Historically, artistically and architecturally as important as the neighboring giants of Amsterdam, Paris and Berlin, Brussels is all too often left off the cultural maps of Europe.
But recent years have seen the capital’s revival as visitors discover the beginnings of art nouveau and surrealism in its ancient streets and old museums assert new dominance. Furthermore, not only does Brussels’s dense center make for ideal sightseeing, but Belgium’s compact territory allows easy access to neighboring cities.
Undoubtedly Brussels’s most famous landmark, often dubbed the most beautiful square in Europe, the Grand Place is the city’s proud cultural and historical heart.
White spirals rocket skyward out of the gothic town hall that shadows gothic, baroque and Louis XIV guildhalls. This astonishing combination of architectural styles have earned the Grand Place UNESCO World Heritage status and also form the perfect backdrop to some of Brussels’s most extravagant events. Come here in August, for example, and you find the whole square covered in flowers during the Tapis de Fleurs.
Walking the historical streets of Brussels you cannot fail to notice the bizarre and, at times, erratic architectural style of some of the buildings.
Swirling ironwork, arabesque spirals, abstract stained glass windows and circular arches give life to this style called art nouveau, a term synonymous with Belgium’s most famous architect, Victor Horta. Unsurprisingly Horta’s own personally designed home is the city’s finest example of all things art nouveau. Four floors filled with Horta’s own furniture and floral swirls in iron, wood and mosaic display the remarkable imagination of this eccentric architect whose style spread throughout Europe and would later go on to inspire art deco. Parts of the museum look like fantasy scenes from Lord of the Rings, while others resemble abstract Rococo. So, whatever your interest in architecture, you must witness this, one of art’s most bizarre movements.
Thierry Mondelaers, Coordination
+32 2 543 0490
25 Rue Américaine, 1060
ROYAL MUSEUMS OF FINE ARTS OF BELGIUM
The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium is made up from five galleries displaying Belgium’s most important art collections: the Ancient Art Museum, the Modern Art Museum, the Wertz Museum, the Meunier Museum and the Magritte Museum.
This vast collection of over 20,000 paintings, sculptures and drawings includes 15th century Flemish masters, 16th century works by Bruegel, 17th century pieces by Rubens and surrealist art by Dalí, Chirico and Miró. If visiting Brussels between March 29 and July 1 don’t miss a major exhibition entitled Surrealism in Paris. Private guided viewings outside of opening hours are also available upon request.
Caroline Haraké, Events Manager
+32 2 508 3412
3 Rue de la Régence, 1000
ROYAL MUSEUM FOR CENTRAL AFRICA
Just a short way to the east of Brussels’s city center is the Royal Museum for Central Africa, unmistakably one of the world’s most beautiful museums devoted to Africa.
It was originally built in 1898 to showcase King Leopold II’s proud African colony, the Congo, to monarchs and world leaders and thus was built to impress. The symmetrical neo-classical palace today is home to permanent and temporary exhibitions displayed in stunning rooms that focus on the whole story of Africa. From the anthropological and ethnographical to the zoological and botanical there are curiosities collected from all over the continent, some unique to this museum including many of the ten million animal species. Temporary exhibitions as well as extensive gardens are bound to keep children amused and large research departments ensure exhibitions are always at the forefront of scientific discovery and academia.
Marie-Pascale Le Grelle
+32 2 769 5246
13 Leuvensesteenweg, Tervuren, 3080
Brussels’s most famous silhouette may look a little abstract, but it in fact represents a molecule magnified 165 billion times with each “globe” representing an atom.
Venture inside this bizarre creation, dreamed up by André Waterkeyn, and you will find escalators linking each “atom” and in each of these, a series of permanent collections and temporary exhibitions. Going from one atom to another you can eventually make it to the top atom from where the finest panoramic views of Brussels can be had in an extraordinary setting.
+32 2 475 4772
Square de l’Atomium, 1020
His paintings are instantly recognizable – most notably The Treachery of Images, his painting of a pipe with the caption “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” – yet it often comes as a surprise to learn that one of the world’s most famous surrealist artists spent his life in Brussels.
The Magritte Museum, part of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, contains the largest collection of René Magritte works in the world. Magritte’s obsession with using ordinary objects in unusual contexts will leave you studying each painting’s false reality for hours, so allow plenty of time if you wish to explore all five floors.
+32 2 508 3211
3 Rue de la Régence, 1000
In Belgium nothing is very far away; it is a country scaled down, where culture is compact and history is always present.
Exchange for a day the historical sights of Brussels for those of Bruges, the country’s most preserved city, which is just an hour away. Visiting the medieval streets of this city is a throwback to a time long since past. With UNESCO World Heritage Status Bruges has remained warped in a pre-Renaissance era – there are clusters of towers with echoing church bells, cobbled streets that deny all forms of modern transport and canals that have earned Bruges the nickname “Venice of the north”. With streets of cobbles and water, the options of getting around this living museum are wonderfully limited to boat and horse-drawn carriage, but the main sights are all within walking distance. Burg Square, home to more than nine centuries of different architectural styles, is but a short walk away from the equally famous Markt square. This, in turn, is overlooked by the Belfry tower, made famous by the movie In Bruges. If you can manage the 366 steps, an excellent panoramic view of the snaking canals and warping rooftops awaits. Exchange architecture for art at the Groeninge Museum, which is stuffed with pre-Renaissance works from Jan van Eyck and Hugo van der Goes as well as neo-classical, symbolist and modernist works.
A welcome break from art and architecture can come in no better form than a gastronomic sitting at one of the world’s finest restaurants. De Karmeliet was recently voted by San Pellegrino as the World’s 54th Best Restaurant; it has three Michelin stars and is as much a reason to visit Bruges as the historic streets and canals. Chef Geert Van Hecke has perfected his localized version of gastronomy through three menus: “À la Carte”, “Brugge die Scone” and “Le Plat Pays”.