Nearing the end of the 20th century, Victor Horta started turning his birth-town into the playground for his experimental architecture and boy, did that work out for the Belgian capital. Glorious Art Nouveau buildings remain the highlights of high-end Brussels neighbourhoods Ixelles and Saint Gilles to this day. Besides the townhouses that pioneering Horta designed for Brussels’ dignitaries, the Musical Instruments Museum (MIM) with its remarkable cast-iron turret and the Royal Greenhouses with its idyllic orangeries are other must-sees in the style.
Brussels is often grossly underestimated in its cultural offerings, but that underdog status does hold secret advantages. While the Royal Museums of Fine Arts hold seminal paintings by Rubens, Bruegel and other Flemish primitives, the line out the door is nearly non-existent during weekdays. The same goes for its next-door neighbour, the Magritte Museum, whose surreal treasures are accessible for viewing pleasure in a jiffy.
With the EU nerve centers in its midst, the heart of Europe beats loudest in Brussels. And whether you cheered when Brexit happened or looked away in horror, the brand-new, eco-friendly headquarters and its humongous lantern-like structure can’t help but appeal.
From the Smurfs to Blake and Mortimer and Marsupilami to Tintin, it’s astounding just how many cartoons were created in Brussels. Once you learn that fact, the city won’t let you forget it either. Walking through its streets, comic book personas look out from over 40 different frescoes, lest you forget the 9th art is something the Bruxellois excel at.
Having been founded as far back as 979AD, Brussels is a venerable old lady. And it shows: her Grand-Place is a well-preserved masterpiece of late medieval architecture and the ruins of her ancient seat of power, the Coudenberg Palace, are accessible thanks to recent excavations. In fact, long before there was a Belgium, there was a Brussels. For eight centuries, the city bloomed to eventually become the capital after the Belgian Revolution that spilled from its La Monnaie theatre into the streets in 1830.
Nat King Cole and Miles Davis have tickled the keys of L’Archiduc‘s piano. The iconic Art Deco jazz bar with the neon blue lettering, and the doorbell you have to ring to get in, is just one of the places jazz enthusiasts will find themselves frequenting when in Brussels. The city that sprouted Toots Thielemans holds the brilliant harmonica player’s genre close to its heart. Groovy dens include the New York-style The Music Village, Jazz Station inside a renovated 19th-century railway station, and the shabby but cosy Sounds Jazz Club.
Conveniently located between – and no doubt overshadowed by – Paris and London, Brussels has long functioned as a pied-à-terre for international artists. That certainly includes the French, who came to the city in droves during Napoleonic reign. Victor Hugo spent many of his hours walking back and forth between his mistress’s abode in the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert and the next-door intelligentsia hub Café du Vaudeville, also frequented by Karl Marx and Auguste Rodin. In fact, the capital enjoys a lot of authentic artist haunts. In La Fleur en Papier Doré, the scribbles of René Magritte and his surrealist friends can be spotted on the walls to this day. Not too long ago, Barry Jenkins penned the Academy Award-winning screenplay to Moonlight at the Lord Byron, a cosy, understated place, where the writer-director used to order a ‘Four Roses with just a splash of Grand Marnier. One rock.’
Other cities might have you running around like a maniac trying to see all the sights, but there’s something about Brussels that simply takes the pressure off. It’s okay if you go to the Atomium and visit every one of the metal wonder’s nine balls. It’s also perfectly acceptable – and wholly culturally appropriate – to sit on the terrace of Moeder Lambic all day, sampling Belgian beers till the sun goes down. Stroll down the Galeries Royales while window shopping for more typical Brussels leisure time.
The first beautiful green spot you’re likely to bump into is landscaping champ’s René Pechère’s Mont des Art garden, though it should, by no means, be the last. Making it a mission to find Brussels’ beautifully landscaped gardens and parks is a recipe for a soothing, uplifting afternoon. In antique-heavy neighbourhood Sablon, the Petit Sablon stands out as a peaceful nest no matter what the season, surrounded by 48 bronze statues that depict the region’s ancient professions. The former National Botanic Gardens, Le Botanique, is now a thriving concert venue, but its impeccably kept garden with its rare trees is worth a visit even when there’s nothing else going on. Lastly, the Parc Tournay-Solvay a little way outside the centre, has landscaped shrubbery and a rose garden to die for.
You knew this – the rebellious Manneken Pis and the funny-looking Atomium aren’t Brussels’ foremost symbols for nothing. They symbolise a high level of quirk and self-mockery the Bruxellois partly define themselves by. That includes an enjoyment in questioning what’s real in signature ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe‘ fashion. An example of all these traits is Zinneke, Manneken Pis’ best friend. The peeing dog statue merrily does his thing against a pole on an unremarkable square, almost lifelike from afar. Over the years, pieces of the Berlin Wall have ended up in Brussels, some of its streets have been named in the local dialect and an underwear museum has popped up. Safe to say the Belgian capital embraces the unusual.