My first visit to Brussels was a long time ago. I was returning from a stay in Ghent, stopping at the capital for only one day. I managed to see a few monuments, but the weather was not perfect and I must admit that I also perceived Brussels as a gray city at the time.
Now I realised it is necessary to come to Brussels for several days, wear sturdy shoes and walk not only through the most famous streets but also turn into other streets, let yourself become absorbed in their atmosphere and admire their diverse architecture.
In the next series of three articles, I will focus on what you could see in Brussels in three days. One day you must definitely leave for the classic monuments, which must not be missing in the itinerary of any visitor to the Belgian capital.
(1) The main attraction of the city is definitely the Grand Place/Grote Markt (all streets and monuments are named in both French and Dutch – for other streets and monuments, I will mention only their French names).
The French poet Jean Cocteau called this square “the most beautiful theater in the world.” And really, you always have something to watch here – tourists trying to take the best selfie, wedding guests who came to take pictures in front of the town hall, carriages waiting for customers… The baroque facades of houses built around a rectangular square with an area of 110 x 68 meters make for the perfect background. If you have the opportunity, come here several times, at different hours of the day, in different weather…
Today, we can hardly imagine that there used to be only swamps in this place. It was not until the 11th century that the first city center was built on the sandy shore. By the way, the name of the city is also derived from Brug-Senne, which means “bridge over the river Senne”. In the Middle Ages, a marketplace spread over this area, which is reminiscent of the name Grote Markt – Big Market.
The black day in the history of this square was August 13, 1695, when during the Nine Years’ War, the French army under Marshal Francois de Neufville, Duke de Villeroy, began to bombard houses in the square, which were mostly made of wood, with their cannons. Only the town hall tower and a few stone walls remained. In the following years, the guild houses were rebuilt – this time made of stone, and despite the fact that each facade is different, the square looks like a harmonious architectural complex. In 1998, it was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Look carefully at those houses, each has its own number and name and is assigned to a guild. It will be immediately clear to you which house is called The Golden Tree (House of the Cooperation of Brewers), The Fox (Haberdashers), The Swan (Butchers), The Windmill (Millers), etc., but there are also private houses – The Deer, The Dove, The Peacock, The Rose... Don’t be surprised if Russian and Chinese tourists take their selfies in front of the Swan House. In this house in 1847, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels pondered the Manifesto of the Communist Party.
Victor Hugo, a refugee from Paris, used to live in the Dove House. In his 1831 notes, he referred to Brussels City Hall as a jewel, a poetic splendour.
The oldest part of the City Hall is the eastern wing (on the left, if you stand opposite the City Hall) added to a bell tower in the 15th century, then the right wing was added and finally, the middle part with the tower was built. Note that the building is asymmetrical – the tower is not in the middle of the building and the left and right sides are not identical. It is said that when the architect realized the “mistake”, he leapt to his death from the tower.
Extra tip: the smallest house on the square is The Star – L´Étoile (No. 8). Below its arcades, you will find a plaque dedicated to Everard t´Serclaes, who liberated the city from the Flemish rule in the 14th century. According to legend, you need to touch his arm and make a wish.
The facade of the City Hall is decorated with almost 100 figures. They are the dukes of Brabant.
At the top of the 96-meter tower, you can see Archangel Michael, the city’s patron saint. It is just a copy, the original statue can be found at the Museum of the City of Brussels, the building opposite the City Hall. It’s the Maison du Roi – King’s House.
The original wooden house in which bread was sold (hence the Dutch name Broodhuis) was replaced in the 15th century by a stone building that housed the administration of the Duke of Brabant. When the duke became King of Spain, the name was changed to the King’s House.
The mentioned museum exhibits models of the city, porcelain, tapestries, as well as the original statue of St. Michal from the City Hall tower. I must admit that his face and large protruding ears slightly frightened me… I recommend you to stop at the paintings depicting the three-day bombing of the Grand Place by the French artillery and the subsequent devastating fire. The sound from the speakers adds an authentic atmosphere to these scenes.
However, you will also find another rare original in the museum – a statue of a peeing boy!
(2) Manneken Pis (the corner of Rue de l´Etuve/Rue des Grands Carmes) is a cult figure that every visitor to Brussels must see in order to sigh: “Wow, how small he is!” The original statue was created by Dutch sculptor Jérôme Duquesnoy the Elder in 1619 and placed on a fountain which played an important role in the distribution of drinking water in the city.
It is a truly small statuette – only 60 cm. There are many legends surrounding this small boy, but basically, it’s always a heroic act of the boy peeing to prevent a fire or an explosion. Some stories tell of a boy who got lost. When they found him (just peeing), the happy parents built a fountain and the statue.
