Belgium’s bilingual capital is a city of contradictions. There are plenty of things to do in Brussels, yet it struggles to shake its ‘boring’ tag. Beer flows with abandon and double-fried frites pass for vegetables, but it’s also home to the EU’s lawmakers. Even the landscape and language seem conflicted: part wistful art nouveau, part concrete functionality; French and Dutch. But boring? Never.
How can any capital whose symbol is the Mannekin Pis, a tiny statue of a boy urinating that’s said to sum up the Belgian attitude to authority, be dull? The baffled expressions on tourists’ faces alone speak to the dry humour that underscores the city and its people. Brussels isn’t boring – it’s just misunderstood.
This is a bureaucratic city with the soul of an artist. It’s little coincidence that all its most famous residents were outsiders, each now honoured in some of Brussels’ best museums. René Magritte was the freaky flag-bearer of 20th-century art’s surrealist movement; Hergé, the quiet, reclusive cartoonist behind the world-famous Tintin comics; Victor Horta, the architect who shaped the city to his own art nouveau mould.
Their spirit endures today. What other capital would allow its giant, rusting, 19th-century botanical garden to be turned into the city’s most atmospheric music venue, Botanique? Or locate its best contemporary art galley, WIELS, inside an old brewery, the huge copper brewing vats of which still dominate the entrance hall?
That’s Brussels: beauty and ordinariness side by side, inseparable. Plus beer and frites!
Museums, galleries and sights in Brussels
Practically all Brussels’s best sights are within easy walking distance. At the heart of the city, the theatrically carved guildhalls of the Grand Place mark it as one of the world’s great squares, particularly when illuminated at night. Nearby, the tiny Mannekin Pis statue underwhelms confused tourists daily, while five minutes’ stroll east lies Galeries Royales St-Hubert, Europe’s first shopping arcade, opened in 1847, and the best spot for chocolate shopping in the capital – and hence, quite possibly, the rest of the continent too.
Up past Brussels Park, the city’s finest art museums are in transition, with the excellent, newly-opened Fin-de-Siècle and renovated Musée Oldmasters museums having largely displaced their Modern Art counterpart on Rue de la Régence as it awaits re-housing in 2017. Both usurpers are worth your time, as is the adjoining Magritte Museum, which chronicles the life and works of one of the city’s most famous sons, the surrealist painter René Magritte.
Across the road lies what’s left of the Coudenburg, the former royal palace, which was damaged by fire in the early 18th century; you can visit the ruined foundations. Atop them now sits the rebuilt Royal Palace of Brussels (open late July to early September). Allegedly, King Leopold II judged the building too modest upon his ascension in 1865 and set about redecorating it with neoclassical zeal. Check out his handiwork in the Mirror Room, the ceiling of which is decorated in the wing casings of 1.4 million Thai jewel beetles.
On a far humbler note, south-west of the palace lies the daily Marolles flea market on Place du Jeu de Balle. Here, you’ll find everything, and scouring its wares is one of the most entertaining ways to spend a morning in Brussels. Once, it was home to the old Bruxellois traders whose old French-Dutch-Spanish patois rang out across the flagstones; today, the sellers hail mostly from North Africa and Turkey. Yet it remains a microcosm of the city, with locals engaged in a never-ending battle to curtail encroaching gentrification. Go now, before the boutiques take over!
Sights and attractions details
Hergé Museum Rue du Labrador 26, Louvain-la-Neuve. €9.50 entry. +32 10 488 421.
Musée Horta Rue Américaine 25, Bruxelles. €8 entry. +32 2 543 0490.
Botanique Rue Royale 236, Saint-Josse-ten-Noode. +32 2 218 37 32.
WIELS Avenue van Volxem 354, Forest. €8 entry. +32 2 340 0053.
Grand Place Bruxelles. No tel.
Mannekin Pis Corner of Rue de l’Etuve and Rue du Chêne, Bruxelles. No tel.
Galeries Royales St-Hubert Galerie du Roi 5, Bruxelles. +32 2 545 0990.
Fin-de-Siècle, Oldmasters, Modern Art & Magritte Museums Rue de la Régence 3, Bruxelles. +32 2 508 32 11. €8 entry each.
Coudenberg Place des Palais 7 (entrance via BELvue Museum), Bruxelles. +32 2 500 4554. €6 entry.
Royal Palace of Brussels Rue Brederode 16, Bruxelles. +32 2 551 2020.
The Marolles Flea Market Place Jeu de Balles, Marolles.6am-2pm Mon-Fri, 6am-3pm Sat-Sun. No tel.