Historic sites in Brussels, Belgium and a brief history of the city

Brussels, the capital of Belgium, is a fascinating city where history comes alive at every corner. In this article, we will take a journey through the rich heritage of Brussels, exploring its captivating past and highlighting the historic sites, monuments, buildings, and tourist attractions that make this city a haven for history enthusiasts.

Brussels boasts a long and storied history that stretches back centuries. From its humble beginnings as a small fortress town to becoming the capital of Belgium and an important European hub, the city has witnessed the rise and fall of empires, the drafting of significant documents, and the shaping of a nation.

As you explore Brussels, you will encounter a plethora of historic landmarks that offer glimpses into its illustrious past. From the iconic Grand Place, a UNESCO World Heritage site, with its magnificent guildhalls and awe-inspiring architecture, to the renowned Atomium, a symbol of modernity and innovation, the city seamlessly blends its historical charm with contemporary allure.

Prepare to be captivated by the Congress Column, a monumental structure commemorating the creation of the Belgian Constitution, and the stunning Royal Palace, the official residence of the Belgian royal family. Additionally, Brussels is home to numerous history museums, and historical churches, each with its own unique stories to tell.

Join us on this exploration of Brussels’ historical treasures, and let the city’s enchanting past leave an indelible mark on your journey.

A brief history of Brussels

The history of Brussels dates back to the Stone Age, with traces of human settlement and megalithic structures. It was occupied by the Romans during late antiquity and later became part of the Frankish Empire.

The city’s origin is attributed to the construction of a chapel by Saint Gaugericus around 580. In 979, Brussels was officially founded when Duke Charles of Lower Lorraine transferred the relics of Saint Gudula to Saint Gaugericus’ chapel and built the city’s first fortification.

Brussels thrived as a commercial center specializing in the textile trade due to its strategic location on trade routes. The town rapidly expanded towards the upper town, and its marshes were drained for further growth. The construction of the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula began in this period. In the 13th century, the first walls of Brussels were built, and a second set of walls followed in the 14th century.

Brussels, at the beginning of the 17th century
Brussels, at the beginning of the 17th century

The marriage of Margaret III of Flanders to Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, brought Brussels under Burgundian rule, and it flourished as the capital of the Burgundian Netherlands. Brussels became one of the main capitals of Charles V’s vast empire, encompassing territories in Europe and beyond.

The city witnessed the destruction of the Grand-Place during the Nine Years’ War in 1695, leading to a reconstruction that shaped its present appearance.

Brussels experienced various changes, including the Austrian rule, French occupation, and integration into the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. The Belgian Revolution in 1830 established Brussels as the capital of the newly formed nation. The city underwent urban renewal, demolishing its walls and constructing new buildings.

During the 19th century, Brussels saw significant population growth and urban development. The Senne River, considered a health hazard, was covered, allowing for modernization and the construction of grand boulevards. The city became a financial center, and its industries thrived. Art Nouveau architecture flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with notable architects leaving their mark on the city.

During World War I, German occupation of Belgium lasted from August 1914 to November 1918. Relief movements, like the National Committee for Relief and Food in Brussels, provided aid to the population. The Belgian army reclaimed Brussels on Nov. 18, 1918.

In World War II, Brussels fell to the Germans in May 1940 and faced harsh occupation terms. The city was liberated in Sept. 1944 by the British, and the Belgian government returned five days later.

After the war, Brussels hosted several significant events, including world’s fairs and conferences, and became the de facto capital of the European Union. Extensive modernization took place, while Brussels became a major hub for the EU institutions. However, this development led to the destruction of architectural landmarks and the phenomenon known as Brusselisation.

In 1989, the Brussels-Capital Region was established as one of Belgium’s three federal regions. The city has since become a venue for international events and was named the European Capital of Culture in 2000.

The Grand-Place of Brussels

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The Grand-Place, also known as Grote Markt, is the central square of Brussels, Belgium. Surrounded by Baroque guildhalls, the square features notable buildings like the Town Hall and the King’s House, which houses the Brussels City Museum.

Spanning 68 by 110 meters, the square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular tourist destination. Festivals and events are held regularly, including the installation of a massive flower carpet and the Ommegang procession.

The Grand-Place is also famous for its Christmas and New Year celebrations, featuring a decorated Christmas tree and captivating light shows.

