Good for: Photo Opportunities, beer, waffles
Not good for: price
Lonely Planet review for Grand Place
For one of Europe's finest urban views, head straight to Brussels' magnificent central square, Grand Place. It boasts the country's best baroque guildhalls, the beautiful Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), museums, pavement cafés, chocolate shops and intimate cellar restaurants - a combination that lures visitors in droves. Hidden at the very core of the old town, it's revealed as you enter from one of six narrow side alleys (Rue des Harengs is the best) - a discreet positioning that adds charm.
The square dates from the 12th century and rose on a site that was once marshland. By the early 15th century, Brussels was booming through the cloth trade and the patronage of the dukes of Burgundy. A prosperous market covered not only the Grand Place but also neighbouring streets, such as the beguilingly named Rue au Beurre (Butter Street) and Rue des Bouchers (Butchers' Street). The city's increasingly wealthy merchant guilds established headquarters - guildhalls - on the square. The construction of the Hôtel de Ville sealed the Grand Place's role as the hub of commercial, political and civic life. Medieval tournaments and public executions took place before high-spirited crowds.
In 1695 much of central Brussels, including the Grand Place, was bombarded for 36 hours under the orders of Louis XIV of France. The attack was designed to distract the allied forces of England and the Spanish Netherlands, with whom the French king was at war. Most of the guildhalls, as well as thousands of houses and many churches, were destroyed. Miraculously, the Hôtel de Ville survived the bombing, but nearly all the other buildings that you see on the Grand Place today are 17th-century replacements.
The Grand Place takes on different auras depending on the time of day and the season. In the morning the superb guildhalls at the southern end glint in the sun; at dusk the azure sky makes a vivid backdrop to the illuminated buildings. For three days in August (even years only), a carpet of flowers covers the whole square. At any time of the day or night, you'll find people milling about here, simply gazing up and absorbing its beauty.