Art and culture in Brussels: Tilly’s guide
Looking for a culture fix in Brussels? You’ve come to the right place. Brussels is a fascinating capital city boasting tonnes of art and a wealth of cultural highlights – setting it apart even from big hitters like Amsterdam, Rome and Vienna. Travel blogger, Tilly Horseman gives you her guide to the abundant art and culture in Brussels.
It may not have quite the curb appeal of cities such as Antwerp and Ghent, or the romantic fairy-tale canals and cobbled streets of Bruges, but scratch beneath its surface and you’ll find a thriving cultural scene. There’s an exciting mix of museums and galleries, world-class attractions, beautiful churches and a simply stunning city square – easily one of the most impressive in the world.
So, where do we start? What makes Brussels a cultural hotspot?
The Grand Place – A UNESCO Highlight
How could we start anywhere but the Grand Place itself, which retains its epic wow factor no matter how many times you visit. Opulent buildings fully surround this cobble-stoned square, displaying awesome examples of 17th century Flemish ornate architecture, dripping with gold details. The Grand Place is the beating heart of the city; full of life with a vibrant entertainment and shopping scene.
Following destruction during the 9 Years War in 1695, the trade guilds that occupied the Grand Place were instructed to rebuild using only approved styles. This resulted in the perfectly formed set of Baroque buildings we see today. It is this architectural unity that led to the Grand Place becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998 – we can’t argue with that!
The stunning Town Hall is the focal point of the square and the only remaining medieval building on the Grand Place. The impressively tall gothic tower (315ft) is topped by a 16ft statue of St Michael, the patron saint of Brussels. Opposite you’ll spot the Maison du Roi (or King’s House) which was rebuilt in the gothic revival style and houses the Musée de la Ville (City Museum) – dedicated to Brussels’ rich culture and history.
Bonus culture tip: there is a daily flower market held in the square, but if you’re looking for a truly memorable experience, check out the unforgettable flower carpet that happens every 2 years and plan your visit to coincide.
The Four Major Townhouses of Victor Horta
The four townhouses that make up one side of this UNESCO site include Hôtel Tassel, Hôtel Solvay, Hôtel van Eetvelde and Maison & Atelier Horta.
All four are well worth a look, although the price tag to go in might mean you’re better off viewing them from the outside… Victor Horta was one of the earliest adopters of the Art Nouveau style – characterised by an open plan design, decorative curved lines and light diffused throughout the interiors. These houses are some of the best examples of this style of building!
Other Key Architectural Gems
Many of the museums are housed in unique buildings and worth a look if you like your architecture, even if you don’t venture inside. However, there are a few more buildings that deserve your attention! The Palais Royal is the home of the Belgian royal family and has a beautiful exterior looking out on the Parc de Bruxelles. If you want to go inside, you’ll need to visit during the summer, usually between mid July and early September when it is open to the public.
Around the corner is Place Royal, a beautiful square surrounded by neoclassical buildings. The stunning entrance to Église St Jacques-sur-Coudenberg commands the scene, though it looks more like a Greek temple than a church.
Don’t stop there!
There are many more gorgeous churches in Brussels – my personal favourites being Notre Dame de la Chapelle and Église St Catherine. However, if you visit no other on your tour of arts and culture in Brussels, ensure you make some time to go inside the Cathedral of St Michel & St Gudule. A gothic masterpiece, Brussels cathedral contains fabulous stained glass windows and an immense Grenzing organ with 4300 pipes. Unlike many other cathedrals, it’s free to enter.
In a completely different league is the magnificent Art Deco monument of the National Basilica of the Sacred Heart located in the Koekelberg district. It is the largest Art Deco structure in the world and ranks fifth amongst the world’s largest churches. Inspired by the Sacre-Coeur in Paris, it can be seen from miles around.
Glimpses of the old City Wall
Like many cities, Brussels once had a fortified wall that enclosed the medieval city. Sadly, thanks to the Nine Years War (during which Louis XIV of France bombed Brussels beyond recognition) the walls were mostly destroyed. There are now only a couple of spots in the city where they are still visible. One is the Black Tower at Place St-Catherine and the other is the Anneessens Tower, located on Boulevard L’Empereur (Emperor’s Boulevard).
Saving one of the best (and most modern) cultural icons of Brussels till last, we have the Atomium – an attraction like no other on earth. Is it architecture or sculpture? I’m not entirely sure…probably a bit of both!
Built for the World Fair in 1958 (known as Expo 58), the steel atom structure stands 102m high with nine interconnected spheres. It represents an elementary iron crystal enlarged 165 billion (!) times and symbolises the peaceful use of atomic energy for scientific purposes – particularly high in people’s minds at the time of construction, as it was unveiled only 13 years after WWII.
The Atomium was not intended to be a permanent fixture but its popularity and success made it a key landmark, thus ensuring its future. A restoration of the structure in 2006 added museum spaces to the spheres linked by escalators and documents the life of the Atomium. This year (2018) the Atomium celebrates its 60th anniversary with three special exhibitions dedicated to Expo 58. The top-most sphere offers a 360° panoramic view over Brussels and on a clear day you can even make out Antwerp’s port and cathedral.