Brussels Town Hall

The Town Hall of the City of Brussels, known as Hôtel de Ville in French and Stadhuis in Dutch, is a historic building located on the south side of Brussels’ famous Grand-Place. Constructed between 1401 and 1455, it is the only remaining medieval structure in the square and is renowned for its remarkable Gothic architecture. The Town Hall consists of a square base and a lantern tower, both of which contribute to its harmonious design.

The base of the tower features an ogival portal with mullioned windows on the first and second floors. The tower is then extended by two floors, each adorned with ogival bays facing the Grand-Place. The octagonal lantern tower, supported by four buttressed turrets, adds an elegant touch to the structure. It boasts three levels with intricate openwork ogival bays, arcades, parapets, and gargoyles.

Brussels Town Hall – digital painting with canvas texture
Brussels Town Hall – digital painting with canvas texture

Atop the tower stands a gilded, openwork spire crowned by the statue of Saint Michael slaying a dragon or demon. This statue, created by Michel de Martin Van Rode, was originally installed in the 15th century and has since been replaced by a copy.

The Town Hall’s facade comprises two asymmetrical wings framing the tower, each terminating in corner turrets. These wings feature arcades, balconies, large mullioned windows, and high saddleback roofs adorned with hipped dormers. The corner turrets exhibit trefoil arches and eight gargoyles on each level.

The facade is embellished with statues representing local nobility, saints, and allegorical figures. Most of the present sculptures are reproductions from the 19th and 20th centuries, while the original 15th-century ones are housed in the Brussels City Museum.

The base of the facade showcases an arcade gallery with asymmetrical ogival arches, topped by finials adorned with cabbage leaves. The arches are supported by pillars featuring statues of knights and squires from the Noble Houses of Brussels.

A porch in the left wing houses a staircase flanked by two columns bearing the coat of arms of Brussels. Tragic scenes involving aldermen of the City of Brussels are depicted on historiated corbels beside the steps.

The Gothic Town Hall abounds with expressive gargoyles on its various facades and octagonal corner turrets. Inside the courtyard, there are two marble fountains designed by Johannes Andreas Anneessens, featuring allegorical figures representing The Meuse and The Scheldt rivers.

The courtyard’s facades have two levels with rectangular windows, wooden mullions, and triangular pediments. The north-western and south-eastern facades also display high doors protected by glass awnings.

The Gothic Room, located in the oldest section of the Town Hall, is actually neo-Gothic in style. It features wooden cladding by Victor Jamaer and incorporates tapestries from the Mechelen studio depicting the Guilds of Brussels.

The mayor’s cabinet and the Waiting Room, originally built for the secretariat of the States of Brabant, are adorned with paintings by Jean-Baptiste Van Moer. The Maximilian Room, named after a double portrait of Maximilian I and Mary of Burgundy, showcases tapestries from the series “Life of Clovis.” The Grangé Gallery connects these rooms and displays portraits of monarchs by Louis Grangé.

The Town Hall is not only a magnificent architectural landmark but also an important historical site. It is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and remains a symbol of the City of Brussels’ rich cultural heritage.

King’s House

The King’s House, known as the Maison du Roi in French, has a rich history dating back to the 12th century. Originally a wooden structure, it served as a place where bread was sold, earning it the Dutch name “Broodhuis” or Bread House. In the 15th century, the wooden building was replaced by a magnificent stone structure that became the administrative headquarters of the Duke of Brabant. At that time, it was known as the Duke’s House, or “‘s Hertogenhuys” in Middle Dutch. Later, when the same Duke ascended to the throne of Spain, the building was renamed the King’s House or “‘s Conincxhuys” in Middle Dutch.

During the 16th century, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V commissioned Antoon II Keldermans, his court architect, to reconstruct the King’s House in a late Gothic style. Although the contemporary design lacked towers or galleries, it retained the essence of the Gothic aesthetic. Unfortunately, the King’s House suffered significant damage during the bombardment of 1695.

A subsequent restoration took place in 1767, during which a neoclassical portal and a large roof with three oeil-de-boeuf windows were added. However, it was in the late 19th century that the King’s House underwent its most extensive transformation. Between 1874 and 1896, the architect Victor Jamaer, influenced by his mentor Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, reconstructed the building in a neo-Gothic style.

Jamaer’s renovations included the construction of two galleries and a central tower, enhancing the grandeur and architectural appeal of the King’s House. The facade was adorned with statues and other decorative elements, showcasing the skilled craftsmanship of the time.

