Brussels is an exciting, modern city, yet it is rich in strikingly beautiful medieval and art nouveau buildings. It has outstanding museums and galleries and a vibrant cultural life. The heart of the capital city of Belgium lies inside a circle of main roads. The inner city can easily be explored within this circle on foot, by bus, or by tram. For areas outside it, there is an excellent subway system.
Over the centuries, Brussels (Bruxelles in French, Brussel in Flemish) has been ruled by every major power at or near its boundaries from the Romans to the Spanish to the Germans. Its colonial history provided a fitting prelude to its current status. Brussels has become an international business community composed of diplomats, lobbyists, and euro-politicians connected with NATO and the European Union. International business arrived in the past three decades, resulting in blocks lined with steel-and-glass office buildings. However, these modern edifices are only a few steps from the cobbled streets, splendid cafés, and graceful art nouveau architecture that speak to the city’s eventful past.
Belgium's unique languages date back to the time when the Franks were forcing Celts and Gauls into the land's southern regions, making an early form of the Dutch language the norm in the north. French (with Dutch influence), is the accepted language in the south. Brussels, located in the middle, is one of the world's few officially bilingual capitals. Residents of Brussels tend to be politically and religiously conservative and to cling to family and national traditions. The vast majority of Belgians are Roman Catholics, and despite a decline in church attendance, religious customs still flavor much of Belgium's daily life.
Early Belgian artists are credited with inventing oil painting, and the country has produced many masterpieces. The Flemish primitive Jan Van Eyck started the tradition in the 15th century. Pieter Brueghel followed with his portrayals of peasant life in the 16th century, and Pieter Paul Rubens dominated early 17th century art as the leading artist of the Baroque period. For most of the 18th century, while Brussels was under Austrian rule, buildings were designed in a modest rational, neoclassical style. After the war of independence ended in 1831 Brussels built with a new exuberance in an effort to catch up with and surpass the extravagant structures of London and Paris. The first covered shopping gallery was a product of this period. The glass covered Galeries Saint Hubert is still open today, and is as astounding as when it was built!
At the turn of the last century, Art Nouveau architecture took the world by storm. This style of architecture sought to break free of the restrictive classical styles that dominated much 19th century art and design. The movement in Brussels was led by Henri Van de Velde and Victor Horta. Horta was known for his interiors which avoided straight lines. Ceilings simply became curved continuations of walls. Stained glass and wrought iron were widely used to accentuate this these free formed lines.
Horta abandoned art noveau in favor of the cleaner lines of art deco in the 1920's and 1930's. The result was numerous art deco apartment blocks, including the Residence Palace with its unusual blend of a swimming pool and theater. The Palais du Centenaire, a major exhibition center on the northern edge of the city features terraced tiers topped by statues.
The most dramatic post World War II structure is the Atomium, which is modeled on a molecule of iron. It was built for the Belgian metal industry as the showpiece for the 1958 World's Fair. The 300 foot tall steel structure consists of nine separate spheres linked by cylindrical columns.
Throughout the years Brussels has been a world leader not only in architecture but also in literature, music, dance, painting, sculpture, and of course textiles. The city contains a wealth of examples showing excellence in each of these areas.
Grand'place is Europe's most ornate city square. The soaring lines of the Gothic Town Hall dominate one side, in contrast with the elaborately decorated baroque guild halls that surround it. There's a daily flower market, a bird market on Sunday morning, and frequent musical performances.
"One of the most beautiful town squares in Europe, if not in the world", is a phrase often heard when visitors in Brussels try to describe the beauty of this central market square. French speakers refer to it as the 'Grand-Place', and in Dutch it is called 'de Grote Markt'. Writers over the years, including Victor Hugo and Baudelaire were struck by the charm of the market square with its rows of guild houses set against the backdrop of the Town Hall and the king's house.
The origins of the Grand-Place were humble. The site began as a sand bank between two brooks which ran downhill to the river Senne. The "niedermerckt", or 'lower market' was built along it first. By the 12th century, Brussels had become a commercial crossroads between Bruges (in Flanders) , Cologne , and France. English wool, French wines and German beer were sold in the harbour and in the market.
During the early Middle Ages small wooden houses were scattered around the market. Beginning in the 14th century, wealthy families constructed stone mansions. Gradually the market turned into the main commercial and administrative center of the city. Between 1402 and 1455 the Town Hall was built. The square had by then become the political center where meetings were held, where executions took place and where dukes, kings and emperors where officially received. In the centuries that followed most wooden houses where replaced with beautifully decorated stone ones, owned by the powerful Brussels trade guilds.
The Grand-Place is the main tourist attraction of the city of Brussels. It is visited in every season by thousands who enjoy strolling through and admiring the beautiful buildings, or sitting down on one of the many terraces with a good Belgian beer. Concerts and musical events are presented on the square throughout the year.
The Grand Sablon is an elegant square surrounded by restaurants, cafés, and exclusive antique shops. Every Saturday and Sunday morning a lively antiques market takes over the upper part of the square. The petit Sablon, the other half of the square, is surrounded by a magnificent wrought-iron fence topped by 48 small bronze statues representing the city's guilds.
Until the late 19th century, Brussels was a riverside city, built along the banks of the River Senne. At that time, a decision was made to brick over the river and thus eliminate it as a source of flooding and any other annoyance it might cause. The river still flows under the bricked boulevard that covers it. In order to photograph the Senne,however, one must travel outside the city.
Belgian food is highly regarded throughout Europe. Some say it's second only to French cuisine. Combining French and German styles, meat and seafood are the main raw ingredients. The Belgians claim to be the inventors of frites (potato chips, or fries), and judging by availability, it's a claim few would contest. These crisp delights rank in popularity with Belgian chocolate and Belgian beer. Mussels are another favorite.
There are many attractions the whole family will enjoy. One that is sure to please is Brupark, an outstanding theme park in the city's northern suburbs. There the Atomium can be viewed from the ground by going inside the structure. There is a 24 theater complex, a planetarium, a water park, a miniature re-creation of Europe that has several hands - on components.
Shopping in Brussels is a favorite occupation. Though there are no longer 22,000 lace makers as there were in the 17th century, visitors will have at least 40 lace makers' shops from which to choose. Much lace is now machine made, but handmade lace can still be found. Art and antique shops are also abundant. Boutiques feature the latest fashions on several of the city's streets.
Popular sports to be enjoyed in Brussels are soccer (voetbal in Flemish), archery, horse-ball, golf, and tennis. Nightly entertainment offers everything from discos to classical music to jazz and rock. Some clubs feature Latin music. Opera, ballet, and theater are all part of the cultural life of this outstanding city.