Brussels & Waterloo

With more than one million inhabitants, the Brussels-Capital Region is made up of nineteen districts. The actual city of Brussels is much smaller and divided into two main areas. Historically the poorer area, where workers and immigrants lived, the Lower Town is centered on the splendid 17th-century Grand Place. The Upper Town, the traditional home of the aristocracy, is an elegant area that encircles the city’s green oasis, the Parc de Bruxelles. Some of the most striking buildings in this part of the city are the shiny postmodern structures of European institutions.



The geographical, historical, and commercial heart of the city, the Grand Place is the first port of call for most visitors to Brussels. A market was held on this site as early as the 11th century. During the first half of the 15th century, Brussels’ town hall, the Hôtel de Ville, was built, and city traders began to add individual guildhalls in a medley of styles. In 1695, however, two days of cannon fire by the French destroyed all but the town hall and two facades. Trade guilds were urged to rebuild their halls to designs approved by the town council, resulting in the splendid Baroque ensemble that can be seen today. Occupying the entire southwest side of the square, the Gothic Hôtel de Ville (see opposite) is the architectural masterpiece of the Grand Place. Opposite it stands La Maison du Roi (1536). Despite its name, no king ever lived here; the building was used as a temporary jail and a tax office. Redesigned in Gothic style in the late 19th century, it is now home to the Musée de la Ville, which contains 16th-century paintings and tapestries, and a collection of around 900 costumes created for the Manneken Pis. On the square’s eastern flank, the vast Neoclassical edifice known as La Maison des Ducs de Brabant was designed by Guillaume de Bruyn and consists of six former guildhalls. Facing it are Le Renard, built in the 1690s for the guild of haberdashers, and Le Cornet (1697), the boatmen’s guildhall, whose gable resembles a 17th-century frigate’s bow. Le Roi d’Espagne, also known as La Maison des Boulangers, was built in the late 17th century by the wealthy bakers’ guild. The gilt bust over the entrance represents St. Aubert, patron saint of bakers. Today, the building houses one of the Grand Place’s best-loved bars, whose first floor offers fine views of the bustling square.


Located within two 18thcentury gabled houses, this museum is dedicated to one of Brussels’ most successful exports, Belgian lace, which has been made here since the 12th century. The ground floor has a display of costumes on mannequins showing how lace has adorned fashions of every era. Upstairs is a fine collection of antique lace from France, Flanders, and Italy.


The tiny statue of a young boy relieving himself is Brussels’ most unusual sight. The original bronze statue by Jérôme Duquesnoy the Elder was first placed on the site in 1619. After it was stolen and damaged by a former convict in 1817, a replica was made and returned to its revered site. The inspiration for the statue is unknown, but the mystery only lends itself to rumor and fable and increases the little boy’s charm. One theory claims that in the 12th century, the son of a duke was caught urinating against a tree in the midst of a battle, and was thus commemorated in bronze as a symbol of the country’s military courage. When, in 1698, a city governor provided a set of clothes with which to dress the statue, he began a tradition that is still observed today. Visiting heads of state donate miniature versions of their national costume for the boy, and now a collection of 900 outfits, including an Elvis suit, can be seen in the Musée de la Ville.


The idea of erecting a town hall to reflect Brussels’ growth as a major European trading center had been under consideration since the end of the 13th century, but it was not until 1401 that the first foundation stone was laid. Completed in 1459, the Hôtel de Ville emerged as the finest civic building in the country, a stature it still enjoys. Jacques van Thienen was commissioned to design the left-wing, where he used ornate columns, sculptures, turrets, and arcades. Jan van Ruysbroeck’s elegant spire helped seal the building’s reputation. Tours of the interior are available, with its 15th-century tapestries and works of art.


This unique museum pays tribute to the Belgian passion for comic strips, or bandes dessinées, and to world-famous comic-strip artists from Belgium and abroad. One of the exhibitions shows the great comic-strip heroes, from Hergé’s Tintin – who made his debut in 1929 – to the Smurfs and the Flemish comic strip characters Suske and Wiske. Other displays explain the stages of putting together a comic strip. There is also a series of life-size cartoon sets, of special appeal to children. The museum holds 6,000 original plates and a valuable archive of photographs and artifacts. The collection is housed in a beautiful building, built in 1903–6 to the design of the Belgian Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta.


