If there was an alternate title for this itinerary, it would be The Big One. Aside from the Grand Place and its environs, this guide should give you the chance to see most of the other big hitters on the Brussels tourist trail. It also contains one or two others that don’t fall into the ‘stellar’ category but which you’ll almost certainly be glad you took the time to do.
As Belgium is a kingdom, a good place to begin is with a visit to the Royal Palace. The palace isn’t used as a home for the royal family any longer – a pity really, as they would have the lovely Parc Royale right outside their door. The palace throws its doors open to the public for about six or seven weeks every summer (be sure to check the web site) for the low, low price of free.
Coudenberg Hill is the site of a 12th century palace that belonged to the Dukes of Brabant. In the late 1700s the whole lot was pulled down and a new palace built in its place. The remains of the old palace and other architectural and artistic artefacts can be found in the Coudenberg exhibition, which also gives you access to the remaining parts of the original palace, now buried underground.
Turn left out of the door to Coudenberg and take another left and you’ll find yourself on Place Royale. About 100 metres or so further, on the right, you’ll the museum dedicated to the works of Belgium’s most famous contemporary artist – René Magritte. The building houses a wide variety of his work, from the mundane to the extraordinary, making The Magritte Museum is a must-see.
Ready for yet more culture? OK, go left out of the Magritte Museum, left onto the road named after the old castle and the hill (Coudeberg) and on the right you’ll see the Musical Instrument Museum (The MIM). Inaugurated as a home for antique instruments in 1877, it today houses a huge collection of instruments from the past, including several concurrent temporary exhibitions.
Right turn out of the main door of the MIM, and just across the road you’ll see the entrance to the gardens of the Mont des Arts. A pretty and well laid-out garden gives shelter in the summer with its small avenues of trees and offers some of the best views over Brussels.
As a little aside, look out for a set of steps on the right. If you look down, you’ll see a street sign for the rue Terarken. This street, dwarfed by the buildings surrounding it, is the last surviving vestige of a district of Brussels formerly called Quartier Isabelle. The Brontë sisters lived there while in Brussels and there’s a plaque there in their honour. It’s incredibly easy to miss, so happy hunting.
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Continue to follow the road around (back up the stairs) and you’ll soon bump into the Palais des Beaux-Arts, more commonly referred to by the stylized pronunciation of its French name, Bozar. Dedicated to hosting all the arts, Bozar puts on film screenings, live drama, exhibitions and lots more.
Turn right out of the main entrance to Bozar and take the steps back up to the rue Royale. Around ten minutes’ walking in a straight line will bring you to the area known as the Sablon. The Sablon is full of bars and eateries, and famous chocolatier Pierre Marcolini has his flagship store here. Chocoholics rejoice, or beware.
Carry on from the same place you arrived at, taking what has now become the rue de la Régence, another 10 minutes in a straight line, until you come to the Palais de Justice, the highest court in Belgium and possibly the largest courthouse in the world.
The next walk is a little shorter – take the Ascenceur de Marolles (a public lift to a lower level of the city. It’s right next to the court and is hard to miss) go to the bottom of the road, turn left then turn right into rue St Ghislaine. Then turn left into rue Blaes and you will find an antique-hunter’s paradise, The Place du Jeu de Balle This old square has a daily flea market year-round – you’ll surely find something to jeopardize your baggage weight allowance.
You’ll need to take the bus for the next one. Check the STIB site for details, or download their app. Failing that, you could always ask someone. It’s quite a walk though. The Belgian Comic Strip Center is an Art Nouveau building paying homage to one of Belgium’s most loved art forms – the comic book. From Hergé’s Tintin books to the more exotic, this place covers them all and makes for a surprisingly interesting and informative time
You’ll find a seat waiting for you at the Café Métropole, just a few metres from the bus stop at De Brouckère. An enormously popular place with everyone, it is the place to sit and watch the world go by over a glass or cup of whatever takes your fancy. Sit and do some serious people-watching and relax, then head across the road to the rue des Augustins. Turn left onto Place du Samedi and continue on to Place Sainte Catherine, named after the huge church that dominates one end. The Place is full of seafood restaurants and In the old days, it was part of the canal and the tradition of fish seems to have stuck. It’s a great place to eat but can be frighteningly busy on a sunny day in season. Wherever you choose to eat, booking is advised.
Finally, right at the end of the Place Sainte Catherine is a rather touching statue. The Soldier Pigeon statue was erected in remembrance of the sacrifice made in WWI by not only the pigeon fanciers, or colombophiles, but also their pigeons. A very Belgian end to the tour.