As I promised to give you 5 reasons to visit Brussels, I was going to go through architecture and major sights, but since all that information is readily available in any guidebook, I decided to deviate from the pattern. So instead of telling you about the best of Flemish renaissance on the iconic Grand Place, and give you 5 of my favourite sights and attractions instead.
Comic Strip Route. Belgium proudly considerers itself the inventor of comic strips. That may or may not be true, but Brussels has a thriving art scene regardless. The city is probably most famous for Herge (the creator of Tintin), whose comics made this art form part of the national heritage. Tintin is indeed everywhere, from t-shirts and mugs to street walls. Little known fact is that Brussels’s side streets are riddled with murals based on classical illustrations from Herge and other artists (not to mention contemporary street art); there’s even a walking tour organised around it. Brussels’ Comic Strip Route is to visit over 50 comic strip murals decking the walls of various buildings of the inner City as well as in the neighbourhoods of Laeken and Auderghem that show motifs of the most popular Belgian comics, such as The Adventures of Tintin, Lucky Luke, Gaston and Marsupilami.
The Atomium. Originally built for the World Fair of 1958, it quickly became an iconic landmark. It’s essentially an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times; it’s much bigger than you’d first think. With 100 meters in height and spheres of 18m in diameter, the Atomium is quite imposing. You can enter the structure, for the individual spheres are connected by escalators and an elevator in the middle, the top sphere also houses a restaurant with a 360 panorama of the city. The Atomium and the expo complex nearby host exhibitions; at the time of our visit the most interesting was The Gateway to Space, an interactive recap of space exploration history, with mementos from the first ideas of space rockets in science fiction literature to the most recent endeavours, including a moon rock (yes, an actual rock from the Moon).
Justice Palace (Palais de Justice). Brussels played an important role in Europe’s history throughout the ages, and as such it showcases many different architectural styles. Medieval, Neo-classical, Flemish renaissance, Art Nouveau and post-modern styles are only a few in the extensive architectural range. One of the most impressive examples and my personal favourite is the Justice Palace. It rules the Brussels skyline, couldn’t help thinking of the symbolical placement of the building, as it holds a vantage point over the city, visible from any vantage point in the lower town. It was built on a bigger area than St Peter’s in Rome, gives a home to the city’s law courts and is open to visitors during office hours. Not many tourists bother going through the metal detectors and bag screening, but the grandeur of the interior of this Neo-classical masterpiece and the complexity of the structure are well worth the visit.
Hotel Metropole. It won’t come as a shock to anyone who regularly reads my blog that I’m a huge fan of architecture. Brussels introduced me to yet another one of my favourite styles, the attention-grabbing Art Nouveau (means “new art” in French, but it’s also known as Secession, Modern Style or Jugendstil), a style that embraces not only architecture, but fine art, interior design, and other decorative arts, like jewellery, glass art and furniture design. Belgium was an early center of Art Nouveau, so plenty of masterpieces here, like my personal choice, the Hotel Metropole, located on Place de Brouckere in the hotel district of Brussels. The facade of the building is not at all prominent, but the lobby and the reception area are magnificent. The guest list is also quite impressive, check out their “wall of fame” in the lobby. The Cafe and the heated terrace are open to non-residents as well, so if you fancy a little quintessential Art Nouveau atmosphere with live piano music on the side, Hotel Metropole is one of the best places in town. Given the hotel’s history and grandeur, the cost is surprisingly reasonable.
The Parlamentarium. Brussels’ multicultural nature can mostly be attributed to the presence of the European Parliament. The modern complex behind the Quartier Leopold is one of three homes of the elected body for the European Union (the others are the Parliament seat in Strasbourg, France, and the administrative centre in Luxembourg). Once inside, you can get familiar with Europe’s troubled past, take a virtual tour through Europe on a 200 square meter map, find out more about ongoing projects across the member states, and study the legislative process in an entertaining way. Most of the exhibitions are interactive with an audio commentary, and whether you’re from the EU or just visiting, it is a fun yet informative way to get to know our history.
Phew, this was hard. I mean to decide which 5 attractions to pick. Brussels truly surprised me, it has a lot of hidden gems up its sleeves if you know where to look. Don’t limit yourself to the touristy places most guidebooks offer, there is a lot more to this small capital.
If you’re looking for a gastronomical guide to Brussels,
stay tuned for the next post. For more pictures visit my gallery here.