Brussels, or Bruxelles, or Bureaucrat Central, the capital of Belgium and the defacto administrative heart of the European Union is, like any city with multiple identities, a study in the cultures and influences that made this the predominantly bilingual French-Dutch city in the Dutch Flemish half of a country, a unique melting pot and a centre of the experiment that is a united Europe (God that was a mouth-full). It is more than a monument of ambition: it is, like any good Belgian chocolate, a mix of unique ingredients that work and leave you wanting for more.
City of Hills
Unlike the Dutch half of Belgium that is Flanders which is mostly flat, Brussels, is fairly hilly, and this is something you will notice when you arrive at Brussels Central Station. Unlike Antwerp with her massive, grand arrival hall, a nexus of trade, Brussels’s station is very much a product of her art deco 1920s time and slowly reveals itself as a showcase city for royal ambitions.
Stepping out of Central, you will notice the handsome streets, almost Parisian facades and hills. Central itself is located within one of the city’s many hills, and the landmark Cathedral of St Michael and St Guluda/Co-Cathedral Collegial des Ss Michael et Gudule/Collegiale Sint Michiels en Sint Goedele co-kathedraal, just next door, is a good vantage point to look towards the old city.
Walking down the Rue du Montainge, towards the old city and the Grand Place/Grote Markt, the sheer bustle and congestion, the proximity of buildings and grandeur of Northern Renaissance buildings will make you look up most of the time. No grand plazas like Antwerp here. Think urban canyon of St Mark’s Square in Venice.
Nibbles and Scribbles
Within the Grand Place/Grote Market, are an array of alley ways where your nose, and stomach, is a sufficient guide. Crepes and waffles, chocolate pieces and chips galore, all wonderfully delicious and made in just the right size, you can walk and nibble, and still have room for one more as you digest your snack while walking. I am not ashamed to admit that my diet in Brussels was dominated by waffles and crepes.
If something more high-brow is your thing, head up towards the Place Royal, in the aptly named Royal Quarter, for a study in Low Country art. While not as expansive as Amsterdam’s Rijkmuseum or home to curated collections in Den Haag’s Mauritshuis, the art and galleries in this square here have a good collection of lesser known but equally stunning artworks, with print shops selling good reproductions.
The Royal Centre
The monumental Royal Centre on top of a hill is for stunning vistas, both of Brussels and the imperial image it seeks to project. From the expansive Brussels Park in front of the Royal Palace of Brussels to the neo-classical lines along the Konigsplein or Place Royale, the royal and imperial ambitions of a clean-lined, grand centre is on display.
The Koningsplein/Place Royale draws your eye upwards as you approach from the lower wards in the city, with the Church of St Jacques du Coudenburg providing the focal point and the equestrian statue of Godfrey du Boillon a centre piece looking out to the city.
The axis centred on the Konigsplein/Place Royale provide stunning vistas to other parts of the city, from the copula of the Palace of Justice to the green parks of Brussels Park and Mont Des Arts.
Monuments for Monumental Dreams
As a student of international law and geopolitics, Brussels is one of those destinations which I have to go to if only to see one particular major institution. I am that much of an international law geek that I purposely went to Den Haag to see the ICJ, Geneva to the former League of Nations quarter to Brussels and the legislative heart of the European Union.
Located a bit off-centre to the west, easily reached via tram or a leisurely walk through character-filled neighbourhoods, the Espace Leopold, focal point of the European Quarter, is one of the homes of the European Parliament. The complex is unassuming, blending well with the neighbourhood, and incorporates the classical frontage of the former Brussels-Luxembourg Station.
Going back westwards, if you extend the visual axis from the European Quarter to the Royal Palace and Konigsplein/Place Royale, the other stunning site of Mont Des Arts offers amazing views of Brussels. Thanks to the hilly terrain, this city is not short of vantage points, but this is one of the prettiest.
From the spire of the Brussels City Hall at the Grand Place, framed by the neo-classical buildings fronting the terraced gardens, and its proximity to Brussels Gare Central railway station, this spot is easily a picture-postcard spot before zooming off to your next destination.
Train connections? Local trains, high speed inter-city trains, Eurostar and Thalys provides excellent connections to Brussels through the three major railway hubs in the north, centre and south of the city centre, with regular services across the Low Countries. In fact, you can just turn up at Amsterdam Centraal and you’ll be on a train to Brussels within the hour.
Jason is a world traveller and avid seeker of high perches, on a mission to capture the unique experiences that makes destinations iconic.