Ah, lively busy Brussels. The capital of Europe, beer and chocolate. Home to numerous art treasures and monuments and the home base of Art Nouveau. Let's face it, you’ll probably need more than 48 hours to discover all the amazing assets of this global city. But it’s a good place to start.
Climbing to artistic peaks
Getting on a train always feels like you’re going on a trip, according to a famous advertising slogan for the Belgian railways in the 1990s. But when it comes to Brussels, it’s not that far off the mark. Because in our capital, the train drops you off in a landmark: Brussels-Central. The architect Victor Horta, one of the pioneers of Art Nouveau, designed this majestic station. More on his work in a bit. The complex building exudes a unique grandeur.
Once you exit this mastodon of mobility, an artistic climb awaits. It’s easy to see why this neighbourhood of Brussels is known as Kunstberg/Mont des Arts, meaning Mount of the Arts. The uphill walk takes you past several heritage gems. On your right, you’ll see the Royal Library of Belgium (KBR). With more than 150 kilometres (!) of bookshelves, it is the country’s largest library and home to an impressive collection of manuscripts of the Dukes of Burgundy and a prints and drawings room with original drawings by Flemish Masters such as Pieter Bruegel, Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, Jacob Jordaens and James Ensor. The Ravenstein Gallery, a monumental covered shopping gallery in the international style, is on your left.
Continue your climb up the stairs through the stately garden of Kunstberg/Mont des Arts for more wonderful sights. At the top of the stairs, an unbeatable view awaits of the city’s impressive skyline, including the Atomium and the basilica of Koekelberg. Walk on after this photo opportunity. On your left you’ll see the Museum of Musical Instruments (MIM) in the former Old England department store, a striking art nouveau building.
A magnificent Museum Square
You are now in Museumplein, the capital’s beating heart of art. The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium (KMSKB) are located in the square. The impressive collection of themed museums has something for everyone. For a touch of centuries-old genius, visit the Old Masters Museum, which focuses on the period from the 15th to the 18th century. Here you can see masterpieces by Flemish (and other) Masters such as Hans Memling, Hieronymus Bosch, Bruegel, Rubens and many others. The Fin-de-Siècle Museum focuses on the avant-garde of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with artists such as James Ensor and Léon Spilliaert. The Magritte Museum owns the world's largest collection of works by René Magritte, the great surrealist. Finally, you can also visit the Wiertz Museum and the Meunier Museum, two other art museums that are entirely dedicated to the work of one artist: the sculptor and artist Constantin Meunier and the controversial romantic artist Antoine Wiertz.
If you’re an art lover, we bet that you’ll be more than happy to spend 48 hours in these stunning museum galleries. Alternatively, you can choose to concentrate on just one art movement. The possibilities are endless.
An afternoon at the Atomium
After the artistic splendour of Museumplein, it’s time to visit a completely different great monument of Brussels. You’ll need to take the metro for this. In Brussels the metro is used for transport, but it is also a lively, underground art museum. Many Brussels metro stations have interesting tiled walls and are home to striking artworks. So keep your eyes peeled as you get from point A to point B. For our next highlight, we will be heading to Heizel/Heysel metro station, taking you to the foot of the stately Atomium. This icon is a remnant of the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. The structure consists of nine connected spheres. It rises 102 metres above the city and represents the atom of a pure iron crystal, but magnified 165 billion times. In addition to Europe’s longest escalators, the Atomium is also home to various art installations and a restaurant, boasting spectacular views of the city. A must-see on your trip to Brussels. Afterwards, you can take a walk in the picturesque Osseghem Park, with its winding paths. The Castle of Laeken, the residence of the Belgian royal family, is just up the road. Once a year, the palace gates swing open so the public can admire the beautiful gardens and greenhouses. Definitely worthwhile.
After a visit to these Belgian symbols, we resume our quest for grandeur . In Central Station you got your first glimpse of Art Nouveau architecture. Now let’s take a closer look at this architecture style in Ixelles and Sint-Gillis - two of the 19 Brussels municipalities. From Horta metro station - named after the founder of Art Nouveau - walk towards Hôtel Hannon. The bas-relief on the corner of the third floor, the floral glass windows and the curved balconies are all excellent examples of this architectural movement. The Victor Horta Museum is in the same neighbourhood. This is where Horta lived and worked. He designed both the building and its interior. Now this fascinating museum honours his legacy. Next up, the Hôtel Ciamberlani, a unique building with horseshoe-shaped windows and stunning frescoes above the windows. These gems are just a taster of what’s on offer. Feel free to add some of these eye-catching buildings to your architectural walk.
