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Things to Do in Brussels

Brussels, the official capital of Belgium and unofficial capital of Europe, stands out as the meeting point of Germanic and Romance cultures, boasting cross-cultural and modern charm. The duel official languages of French and Dutch give every street and place two names, and English is also widely spoken, thanks to the European Parliament and other organizations stationed here that make it an international political center. The ornate guildhalls lining the classic Grand Place stand as city centerpiece and showcase, but the Atomium also warrants a visit, a bizarre building of steel spheres created for the 1958 World's Fair that now functions as a museum featuring a prize view over the city. With Belgium seemingly locked in a confectionery competition with the Swiss, a Brussels chocolate tour delivers insight into how the industry grew here and, of course, involves plenty of samples. Visitors can continue tasting their way through town well into the evening with a beer tour, where the rich monastic heritage of Belgian beer bubbles up from the glass. Beyond the capital, Ghent and Bruges make for easy day trips, both charming towns packed with medieval architecture within just over an hour’s drive. The city's central location also makes it easy to go further out for trips to the Flemish countryside and historic battlefields, or into neighboring Luxembourg or Amsterdam (each just over two hours away).
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Grand-Place (Grote Markt)
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Europe’s most picturesque square, Grand-Place is surrounded by baroque and gothic guildhalls and the stunning 315 foot (96 meter) Brussels Town Hall. The stunning buildings in this UNESCO World Heritage site date mainly from the late 17th century. Grand Place is also known in Dutch as Grote Markt as it was the large central market in Brussels. The surrounding streets still bear the names of the stalls that lined the street: Rue des Bouchers (butchers) and Peperstraat (pepper merchants). Every second year, in August, the square is filled with an enormous flower carpet. A million begonias are used to create a stunning pattern. Concerts and music recitals are held here throughout the year. The size and beauty of the square amazes everyone when they first turn a corner to find it unexpectedly in front of them. After the initial shock sit down at a table outside one of the many cafés or chocolatiers and find out why Belgium is justly famous for its beer and chocolate.
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St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral
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It took 300 years to complete the St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral and its architecture spans styles from Romanesque to Gothic to Renaissance. The Renaissance stained-glass windows are amazing and fill the cathedral with light. Inside, the chapel is not overly adorned after plundering by various invading armies.

The cathedral sits atop the ruins of an 11th century Romanesque chapel the remains of which can be viewed in the crypt. Saints Michael and Gudule are the male and female patron saints of Brussels. All Royal weddings take place here and many concerts are held throughout the year. On Sundays a concert is played on the carillon of 49 bells.

There is also a family of Peregrine Falcons who live in the northern tower of the cathedral. In front of the St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral is a viewing spot and on Sunday afternoons local bird experts are on hand to answer any questions.

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Brussels Royal Palace (Palais Royal de Bruxelles)
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Although the Royal family no longer call the Royal Palace (or Palais Royal Bruxelles) home, it is where the King and Queen still have their offices and the King carries out his duties as the head of state. The building also houses state rooms where large receptions are held and also living quarters for visiting dignitaries. The Palace was built in 1775 on the site of the former Coudenberg Palace which was built in the 11th and 12th centuries, but burnt to the ground in 1731. The Palace is at the southern end of the Parc de Bruxelles, at the northern end is the Palace of the Nation which houses the Belgian Parliament. Between them they are said to reflect Belgium’s constitutional monarchy. Over summer the Palace is open to the public. On show are fantastic State Rooms like the Goya Room with its Goya inspired tapestries, the imposing Throne Room with bas-reliefs by Rodin and the well-preserved 18th century Large White Room.
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Mini-Europe
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If you’ve only got a few days in Brussels, make a speedy tour of the major sights of the countries in the European Union at Mini-Europe – all in miniature. Among the 350 detailed models exhibited here, the architectural highlights featured include the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the canals of Venice and the Acropolis; they’re all there in carefully replicated models scaled down to 1.25.