Additionally, a new wing in a more subdued Flemish neo-Renaissance style was added to the rear of the building. This expansion provided a stark contrast to the intricate neo-Gothic design of the main structure.

The renovated King’s House was officially inaugurated in 1896 and has since housed the Brussels City Museum. The museum, established in 1887, exhibits various artifacts and artworks, including the original sculptures from the Town Hall.

In 1985, the interior of the building underwent a renovation, ensuring its preservation and enabling visitors to experience the historical significance and cultural treasures housed within the King’s House. Today, the King’s House stands as a testament to the architectural legacy of Brussels and serves as a cultural landmark in the heart of the city.

The Manneken Pis statue

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Manneken Pis, meaning “Little Pissing Man” in Dutch, is a famous bronze fountain sculpture located in central Brussels, Belgium. The statue depicts a naked little boy urinating into a basin. It was redesigned by sculptor Jérôme Duquesnoy the Elder and installed in 1618 or 1619. The current statue is a replica, with the original being kept in the Brussels City Museum since 1965.

Manneken Pis is a well-known symbol of Brussels and Belgium, inspiring numerous imitations and similar statues. It is regularly dressed up in different costumes, with a wardrobe consisting of around one thousand outfits. The statue’s self-derisive nature reflects the sense of “Belgianness” and folk humor popular in Brussels.

Located just a five-minute walk from Brussels’ main square, the Grand-Place/Grote Markt, Manneken Pis stands at the junction of Rue du Chêne/Eikstraat and Rue de l’Étuve/Stoofstraat. The site is accessible via the Bourse/Beurs premetro station and several bus stops.

The statue’s original name was Menneke Pis or Menneke Pist, which means “little boy peeing” in the Brabantian dialect of Brussels. It is now officially known as Manneken Pis in both French and Dutch.

Manneken Pis has been subject to theft and damage throughout its history. It survived the bombardment of Brussels in 1695, but its water supply was affected. The statue gained popularity and became a symbol of the city after this event.

Over time, it has been stolen multiple times, leading to its restoration and the creation of replicas. In 1965, the original statue was broken and only the feet and ankles remained. It was later recovered from the Charleroi Canal and is now displayed in the Brussels City Museum.

The statue faced another challenge in 2018 when a leak was discovered in its basin. The issue went unnoticed for years until it was identified with the help of water monitoring technology. Temporary and permanent solutions were implemented to address the leak and prevent further water wastage.

Several legends surround Manneken Pis, with the most famous one involving Duke Godfrey III of Leuven. According to the legend, during a battle, the little duke urinated on the enemy troops from a basket hanging from an oak tree, boosting the morale of his own soldiers. The statue commemorates this victory.

Another legend suggests that a young boy urinated on a burning fuse during a siege in the 14th century, saving the city of Brussels. There are other stories of a missing boy being found urinating in a garden and a boy extinguishing a fire with his urine, preventing the king’s castle from burning down.

Manneken Pis is often dressed in various costumes, which are managed by The Order of the Friends of Manneken Pis. The tradition of dressing the statue dates back to the 17th century. The costumes are selected from hundreds of designs submitted each year and contribute to the statue’s vibrant and ever-changing appearance.

To showcase the extensive wardrobe, a museum called Garderobe MannekenPis opened in 2017. It provides a dedicated space to exhibit the costumes and celebrate the cultural significance of the statue.

Manneken Pis continues to be a beloved and iconic symbol of Brussels, attracting visitors from around the world with its unique charm and playful spirit.

Parc du Cinquantenaire

The Parc du Cinquantenaire, also known as Jubelpark, is a large urban park in Brussels. It was commissioned by the Belgian Government to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Belgian Revolution. The park features a U-shaped complex of buildings that were constructed for the 1880 National Exhibition. Over time, additional structures were added to the site. The park includes the iconic Cinquantenaire Arch, which was erected in 1905.

The park’s 30-hectare esplanade was once filled with beautiful gardens, ponds, and waterfalls. It hosted various trade fairs, exhibitions, and festivals in the early 20th century. However, in 1930, the government decided to transform the Cinquantenaire into a leisure park.

Today, the northern half of the complex houses the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History, while the southern half is occupied by the Art & History Museum and Autoworld vintage car museum. The park is also home to the Temple of Human Passions, the Monument to the Belgian Pioneers in Congo, and the Great Mosque of Brussels.

