Just how enchanting is the historic quarter of Brussels?

Belgium’s capital old town is enchanting…

Its second language is French. A river called Senne flows through. The older part of the city is graced with classic Haussmann-style architecture. An unmistakable French influence is in the air. You’re having a good feeling about Brussels. And you haven’t even set foot into the historic quarter yet!

Acclimatisation in the city

Start slow with Place Brouckere. The Ansbach monument, a granite obelisk with the gilt bronze figure of St Michael over a fountain base, is possibly the sole reminder of the square’s glorious past. Glitzy hub for evening entertainment to the flashy neon-lit wonderland of the 20th century to tragic decline in 1960s and 70s…that’s when middle classes abandoned the city centre for more modern suburbs. A few striking Flemish façades here and there, including the multiplex UGC De Brouckère, which retains some glorious golden Art Deco bas-reliefs. Refurbishment plans are on…maybe glory days will return for De Brouckère.

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Head for the only real institution that still remains. The opulent Hotel Metropole…its old-world decor and atmosphere draws hundreds of locals and tourists everyday. Make it your home for the next few days. Open for business since 1895, the 19th-century luxury property is a unique blend of ornate Art Nouveau and Art Deco architecture…think sumptuous decor, marble walls, coffered ceiling, stained-glass back windows, glittering chandeliers. A magnificent conventionally-styled long reception desk, heavy brass keys, an art-deco original lift with sliding iron grill doors, and a colourful, Venetian Baroque room with restored furniture. The indulgent café and bar with sink-in expensive leather chairs would have to wait its turn. Brussels is calling.

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A few steps from the hotel entrance on your right, turn into the arcade with a beautiful glazed roof and Baroque statues, leading to the Rue Neuve, the main shopping drag of Brussels. The shopping arcade is a 19th-century fad that endures: only three of the original ten survive today – the other two being Royal St Hubert Arcade and Bortier Arcade. Eye the handful of luxury shops, including an oyster bar, gourmet chocolatier Neuhaus, perfumeries, cutlery shops and a tobacco store decorated with charming caryatids and lavish curves. At Rue Neuve, the pedestrian-only high-fashion street, which witnesses daily footfalls of over 40,000, a few hours of retail indulgence is simply unavoidable.

First glimpse of the Grand Palace

The mood is set by the time you reach the Rue de Beurre (‘butter street’). Gourmande and chocolatiers are lined up where exclusive butter shops used to hold fort once. Almost suddenly, without preparation, you stumble onto the corner edge of a large, stunning square at the end of the narrow alley. The Grand Place, is surrounded on all sides with tall Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque facades of elaborately crafted guild houses. Time has turned back four centuries in a microsecond! Hold that corner position for a few seconds to gawp at Europe’s most perfectly preserved, most picturesque, most ornate, most theatrical medieval square. Then move into the centre for a 360 degree view of the ensemble. Finally, inch closer to each side for the close-ups. Each view a masterpiece.

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Monumental statement of the Town Hall

The entire southwest side is dominated by the Hotel de Ville, the Town Hall which still functions as a civic building. What a monumental, glorious Gothic statement of Brussels’s medieval prestige! Crane your neck across the 96-meter towering spire. It survives intact from the early 1400s, despite large-scale bombing by French emperor Louis XIV’s army. Details then. A massive wooden gateway studded with statues of prophets and priests. Hundreds of statues of nobles, saints and allegorical figures. Rows and rows of narrow windows, so perfectly aligned. And a 5-metre statue of Archangel Saint Michael, patron of Brussels at the very top. Had the architect really jumped to his death realising that the building was not centred?

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History peeks through guild houses

Those are 17th-century guild houses lining the rest of the square. Ornate Italian Baroque shines through the neo-classical facades. A rich variety of shapes, forms and designs. No monumentality, just a simplicity and unity of design…like intricate lace work…ornamental gables, medieval banners, gold-filigreed rooftop sculptures, statues of patron saints. Rays of the sun peek from scanty clouds behind the Town Hall. Some buildings bathe in mellow shadows, while on others, gold glints sharply. An endearing timelessness…and a surprising harmony, despite the uneven heights and slight crookedness of the facades.

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Here’s a little secret. All original wooden structures on this cobblestone square have been superbly restored in stone, after having been razed to the ground by the French bombardment of 1695! The square’s history goes back to the medieval times when Brussels thrived as one of Europe’s main centres of industry and traders controlled politics and commerce. If the busts of 19 dukes on the pilasters of the House of the Dukes of Brabant could speak, they would tell stories of the famed stock exchange which was housed here.

A symbolic gold swan adorns the doorway of the former Butchers’ Guild, now converted into a refined restaurant La Maison du Cygne, where Karl Max and Frederic Engels met and voiced their progressive thoughts. There are nautical images over the Boatmens’ Guild House, medallions of Roman emperors on the Archers’ Guild House, and a bust of St. Barbara, the patroness of tailors, above the doorway of the Tailors guild house (now a deluxe lace store). Just for fun…try locating the Brewers’, Carpenters’ and Millers’ Guilds too.

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History peeks from every inch…how deep do you want to dive? Victor Hugo had taken refuge at the Painters’ Guild House, during his exile from France. For museum lovers, there’s the Musee de la Ville, once the residence of the ruling Spanish monarchs. Besides 16th-century paintings and tapestries, it holds over 650 tiny costumes of the famous Belgian icon, Manneken Pis. Interest piqued?

