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Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrBrussels is the capital city of Belgium, and is a major player in the world of international politics. It is also the largest city in Belgium, with a population of over 1.2 million, and 1.8 million within the metropolis. It is a very multicultural city, officially bilingual, with French and Flemish languages widely spoken, as well as English, which has grown in influence due to the economic and political interest that has gathered in Brussels.
As a place to visit, Brussels is both edgy and cultural, rough around the edges, and smooth around the squares. It has a huge amount of museums and galleries; a perfect visit for the lover of all things historic and artistic. The Atomium stands like a space station on the skyline, while the Grand Place is sure to blow your mind, if only for a second or two. Brussels, for all its overpriced chocolate, and overrated bronze statues, is a fusion of culture, politics, languages, and statues that take a piss (or the piss, maybe).
HistoryIt can be difficult to visualize a time when huge European capitals were but small hamlets. In the same area which now has a population of 1.8 million people, there was once but a small chapel on an island on the River Seine . A hamlet then built up around the chapel, and the first recorded reference to Brussels, was in 695; “Brosella”. The name is said to have been derived from the Old Dutch word “Broeksel”, which meant, quite appropriately, “home in the marsh”.
In the 10th century, Brussels became a fortified town, founded by Charles, Duke of Lower Lorraine . The town's location on the River Seine allowed it to flourish, and it became an important trade route between other cities. It grew rapidly, extended outwards, and in 1184 the salt marshes were finally drained, to allow for its growth. In the 13th century the first city walls were built for fortification, and a second outer ring of outer walls was added in the 14th century.
In 1695, Brussels was to face its darkest and bloodiest days, when Louis XIV bombed Brussels with artillery shells, which destroyed over 4,000 buildings; a third of the entire city, including the Grand Palace. In 1746 it was captured by France, before being given back to Austria a few years later.
The Belgium Revolution brought independence to the country in 1830, and Brussels became the nation's capital city, and the seat of government. The 20th century saw further modernization of the city, and the city now holds world fairs, and is known to be the seat of EU government, making it a highly important city for world politics.
Grand PlaceBrussels boasts one of the most stunning and well-visited squares in Europe, its Grand Place, with an elegant and jaw-dropping display of theatrical architecture that will literally knock you back. When you visit, you will enter the square from one of the thin side streets, which gives way to a huge open space, surrounded on all sides by elaborate Flemish guild houses.
The square also features the Neo-Gothic Hotel De Ville, and the Musee de la Ville de Bruxelles (museum of Brussels). The guild houses are reconstructions, rebuilt after it was flattened by cannons, under the order of Louis XIV in 1695.
The Grand Place is also the main marketplace in Brussels, and you can enjoy a daily flower market, held between April and October. This is often followed by a concert and light show in the evening.
If you fancy a pint of the Belgium beer, there are many cafés and bars in and around the square too.
Hotel De Ville, Brussels' Town HallThe Hotel de Ville is the main feature of the Grand Place, and features a spire with St Michel slaying a demonic lady. A Gothic design, the town hall is the seat of civic government. It is possible to visit the tower, but be ready for a steep 96 meters climb. Tours happen on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, as well as Sundays.
Manneken PisLocated a short stroll from the Grand Place, the Manneken Pis is known as a little mascot of Brussels, and apparently represents the “irreverent spirit” of the city. Sounds about right, given that one of their main tourist attractions is a statue of a boy taking a piss.
Stories of where the statue came from includes a tale of a witch, who cast a curse on the boy for weeing on her property. Another story involves a boy who bravely defended himself and his land from troops, by weeing on them from a tree.
Whatever the truth of its origin, there are many greater mysteries in the world, so don't lose too much sleep over it. If you manage to get past the huddles of photo snappers, the real truth is... the statue is just a small bronze child taking a leak.
AtomiumWhen you approach Brussels by car or train, you see a very strange, science-fiction-looking building on the horizon, a little away from the city center. It looks like a cross between a giant sculpture, an alien space craft, and a molecular structure. It is actually a giant sculpture of a molecular structure; the alien space craft bit is just your imagination (honest!). The Atomium is an accurate depiction of an iron molecule, magnified 165 million times.
