The Grand Place quite possibly features the most history in the entire city. It was first mentioned in the 12th century as a ‘lower market’ and was a busy trade center. The beautiful buildings that surround the square today are much older – the oldest are the Town Hall and the King’s House, which was built in the 15th century. The whole square and all its buildings are on the UNESCO World Heritage list for their authenticity – the entire town square hasn’t changed much after being rebuilt in the 17th century – and the perfect way different architectural styles were blended.
Not leaving the Grand Place, or Grote Markt, just yet, you can take in some more history in your tour by having a closer look at the two big buildings at the square. The tallest and oldest one is the Town Hall. When looking directly at it, notice that the 96-meter-high tower (315 feet) doesn’t stand exactly in the middle. This is the result of the long years and the many renovations it took to build this construction. The exterior walls are decorated in detail with many statues that refer to Brussels’ and Belgium’s past.
Just off the Grand Place, next to the Town Hall, there’s a statue of Everard t’Serclaes. There is an intriguing tale connected to this historic figure, which also explains the origins of Belgium’s nickname for Brussels’ residents – the chicken-eaters. Above the statue of Everard, individuals can see a depiction of the origins of this funny nickname. Legend also states that if you rub his arm, you’ll find your true love. Other legends state that you’ll be sure to come back to Brussels someday. Either way, a little touch won’t hurt – unless you’re afraid of germs.
In front of the Town Hall is the Maison du Roi, which translates to “the King’s house.” Interestingly, the building has a very different name in Dutch – het Broodhuis, or “the bread house.” The Dutch name refers to the building that stood on the site before – an indoor bread market. The French name refers to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who owned the property in the 16th century. Because he was also known as the King of Spain, the building was called the Maison du Roi. Inside the King’s house, there’s a museum dedicated to Brussels’ development and rich history.
Walking through the many small streets of Brussels, individuals will find this little statue sooner or later – seeing the many tourists indicates you’re close to your target. This tiny fountain statue is the face of Brussels. It also cleverly symbolizes Belgium’s quirky sense of humor. Though Manneken Pis probably started out as a medieval homage to the tanners of Brussels, there are many fascinating legends that explain its origins.
Underneath the Place Royal are the remnants of a palace. Individuals can enter the ruins through the BELvue Museum. It was built around 1100 on the Coudenberg (‘Couden mountain’) by the counts of Leuven and Brussels. From its location, it must have had a terrific view over the young city of Brussels. Though as most castles, it started out as a military stronghold; Louis II of Flanders turned it into a luxurious palace in the 14th century.
Its ownership was passed on to many important historical figures, including Margaret of Austria and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. It’s also important to note that many great events have taken place inside this palace. For example, it’s the place where Margaret of Austria handed over the reign of the Low Countries to Emperor Charles V. It’s also where Archdukes Albert and Isabella had their court during the Spanish reign over the Low Countries, and great artists such as Jan Brueghel and Rubens were invited to decorate it.
It’s a pity it wasn’t better conserved – the palace burned down by accident in 1731, and the ruins were demolished to make place for the Royal Square. The new square was based on the Place Royal in Reims, France, and the project took place from 1773 to 1780. What’s left of the palace is underground, where individuals can have a look around the remaining brick walls and imagine how it used to be.
Unlike the Castle of Coudenberg, this palace still stands. Functioning as the residence of Belgium’s Royal Family, the building has seen its share of history. The palace started out as nothing more than a summer residence in the 18th century. The owners were Maria Christina of Austria and her husband. Later it became the property of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais. After that, it was the property of William I of the Netherlands, who made sure it was thoroughly renovated. Of course, after Belgium became independent, William no longer owned the building, and it was under the jurisdiction of the Belgian kings instead.
After the bombardments of the Nine Years’ War, beautiful new buildings were built in the city – La Monnaie is one of them. It was quickly called La Monnaie or De munt by locals because it was placed on the site where a building that minted coins used to stand (monnaie and munt both translate to ‘coins’). It was later replaced with a neoclassical building with the same name.
However, this theatre and opera house is most famous for its part in the Belgian Revolution. In 1830, Belgium didn’t exist yet. The region was part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, known as the Southern Netherlands. But that was about to change. On a summer evening that year, the opera piece La Muette de Portici inspired the audience so much that they joined the revolutionary riot outside. The unrest lasted almost a year until Belgium gained its independence in 1931. Individuals can still visit the theatre that was so instrumental in the Belgian Revolution and even enjoy an opera performance while there.
Another place that’s closely linked to Belgium’s independence is a town square not far from La Monnaie. The Place des Martyrs, or the Martelarenplein, is a public square with various cabinet offices of the Flemish Government, built in a neoclassical style around the 18th century. But more than just being a beautiful town square, it’s the burial site of Belgians that died during the Revolution. Over 400 are buried under the square. After Belgium gained its independence, the name of the square changed from Place Saint-Michel, or the Sint Michielsplein, to the name it has today.
The birth of Brussels happened long before gunpowder was used in Europe. Consequently, thick walls used to surround the city center to protect it from enemies. Only during the Nine Years’ War did the walls lose their significance. The armies of Louis XIV of France bombed Brussels so heavily that few buildings were left standing. This marked the end of fortified walls and moats – and the walls around Brussels slowly disappeared. Only a few remnants can still be seen today; the most famous of them is the Black Tower at Place Sainte-Catherine.
This tourist attraction is a bit outside the city center but definitely worth a visit. The best way to reach the Atomium is to take the subway line 6 to Heysel or Heizel. After that, it’s only a short walk towards the shiny sculpture.
The steel atom complex was supposed to be a temporary construction, but its popularity ensured its permanent display in Brussels. It was placed as a part of the World Fair in 1958 – the first World Fair after the Second World War.
If you want to see another part of Belgian history, go have a look at the train tracks. Or go visit one of the stations. Belgium has the oldest railroads on the European continent. Belgians like to complain about the confusing organization of the train traffic and how most trains don’t arrive on time, but they forget that the train networks are so old and dense that it’s no wonder that traffic is a little complicated.
The first three locomotives drove from Brussels to Mechelen in 1835, taking several passengers, including Belgium’s first king, Leopold I. Many other trains would follow. On the historic route between Mechelen and Brussels, at Schaerbeek station, lies a museum that commemorates the past of Belgium’s public transport and gives the old locomotives new life.