At the foot of the Atomium is another world-renowned attraction: Mini Europe, a model village where you can see all of Europe’s cultural highlights in one place. Created in magnificent detail, the models are a scale of 1 in 25 and many have moving parts that you can control yourself, such as Mount Vesuvius erupting or the fall of the Berlin Wall.
It may be located a little way outside the centre of Brussels, but The Atomium is well worth a visit. Although it’s different from the other cultural icons in our guide, it’s completely bonkers how the structure stands and functions – it definitely needs to be seen to be believed.
Art & Gallery Scene:
A short walk from the Grand Place will bring you to the famous Manneken Pis, a fountain statue of a little boy relieving himself into a small pool. He may only be 2ft tall, but this famous ‘pisser’ has been adopted as the symbol of the city. There are many stories surrounding his origins but perhaps his fame came when he survived the bombardment of 1695, thus becoming the “emblem of the rebellious spirit of the city.” Most of the time his nakedness is hidden beneath a costume which changes on a regular basis; his ever-growing wardrobe is displayed in the city museum!
Whether you love or hate the concept of this peeing sculpture, Brussels has certainly embraced him and he has been joined more recently by little sister Jeanneke Pis (1987) who squats over a small fountain just off the Rue de Bouchers. Most amusing is the Zinneke Pis – their fellow mongrel dog sculpture – who cocks his leg at the corner of Rue des Chartreux and Rue du Vieux Marché.
The ‘pee-pee trio’ as they are happily known, along with many other unique and equally quirky pieces that you’ll see dotted around the city, show that lovers of art and culture in Brussels don’t take themselves too seriously. Another famous character to look out for is the cartoonish feline: La Cycliste by Alain Séchas – find her outside the Galeries Royals Saint-Hubert.
Street Art has taken on a cultural life of its own in recent decades with more and more popping up all over the place. Encompassing anything from outdoor sculpture to graffiti, street art has become a respected art form and one of the cultural highlights for any city break. Brussels is no different and has a wealth of street art – much of it paying homage to the culture of comic book illustration in Brussels. It could take you weeks to scout out every piece!
Tom Frantzen Sculptures
In addition to the beloved Zinneke, there are a number of sculptures in Brussels by local sculptor Tom Frantzen. A cultural icon in Brussels and fan of ‘zwanze’ (a unique form of Belgian humour that is surreal and absurd) Frantzen creates sculptures that are rather endearing. Make sure you locate “Madame Chapeau” on the Rue du Midi who is shown counting her money in an area known for pickpockets, teasing them with her un-snatchable purse. His Vaartkapoen sculpture in Place Sainctelette is hilarious and shows a policeman being tripped up by a man popping up through a manhole.
Comic Book Murals
You may not be aware of Brussels’ link to Comic Strip art, but the city is actually the self-proclaimed comic strip capital of the world. It’s a source of national pride that so many authors who contributed to the popularity and growth of the art form came from Brussels. The most well known being Herge – who created the character of Tintin.
As well as several museums dedicated to the comic strips, the city has gone a step further and brought comic art from the pages onto the street in the form of a “comic book route”. More than 50 huge murals decorate the walls to pay tribute to Franco-Belgian authors. The comic book route is well documented online with all the locations in list and map form along with photos of each work. Oh, and there are some pretty cool monumental sculptures to be stumbled across too – including Tintin and the Smurfs!
In addition to those I’ve already mentioned, there are a whole host of excellent museums in Brussels, from art and archaeology to beer, lace and chocolate. Yes, there are museums to all of Belgium’s best exports in various locations around the city!
Musées Royaux de Beaux-Arts, (Royal Museums of Fine Arts)
For art buffs, this a prestigious museum split into the Musée d’Art Ancien (ancient art), the Musée Fin de Siècle (19th/20th Century Art) and the Musée Magritte – which houses the world’s largest collection of the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte.
Musée des Instruments de Musique (MIM)
For music lovers, I highly recommend a visit to the Brussels famous music museum, housed in the iconic Art Nouveau ‘Old England’ building. There are more than 2000 historic musical instruments on display with audio clips of most delivered by a headset provided on entry. Bonus: Although there is an entry fee for the museum, you can go up to the top floor for free where there is a restaurant and one of the best views across Brussels.
History aficionados should head here first: this museum charts Belgium’s history from independence to the present. You can also access Coudenberg from here: a subterranean archaeological site of the remains of the old palace of Brussels.
A trip to Cinquantenaire Park will bring you to a trio of museums built either side of the beautiful triumphal arch.
If museums are your thing and that list isn’t enough for you… take a look at these others too!
Yeah – I’m not sure about the last one either! However, it does demonstrate that there really is a museum for everyone in Brussels – and that makes it one of the best places in Europe to seek out your art and culture fix!
Fancy a trip to Brussels? Check out our Charms of Europe 1 Week trip, spend 5 weeks adventuring with our Northern Loop trip, or even build this cultural capital into your own unique trip with our custom trip builder!
Words and photos – Tilly Horseman. Edits – Catherine Livesley
Tilly is an artist, craftsperson and writer, with a passion for photography and a love of travel. She’s obsessed with architecture, heritage and culture – stemming from her school trips and art studies! You can read more of Tilly’s adventures at http://traveljunkiegirl.com/
Follow Tilly on Twitter: @traveljunkiegrl