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Royal Greenhouses of Laeken - ©Olivier Polet
Emma Thomson

Emma Thomson

  • Job: Freelance travel writer and author of Flanders: The Bradt Travel Guide
  • Favorite destination: Belgium
  • Likes:Travel writer, editor, broadcaster, photographer

In this month's post, Emma talks about her early preview of the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken in Brussels.


Royal Greenhouses of Laeken

I stand, head tilted back, gaping at the ornate glass ceiling high above. A dense thicket of palm trees surrounds me and all is quiet save the slow drip, drip, drip of moisture running off the leaves to the ground. The humid air oozes with life, and I half expect to hear the squawk of a parrot.

The greenhouse

Royal Greenhouses of Laeken

Most people buy freshly cut flowers to smarten up their house for guests, but not Belgian King Leopold II. No. He was so keen to impress visiting dignitaries, he commissioned architect Alphonse Balat to build an elaborate Art Nouveau greenhouse, using groundbreaking construction techniques, and filled it with plant species plucked from all over the world. 

For over 100 years, the greenhouses have been opened to the public for three short weeks in Spring and I'd come for an early preview, with the Greenhouse Director acting as guide. 

The Winter Garden

Royal Greenhouses of Laeken

Standing now beneath the 25 metre-high glass dome of The Winter Garden, it's easy to imagine the linen suits, parasols and pink lemonade passed around when Leopold hosted parties here. I can picture state secrets beginning whispered among the pillars of the Roman-style colonnade.

Several specimens outlived their collector and, on my left, is the grande dame of this greenhouse: the almighty - and onomatopoeic - Oreopanax dactytolius, a great tropical tree with plate-sized fig-like leaves brought all the way from Mexico in 1876.

Royal Greenhouses of Laeken

As I move on through the maze of pavilions, I have to duck to pass beneath a cascade of pink fairy-like fuschias, with their frilly rose skirts and tender stamens, falling from the ceiling.

Royal Greenhouses of Laeken

'You've come too early,' the director says frowning. 'The flowers we planted for visitors haven't bloomed yet because of the cold weather'.

I'm not disappointed. A pop of orange to my right reveals a bird of paradise flower and everywhere tightly curled Cibotium regale fronds sprout like furry lemur tails from the centre of umbrellaed ferns.

Royal Greenhouses of Laeken

We enter another room where rows of citrus trees queue like extras in the stage wings, waiting to be placed outside for the opening. Among them is a gnarled 300 year-old orange tree planted in a box as tall as me and propped up with wooden poles, like an old lady on crutches.

Several of the 35 full-time gardeners are in here planting, primping and pruning everything into shape while listening to the radio. I raise my hand to say 'hello'.

'Which plant are you most proud of?' I ask the Director in my high-school French. 'Our ficus hedge', he says, pointing to the short-leaved shrub which spreads along the length of the colonnade. 'Its very special to grow it along the wall like this - Oh, and our prized collection of Italian camellias; we have over 300 varieties' he boasts, finally breaking into a smile. I nodded knowingly while trying to remember what a Camellia looks like.

Royal Greenhouses of Laeken

We wander outside to glimpse the great plains of grass that make up the rest of the garden, but they're shrouded in damp mist. I look at the great domes, whose green-tinted glass shimmers defiantly through the gloom like the innards of an oyster shell.

It's time to leave the jungle and re-enter the lunchtime rush hour, but I linger inside a little longer, savouring the delicious tropical heat.


The Royal Greenhouses are officially open to the public during 3 weeks of April and May; tickets cost €2.50, under 18s free. For more information on their history, visit:

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