Brussels is considered to be boring, grey and overrun by Eurocrats. However, Brussels is a hidden gem which takes time to discover. Locals sometimes tend to overlook its qualities, so this post is to help you appreciate all the little things that make the city a beautiful place to live in. Voilà, the 9 reasons why I love Brussels!
An absolute must: the Grand Place, and the neighbouring galleries
Visiting Brussels without spending some time in the Grand Place is simply unthinkable. Here you’ll see the town hall (one of the most beautiful in the country), the Maison du Roi, which is home to the Brussels City Museum, and a series of private houses built at the end of the 17th century. The architectural richness of this square is simply overwhelming.
Just a stone’s throw away from the Grand Place are the Royal Galleries, one of the oldest covered galleries in Europe, as beautiful by day as by night. Shopping galleries are something you would typically associate with Paris or Milan rather than Brussels. But interestingly enough, the oldest gallery in Europe can be found in Brussels. Inside the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert you’ll find some of the best boutique shops in Belgium.
Manneken Pis: it’s not the size that matters
There’s no doubt that Mannekin Pis is one of the main attractions in Brussels. Thousands of tourists flock to the city each year to see this iconic statue. In all honesty, it isn’t that impressive. What is way more interesting is the story behind the statue. Dating back to the Middle Ages, it represents a period in Brussels when poor families used to sell their urine to survive. The ammonia in the urine was then used in the leather industry as a curing agent.
An 18th century masterpiece: the Royal Quarter
The Place Royale, which was built on the ashes of the Coudenberg Palace, has retained its historical function as the “executive power district”. You’ll find the Royal Palace, the “office” of the Belgian King, at the Place des Palais, bordering the Place Royale. Opposite is the Parc de Bruxelles or Royal Park. The streets bordering the park are also part of the same neoclassical ensemble. For instance, on the other side of the park, you will see the Palace of the Nation, the seat of the Belgian Parliament. At the Place Royale, with the statue of Godfrey of Bouillon at the centre, you’ll discover the Church of St. James on Coudenberg that resembles a Greco-Roman temple and a series of similar, harmonious mansions.
Culture with a view: the Mont des Arts
The Mont des Arts is the junction between uptown and downtown Brussels and offers a delightful view in all seasons. Below, you can sit in the sumptuous gardens that lead to the statue of Albert I. The “knightly king” faces his love, Queen Elizabeth, whose statue stands on the small Place de l’Albertine on the other side of the road. The Mont des Arts is home to the KBR, the country’s main library, and the KBR Museum, which houses the library of the Dukes of Burgundy and the Archives & Museum of Literature (AML). On the other side of the Mont des Arts you’ll find the Brussels Congress Centre Square.
The Atomium: the landmark
Created for the 1958 World Fair, the Atomium with its 9 balls represents an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times! (It is often mistakenly thought to represent an atom, but in fact each ball represents an atom of iron). The significance of this construction is to celebrate scientific discoveries and breakthroughs. Inside, you will find exhibitions and, most importantly, a stunning view of the Brussels-Capital Region from the top ball. Only a short walk away, embark on a tour of all Europe’s wonders in miniature, thanks to Mini-Europe. Apart from the Mannekin Pis, it’s probably the main attraction in Brussels.
A cultural crossroads: the European Quarter
Far from being a neighbourhood of grey and austere offices, the European Quarter combines European institutions with community life, parks, museums and more. In this district, you can attend plenary sessions in the Parliament’s hemicycle and learn more about the Union thanks to the Parlamentarium, the House of European History and Experience Europe. You can also stroll through Léopold Park, a green space that recalls the days when the bourgeoisie moved in en masse from the bustling heart of the city. The district is also a landmark for fans of contemporary and Art Nouveau architecture.
Triumphal splendour: the Cinquantenaire
Built in 1880 to celebrate Belgium’s 50th birthday, the Cinquantenaire attracts locals who appreciate its formal garden, history buffs who visit the Art & History Museum, car fans who flock to Autoworld and curious minds who are amazed by the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History. The latter, an often underestimated attraction, also offers access to the arches for a 360° panoramic view of the city.
The Koekelberg Basilica: House of the Holy
Legend has it that the idea of building a national basilica in Brussels came to King Leopold II after a visit to the construction site of the Sacré-Cœur in Paris. The construction of the basilica started in 1905, only to be completed in 1970. Some see it as the largest Art Deco church in the world, others as an excessive and ostentatious folly. I’ll let you decide for yourself.
Brussels can get busy! If you’re like me and you want to escape the chaos for a little while, head to one of many parks around the city. Step into these green sanctuaries to find a little peace and quiet.
Speaking of green spaces, the parks in Brussels are numerous, beautiful and taken care of. Actually, Brussels is one of the most “green” capitals in Europe. Making it a mission to find Brussels’ beautifully landscaped gardens and parks is a recipe for a soothing, uplifting afternoon.
Some parks continue into a forest (like Bois de la Cambre) while others are smaller in the neighborhoods (like Leopold Park near European Comission). So wherever you live, there is a park nearby. Cinquantenaire Park and Woluwe Park are two of the most famous and therefore crowded in sunny days, but even the smaller parks have their charm, many having lakes or ponds with birds on them.
Brussels is rich in history, architecture, gastronomy, culture and so much more! Warm, welcoming and quirky, Brussels is a bustling city where there’s always something going on.