In one turn, I was awed by one of the most, if not the most beautiful medieval square in Europe. By another, I found myself standing under a 102-meter tall iron atom. That is Brussels, a city in which a mélange of architectural styles exists.
Home to the European Parliament, NATO, and various international organizations, Brussels has long been known as the de facto capital of Europe. But there is much more to the city than just politics and diplomacy. Belgium’s capital boasts an outstanding artistic taste reflected through numerous architectural treasures, from the ornate splendor of the Grand Place, the Art Noveau stores to the modern Atomium.
1. Grand Place
Enclosed by golden-trimmed Baroque guild houses, Grand Place is undoubtedly Brussels’s most gorgeous place. The cobblestone square measures around 7,500m2 and has been used as a marketplace since the 12th-century. Today, this World Heritage Site still hosts a flower market, the Christmas market, as well as a spectacular flower carpet in late summer.
Interestingly, Grand Place only reveals itself as you enter from one of the six narrow side alleys. The square is hidden when looking from the distance. Only the soaring spire of Hôtel de Ville – Grand Place’s pièce de résistance – is visible. Completed in the 15th century, this Gothic-inspired city hall rarely fails to impress visitors.
2. Central Quarter
Surrounding Grand Place is the Central Quarter – a former covered market and the origin of Brussels. It is among the city’s most attractive neighborhoods where elegant buildings in Haussmann style line cobblestone roads. The area also houses several sights, including the iconic Manneken Pis and the magnificent Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. Opened in 1847 by King Léopold, this gallery is the very first shopping arcade in Europe. It includes elegant cafes, cultural places, and luxury shops. But most notable (to me) is the first store of the Belgian chocolatiers (Jean) Neuhaus – the inventor of praline.
Pralines, chocolate, and waffles are what Belgium has long been known for. But here in the Central Quarter, they come in countless forms, shapes, and flavors. In short, if you are a sweet lover, this place is where your wildest dream comes true. Each shop is more irresistible than the previous one, making a trip to Brussel a feast for the eyes, noses, and obviously the tongue. Even now, I can still remember the light, soft meringue from Aux Merville de Fred or the addictive sweet treat from Neuhaus.
3. Royal Quarter
As its name implies, the Royal Quarter has been home to Brussels’s aristocracy since the 15th-century. The neighborhood is adjacent to the bustling Central Quarter yet it presents a peaceful elegance.
Royal Quarter is filled with museums, exhibitions, as well as some of Europe’s finest Art Noveau buildings. Greenery also plays an important role here. For example the leafy Parc Royal or the tree-lined paths of the beautiful Mont des Arts.
4. Leopold Quarter
East of the Royal Quarter is where Brussels made its name as the de facto capital of Europe. The European Commission, the European Council, and the European Parliament are all located in this area. They are housed in postmodern structures, featuring sleek lines, glass-and-steel facades. The buildings offer a stark contrast to the charming old town.
At the periphery of this diplomatic district is Parc du Cinquantenaire or Park of the 50th Anniversary. It was built during the reign of Leopold II to celebrate 50 years of Belgian independence. Today, Parc du Cinquantenaire is one of the most beautiful parks in Brussels with many tranquil places to rest and play. It also serves as a venue for various events, such as concerts and festivals. At the south-eastern point, a grandiose arch with two arms extending to house three museums, including the Autoworld, the Art and Military Museum.
Annexed by Brussels in 1921, the northern suburb of Laeken is the Belgian monarchs’ domain. That includes the Palace of Laeken, the Royal Greenhouse, and the Church of Our Lady whose crypt contains the tombs of the royal family, to name a few. But surprisingly the main attraction of this area has nothing to do with the aristocracy. Instead, Atomium – a 102-meter tall structure made of metal – takes the spotlight.
Located in Heysel Plateau, Atomium was originally constructed for the post-war World Fair 1958, or Expo 58. With nine interconnected spheres, it represents an iron crystal magnified by 165 billion times. Designed by the engineer André Waterkeyn, the monument was intended to survive not beyond 1958. However, its popularity and success soon made it a landmark of Brussels.
Tips for visiting Brussels
- Please note that international high-speed trains, like the Eurostar, arrive and depart from Gare du Midi, south-west of the Grand Place. Gare Central only serves domestic trains.
- The area around Gare du Midi holds the second biggest flea market in Europe on Sunday morning.
- Although the Manneken Pis is an icon of Brussels, its size and appearance failed to impress me. But if you want to find him, he is just a stone’s throw away from the Grand Place. Just exit through Rue Charles Bul.
- Next to the Atomium is the Mini-Europe park with 1:25 scale maquettes of famous buildings across Europe.