Belgium’s finest surviving example of Brabant Gothic architecture, the Cathédrale Sts- Michel et Gudule is the national church of Belgium. There has been a church on this site since at least the 11th century. Work began on the Gothic cathedral in 1226 under Henry I, Duke of Brabant, and continued over a period of 300 years. The cathedral interior is relatively bare, due to Protestant ransacking in 1579 and thefts during the French Revolution. Over the west door, however, is a magnificent 16th-century stained-glass window of the Last Judgment. Another splendid feature is the flamboyantly carved Baroque pulpit in the central aisle, by an Antwerp sculptor, Hendrik Frans Verbruggen. In the crypt are the remains of the original Romanesque church, which dates back to 1047.


Six centuries of art, both Belgian and international, are displayed in the four museums that make up the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts: the Musée Oldmasters (15th–18th centuries), the Musée Fin-de-Siècle (1868–1914), the Musée Modern (19th century–present day), and the Musée Magritte. The Musée Oldmasters holds one of the world’s finest collections of works by the Flemish Primitive School. A work of particular note is The Annunciation (c.1415–25) by the Master of Flémalle. The trademarks of the Flemish Primitives are a lifelike vitality and a clarity of light. The greatest exponent of the style was Rogier van der Weyden (c.1400–64), the official city painter to Brussels, who has several splendid works on display at the museum. Peter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525–69), one of the most outstanding Flemish artists, settled in Brussels in 1563. His earthy scenes of peasant life remain his best-known works and are represented here by paintings such as The Bird Trap (1565). Another highlight of the Musée Oldmasters is the world-famous collection of works by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). The Assumption of the Virgin stands out among his religious canvases. Other notable paintings include van Dyck’s Portrait of Porzia Imperial with her daughter Maria Francesca (1620s) and Three Children with Goatcart by Frans Hals (c.1582–1666). The Musée Fin-de-Siècle focuses on the years between 1868 and 1914, during which Brussels was the artistic capital of Europe, thanks to the efforts of James Ensor, Constantin Meunier, and Victor Horta, among others. In addition to visual arts, the museum explores the literature, poetry, and music of the period. One of the highlights of this collection is a 3D reconstruction of six Art Nouveau buildings. Works in the Musée Modern vary greatly in style and subject matter, from Neoclassicism to Realism, Impressionism, and Symbolism. The dramatic Death of Marat (1793) by Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) can be seen in the old part of the museum. The Musée Magritte is devoted to one of Belgium’s most famous artists and a major exponent of Surrealism, René Magritte (1898–1967). Spread over five floors, it is the world’s largest collection of his work and covers all periods of his life, from the dazzling early Cavernous period of the late 1920s to the renowned Domain of Arnheim (1962).


The official home of the Belgian monarchy, this is one of the finest 19th-century buildings in the Upper Town. Construction began in the 1820s on the site of the old Coudenberg Palace. Work continued under Léopold II (reigned 1865–1909) when much of the exterior was completed. The most lavish state reception rooms include the Throne Room, with 28 wall-mounted chandeliers, and the Hall of Mirrors. The latter, similar to the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, is where ceremonial occasions are held, and guests presented to the king and queen.


Located on the slope of the escarpment that divides Brussels in two, the Place du Grand Sablon is like a stepping stone between the upper and lower towns. The name “sablon” derives from the French “sable” (sand), and the square is so-called because this old route down to the city center once passed through sandy marshes. Today, this is an area of upscale antique dealers, fashionable restaurants, and trendy bars, where you can stay drinking until the early hours of the morning. At the far end of the square stands the lovely church of Notre-Dame du Sablon, built in the Brabant Gothic style, and boasting some glorious stained-glass windows. On the opposite side of the road to the church is the Place du Petit Sablon. In contrast to the busy café scene of the larger square, these pretty formal gardens are a peaceful spot to stop for a rest. Sit and admire the set of bronze statues by Art Nouveau artist Paul Hankar, each representing a different medieval guild of the city. At the back of the gardens is a fountain, built to commemorate Counts Egmont and Hoorn, the martyrs who led a Dutch uprising against the tyrannical rule of the Spanish under Philip II. On either side of the fountain are 12 further statues of prominent 15th- and 16th-century figures, including Gerhard Mercator, the Flemish geographer, and mapmaker.


