What’s Doing In Brussels, Belgium

By Jonathan Spira on 14 March 2012
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With picturesque cobbled streets lined with medieval houses, Brussels (Bruxelles in French, Brussel in Dutch and, officially, the Brussels Region or Brussels-Capital Region), is the capital of Belgium and is comprised of 19 municipalities, including the City of Brussels.  With a population of 1.8 million, it is the largest urban area in Belgium and is home to the headquarters of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The city’s name is thought to derive from the Old Dutch Broeksel, roughly translated as “home in the marsh”.  Historically Dutch-speaking, during the 19th and 20th centuries Brussels has become increasingly French speaking as the population has shifted to a majority of native French speakers.

Brussels is the seat of both the French and Flemish Communities, making a bilingual enclave in the unilingual Flemish region of Belgium.  Both groups, the French and Flemish, have capital institutions such as government, parliament and administration located in Brussel


The City of Brussels covers 12.6 square miles (33 sq km), with a population of 145,917, and boasts a diverse architectural history that includes attractions such as the Grand Palace, a Unesco World Heritage Site, the Cathédrale Saints-Michel-et-Gudule (St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral), and Laken Castle.

Under Leopold II, who reigned from 1865 to his death in 1909, Brussels built numerous grand boulevards and avenues that transformed the city, including the Boulevard Adolphe Maxlaan, which runs from the Bruxelles-Nord / Brussel-Noord train station to the Bruxelles-Midi / Brussel-Zuid station.

Dating back to the 12th century, the Grand Place (French) or Grote Markt (Dutch) is the centerpiece of Brussels and the city’s main square. It is surrounded by the city’s Hôtel de Ville, or Stadhuis (Town Hall), gold-encrusted seventeenth century guildhalls, and the Maison du Roi (King’s House) or Brodhuis (Breadhouse), the latter having only been occupied by bakers selling their breads and never by a king. It was once the scene of markets, merchant guildhalls, medieval tournaments and even public executions.  Parts of the Brabatine Gothic Town Hall date back to 1402; its 96 meter (310 foot) tower was built in 1445.  Today, the visitor finds cafes, chocolate shops, restaurants, and museums; the outdoor cafes are ideal places for trying one of the hundreds of Belgian beers and watching the people pass by.

The Grand Sablon, another elegant square, surrounded by Flemish houses and a fifteenth-century Flemish church, is the center of the city’s flourishing antiques trade. The nearby Petit Sablon’s 48 statues represent various trades and guilds of the Middle Ages. The Manneken Pis, a major tourist attraction and symbol of the city, is a bronze sculpture and fountain depicting a youth urinating.

There are over 80 museums to visit, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, and the Magritte Museum, which features the largest collection in the world of works from the surrealist René Magritte.  Murals featuring famous Belgian comic book characters (perhaps the most famous is Tintin) appear on the sides of buildings and as a whole are referred to as the Brussels Comic Book Route.

The Musee d’Art Ancien on the Rue de la Regence near the Royal Palace houses one of the world’s finest collections of Flemish and Dutch paintings, including works by Bosch, Brueghel, Memling, and van der Weyden.

Also worth visiting, although it is far from the city center, is the Atomium, a 338 foot tall structure built for the 1958 World’s Fair, that is made up of nine steel spheres connected by tubes to form a model of an iron crystal.

Click here to continue to Page 2Dining, Hotels, and Getting There

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