Seen enough? Looking for a meal or a place to while away the evening? Take your pick from any of the numerous restaurants and terraces in hip, cosmopolitan municipalities such as Ixelles, Etterbeek, Sint-Gillis or Vorst. Alternatively, you can indulge in a typically Belgian experience: the frietkot/baraque à frites. Head to Jourdanplein/Place Jourdan in Etterbeek for a portion of perfect classic Belgian fries at Maison Antoine. This chip shop has been here since 1948. Be prepared to queue, but you’ll be happy to know that they’re open past midnight. Simply superb.
A popular pastime
Brussels is a city with many faces. We start the second day of this city trip somewhere completely different: in the Marollen, the oldest working-class neighbourhood in Brussels. You can spend endless hours browsing the antique shops and vintage boutiques here. Another highlight is the daily treasure hunt in Vossenplein/Place du Jeu de Balle. Every morning stallholders peddle their wares at this near-mythical flea market. You’ll find a great selection of the most extraordinary objects, from old children's toys and African masks, to veritable art gems, furniture and other must-haves.
Continue your walk past record shops, second-hand shops and brocantes – to Kapellekerk. This parish church is the final resting place of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Rubens’s painting of Christ giving the keys to Saint Peter was originally painted to decorate this unassuming tomb. However, the church council sold the painting 150 years later. A copy still recalls its original splendour.
Walk on and you will run into a special, almost surreal bit of heritage: the Law Courts of Brussels. Upon its completion in 1883, this unique eclectic-style building was one of the largest structures in the world. What makes it even more special is that it has been a prisoner of its scaffolding for over 40 years, as it awaits renovation. These scaffolds were installed in 1984 to prepare the renovation and protect passers-by from any falling stones. The beginning of a very long wait. The Palais de Justice is finally getting its eagerly-anticipated facelift. Try to catch a glimpse of this icon-under-renovation.
After this, it’s to head to a place of pilgrimage to sample some of Brussels’ liquid heritage. Because in addition to being the capital of Belgium, Brussels is also the capital of Lambic. This complex, layered, tart and tangy beer is delicious in its own right. But it is also used to brew the iconic Geuze and cherry beers, that are synonymous with Brussels and its surrounding region. Find out more during a visit to the iconic Cantillon brewery and its Geuze Museum. This family brewery - which has barely changed since 1900 - is very passionate about this exceptional beer. Perhaps it’s time for a quick aperitif after your visit? Why not?
Today we’ve already seen a number of distinctive Brussels heritage sites, but now it’s time for a quick tour of the classics. It takes about 20 minutes to walk back to the city centre. The iconic Grote Markt/Grand Place is simply breath-taking. This square is steeped in history and lined with stunning buildings, including the centuries-old guild houses, with their golden and decorative sculptures. Don’t forget to look at the lace-like façade of the Museum of the City of Brussels. Then there’s city hall, with its monumental tower, a masterpiece of the flamboyant Gothic style. After a quick look around, it’s easy to see why UNESCO has listed the entire square as a world heritage site.
While you’re at it and since you’re here, you must visit Brussels’ most famous resident: Manneken Pis. This statuette – of a little boy peeing – is one of Brussels’ best-known ambassadors. Manneken Pis is dressed in a new costume several times each week, to mark important (feast) days. However famous this little landmark is, nobody knows the real reason behind its origin. Is he peeing to put out a fire? Did he have the leader of some enemy forces in his sights? Or is the truth to be found in one of the many other legends? Who knows! His female counterpart - Jeanneke Pis – is equally special. Her statue is just a short walk away.
Folklore and grandeur, in Brussels they go together like bread and butter... A short stand walk leads you to the Royal Gallery of Saint Hubert. It was here, in this magnificent covered shopping gallery, that Jean Neuhaus invented the praline, that quintessential Belgian treat, in 1912. You can still find his chocolaterie - which is managed by his descendants - in the gallery. Many of his other famous colleagues, such as Pierre Marcolini and Leonidas, also have shops here. Start by enjoying the view in the magnificent galleries, and then take some time to sample all the delicious chocolates on offer. Don’t forget to take a box home. Your family and friends will love you even more.
As you walk to your accommodation, box of chocolates in hand, your 48-hour trip to Brussels gradually draws to a close. Hungry for more? Brussels has so much more to offer. We'll tell you more about this next time. See you soon.