The vast, modern steel-and-glass complex located just behind the Quartier Léopold train station is one of three homes of the European Parliament (the other two are in Strasbourg and Luxembourg). This gleaming building has its critics: the huge structure housing the hemicycle that seats the 750-plus MEPs has been dubbed “Les Caprices des Dieux” (“Whims of the Gods”), which refers both to the shape of the building, similar to a French cheese of the same name and to its lofty aspirations. The Parc Léopold, next to the Parliament, has some notable Art Nouveau buildings and is a delightful spot for a walk or a picnic.


The finest of Léopold II’s grand projects, the Parc and Palais du Cinquantenaire were built for the Golden Jubilee celebrations of Belgian independence in 1880. The park was laid out on unused marshland. The palace, at its entrance, was to comprise a triumphal arch, based on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and two large exhibition areas. By the time of the 1880 Art and Industry Exposition, however, only the two side exhibition areas had been completed. Further funds were found, and work continued for 50 years. The arch was completed in 1905. Until 1935, the large halls on either side of the central archway were used to hold trade fairs, before being converted into museums. Also known as the Musée du Cinquantenaire, the excellent Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire contain a vast array of exhibits. Sections on ancient civilizations cover Egypt, Greece, Persia, and the Near East. Other displays feature Byzantium and Islam, China and the Indian subcontinent, and the Pre- Columbian civilizations of the Americas. Decorative arts from all ages include glassware, silverware, porcelain, lace, and tapestries. There are also religious sculptures and stained glass. The Musée Royal de l’Armée et d’Histoire Militaire deals with all aspects of Belgium’s military history. There are new sections on both World Wars, as well as a separate hall containing historic aircraft. Housed in the south wing of the Cinquantenaire Palace, Autoworld has one of the best collections of classic automobiles in the world. Part formal gardens, part tree-lined walks, the park is popular with Brussels’s Eurocrats and families at lunchtimes and weekends.


Architect Victor Horta (1861–1947) is considered the father of Art Nouveau, and his impact on Brussels’s architecture is unrivaled by any other designer of his time. A museum dedicated to his unique style is today housed in his restored family home, in the St. Gilles district. Horta himself designed the house, between 1898 and 1901. The airy interior of the building displays trademarks of the architect’s style – iron, glass, and curves – in every detail while retaining a functional approach. Most impressive are the dining room, with its ornate ceiling featuring scrolled metalwork, and the central staircase. Decorated with curved wrought iron, the stairs are enhanced further by mirrors and glass, bringing natural light into the house.


Located on the outskirts of the city, this theme park is popular with families. The most visited attraction is Mini-Europe, which has more than 300 miniature reconstructions (built at a scale of 1:25) of Europe’s major sights, from Athens’ Acropolis to London’s Houses of Parliament. For movie fans, Kinepolis has 27 cinemas, including an IMAX complex. If warmth and relaxation are required, Océade is a tropically heated water park that features giant slides, wave machines, and even artificial sandy beaches. Towering over Bruparck is Brussels’ most distinctive landmark, the Atomium. Designed by André Waterkeyn for the 1958 World’s Fair, and representing an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times, the structure has a viewing platform and restaurant at the top.


This small town is most famous for its association with the Battle of Waterloo, which saw Napoleon and his French army defeated by the Duke of Wellington’s troops on June 18, 1815. The best place to start a visit here is the Musée Wellington, which occupies the inn where Wellington stayed the night before the battle. Its narrow rooms are packed with curios alongside plans and models of the battlefield. The Musée de Cires (Waxwork Museum) has models of soldiers dressed in period uniforms, while the Eglise St-Joseph contains dozens of memorial plaques to the British soldiers who died at Waterloo. For an excellent view over the battlefield, head for the Butte de Lion, a 148 ft high earthen mound, 2 miles south of the town. Next to it is a gallery where Louis Demoulin’s fascinating circular painting Panorama de la Bataille is displayed.