The Brussels Metro and the Belliard Tunnel pass underneath the park, with nearby metro stations at Schuman and Merode. The park is a popular location for various activities, including military parades, drive-in movies during the summer, film and music video shoots, and the annual 20 km of Brussels run.

The Cinquantenaire Arch

The Cinquantenaire Arch is a monumental triple arch and the centerpiece of the Cinquantenaire Arcade in Brussels. It features a bronze quadriga with a female charioteer representing the Province of Brabant. The arch is situated in the Parc du Cinquantenaire and faces Brussels’ city center.

Originally commissioned for the 1880 National Exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Belgian Revolution, the completion of the arch faced numerous challenges due to funding disputes.

Architect Gédéon Bordiau designed the original single arch, but French architect Charles Girault revised it into a triple arch with the quadriga concept intact. Construction began in 1905 and was completed with private funding in the same year, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of Belgian Independence.

The Cinquantenaire Arch is 30 meters wide and 45 meters high, consisting of three equal bays. The arch’s ceiling features semi-circular stone caissons adorned with laurel wreaths and an acronym symbolizing Belgium’s official values. The arch is decorated with sculptures created by prominent artists of the time.

The bronze quadriga, titled “Brabant Raising the National Flag,” was crafted by Thomas Vinçotte and Jules Lagae. The arch’s pedestal bears an inscription highlighting its purpose of glorifying Belgium’s independence. A spiral staircase, now accompanied by an elevator, provides access to an exhibition room and two terraces beneath the quadriga.

The columns of the arch mirror the original layout of the Avenue de Tervueren, which was once divided into three roadways. The arch is flanked by eight statues representing Belgian provinces, while twelve spandrels depict allegories of Arts and Industry.

Designated as a protected monument in 1984, the Cinquantenaire Arch stands as an impressive symbol of Belgian heritage and independence.

The Royal Palace of Brussels

The Royal Palace of Brussels - ink and watercolor painting
The Royal Palace of Brussels – ink and watercolor painting

The Royal Palace of Brussels is the official palace of the King and Queen of the Belgians in Brussels, the capital of Belgium. It is not used as a royal residence, as the king and his family live in the Royal Palace of Laeken.

The palace serves as a place where the King exercises his prerogatives as Head of State, grants audiences, and handles state affairs. It houses the offices of the King and Queen, as well as various services and state rooms for receptions and official visits.

The current building dates back to the late 18th century, but it stands on the grounds of the old Coudenberg Palace, which existed since the Middle Ages. The facade of the Royal Palace was built after 1900 by King Leopold II.

Located in front of Brussels Park, the Royal Palace is separated from the park by the Place des Palais. It symbolizes Belgium’s constitutional monarchy, with the Royal Palace on one side and the Palace of the Nation (Belgian Federal Parliament) on the other. The palace is easily accessible by public transportation.

Unlike most European royal residences, the Palace of Brussels is not the primary residence of the Belgian monarchs. It mainly serves as a place of work and for important events. Many marriages and receptions of international personalities have taken place there.

The palace consists of several notable rooms, including the Grand Staircase, which features a statue of Peace, and the Large Anteroom, decorated with political symbols. The ‘Il Pensieroso’ Room, or Square Room, is named after a mantelpiece clock depicting Michelangelo’s “The Thinker” and serves as a chapel for royal family funerals.

Each room has its own unique history, such as the Throne Room witnessing historical events like abdications and civil marriages. The Pillar Room, now known as the Blue Room, was renovated by Queen Paola and houses a portrait of King Leopold I. The Empire Room, once a ballroom, retains elements from the Austrian era. The Coburg Room displays portraits of relatives of Leopold I, including the royal family of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

The Hall of Mirrors, requested by King Leopold II, contains elements reminiscent of the Congo colony. The Grand Gallery connects different rooms and is often used for receptions. The Marble Room and the Louis XVI Room are other notable spaces in the palace.

The Royal Palace of Brussels plays a significant role in hosting receptions for international dignitaries and is a venue for cultural events. Despite not being the primary residence, it remains an important symbol of Belgium’s monarchy and history.

The Congress Column

The Congress Column in Brussels, Belgium is a monumental column commemorating the creation of the Belgian Constitution by the National Congress of 1830–31. Constructed between 1850 and 1859, it was inspired by Trajan’s Column in Rome and designed by architect Joseph Poelaert.