The park offers an entertaining way for kids to learn more about the countries of the EU and significant moments from their history. Interactive displays at each model light up various elements of the buildings, trains chuff around tracks, bells chime and national anthems play. Vesuvius erupts, the Berlin Wall comes down and matadors fight the bulls in Spanish bull rings.

As the EU expands, so new models arrive at Mini-Europe. The latest arrivals in 2013 were St Mark’s Church from Zagreb, Croatia, and a diorama celebrating the succession of King Philippe to the Belgian throne in July.

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Hard Rock Cafe Brussels
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Blending the classic atmosphere of an American diner with the devil–may–care edge of rock ‘n’ roll, the Hard Rock Café is much more than just a café – it’s an international institution, and it was only a matter of time before the legendary restaurant made its way on to Belgian soil. Opening its doors in 2012, the Hard Rock Café Brussels has been enticing locals to swap their French fries and Belgian waffles for some all-American soul food ever since and there are few more atmospheric spots to tuck into a burger. Taking over a restored 16th-century building in the heart of the capital, fans of the Hard Rock Café will find all their favorites on the Brussels’ menu, from Bar-B-Que Ribs to Wildberry Smoothies, but of course, the Hard Rock Café has always been about more than just the food.

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Manneken Pis
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The Manneken Pis, a bronze fountain statue by Jerome Duquesnoy, dates from 1619 when it replaced a stone statue from the 1400s. The residents of Brussels have embraced this diminuitive statue of a small boy urinating into a fountain as a symbol of their irreverence. There are many stories behind the Manneken Pis with most either referring to a young boy urinating on a fire/explosive device thus saving the city from destruction by invading armies or the lost son of a nobleman who was later found urinating in a fountain. The well-loved statue has over 800 costumes and will often wear the national dress of visiting dignitaries. You might otherwise see him dressed in football colors or as a plumber or even Elvis. His costume is changed around 30 times a year. These occasions are marked with brass-band music and an unveiling of the newly kitted-out statue. Sometimes Manneken Pis produces beer to celebrate with the people of Brussels.
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European Parliament
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Brussels is the administrative heart of the European Union and the Espace Léopold buildings are where parliament meets throughout the year to debate and discuss the future of Europe. The main building of the European Union Parliament complex is the Paul-Henri Spaak building, an impressive glass structure with a distinctive arched roof, it’s been nicknamed "Caprice des Dieux" (whim of the gods) after a similarly shaped French cheese.

The hemicycle is where parliament debates; it seats the 736 Members of the parliament, numerous translators and a gallery for the general public. The semicircular shape is designed to encourage consensus among the political parties.

There are a number of interesting works of art on public view including May Claerhout’s sculpture Europa, which has become a favorite among tourists.

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Cinquantenaire Park (Parc du Cinquantenaire)
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A large public park, the Cinquantenaire Park (or "Parc du Cinquantenaire" as it is known in French) is dominated by buildings built for the 1880 National Exhibition which also celebrated fifty years of Belgian independence. The centerpiece of the park is a triumphal arch finished in 1905.

To the north of the arch is the Royal Military Museum. To the south are the Royal Museums for Art and History (these hold artifacts gathered from around the world), and AutoWorld, a vintage car museum with over 350 classic cars, one of the largest collections in Europe.

If you’re looking for an impressive place to lie under a tree the Cinquantenaire Park is especially lovely in the summer when it’s filled with locals making the most of the sunshine. Also in summer the area surrounding the arch is turned into a drive-in cinema. There’s discounted tickets for people driving vintage cars and a lawn reserved for people on bicycle or foot.

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Royal Galleries of Saint Hubert (Les Galeries St-Hubert)
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The Royal Saint Hubert Galleries are a series of shops and restaurants in Brussels that are covered by panes of glass. They were designed by the architect Jean-Pierre Cluysenaer in 1847 and are often referred to as the umbrella of Brussels. The galleries are divided into three different sections: the Galerie de la Reine, the Galerie du Roi and the Galerie des Princes. The glass roof helps protect visitors from rain or cold weather. In the past, visitors had to pay 25 cents on Thursdays and Sundays and 10 cents on other days just to access the galleries. Of course today it is free to visit, and over 6 million people visit each year.