Cafes are lodged within opulent wood-beamed interiors of old guild houses; and guests sit at upper-floor windows affording some of the best views in Europe. These bistros have day-long service….coffee, croissants, waffles and cakes in mornings, fresh mussels and beer for lunch, and amazing seafood at night. Fancy chocolate shops like Neuhaus and Godiva compel chocoholics with gourmet offerings. Even the mandatory Starbucks does not stick out like a sore thumb…the atmosphere is too overpowering for anything to even stake a claim to equal prominence.

And the show-stopping moment

Think you had an ideal day? Then come back at night for a grand finale. The heritage buildings in the square are bathed in psychedelic coloured lights. Reds, purples, blues, greens and oranges dance off the dark cobbled floor. Crowds mill, many just standing around and taking pictures of the spectacle. Dinner under the stars here? Undeniably mandatory!

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Sitting at the outside terrace of El Greco, as you relish your delicious platter of gyro meat, chicken souvlaki, and soutzoukaki, imagine the Grand Place in August. Ablaze with hundreds of colours, fragrances and intricate design of the 75 meters long, 24 meters wide flower carpet of 600,0000 begonias from Ghent. That most-photographed Brussels vista has been a show-stopping tradition, ever since 1971. 

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Its not August, but its even more magical, because you’re here, savouring Greek delicacies in one of the most famous squares in all Europe. Under the clear midnight blue sky, this will go down memory lane as the show-stopping moment in Brussels. I promise.

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46 thoughts on “Just how enchanting is the historic quarter of Brussels?

  1. We have yet to spend any time in Belgium so it was good to see this review of Brussels. I love the look fo the main square. Would have been fascinating to see it in its glory days. I do love when you pick up tidbits of history. Did the architect really jump to his death just because the building was not perfect? Great to find the little cafes. What a spot to watch the world go by! And that view of the begonia mural is stunning!

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  2. I spent 9 months launching a telecoms company in Belgium and living in the Metropole from Monday to Friday. It was a wonderful and quite surreal experience – and I’ve loved reading your account of the area. If you ever get the chance to stay at the Metropole ask for a room on the top floor with a balcony – you’ll get a fabulous rooftop view which I still remember 20 years after I worked there!

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  3. Brussels is another destination I am really wanting to go to. The Baroque architecture is my favorite. It’s just so ornate! And I love knowing the history with Victor Hugo as I’m a huge fan of Les Mis! Chocolate and waffles and just so much to see. Oh my gosh that flower carpet!! Only in August? THAT’s when I want go!

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  4. The architecture in this area looks gorgeous. I was not aware of the flower carpet but I would totally want to revisit Brussels in August to view it.
    I appreciate the bits of history mixed in with the photos, sounds like the area has been through quite a lot.

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  5. From its amazing architecture to the history behind it, I have nothing but praises to this wonderful heritage piece. Isn’t it so mind-blowing to see this beautiful masterpiece built back in time when technology is not as grand as today?

    Commenting in behalf of Christopher Rudder | https://www.rudderlesstravel.com

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  6. I fell in love with the Art Nouveau of Brussels, images just don’t give it justice. I have seen the light show at Christmas but would love to return for the flower carpet, especially after reading all this history!

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  7. I’d really like to go to Brussels, I’m hoping to plan a trip next year! The buildings are beautiful, the Town Hall is stunning! And huge! I think I’d spend more time exploring Rue de Beurre though, anything with a mention of Belgian chocolate I have to explore!

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  8. I’ve only visited Brussels once, but I remember the awe that I felt when visiting the Grand Place. The Baroque architecture and the ostentatious Hotel de Ville – I spent hours enjoying this square. I didn’t get to see the flower carpet, which looks so impressive – I must go back!

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  9. Oh wow! What stunning architecture. And you describe it so beautifully. Reading this really made me feel like I was there. The food sounds a delight too…’waffles and cakes in mornings, fresh mussels and beer for lunch, and amazing seafood at night. Really sounds like my kind of day. Really can’t wait to visit now!

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  10. Oh, what an incredibly beautiful and charming city. It’s somewhere we’ve not had chance to visit yet but I’ve always dreamt of doing so and imagined it to be as wonderful as you described here.

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  11. The architecture is absolutely amazing. Being an admirer of gothic architecture, I would go crazy here ( in a good way). The night views are stunning too. That flower carpet is so gorgeous. Dinner under the stars..yes please!I hope I can visit someday!

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  12. I’ve enjoyed spending many great moments in Brussels, and in the Grand Place in particular. My husband’s family is from Belgium and there is so much to do in its capital city. We loved popping into the Tintin shop, and seeing the Mannken PIs statue with our kids. One day we’ll get there for the flower festival, I hope.

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  13. I love your perspective on Brussels! I’ve only been once, and didn’t have the best tour guide, so I would love to return with your suggestions in mind and really get to know the city.

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  14. Brussels is one of my favorite cities! I first saw it on a 1-day stopover between Paris and Amsterdam but knew I had to go back. A couple years later I went over Christmas for a few days to enjoy the Christmas Markets and saw even more of the city. There’s still so much I’d love to see, including that flower carpet – how gorgeous is that! I’ll need to plan specifically for that one year.

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  15. I totally agree with you the historic quarter of Brussels is definitely enchanting and one I have visited for a weekend many years ago. I definitely keen to go back and take it all in again. I love that Town Hall and I am super impressed that is stilling being used now after all these years. I would consider going there in August to see that flower carpet

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