Belgium’s National Day celebrates the end of the Belgian Revolution and the start of the Kingdom of Belgium, with the commemoration of Leopold I. On July 21st, many Belgians head into Brussels to partake in activities and ceremonies, such as watching the military and civil parades. Belgians take this day as their own, with a variety of activities and an outdoor festival in the Brussels Park (Royal Park). An extraordinary firework display in the capital closes out the national celebration.
Deemed as the de facto capital of Europe, the EU institutions — the European Commission, the European Council, Council of the European Union and European Parliament — all call Brussels home. It is also worth noting that NATO’s headquarters and other international missions are represented within the capital. While visitors can tour each of these institutions, another way to get the full experience is to head out to Place Luxembourg on a Thursday night, and become immersed in the hustle and bustle that is the European Quarter.
Although Belgium has its fair share of beautiful churches, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, (otherwise known as the Koekelberg Basilica), is particularly special. Not only is it the third biggest cathedral in Belgium, but it ranks as fifth in the list of the world’s largest churches and is the largest Art Deco-style building in the world. The Basilica was constructed at the end of 19th century and was originally intended to represent a ‘Royal Disctrict’ at the plateau of Koekelberg. Visitors can head up to the cupola to get an extraordinary panoramic view of Brussels — and don’t forget to check out the two museums housed inside.
While Brussels is known for its more quirky and alternative selection of monuments, there are others definitely worth visiting in the city, including the historic Pro Patria Monument. Located in the middle of the Place des Martyrs, the crypt serves as a memorial dedicated to honoring the 466 individuals who lost their lives while fighting for Belgium’s independence.
The Belgian capital is a prime location for stakeholders in the art world. Whether it be the numerous art galleries, design and art festivals, museums showcasing the Flemish Primitives and the world of surrealists, or cultural hubs serving as a platform for emerging and established talent, Brussels is carving out its own reputation as a reputable art destination in Europe.
An exceptional example of Art Nouveau and home to a variety of plant life, the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken were commissioned by Leopold II and designed by Alphonse Balat in 1873. For three weeks in April-May, visitors can catch a rare glimpse inside the spectacular glass and cast-iron greenhouses and explore the vast collection of plants and flowers.
Besides London and Paris, the Museum of Natural Sciences in Brussels houses one of the most extensive natural history collections. Among the permanent exhibitions is the standout Dinosaur Gallery, an exhibition hall known as the largest room in Europe dedicated to exploring the lives of dinosaurs through fossils and interactive displays. With a collection representing 37 million species, this museum is definitely worth more than one trip.
Tintin and his dog Snowy are two of the most iconic cartoon characters representing Belgium’s stake in the ninth art. From museums to comic murals, there are several areas to witness the saga of the boy detective and his partner in crime. The original Tintin statue was created in 1975 by Nat Neujean and was located at the Wolvendel Park in Uccle, but after years of vandalism was then placed in the Uccle Cultural Centre. In 2011, a new version of the original statue was created and can now be visited in the Grand Sablon.
Though there are many historic landmarks to check out in Brussels, perhaps one of the more interesting sites is Le Monnaie. It was in this location where Auber’s La Muette de Portici opera served as the catalyst for the beginning of the Belgian Revolution. Those attending the opera left to join the uprisings taking place in the city, which would subsequently lead to the beginning of Belgium’s independence.
While the Magritte Museum holds a significant number of works by the renowned surrealist René Magritte, individuals can also get a glimpse of the artist’s home within the small commune of Jette. This place is where Magritte resided for 24 years and would paint more than half of his work. The house-turned-museum is a biographical look into the life of Magritte and his wife Georgette, complete with photographs and letters by the artist.
Located in the southeast of Brussels, the Sonian Forest is a great opportunity to experience the outdoors without venturing too far. In addition to walking trails and bike paths, the forest is also an excellent location to go horseback riding, as it is located near the hippodrome in Groenendael.
Every year in September the Brussels region closes for traffic from 9:30am-7pm for one Sunday. This means most cars are forbidden from a few of Brussels’ main streets and the usually jammed streets become a boardwalk for pedestrians. What began as an initiative to bring awareness to the environment is now a great opportunity to go out and participate in numerous activities hosted by local organizations, or take advantage of the shops that have opened just for the occasion.
Charlotte and Emily Brontë traveled to Brussels in 1842 and were both enrolled at the Pensionnat Heger, a school for girls. Although the Pensionnat Heger is long gone, literature buffs can see an official brass plaque dedicated to the sisters on the Palais des Beaux Arts where the school used to be located.
The word festival might as well be synonymous with Belgium, with headlining shows such as Tommorrowland and Rock Werchter. There is certainly no shortage of diverse cultural festivals taking place within Brussels throughout the year. Whether it be established art fairs such as BRAFA or Art Brussels, the cinephile scene with the BIFF or Offscreen Film Festivals, or taking in the sounds of the Brussels Jazz Festival, there are numerous opportunities to dive into Brussels’ cultural scene.
Museums dedicated to the history of street lights, fencing (one of only two that officially exist) and exploring Brussels’ sewage network can all be found within the capital. Not to mention an extensive collection of underwear from famous celebrities that can be found at the iconic Underwear Museum.
Situated in Cinquantenaire Park, a very beautiful building from the late 18th century has been transformed into a haven for auto-enthusiasts. Today the private museum known as ‘Autoworld’ serves as a treasure trove for visitors that want to learn more about the history of cars. A scenographic exhibition is held every two years, and with the increasing number of visitors this has become a popular location to marvel at extraordinary vintage cars.
Nemo 33 in Brussels was ranked as the world’s deepest diving pool for ten years, until 2014. The organization offers diving courses, certificates and hosts different events which many are welcome to attend!
Brussels is full of extravagant surprises, and that includes dining in a modern gourmet restaurant that is located on a tram. The Tram Experience invites everyone to enjoy a great dinner while cruising the streets of Brussels in style.
Not many people are aware that the historic Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert is one of the oldest shopping arcades in Europe. Designed by architect Jean-Pierre Cluysenaar, the Galeries were designed to be a status symbol of grandeur in Brussels. Today, the shopping arcade continues to maintain its historic and cultural ambiance, serving as the location for the original Neuhaus chocolatier, Cinema Galeries, the Théâtre des Galeries Saint-Hubert and the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts.
What do Karl Marx, Victor Hugo and the Brontë sisters have in common? Other than being notable cultural figures, each of these individuals at one point called Brussels home. Whether it was a safe haven or a convenient location, Brussels hosted many scientists, inventors and writers over the years that would later influence the world with their revolutionary ideas and works.