features an Austrian accent on the Art Nouveau movement. This Viennese Secession mansion located at 279 Avenue de Tervuren features interiors with handcrafted decorative features, including dining room mosaic murals by Gustav Klimt. Its sleek and sprawling exterior with whitish marble walls is topped by a staircase tower with bold bronze figures. Some would say its purity of design is hinting at the transition from the elaborate Art Nouveau to the simpler and cleaner lines of Modern architecture.
The huge Residence Palace (1925) at 155 Rue de la Loi was designed by Michel Polak and is perhaps the best example of Art Deco in Brussels. It was originally an eleven-story apartment block with luxury amenities like a roof garden, theater, and indoor pool.
Architecture enthusiasts may want to visit the Architectural Museum and the Modern Architecture Archives, both on Rue de l’Ermitage and not far from many of these buildings.
Art Nouveau and Art Deco Architecture