Manneken Pis survived not only the memorable bombardment of 1695 but also various other disasters. And it was also stolen several times, so today, there is only a copy by the fountain. A group of French soldiers first tried to steal it in 1747, but the citizens rebelled against this deed. To calm the situation, King Louis XV of France donated a brocade robe embroidered with gold to the statue, a sword and the Cross of St. Louis (now also at the Museum of the City of Brussels).
The wardrobe of the famous symbol of the city began to increase regularly, today it has almost a thousand outfits, among them national costumes, uniforms, clothes of various professions, fictional and real characters, so the boy can turn into a cowboy, Santa, Mickey Mouse, Napoleon or Dracula. In 2017, a special Wardrobe Museum was opened on Rue du Chêne 19. More info: GardeRobe
While hordes of tourists walk to the fountain with a peeing boy as pilgrims to a sacred place, not everyone knows that there are two other peeing statues in Brussels.
Jeanneke Pis is a little girl squatting and peeing by a small fountain in a small alley Impasse de la Fidélité. The famous Délirium Café is also located here – its guests definitely have to visit the toilet often, as it offers up to 3,000 types of beer. They don’t open until the evening. More info: Delirium Village
The second bronze statue depicts a dog, but without a fountain. It is on the corner of Rue des Chartreux/Rue de Vieux-Marché-aux-Grains. Its name is Zinneke Pis, the word Zinneke is used for a street bastard in the Brussels dialect. The author of the sculpture is Tom Frantzen, the dog humorously complements the group of peeing statues since 1998.
(3) Sweet Brussels waffles are nicely smelling at literally every corner. We couldn’t resist either, and we had our first waffles near the Manneken Pis. In a small shop, two young girls skilfully filled the so-called wafelijzer with the dough and decorated the freshly baked crunchy waffles with sugar, chocolate, whipped cream and pieces of strawberries or banana according to the customers’ wishes. Of course, I couldn’t resist and ordered a waffle with everything!
By the way, if you ever stand in front of the painting The Fight Between Carnival and Lent by the famous Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder, try to find the waffles he painted there – in such detail that you can see the whole grid – 12×7 squares, which suggests the use of a thin dough, which is also typical of today’s Brussels waffles.
(4) The Museum of the City of Brussels also houses the originals of two other important statues – St. Gudula and St. Michael – from the medieval Catholic cathedral, dedicated to both saints. It is built of stone from the Gobertange quarry, 45 km away. The construction of the monumental church took several centuries – from the 11th to the 16th century, so both Romanesque and Gothic elements can be found inside.
In the interior, I found interesting 17th-century statues of the apostles, which were created by all the famous sculptors of their time, the massive wooden pulpit by Antwerp sculptor Hendrik Frans Verbruggen (Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden at the bottom and the Virgin Mary and the child as they stabbed the snake in the upper part) and the organ which hangs as a swallow’s nest.
The stained glass windows are beautiful as well – for example, the one showing the Last Judgment or the north window depicting Charles V. and his wife Isabella of Parma in adoration of the Holy Sacrament.
In the park in front of the cathedral, there is a bust of King Baudouin. In Belgium, the king is not crowned. On July 21, 2013, after the morning Mass of Te Deum in this cathedral, King Albert II abdicated and then Prince Philip took the royal oath in parliament. Thus, no coronation ceremonies take place in the cathedral, only royal weddings and funerals.
(5) You may be wondering if anything has survived from the medieval city? Yes, you will find the remains of a medieval fortification from the 13th century in several places. Brussels had a population of 5 to 10 thousand at the time, becoming an increasingly influential city, which of course provoked its enemies. Therefore, a fortification 4 km long was built around the city. The walls were 7 meters high and 2.3 meters thick. There were 50 watchtowers. Access to the city was possible only through seven gates.
The remains of the fortifications can be found in the following places:
– Tour Anneessens – Boulevard de l´Empereur
– Tour de Villers – Rue de Villers
– Tour Noire – behind the church of Sainte-Catherine – one of the best-preserved remains
– Porte de Hal – Boulevard du Midi – a part of the former second fortification
(6) There are many churches in Brussels, each district having at least one. One of the oldest is the Church of St. Nicholas – Saint Nicolas, dedicated to the patron saint of merchants.
The original church was built in the 11th century in the Romanesque style, it collapsed and a late Gothic church was built in its place in the 14th century. It is surrounded by narrow streets and perhaps that is why small houses and shops are stuck to the outside of the church. Inside the church, the painting of the Mother of God with a sleeping child by Peter Paul Rubens attracts the most attention.