At the top of the column stands a statue of Belgium’s first monarch, King Leopold I, while the pedestal is adorned with statues representing the four freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. The base of the column houses the Belgian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, accompanied by an eternal flame.

Situated in the Freedom Quarter on Place du Congrès/Congresplein, the column is easily accessible via Brussels-Congress railway station, metro stations Parc/Park and Botanique/Kruidtuin, as well as the tram stop Congrès/Congres.

The Congress Column has a height of 47 m (154 ft) and features a spiral staircase of 193 steps leading to a platform surrounding the pedestal of the statue. The platform, which can accommodate 16 visitors, is currently inaccessible for security reasons. The statue of King Leopold I was crafted by sculptor Guillaume Geefs.

The column pays tribute to the National Congress of 1830–31 and bears engravings of important dates and names related to Belgian Independence, as well as passages from the Constitution. The frieze is adorned with elegant foliage, and the four sides depict allegorical representations of Wisdom, Strength, Immortality, and Glory.

Surrounding the pedestal, four sitting allegorical bronze female sculptures symbolize the constitutional liberties of Freedom of Association, Freedom of Worship, Freedom of the Press, and Freedom of Education. Additionally, two monumental bronze lions flank the monument.

The monument also serves as a memorial for Belgian victims of World War I, with an unknown soldier buried at its base in 1922. An eternal flame accompanies the tomb. Following World War II, a second memorial plaque was added to honor Belgian victims, and in 1998, a third memorial plaque was dedicated to Belgian soldiers who lost their lives in the pursuit of peace since 1945.

Place Royale

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The Place Royale, also known as Koningsplein, is a historic neoclassical square in Brussels. Built between 1775 and 1782, it replaced the former Palace of Coudenberg and was designed by architects Jean-Benoît-Vincent Barré and Gilles-Barnabé Guimard. This rectangular and symmetrical square measures 253 by 371 feet and is adorned with paving stones.

At the center of the square stands an equestrian statue of Godfrey of Bouillon, sculpted by Eugène Simonis in 1848. Surrounding the square are significant cultural institutions, including the BELvue Museum, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, the Musical Instruments Museum (MIM), and the Magritte Museum.

Nearby attractions such as Brussels Park, the Royal Palace, and the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula are easily accessible.

The Place Royale exemplifies 18th-century urban architecture and reflects the neoclassical principles of French royal squares. Despite a few changes, such as the replacement of the original colonnade and the statue of Prince Charles Alexander of Lorraine, the square has maintained its architectural integrity.

Bronze bas-reliefs by Guillaume de Groot, depicting the Assault on Jerusalem and the Assizes of Jerusalem, were added to the statue’s pedestal in 1897. Discover the captivating charm and cultural heritage of the Place Royale as you explore this remarkable square in the heart of Brussels.

The Brussels Atomium

The Atomium, a landmark modernist building in Brussels, was constructed as the centerpiece of the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Designed by engineer André Waterkeyn and architects André and Jean Polak, the Atomium symbolizes scientific progress and Belgian engineering prowess. Situated on the Heysel Plateau in Laeken, it has become the city’s top tourist attraction, serving as a museum, art center, and cultural destination.

Standing at 335 feet tall, the Atomium features nine stainless steel clad spheres, each with a diameter of 59 feet, interconnected to resemble an enlarged iron crystal. The spheres contain exhibit halls and public spaces, accessible via stairs, escalators, and an elevator. The top sphere offers a panoramic view of Brussels and houses a restaurant. The building underwent extensive renovations from 2004 to 2006.

Located on the Square de l’Atomium, the Atomium is easily accessible from the Heysel metro station. The name “Atomium” combines “atom” and “aluminium,” the metal initially used to cover the spheres. The monument’s French and Dutch names, l’Atomium and het Atomium, are both official, while in English, it is commonly referred to as “the Atomium.”

Of the nine spheres, six are accessible to the public, featuring permanent and temporary exhibitions, flexible event spaces, and a dedicated sphere for children’s workshops. The Atomium receives over 600,000 visitors annually and is renowned as an international symbol of Brussels and Belgium, representing its cultural heritage and digital arts scene.

Initially planned for demolition after the World’s Fair, the Atomium’s popularity led to its preservation. Over the years, it has served as a backdrop for various events and competitions. Today, it stands as a beloved icon, attracting visitors from around the world to explore its fascinating exhibitions and enjoy its breathtaking views.

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