Brussels parks index:
I have often spurned reading about a city before arriving. This imposes no preconceived notions of what to expect. I’ll consult a map and find out where my hostel or hotel is located, and that is all. I had been to Brussels once before—a mere three-hour stop between trains—and that experience left me with the thought, “Good beer, great Belgian fries.” I hadn’t seen anything of the city. This time around, I was determined to learn about Belgians and their capital city.
As I walked through Upper Town it struck me that Brussels must have decided modern architecture was the way to go post Word War II: except for the Royal Quarter, with its old palace and the Belgian Parliament building, separated by Warande Park, the predominant architecture is Neo-classical concrete and glass office buildings. Very international, very business, very governmental. The bustle about the streets made me take a right turn to get away from all the flapping striped ties and burnished briefcases.
Suddenly I stared over tops of church spires, narrow avenues, and resplendent architecture. I stood at the top of a long stairway leading to Lower Town. I thought this must be a Hollywood movie set built for some celluloid rendition of the Brabant’s successful Joyeuse Entree of 1356. Alas, what pleasant surprises to my senses when I discovered this was not a stage-set cutout, but the magnificent Medieval Lower Town.
The division between Lower Town and Upper Town is essentially a division in Brussels’ personality. As the thrice-capital of Flanders, Belgium, and Europe (the EU has set up house here), Brussels is the face of modern Belgium and post post-modern Europe. As an ancient city with a strong sense of its Flemish heritage, Belgium understands the importance of its history. One walk through Bruges, an hour’s train ride north, will surely convince you.
This is most evident in Lower Town’s Grand Place, a Medieval square circled by elegant Guildhouses. These wondrous and tall (for their time) buildings are testament to the economic power artisan Belgians controlled by banding together for the good of the craft, community, and family growth. The centerpiece of Grand Place is Town Hall. It looks like a church, but in fact was a government building adorned with all the grandiloquence befitting a rich and powerful trade city. Each summertime day the square becomes a flower market. A concert band plays as people shop, and outdoor cafés fill the square with traditional Belgian dishes, especially mussels and fries.
The cobblestone lanes emanate from Grand Place like spiders’ legs. These are narrow, dense streets filled with shops, bars, and chocolatiers. Two notable streets you’ll want to visit are St-Géry and Ste-Catherine. St-Géry is a covered market street with trendy bars, cafés and nightspots. Ste-Catherine used to be Brussels’ harbor area, before the city land-filled the river in 1875. Today seafood restaurants line the narrow street (no wider than a large car in some spots), where the smell of lobster, oysters, and mussels linger all day.
As I spent my days going from one museum to the next bar, another gallery to yet a smaller candied fruit shop, I found Belgians subtle in their greetings and hearty with conversation when pressed just a little. One chocolatier showed me the inner workings of her shop; mounds of cocoa powder had been set out to dust newly minted Belgian chocolate truffles. I looked at the powdery pyramids as a prospector looks at gold dust.
Brussels Museums & Sites
You can spend a couple days touring the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, housed in a few buildings grouped around a courtyard. This 200-year-old institution is essentially four museums in one: Ancient Art (15th-17th centuries); Modern Art (19th-20th century); and the Antoine Wiertz Museum and Constantin Meunier Museum hold works from these two 19th century Belgian artists.
The whole of the collection has 20,000 paintings, sculptures, and drawings. I liked the chronological order of the exhibition rooms, where you really have the opportunity to see growth in perspective, color composition, and audacity of scope. From Rogier van der Weyden through Hans Memling and Hieronymous Bosch, and Pierre-Paul Rubens to van Dyck, the important artistic various movements have been beautifully represented. Open daily 10am-5pm. €5 adults, €3.50 children. Place Royale 1-3.
The Wiertz Museum is in the Leopold district in Brussels, and captures the studio atmosphere in which the controversial artist worked within the Belgian Romantic movement. Open weekends, 10am-Noon and 1pm-5pm. Free! Rue Vautier 62.
(read more about Brussels’ highlights here)