The exhibited Nativity scene is also interesting because it is set in the Belgian capital.
(7) Near the church of St. Nicholas, there is a historic Stock Exchange building (Bourse de Bruxelles) built in the 19th century. Since it was under reconstruction, I cannot write about it. Instead of a tour inside the building, we chose to take a break with a cup of coffee and a cake – in one of the most beautiful cafes in Brussels – the Art Nouveau café Le Cirio (Rue de la Bourse 18). Here, you will find a pleasant sitting in velvet chairs, large mirrors, flowers in vases and good coffee. The entrance to the toilets is also in Art Nouveau style. We will talk more about this style in a separate article.
By the way, the over 130-years-old cafe is named after an Italian manufacturer who has exported canned tomatoes all over the world and opened an Italian restaurant in several European cities.
(8) We have already mentioned the king… In 1831, the Belgians were looking throughout Europe for someone to take over the post of the king in their new country. The offer was finally accepted by Prince Leopold von Sachsen-Coburg, the uncle of Queen Victoria. Although a Protestant, he married the daughter of the French king, and so the Catholic dynasty was founded.
The official seat of the Belgian king is the neo-baroque Royal Palace (Palais Royal de Bruxelles), although the royal family spends most of its time in Laeken Castle. I could only see the palace from the outside because the palace is open to the public only in summer.
(9) Opposite the palace, you will find the Parc de Bruxelles, the largest public park in Brussels, the former hunting ground of the Dukes of Brabant. It covers an area of 13.1 hectares. There are many old trees in the park, especially lindens and chestnuts. Since I came here in February, the park was still in winter gray. However, it had the advantage that it was so much easier to spot parrots, which would otherwise be lost in the leaves due to their green color. The story of these birds began in 1974 when the owner of a city zoo set 50 green parrots free – allegedly to bring more color to the capital. Today, there are around 8,000 of them flying in Brussels!, they are everywhere, and even if you don’t see them, you will at least hear them.
(10) Although we already had two churches on the program, I definitely recommend a visit to the Church of St. Catherine (Eglise Sainte Catherine) and especially its surroundings, which is a very vibrant spot in Brussels.
Many streets here are called “Quai” (docks). There used to anchor ships here, loaded with bricks, coal, wood, grain and vegetables in the past. Some had carried passengers along the Senne river to the sea. At the local market, fishermen sold their products. As if a piece of that ancient atmosphere has remained.
Not only thanks to the street names and themed street art, but it is also thanks to a number of authentic restaurants and fish bars which have mainly fresh fish, mussels, lobsters and other seafood on their menus. The local people will tell you that if you want to taste mussels – Moules Frites, then here. We chose the Mussel Mongers: mussels served as they should be – in a still steaming pot – with white wine, parsley, shallots and celery and a bowl of fries. And next time, I will know that the meat from the oysters is not taken out with a fork or a spoon, but with an empty shell. 🙂
We also returned to the Church of St. Catherine on my second visit to Brussels, because this is where the bustling restaurant Noordzee is located (not to be confused with the Nordsee chain!) – Rue Sainte-Catherine 45. It is always very busy here, you are lucky if you find a free table and a free chair. You order from the seafood menu inside the fish bar. Food is prepared right on the street in front of the restaurant and when it is ready, they will shout your name, you put up your hand and then, the delicious meal will land in front of you. Shrimp croquettes are definitely a must! Bon appetite! More info: Noordzee – is closed on Mondays!
This part of the city was often flooded and the streets smelled bad. The port was therefore abolished, the riverbed covered. The original church was also demolished, but King Leopold II. insisted that a new one should be built, he hired architect Joseph Poelaert for this work.
(11) Poelaert is also the architect of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie (Place de la Monnaie) – the name is reminiscent of the coin mint that used to stand here. The theater had already stood here at the end of the 17th century, and the current building dates from the second half of the 19th century. This is where the Belgian Revolution began, when on August 25, 1830, after the performance of the opera La Muette de Portici by Daniel Auber spectators began to shout Long live freedom!, they hurried to the streets in their elegant clothes, hung a national flag at the town hall and broke into the royal palace, where they celebrated the end of Dutch rule by crowning the king’s bust with a piece of cheese.
This is where we ended our first day in the Belgian capital. We are already looking forward to tomorrow! 🙂
Note: when visiting Brussels, I recommend you to buy the special Brussels Card, which allows you not only to use public transport but also to have free admission to several museums. More information: Brussels Card
If you do not want to buy this card, you can find information on public transport in Brussels at STIB
It is better to pay the fare by debit card, which is cheaper than buying tickets at ticket machines.
Text: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
Fotos: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
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