The galleries have something for everyone. There are boutiques selling the latest fashions as well as more classic clothing. Accessories shops sell gloves, hats, umbrellas and more. Several jewelry stores are located here along with book stores, chocolate shops, and other specialty shops.

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Autoworld
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Autoworld houses over 250 incredible vehicles of various origins and covers the history of the automobile while demonstrating the evolution and development of cars over more than a century. The displays include automobiles that are basically horse drawn carriages from the time when the horse was replaced with a steering wheel and an engine. There are exclusive sports cars from the 1960s and a Bugatti from 1928. The museum even has motorcycles and exhibits about the development of the garage. A separate room houses horse carriages, including one used by Napoleon the Third's wedding in 1853.

The cars on display here are all of European or US origin. They are arranged in chronological order so visitors can start from the origins of the automobile and work their way through the different developments throughout history. There is also an evolutionary time line of cars from the late 1800s to the 2000s including a blank spot for the future.

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More Things to Do in Brussels

Belgian Comic Strip Center

Belgian Comic Strip Center

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This exploration of comic strips as art is appropriately housed in an Art Nouveau building designed by Brussels’ most famous architect, Victor Horta. It traces the history of first comic strips through to the evolution of European comic books and present day pieces. The museum celebrates both the heroes and the creators of so many beloved comic strips. Many know of the Smurfs or the famous character Tintin of “The Adventures of Tintin,” and the center’s exhibit on imagination traces comic strip art from the development of Tintin in Belgium in 1929 up to 1960. Comic strips in French, Dutch, and English as well as from genres ranging from politics to science fiction and children’s comics are all represented.

In addition to the permanent collections, visitors have the option to delve into animation, a reading room, a research library, and a conservation facility.

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Brussels Town Hall (Hotel de Ville)

Brussels Town Hall (Hotel de Ville)

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Dominating the Gothic and Baroque mansions of Brussels’s glorious cobbled Grand-Place from the south side, the spectacular City Hall has a flamboyant Gothic façade and more restrained classical additions lying around a courtyard behind it.

Begun in 1402, this beloved local landmark was largely designed by Flemish architect Jacob van Thienen, but its distinctive lacy central belfry is the work of his compatriot Jan van Ruysbroeck and doubles the height of the façade, reaching up to 320 feet (97 m). It is adorned with a copper statue of St Michael – the patron saint of Brussels – killing a dragon; the belfry is useful to navigate by when lost in the charming tangle of streets of Brussels old city, especially when gloriously floodlit at night. The entire building is encrusted with 294 sculptures of saints and public figures, which were added by 91 different artists during the late 19th century.

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Musical Instruments Museum

Musical Instruments Museum

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The Musical Instruments Museum in Brussels celebrates the making of music with thousands of instruments from around the world. In one section, visitors can explore different instruments throughout history, from antiquity to present day, while another section displays popular instruments from Belgium, other parts of Europe, and from other continents. Another part of the museum focuses on string and keyboard instruments. Here visitors can learn about pianos, harps, violins, and more. There's also a section of mechanical, electrical, and electronic instruments, plus clocks and bells. The star of this section is the componium, which is a 19th-century orchestrion that automatically composes an infinite variety of music.

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Magritte Museum (Musée Magritte)

Magritte Museum (Musée Magritte)

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Belgium’s most loved surrealist, René Magritte, now has the 26,000 square foot (2,400 square meter) Musée Magritte dedicated to his works. In 1926 Magritte was a founding member of the Belgian Surrealists group. His works play with contrasts intended to shake the intellect.

The museum opened in 2009 and houses over 250 artworks and archival pieces. His trademark motifs of bowler hats, birds and the female torso appear in many favorite works including Sky Bird and Empire of Light.

An afternoon at the museum gives an interesting insight into Brussels from the 1920s to the 1960s and the cultural movements that shaped the city. Magritte's paintings are said to have influenced the ‘pop’ artists including Andy Warhol and later Jasper Johns.

