Historic yet hip, bureaucratic yet bizarre, self-confident yet unshowy, Brussels is multicultural to its roots.
The cityscape swings from majestic to quirky to rundown and back again. Art deco facades face off against 1960s concrete developments, and regal 19th-century mansions contrast with the shimmering glass of the EU’s Gotham City. This whole maelstrom swirls out from Brussels’ medieval core, where the Grand Place is surely one of the world’s most beautiful squares. But Brussels' greatest architectural expression came at the turn of the 19th century with art nouveau, and its master builder is Horta. While restraint characterises his exteriors, the interiors are sensual symphonies of form and colour.
Sometimes it seems as if every building in the city is being converted into a contemporary art gallery, from townhouses to skating rinks to the vast canal-side Citroën garage being remodelled to showcase conceptual art. With property prices lower than Paris, many commercial galleries are choosing to shift to the city. And students and young artists are opening their doors to show work at open studio weekends and event nights. Whether you prefer iconoclastic or outsider art, Magritte or the Flemish Primitives, there really is something for every art lover in Brussels.
Food & Drink
As with many other aspects of life, the people of Brussels like to eat and drink a little differently, and there are some deeply ingrained habits: delicious frites have to be double fried, and the classic waffle comes with a snowfall of icing sugar. They even have their own biscuit: the shortcrust cinnamon speculoos. In addition to the fabled beer, which many visitors focus their trip around, Brussels boasts the half-en-half, a heady mix of white wine and champagne. In recent times there has been an increasing focus on local organic cuisine, and this heavy eating city is definitely getting healthier.
Brussels’ once resolutely working-class Marolles quarter has partly shed its proletarian image with a clutch of intimate restaurants and funky interior-design shops along the main streets, Rue Haute and Rue Blaes. Nonetheless, pockets of original Bruxellois character can still be found, notably around the Place du Jeu-de-Balle. At a few of the enjoyable downmarket cafés here you might overhear people speaking in the earthy Bruxellois dialect, and at least one stall still sells the traditional street food: snails. Note that, despite the name, Jeu-de-Balle (aka balle-pelotte) is no longer played here.
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This 1899 former department store is an art nouveau showpiece with a black facade aswirl with wrought iron and arched windows. The building contains the groundbreaking MIM music museum, a celebration of music in all its forms, as well as a repository for more than 2000 historic instruments. The emphasis is very much on listening, with auditory experiences around every corner, from shepherds’ bagpipes and Chinese carillons to harpsichords. Don’t miss the rooftop café for a superb city panorama.
Brussels’ magnificent Grand Place is one of the world’s most unforgettable urban ensembles. Oddly hidden, the enclosed cobblestone square is only revealed as you enter on foot from one of six narrow side alleys: Rue des Harengs is the best first approach. The focal point is the spired 15th-century city hall, but each of the antique guildhalls (mostly 1697–1705) has a charm of its own. Most are unashamed exhibitionists, with fine baroque gables, gilded statues and elaborate guild symbols.
Strap on a pair of headphones, then step on the automated floor panels in front of the precious instruments (including world instruments and Adolphe Sax’s inventions) to hear them being played. As much of a highlight as the museum itself are the premises – the art-nouveau Old England Building. This former department store was built in 1899 by Paul Saintenoy and has a panoramic rooftop café and outdoor terrace.
The typically austere exterior doesn’t give much away, but Victor Horta’s former home (designed and built 1898–1901) is an art nouveau jewel. The stairwell is the structural triumph of the house: follow the playful knots and curlicues of the banister, which become more exuberant as you ascend, ending at a tangle of swirls and glass lamps at the skylight, glazed with plain and citrus-coloured glass.
One of Brussels’ overlooked architectural wonders, this splendid Napoleon III–style palace sports a soaring brick belfry dotted with gilt statuary. Try to see the wedding-hall ceiling, painted by Belgian symbolist artist Fernand Khnopff.
This prestigious museum incorporates the Musée d’Art Ancien (ancient art); the Musée d’Art Moderne (modern art), with works by surrealist Paul Delvaux and fauvist Rik Wouters; and the purpose-built Musée Magritte. The 15th-century Flemish Primitives are wonderfully represented in the Musée d’Art Ancien: there's Rogier Van der Weyden’s Pietà with its hallucinatory sky, Hans Memling’s refined portraits, and the richly textured Madonna with Saints by the anonymous artist known as Master of the Legend of St Lucy.
Parc du Cinquantenaire was built during Léopold II's reign. It's best known for its cluster of museums – art, history, military and motor vehicles – which house an incredible 350,000 artefacts. The Royal Art and History Museums in the southern wing of the Cinquantenaire buildings are chock-a-block with antiquities. Autoworld, in the northern building, has a huge collection of vintage cars. There is also the massive Arcade du Cinquantenaire, a triumphal arch built in 1880 to celebrate 50 years of Belgian independence.
Thought-provoking and highly interactive, this museum has far more than the usual selection of stuffed animals. But the undoubted highlight is a unique ‘family’ of iguanodons – 10m-high dinosaurs found in a Hainaut coal mine in 1878. A computer simulation shows the mudslide that might have covered them, sand-boxes allow you to play dino hunter and multilingual videos give a wonderfully nuanced debate on recent palaeontology.
Lace making has been one of Flanders’ finest crafts since the 16th century. While kloskant (bobbin lace) originated in Bruges, naaldkant (needlepoint lace) was developed in Italy but was predominantly made in Brussels. This excellent museum reveals lace’s applications for underwear and outerwear over the centuries, as well as displaying other luxury textiles in beautifully presented exhibitions. There's a new focus here on Belgium's ahead-of-the-curve fashion industry, with changing exhibitions of contemporary textiles.