BRUSSELS — I spill out of one of the charming alley pubs this Belgium beauty is famous for and onto Rue de la Tête d’or, which leads me to the city’s main square, Grand Place.
I’m instantly gobsmacked by the architectural splendour I see surrounding the aptly-named palazzo. Strongly structured 17th-century Baroque buildings are decorated with intriguing pilasters and balustrades and share space with elaborate statues honouring national heroes and events.
My eye is quickly drawn to the centre of the square, where Brussels’ ornate Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) and its imposing Medieval bell tower cast a giant shadow across the cobbled square.
Surrounding it stands 39 opulent guild houses and Brussel’s City Museum, formerly the Maison du Roi, (King’s House), which started out life as a bakery.
The compact square is ground zero for tourists who visit this sophisticated city, often called “the poor man’s Paris.”
Just 68m by 110m in size, Grand Place quickly fills up with camera-wielding foreigners jockeying for position. I push my way through the pre-pandemic throng and pull up a chair at one of the many quaint cafés that ring Grand Place, which was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.
Above: The great square is dominated by Brussel's City Hall, left, and museums, like the one right.
While waiting for the server to return with my Chimay beer, I watch a middle-aged woman set up an easel nearby and patiently assemble her brushes. She’s just one of many painters who try to capture Grand Place’s grandeur on canvas, my server informs me as he deposits the frothy brew on my table.
The mid-day sun rewards the painter by bathing Grand Place in a brilliant light. The Town Hall’s eggshell facade is suddenly cloaked in a golden hue, thus creating a fairytale setting.
While soaking up my suds and the enchanting beauty that surrounds me, I find it easy to subscribe to the results of a 2010 (Dutch) poll in which Grand Place was voted “the most beautiful square in Europe." ( Moscow's Red Square and Place Stanislas in Nancy, France, took second and third place respectively in that same survey).
Many of the square’s charming guild houses have been converted into shops, terraced restaurants and brasseries. One, owned by the Brewer’s Guild, is now the popular Brewer’s Museum. It holds a special place of honour in the square — not surprising, since Belgium is the brew capital of the world.
I watch tourists dart in and out of the square’s noted confectionary shops — Godiva Chocolatier and the Maison Dandoy appear to be the most popular. They reemerge a few minutes later clutching bags of prized Belgium chocolate. The neighbouring Chocolate Museum is also a sweet treat for foreigners to visit.
Brussels’ guilds are the reason that Grand Place even exists in its present glorious form. While the square dates back to the early 1400s, it was almost obliterated by the French during a seize in 1695 —only the stone shell of the Hôtel de Ville remained after the relentless attack. The guilds banned together and over the next four years rebuilt every building in Grand Place. A remarkable accomplishment for the time.
Above: Grand Place is the perfect place to hang out, either at the many cafes or the lovely flower market.
The Town Hall’s tower is its most striking feature. It rises 96m over the square and is crowned with a 5m-tall statue of Saint Michael, the patron saint of Brussels.
The building is asymmetrical, but not by design. According to legend, a mistake by the designer resulted in the left and right sides of the grand structure not being equal, as originally planned. Upon hearing of the error, the architect reportedly climbed to the top of the tower and leapt to his death.
The Town Hall has served many different roles throughout its illustrious history. During World War I, for instance, it was used as a makeshift hospital where military and civilian casualties were nursed.
As in many European cities, Grand Place was used as the city’s central market for centuries — up until 1959. The era of the Grand Market is remembered on streets leading off Grand Place, which are all named after market sellers — Rue au Beurre (Butter St.), Rue du Fromage (Cheese St.), Rue Hareng (Herring St.), etc. Each street also carries an equivalent Dutch name — Rue au Beurre is also known as Boterstraat — to honour the city’s rich Dutch history. It’s on these streets where some of the titans of history once lived, including Karl Marx (he wrote his Manifesto of the Communist Party on Rue Le Cygne) and Victor Hugo (the legendary French writer once lived at № 26–27 Rue Le Pigeon).
While the Hôtel de Ville is the most imposing building in Grand Place, the Maison du Roi boasts the most magical design.
Now Brussels’ City Museum, King’s House dates back to the 12th century when it was a wooden structure where bread was sold. That period is still reflected in its Dutch name, Broodhuis (Bread House). It was turned to stone in the 15th century when the Duke of Brabant, who would later become King of Spain, used the building for administrative purposes. The handsome property suffered great damage over time and was completely rebuilt in its present Gothic Revival elegance in 1873.
When I see Grand Place through the bottom of my beer glass, I know it’s time to explore the other sightseeing delights this underrated European capital has to offer. Fortunately, most are located near Grand Place:
Above: Many of Brussels' landmarks, like Manneken Pis, left, and the cartoon murals, right, are close to Grand Place.
• A five minute walk away, at the junction of Rue du Chêne and Rue de l’Étuve, I find Manneken Pis, the world famous bronze statue of a little boy peeing into a fountain, which, after the great square, is the most photographed landmark in Brussels.
• A short (one stop) Metro (subway) ride from Grand Place I visit Musée Hergé, a museum dedicated to the life and work of Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, creator of globally loved Tintin. Many buildings near the Grand Place are decorated with giant cartoon murals that celebrate this city’s cartoon culture.
• Less than a kilometre walk away from Grand Place, on Rue Parvis, I come upon Cathédrale St-Michel, an impressive Gothic church dedicated to the city’s patron saint that dates back to the 11th century. The beautifully proportioned interior is lavishly furnished and home to some outstanding stained glass windows created by famous Flemish painter Bernard van Orley.
• Very close to the great cathedral, I find Place Royale where the country’s Royal Palace and its stunning gardens are located. The palace is used by Belgium’s royal family for state functions and is surrounded by an ensemble of cultural buildings boasting Neoclassical facades.
• And finally, a few steps from Place Royale, I stumble upon Coudenberg Palace, an active archaeological site which I’m allowed to explore. The remains of the Medieval palace were discovered in the 1980s and the cellars and tunnels now provide a playground for tourists. During the excavation work, many of Brussel’s forgotten streets, dating back centuries, were unearthed.