Quite a sight to behold, and huge at 102 meter, you can take an elevator to the top sphere to enjoy some food and drink; although it's quite a pricey elevator at € €11 ($13) a go. The Atomium is also set in Heysel Park, a nice place to sit and read a book, weather permitting.
Mini-Europe, BruparckThis is quite an interesting attraction that kids and adults will both appreciate. Mini-Europe features a 1/25 scale model of some of the EU's high points and landmarks, such as the Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower. You can also amuse yourself in the arcades, or check out the planetarium or water park, also situated within Bruparck.
Basilica Of The Sacred HeartAnother quite astounding monument of Brussels, is the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the fifth-largest church in the world. An unusual design, the church's grandeur is further highlighted by its unusual design of concrete, sandstone, and red brick. This gives the Basilica something of a slightly foreign look, though it is actually modeled on Sacre Coeur, the astounding white church in Paris.
Museums and GalleriesBrussels may not have the sightseeing status of other European capitals, like Paris or London, but what it lacks in impressive statues, it makes up for in the number of high quality museums dotted around the city. This is where Brussels manages to pull back some culture points.
The City Museum
Located on the Grand Place, the City Museum displays the history of Brussels from the Middle Ages, until modern days. Highlights include the Manniken Pis' costumes, from various points in which he was dressed. Yup! It's the pissing statue again. Why else would you be in Brussels?
Musee Royaux De Beaux Arts (Fine Arts Museum)Finally, a proper museum, and a real attraction for the art lover. Two museums in one, there are both ancient arts housed here, including work from Flanders , and other Flemish greats, as well as Modern Art, and Symbolism. Over 600 years' worth of arts are contained in this fine gallery.
Musee Des Instruments de Musique (MIM)This is an absolute must for the music lover. There are over 6,000 musical instruments on display in MIM, and some of them you have probably never heard of in your life. This museum is highly inspiring and interactive, with headphones to listen to the sounds of the instruments. The amazing view from the rooftop restaurant is just the cherry on top!
Musee Du CinquantenaireBelgium's finest treasures are kept here, and it is quite an impressive hoard that the country keeps, with antiquities from Egypt, Greece, and Rome, among other great stashes. There are four sections to the museum: archeology, antiquity, non-European civilizations, and European decorative arts.
AutoworldCheck out Autoworld, located in the surrounding area of Parc Cinquantenaire. Here you can find cars from the dawn of motoring, and see how they evolved all the way up to the 1970s. Even the most recent cars in this stunning collection probably looks quite ancient by today's standards.
Centre Belge de la Bande Dessinee (Comic Strip Center)There exists a rather quirky and niche art culture in Brussels: there are more comic strip artists there per square kilometer than there are anywhere else in the world. The most well-loved of the Flemish comic book characters is Tin-Tin, who occupies an entire section of the museum. You can also see 5,000 original drawings, as well as learn more about the artistic process that takes a strip from sketch to production.
There are many more museums in Brussels, over 90 in total, so be sure to obtain a map from the tourist office to learn more, and to find some of the many smaller gems.
The Brussels PassThe Brussels Pass offers a great opportunity to take a grand tour of the museums of the city, at a very reasonable price. If you plan on making a day or two of the immense museum culture, then the Brussels Pass is a must. It gives free entry to over 30 museums, discounts to many others, free public transport, and discounts in shops. The cost is € €24 ($28) for 24 hours, € €36 ($41) for 48 hours, and € €43 ($49) for 72 hours.
Have a BeerIf you don't fancy a full day or two of museums then Brussels, and Belgium in general, are well-known for one particular drink that could help to entertain you during your stay; beer.
The beer in Belgium is very strong, and comes in hundreds of different varieties, that have a lot of flavor, and are very distinct from one another. For anyone who lives in a country where beer is weak, and every brand tastes the same, Brussels will show you a whole different world of drinking. Be careful though, with lager at a strength of 7% or more here, it doesn't take more than a few casual drinks to find yourself flying off the wall.