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Brussels City Museum (Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles)

Brussels City Museum (Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles)

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Behind the facade of a dark, grey Neogothic structure lays a collection of artifacts that tell the story of the city of Brussels. This intricate building is known as the Maison du Roi ("King's House”) and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The structure is also known as Broodhuis (bread market), a nod to its use as such in the 13th century.

From its early development to medieval era to present day, learn about the city’s history through its tapestries, paintings, sculptures, and photographs. Altarpieces, porcelain and silverware round out the collection of historical objects on display. Exhibits cover everything from urban development to the social, political, and cultural life of the capital. Envision the past with 3D models to scale of the city in different time periods. Of particular note is the costume collection of the statue of Manneken-Pis, an emblem of Brussels said to have nearly 800 wardrobe choices.

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Coudenberg (Former Palace of Brussels)

Coudenberg (Former Palace of Brussels)

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Found at the southern end of the Parc de Bruxelles, Coudenberg marks the site of the original palace of the Belgian Royal Family, which was destroyed to make way for the present Palais Royal. In the 12th century a small, fortified castle stood on Coudenberg Hill, and this was gradually extended and reworked by successive monarchs until it reputedly became one of the most beautiful palaces in Europe and the main residence of King Charles V.

In 1731 this imposing palace was destroyed by fire but it was not until 40 years later that its ruins were pulled down and the site flattened in preparation for the building of today’s stately Palais Royal. The cellars and chapel of the original palace can now be viewed underground as they stretch far underneath the present-day Rue Royale. Once open to the elements, the forgotten medieval cobbled Rue Isabelle is now below the Place Royale.

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Atomium

Atomium

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This alien-looking and vast silvery sculpture near the Bruparck was created in 1958 for the Expo 58 and represents a iron molecule magnified 165 billion times. A mesh of nine corridors leading to nine giant spheres, it was destined to be demolished after the exhibition but proved such a hit with the Bruxellois that it was reprieved and has become a national icon.

Reaching up to 335 feet (102 m) the Atomium underwent a much-needed and rigorous facelift in the early 2000s; the spheres were originally made of an aluminum skin but this has been replaced by stainless steel. An elevator shoots up the central column to the five spheres that are currently open to the public; three provide a permanent record of Expo 58 and two host temporary interactive art and science displays.

The highest sphere stands at 300 feet (92 m) above the ground and now has a glass roof, allowing 360° views across the Heysel Plain towards Brussels.

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MOOF Museum

MOOF Museum

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The MOOF Museum, or the Museum of Original Figurines, is a museum in Brussels dedicated to comic strips. The museum features comic strip figurines, collection items, original comic strips and drawings. More than 650 figurines and original objects are on display, but the museum's entire collection consists of around 3,500 pieces, making it one of the finest collections of comic book memorabilia in the world. The museum has items from Belgian comics, such as the famous Tintin and the Smurfs, as well as American collections, manga and more. The figurines are displayed next to the original comic plates from which they originated.

The MOOF Museum has something for everyone, whether you are a passionate comic book enthusiast or simply curious about the art form. At the museum, you can relive your childhood, learn about comics you might not be familiar with, and enjoy different pieces from various parts of the world.

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Museum of the Turn of the Century (Musée Fin-de-Siècle)

Museum of the Turn of the Century (Musée Fin-de-Siècle)

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One of Brussels’ newest museums, the Fin-de-Siècle celebrates the city’s history as an artistic capital at the end of the 19th century. Though a tempestuous time politically, artists emerged during this time period that pushed the envelope away from classical traditions into modernism. Covering a span from 1868-1914, the museum chronicles the changing attitudes in art. Realism, Impressionism and Art Nouveau emerged during this time, ending only with the start of the first World War and with Belgium leading the way.

Historic collections of 19th- and 20th-century art are here explored with the newest technologies, like touch screens and interactive multimedia. Music, photography, and literature are represented as well, though less so than visual arts. Collections of the many facets of Art Nouveau, from furniture to decorative arts, are a highlight for many. With four floors to explore and many detailed descriptions throughout.

