Right in the heart of Brussels is the magnificent Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, one of first shopping arcades built in Europe. In this solid two hundred meter long complex, amazing shop window displays lure visitors into high-end specialized boutiques or chocolate shops, and also a variety of cultural organizations. It was built in 1847, and after almost 150 years still remains a center of grandeur in Brussels — grandeur that can be admired by everyone in the spirit of its motto ‘omnibus omnia‘ (everything to everybody), which can be seen on its overarching facade.
The idea for the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert came from the young architect Jean-Pierre Cluysenaer, who had a talent for business too. In 1836, Jean-Pierre Cluysenaer decided to turn the bare streets of the area into a covered shopping complex. Cluysenaer also found a partner — a banker named Jean-André Demot, but the journey from a dream to its realization was not easy. It took the business partners nine years to deal with all the property rights; (apparently, bureaucracy in Belgium is deeply rooted).
The actual construction project itself required much less time. The papers were all set in February 1845, and the construction started in May of the same year; the inauguration was only 18 months after. The passage was inaugurated by King Leopold I and his sons.
Jean-Pierre Cluysenaer studied in the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts where he was mesmerized by the Italian Renaissance, and used this as the inspiration for the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. The complex has three sections — two 100 meter long galleries called King’s Gallery and Queen’s Gallery, and a small side Gallery of the Princess. Between King’s and Queen’s Gallery, there is a colonnade; it is the place where Rue des Bouchers crosses the arcade. The common name for all three sections — Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert — was created in 1965.
The Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert is loved by inhabitants and adored by tourists. Every year, more than six million visitors cross the arcade. In the past, everyone had to pay for access. The entrance cost 25 cents on Thursday and Sunday and only 10 cents on any other day. While individuals visiting today do not have to pay to explore this luxurious complex, the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert certainly maintains an ambiance of grandeur that still exists today — whether it be through the special shops or notable chocolatiers, (the first Neuhaus chocolate store was opened in the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, where the world renowned home for praline chocolate still stands today).
In addition to its distinct architecture, Cluysenaer also intended to create somewhat of an urban microcosm inside of the galleries, and while constructing his plans culture was certainly not overlooked. Two theaters were housed in the Galeries: the Théâtre des Galeries and the Vaudeville theatre, the later being the oldest of the two. The Vaudeville theatre used to be a flower market but eventually transitioned into a theatre in 1872 and hosted several prominent entertainment figures. While both theaters are open to the public, it is mainly the Théâtre des Galeries that continues to showcase performances, concerts and plays.
Interestingly, Brussels was also the first city that the Lumières brothers (the founders of cinematography) visited after debuting their first films in the Grand Café in Paris. These ten short movies — called moving pictures at the time — were screened in the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert in March 1st, 1896. These movies were very short, with just a few seconds each, combined to be seven minutes and 24 seconds in total. The cinephile scene continues to this day, as the arcade now hosts the prominent Cinéma GALERIES, a popular spot screening art-house films.
Perhaps another notable distinction is that the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert contains several letters and manuscripts by renowned scientists, artists and cultural figures. The Museum of Letters and Manuscripts houses an extensive collection showcasing the correspondence and personal thoughts of some of the world’s most historic figures in the arts and sciences including Einstein, Van Gogh and Brussels’ own Jacques Brel.