There are many great cafés and bars to grab a beer in Brussels. Walk around and feel out the vibe that you are looking for. Being a large city, you will be more than spoilt for choice, but there is one particular recommendation for the traveler: Delirium Café holds the Guinness World Record for serving the most types of beers, with around 2,004 different beers available.
And a WaffleThere is also no lack of food options in Brussels, and the multicultural city can tantalize the taste buds with foods from all over the world, while providing its share of local cuisine aswell. Did you know that the french fry is actually not french at all? It is Flemish, and they are proud to tell you that. Fritkots are cafés that specialize in fries, which you can have with a number of sauces, including lesser-known varieties like Andalouse sauce.
Main course specialities in Brussels include eels, turbot fish, and the gut-warming stoemp; mashed potatoes with mashed vegetables. For desert, try the famous Belgium waffles, which you can have with delicious homemade ice-cream, sugar, chocolate, bananas, cream, and other epic toppings.
There are also about a million Belgium chocolate shops in the city, and to be fair, they are pretty hard to resist given the smell of cooking cocoa that drifts out of the door. Despite the frightening prices, especially anywhere remotely touristy, the chocolate is very nice, and is famous all over the world. It has to be tried.
ShoppingThe lover of shopping will feel right at home in Brussels, with the usual mix of multinationals, sitting alongside numerous mini boutique-style shops. There are lots of interesting small shops dotted around the city streets, and apart from chocolates, gifts, and other tourist-type ventures, you can find antiquities, fashion, tapestry shops, and more.
There is a regular flea market held in Brussels; the Jeu de Balle, which will give you plenty of time to rummage around for all manner of bargain and tat, including amazing deals on furniture, though this could be a problem if you plan to fly home. For fashion check out the three main galleries: Saint Hubert, Galeries du Roi, and Galeries de la Reine.
AccommodationPrices for accommodation are fairly typical of a large European city, though on average, much cheaper than what you might expect to pay in London or Paris.
Hostel prices are pretty much € €20 ($23), perhaps a little more in the height of summer, or weekends. Hotel prices ranges might even pleasantly surprise you, and can range from € €50 ($58)-€ €100 ($115) for a basic setup, with even classy establishments sometimes charging only a moderate € €100 ($115)+.
TravelBrussels has two major airports nearby: Brussels airport, and the smaller Charleroi airport, both of which accommodate budget flying options from many European countries, and from many destinations across the road. It is also possible to take train links in and out of Brussels from anywhere in Belgium, and from major European destinations like Amsterdam and London, where a cross channel train is possible.
Within the city, it is possible walk around, though it can be great distances between one attraction and another, so public transport is highly recommended if you have a lot of things you want to do, in a short space of time. The metro is very clean and efficient, and provides easy transport between major attractions and districts. Buses also work well, and both means of transport are cheap enough.
You can also buy bulk tickets, such as the “jump 10” ticket, which allows for 10 separate trips on trams, buses, or metro, for € €14 ($16). These are available at the kiosks in stations. Tickets must be validated in the machine on the way through to your line, before you take the journey. You can buy discount train travel at stations; for multiple journeys, or if you are under 25 years old.
SafetyBrussels is an edgy-feeling city, especially in some areas, such as the Red Light district behind the Gare du Nord, and in some of the outskirts of the city. Avoid unknown and unlit areas at night, and exercise a similar caution as to what you would in any European capital. Violent crime is not so much of a problem within the city center, but pickpocketing and other petty crime is not unheard of, so keep your possessions safe. There is no need to wonder around in the outskirts without a purpose, especially not at night.
Languages SpokenAlthough Brussels sits a few kilometers North of the border between the French and Flemish half of Belgium, it is officially bilingual, meaning that all road signs are in both French and Flemish, and many of the population speak both languages, as well as being practically fluent in English too. Officially, the breakdown is 80% French, and 20% Flemish.
What ElseBelgium is a small country, and the Flemish half is extremely populated with towns and cities, that lie not too far away from each other in distance, and are typically very well connected. This makes for easy trips outwards if you are staying in Brussels. Check out Ghent, Leuven, and Bruge, all of which offer great city trips in Belgium.
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Author: M.Warburton. Last updated: Mar 05, 2016