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Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

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The Natural Sciences Museum of Belgium in Brussels explores the natural evolution of our planet going all the way back to prehistoric times. It has Europe's largest dinosaur exhibitions with over 30 complete skeletons, both originals and reproductions, as well as bone fragments from dinosaurs. The museum also includes the Gallery of Evolution which has displays on the history of life on earth. The BiodiverCITY section teaches visitors about biodiversity. There is an animal kingdom section with displays on various groups of animals, such as mammals, whales, animals of the North and South Poles, insects, shells, and more. Another section of the museum has exhibits on minerals including 2,000 rocks from the earth and the moon. Some sections of the museum have interactive touchscreens and audio guides to teach visitors more about the exhibits. Along with the permanent exhibitions, the museum has a rotation of temporary exhibits.

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Autrique House (Maison Autrique)

Autrique House (Maison Autrique)

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La Maison Autrique was the first house built by Belgian architect Victor Horta, with early elements of his famous Art Nouveau style apparent in the design details. Although the entry and ground floor reflects the classic architectural style of the 19th century, when it was built, the halls and other rooms are illuminated by open space and natural light, an innovation at the time.

The house is simpler than Horta’s later projects, as it was built as a comfortable home for engineer Eugène Autrique and his family. It was completed in 1893, but was recently renovated and reopened to the public. With a striking exterior of iron pillars and columns, Horta’s touch can be seen with the use of light and color in the home’s intricate stained glass in the interior. The classic town house is at once both an embodiment of a traditional private Belgian home and the modern step toward Art Nouveau.

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Art & History Museum

Art & History Museum

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Culture, art, and history abound in this Belgian national museum. The four main collections span periods of time from prehistory in national archaeology and classical antiquity, to European decorative arts and non-European displays. Explore artifacts from all over the world, with collections dedicated to ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome and also movements in Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and even Art Deco European arts. Trace the evolution of art in Europe from the 10th century or journey through the arts of India, China, pre-Columbian Americas, and other non-European civilizations.

Unique pieces in sculpture, tapestry, historic jewelry, and even glassware are some of the museum’s highlights, as well as the overview of history of mankind from prehistoric times. The museum contains more than 350,000 historical artifacts in total in its permanent collection. It routinely houses some of Europe’s finest traveling exhibitions.

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BELvue Museum

BELvue Museum

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Learn the history of a nation at Belgium’s BELvue Museum, housed in the 18th-century Bellvue Hotel in the center of Brussels. Trace the story of Belgium from the Belgian Revolution, through World Wars I and II, and in its royal and political progression as you walk through its 12 rooms. Filled with historical documents and artifacts as well as engaging multimedia displays, each room represents a different crucial period in Belgium’s history. The rooms are meant to be explored in chronological order.

Photographs and royal items on display give a real sense of time and place. Curators strategically placed windows that look out onto some of the very places the museum tells the history of. Visitors can see the Mont des Arts and Brussels Park, crucial sites of the Belgian Revolution, from museum rooms and hallways. Temporary exhibitions also bring contemporary stories of Belgian heritage and politics to life.

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Halle Gate (Porte de Hal)

Halle Gate (Porte de Hal)

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The Porte de Hal, or Halle Gate, is what remains of the city’s second fortified wall, making it one of the most historic structures in Brussels. Built to defend the capital city in 1381, it guarded the interior with a medieval drawbridge and moat. Though many of the other structures from this time period have since been destroyed, the Porte de Hal was used as a prison, thereby still standing and recalling an earlier age. The stonework and style of the gate’s tower still looks like it was lifted straight from the Middle Ages.

The museum goes into detail about the city’s fortification, history, and folklore. Various weapons and armor are on display, including the parade armor of the Archduke Albert of Austria. Here visitors can learn in depth about the trade guilds and battles that make up the history of Brussels. Three stories up a winding staircase take you to the Battlement, with panoramic views of the city.

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