Belgium’s fascinating capital, and the administrative capital of the EU, Brussels is historic yet hip, bureaucratic yet bizarre, self-confident yet unshowy, and multicultural to its roots. All this plays out in a cityscape that swings from majestic to quirky to rundown and back again. Organic art nouveau facades face off against 1960s concrete developments, and regal 19th-century mansions contrast with the brutal 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.
Grand Place – 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.
Alive with classic cafés, the square takes on different auras at different times. Try to visit more than once, and don’t miss looking again at night, when the scene is magically (and tastefully) illuminated. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings there’s a flower market and at various other times the square might host anything from Christmas fairs to rock concerts to the extraordinary biennial ‘flower carpet’.
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts – 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 Master of the Legend of St Lucy.
Pieter the Elder was the greatest of the Bruegel family of artists, whose humorous and tender scenes feature a wealth of lively rustic detail. The most famous example is The Fall of Icarus, where the hero’s legs disappearing into the waves are overshadowed by the figure of an unconcerned ploughman and a jaunty ship. Inspired by Renaissance artists, Antwerp painter Peter Paul Rubens specialised in fleshy religious works, of which there are several colossal examples here. Look out, too, for Anthony van Dyck’s contemplative human studies, Cornelis de Vos’ charming family portrait, and works by Rembrandt and Frans Hals.
Musée Magritte – The beautifully presented Magritte Museum holds the world’s largest collection of the surrealist pioneer’s paintings and drawings. Watch his style develop from colourful Braque-style cubism in 1920 through a Dali-esque phase and a late-1940s period of Kandinsky-like brushwork to his trademark bowler hats of the 1960s. Regular screenings of a 50-minute documentary provide insights into the artist’s unconventionally conventional life.
Music Village – Polished 100-seat jazz venue housed in two 17th-century buildings with dinner (not compulsory) available from 7pm and concerts starting at 8.30pm, 9pm at weekends. The performers squeeze onto a small podium that’s visible from any seat. Bookings advised.
Old England Building – 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 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 to Chinese carillons to harpsichords. Don’t miss the rooftop café for a superb city panorama.
Place du Jeu-de-Balle Flea Market – The quintessential Marolles experience is haggling at this chaotic flea market, established in 1919. Weekends see it at its liveliest, but for the best bargains, head here early morning midweek.
Musée du Cinquantenaire – This astonishingly rich collection ranges from ancient Egyptian sarcophagi to Meso-American masks to icons to wooden bicycles. Decide what you want to see before coming or the sheer scope can prove overwhelming. Visually attractive spaces include the medieval stone carvings set around a neo-Gothic cloister and the soaring Corinthian columns (convincing fibreglass props) that bring atmosphere to an original AD 420 mosaic from Roman Syria. Labelling is in French and Dutch, so the English-language audioguide (€3) is worth considering.
Église Notre-Dame du Sablon – The Sablon’s large, flamboyantly Gothic church started life as the 1304 archers’ guild chapel. A century later it had to be massively enlarged to cope with droves of pilgrims attracted by the supposed healing powers of its Madonna statue. The statue was procured in 1348 by means of an audacious theft from an Antwerp church – apparently by a vision-motivated husband-and-wife team in a rowing boat. It has long since gone, but a boat behind the pulpit commemorates the curious affair.
Musée des Sciences Naturelles – 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.
St-Gilles Town Hall – One of Brussels’ overlooked architectural wonders, a splendid Napoleon III–style palace sporting a soaring brick belfry dotted with gilt statuary: try to see the wedding hall ceiling, painted by Belgian symbolist artist Fernand Khnopff.
House of European History – From war and destruction to the biggest peace project ever endeavored, the HoEH guides you through Europe’s tumultuous path, crushing myths and unveiling some of the continent’s best-kept secrets. Dutch tulips, English football and European cuisine are only some of its highlights, housed in the beautifully renovated Eastman Building in Parc Léopold. The captivating highly interactive experience takes about 1½ hours and offers a permanent and temporary exhibition that you can roam in 24 languages.
MIMA – On the banks of the Brussels Canal, the Millennium Iconoclast Museum of Art (MIMA) showcases contemporary art with a permanent collection that includes works from outsider artist Daniel Johnston, cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis and Mon Colonel and Spit. Founded in 2016, it also hosts several temporary exhibitions throughout the year.
Train World – This unique venue, which opened last year, spreads over immense railway workshops that resemble the set of a sci-fi movie. An extraordinary route takes you past 22 locomotives, from an early steam train, past first world war coaches, the royal carriage and futuristic high-speed train simulators.
Comic Strip Center – Comics are ingrained in Belgian culture, and it goes way beyond Tintin. This surprising museum – housed in a building designed by Horta – is for anyone interested in what is proudly known here as the 9th Art. The Center’s specialist outlet Slumberland (there are six more shops in the chain around the country) is the gold standard. It has offered European, American and Japanese comic art since 1989 and is one of the largest comic shops in Europe. It can be dizzying just browsing its selection of genres, styles and languages.
Bozar – Brussels has its fair share of headliner museums, from the Royal Museums with their Rubens and Bruegels to the matchless collection of the Magritte Museum. But the Bozar offers something different – an irreverent, eclectic, challenging fine arts centre, a mirror image of the city itself. Housed in a signature Victor Horta building, whose art nouveau designs define the city skyline, the Bozar offers offbeat exhibitions, classical concerts, world music and film festivals.
Sunday farmers’ market at Place Flagey – Brussels has a host of colourful foodie markets, from the north African souk that surrounds the Midi Station on Sunday morning, to fashionable Place du Chatelain on Wednesday evening. But Sundays at Place Flagey, alongside a lake and gardens, is a festive affair, with foodtrucks offering organic veggie dishes, succulent burgers, oysters, and champagne at €4 a glass.
WHERE TO SHOP
Brussels Vintage Market – The city is a goldmine for vintage fashion bargains, with dozens of boutiques around town. But on the first Sunday of each month, the red-brick Saint-Géry market becomes the Vintage Market, filled with stands selling everything from rare vinyls to classic Chanel bags, timeless Dries Van Noten designs and outrageous Elvis Pompilio hats.
Orybany – Part working atelier, part funky boutique, Orybany showcases the work of a dozen young local stylists committed to ethical, ethnic fashion. Apart from original one-off outfits, the boutique also stocks organic cosmetics, jewellery and handbags, and runs creative workshops.
Passage 125 – Running from the upmarket, expensive antique stores around the Sablon squares to the bric-a-brac of the Jeu de Balle, rue Blaes has dozens of tempting, affordable retro furniture showrooms. Passage 125, though, resembles an Aladdin’s cave, a labyrinth of 30 dealers spread over four floors of an ancient mansion, selling art deco lamps, African masks, Dutch porcelain, Victorian bathtubs …
Bernard Gavilan – If you track down just one vintage store, make it Bernard Gavilan’s tiny boutique, crammed with so much stock it is almost intimidating to just walk in. But Bernard, a Brussels institution known as the “pharaoh of style”, will find anything you want, from rare 70s sneakers to the multi-coloured jackets favoured by Belgian rapper Stromae, who – of course – gets them here. Gavilan is also a cult DJ, so ask where to go clubbing at the weekend.